Monday, September 28, 2009
He was the kind of political "pundit" I like, rarely making a personal attack, almost always debating the point rather than stating the party line or baiting his followers with "red meat," and almost always softening whatever he wrote with his particular sense of humor (I almost wrote "impish" or "puckish," to modify "humor," but he would scold me for the cliche and then snicker while he used it himself). If I had to pick, he and the late Jack Anderson have been my favorite columnists. I never read one of Safire's novels (that I can remember, anyway) and his re-interpretation of the Book of Job was just a mistake in more than one way. But, those are minor criticisms of a great writer and can have the same damage to his reputation as my blowing into the wind would have on a hurricane.
I very highly recommend his Lend Me Your Ears, a collection of inspirational speeches (he was, after all, first known to us as a speech writer for Nixon) that I have revisited enough to destroy the spine, as well as his column on columns, How to Read a Column. If I am allowed a slight fantasy, I picture him greeting his old boss, Richard Nixon, today, but then moving on with delight to the spirits of Pericles, Judge Learned Hand, Malcolm X, William Jennings Bryant, and so many others who have inspired him with their words and which he has helped pass on to us.
I leave this topic by quoting from a speech by Charles I of England, just before he lost his head, which I read first in Lend Me Your Ears. I imagine Safire might have liked to quote this himself, if he could: "I troth, sirs, I shall not hold you much longer; for I will only say this to you, that in truth I could have desired some little time longer, because that I would have put this I have said in a little more order, and a little better digested, than I have done; and therefore I hope you will excuse me."
Sunday, September 27, 2009
For those of you who haven’t been to Gettysburg, it is the preserved town and battlefield from one of the most - if not the most - important battle ever to have been fought in our country since Yorktown. I can’t recommend it more highly as a great two day destination, even if the Civil War isn't your thing. One couple I recommended it to loved it so much, while they were there they reserved rooms to go back later that same year. A truly special place. I posted here after my last trip I believe two years ago and gave there a very short summary of the battle and a longer discussion (possibly intolerably long) of General Longstreet’s controversial role in that great fight. You can check out that post (4/16/08) if the Civil War interests you. I’m not going to repeat that all here, and, as I say all the time - this isn’t Wikipedia. There are a tons of sites on Gettysburg and as many, if not more, books.
Rather, I will discuss my personal experiences with the paranormal in my life up through Gettysburg this week. If there are two phrases you will rarely see written together in a sentence that I write, they are “personal experience” and “the paranormal.” Frequent readers here know I am one skeptical fellow (see my 8/7/08 post - The Anti-Muldar Society - I don't want to believe). I will tell you now, certain as Scrooge, I do not believe I have been visited by ghosts these past two weeks any more than I believe beings from other planets are visiting Earth (although, admittedly, I do love reading about that subject or watching it on tv), but I will relay my experiences to you all the same as objectively as I can.
So, follow me back through the misty waves of time to Westbury, Long Island in the late 60s - early 70s, where a young boy we will call David and his friends are having some weird experiences in the unfinished part of the basement in his house. It seems like there is a ghostly presence there which makes unexpected noises and even occasionally moves things. We actually found this quite a bit of fun and emboldened with each others' presence, would frequently visit downstairs and await to be scared so badly that we would run up the stairs as if the devil were right behind us. One time that especially stands out in my mind, I watched my friend Rainer standing behind the door of an old closet, bb gun in hand (wondering, even then, what use to him would that be against a spirit) as the door began to slowly closed upon him, to both our horror. There was no reasonable explanation – no breeze and neither he nor I was touching it.
With a strange bravery that seems a little nuts now, we would turn off all the lights and wait not long for the inevitable footsteps and sounds that would come from the next room (the finished part of the basement) or even inside the unfinished room where we waited, although there was no one else home. In retrospect, it is hard to believe we did that at all, but we did so constantly. Bear, who frequently comments here, was then an acquaintance and not yet a friend. He visited the house in the 7th grade and wrote a story about it for the school newspaper (still have that story around, Bear?)
The truth is, the reason I think we were able to be so frequently frightened by our "ghost," but then managed to live in the same house without fear and actually fall asleep at night without even thinking about it, is because deep in our hearts we did not really believe. I was sure, even if I didn't say so out loud and spoil the fun, that there must have been some explanation for the uncanny events.
Skip ahead to about 1997-8. A friend of mine who used to clean my apartment (thank God for friends, but I'm pretty sure I paid her) tells me that while she was there, she heard a door open. I pointed out to her that I lived upstairs from other people and that it wasn’t a big surprise. She said, no, it wasn’t that kind of door. I asked her if she was going to tell me my long deceased mother was visiting me. She said that was exactly what she meant. I replied, “Great, so much for walking around here without clothes anymore.” But I did not believe. It was not a problem.
Skip ahead to 2003. I am in Ireland in an old house that literally had bats in its belfry (seriously, it had a belfry and bats.) In the middle of the night, the woman I affectionately refer to as my insignificant other tossed me out of the room and, bedspread in hand, I headed off towards the library where I knew I had seen a couch. I walked down the large eerie stairs past the impossibly large mirror with the long diagonal crack and into the library with the spooky pictures on the wall. I lay down on the couch, looked around, thought about some of my friends who would have had the hair on their head standing straight up, and said to myself, “Thank God I don’t believe in ghosts.” I went back to sleep. Skepticism has its benefits.
Skip ahead to last Sunday, September 20, 2009. I return from a breakfast with two friends, sometime in the late morning or very early afternoon. I entered my house and moved directly to the computer in the front room. From there, about thirty feet away, I can see the kitchen refrigerator and, in front of it, a black bullet shaped garbage can with a see saw top that moved moved up and down when you dropped something in it.
I was working on the computer for roughly an hour, half watching the Jet game (must have been after 1 o’clock p.m.) when I looked up. That may have been coincidental, or it may have been a reaction to motion in my peripheral vision. Whatever it was, when I looked up, I saw the top of the garbage can moving up and down. I immediately thought it was an optical illusion of some type, and stared at it for I believe five or six seconds. No illusion. It was definitely moving, and not just a little, until it settled down.
My first reaction was not that there was a ghost, but a living person visiting me, who must have either touched the lid or dropped something in it. I walked into my bedroom, picked up the knife I take hiking with me and walked into the kitchen. Nobody there. I went from room to room, closet to closet, and satisfied myself there was no one else in the house. It is small for anyone to have avoided me seeing or hearing them move about. Yet the lid moved.
I checked the garbage can for an explanation, such as a mouse, but found nothing that would explain it.
That's when I got that creepy feeling up my spine like you get when you are watching a scary movie. Later that night when I went to bed I asked myself if this was going to be a problem. I did think about it for a minute, literally said "Bah, humbug" out loud and went to sleep, I believe immediately.
And nothing further has happened there. Yet. At least there.
Later this past week I drove north to Gettysburg. I had chosen the bed and breakfast my friend and I would be staying at because of its reasonable price, and more importantly, its availability on the days we needed. When I spoke with the host, Keith, on the telephone, he told me that the house was well known to be haunted. He also said that it had been the subject of an episode on a television show, but that it had exaggerated the truth. One of the former inhabitants of the house, Tillie Fields, after whom the house is now named, was involved in caring for patients during the battle and was witness to much horror. But, her worst experiences were a few miles away from her house. Although her house, like so many others, was used as a makeshift hospital, probably nothing all that dramatic happened there. The house across the street was struck by a live cannon round, which is still stuck in the front of the building. Fortunately, the fuse had come out along the way and it did not blow up. Tillie's house was more fortunate.
Nor did Tillie die there. In fact, she had not lived there for decades when she finally passed on. So, who would be haunting the house? I don’t know. No one knows. Since I don’t believe (keep remembering that as this gets scarier), it’s not that important to me.
My friend, Mike, who lives in New York, met me there. The hostess who greeted us, Leslie, assured us that although the tv show greatly exaggerated what happens there, but also quietly insisted to my friend and I that there were ghosts which were harmless, but mischievous. I told her I didn't really believe and she said that maybe nothing will happen to us when we went up to bed. However, she also told us that after an experience recently, one guest fled the house in the middle of the night and wouldn't come back in, despite her boyfriend begging her to. Who knows if is true. The hostess has a motive to increase interest in the house and entertain her guests, however much she assured us she was not exaggerating. Unfortunately for Mike, the room he was going to sleep in was the one she claimed the most people report seeing and hearing spooky things. Each room has a book that guests can write in and many left a record of some ghostly experiences, usually hearing raps and footsteps or sometimes seeing small lights, but they didn't seem all that scared either. More amused, it seemed to me. One the other hand, they all seemed to be couples. As I knew from my adventures in my basement all those years ago, company breeds courage.
Close to midnight, we went to bed. I was a little concerned about my friend, and I wasn’t quite sure whether he believed in ghosts at all and whether our hostess had primed him to the degree he'd be frightened, although he is a usually a very collected fellow. After some joking, and my showing him the really creepy picture in my room of two very serious looking children, we said good night. I learned the next morning that he had fallen asleep with the lights on while reading. Honestly, if I were in that room, it is possible that might have happened with me too. Even skeptics can get spooked.
I read for about a half hour from a book of essays on Lincoln that I had picked up in town and then turned off the light to go to sleep. As often happens with me, I woke up in the middle of the night and read until about 5 a.m., when I felt sleep overcoming me again.
Perhaps I fell asleep or perhaps I was in the process of falling asleep, but I had a very vivid of feeling someone or something holding my left arm up and pulling on it. It was warm, tingly and so very real that as I write this, I get the same chilling feeling I got at that moment. Possibly because I was dreaming, I felt paralyzed, and try as I could, I was unable to open my eyes or move my body, despite the alarm coursing through me. For a few seconds I felt - I say felt, not believed - as if a ghost was holding me and it was more than a little disconcerting. Fortunately, I don’t believe, and after a few seconds of this, I reminded myself of that, and let myself fall asleep (if I wasn’t already) without even opening my eyes. Nothing more happened and when I awoke, it was light outside.
I reported my experience the next day to Mike, but I played it down, because, frankly, I didn’t want to scare him if he had a difficult night. Mike said his night was uneventful, although he kept the light on.
The next night there was a full house. I had no incidences at all, but I was awake again much of the middle of the night. I looked at my cell phone when I awoke that night and knew that I was up from about 2:30 a.m. until about 5 a.m. In the morning everyone except me, including Mike, reported hearing footsteps in the hallway in the middle of the night. Mike was certain it was at about 3 a.m. That one I could explain. I told them it was almost certainly me they heard. Whenever during the night I had gotten out of bed and walked in my room, the floor creaked beneath me and I wondered if I was scaring the bejabbers out of everyone on the floor. Apparently I was. I can't think of another explanation as I know I made the floor creek, but heard nothing from outside my own door. If they thought it came from the hallway, it is only because they could not, in the dark, with the doors all closed and lights off, tell where the sounds came from. I did also relate my experience from the night before to them and wrote in the notebook in my room what I had experienced, including my skepticism that it was a spectral event, despite what it felt like at the time.
Smart people I know believe in things I don’t. I accept that, but it hasn’t changed my mind. Still, even for this dyed in the wool skeptic, the two recent experiences – the one in my house and the one in the Tillie Pierce House, were quite strange, among the strangest in my life, and a little unsettling. I am no less a skeptic today, but can't deny what I saw and felt, and leave you to your own conclusion.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
It is nice to be needed, so I will get to work and resolve some of the problems. To warm up this week, I started reading some popular political blogs, and even commented on them (and guiltily admit to cleaning up the typos in them reprinted here). I don't read them much, but I haven't really watched the news in a few weeks. Many of these blogs were about President Carter. Let's visit his most recent error in judgment. Here's the exact controversial quote:
An “overwhelming portion of the intentionally demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man; that he is African-American.”
For the first time in this column, I say, - Seriously?
Sure, there's too much racial prejudice in the world today. Maybe there always will be during my lifetime, and long thereafter (I have hope - someday). The fantasy that prejudice is no more is a conservative one, but the fantasy that there are still substantive legal impediments to certain races or ethnic groups is a liberal one (in fact, it is by law weighted the other way).
But there has been a tremendous improvement in race relations the past half century to which I can personally attest. I know through experience that some people might read the previous sentence and believe I wrote - There is no racism anymore - but I've also learned that they cannot hear much else, such is their sensitivity to the subject, and so I will let it go. But, gone are the Jim Crow laws of the South, a large part of the animosity towards black/white couples, and many other of the badges of slavery that continued for a century after the Civil War. Even in my conservativism soaked little Southern town, where there seems to me far more racism than I would like, both conscious and un-conscious, a black and white couple could walk up and down the streets unmolested by anyone. Even in the north, where I still know people against inter-racial dating, they say nothing when in the presence of such a couple, nor would they have a problem inviting them to a wedding or a barbeque. It's undeniably better than it was.
Of course, the fact that we have a bi-racial president who identifies himself as black, speaks the proverbial volumes as to the change in our culture. Many people thought it could not happen. Indeed, until about two months before the election I admit I thought we would have a small percentage of people who would even say that they would vote for him but would not and that might make the difference - but it didn't seem to happen, at least in any measurable way, and it wouldn't have mattered much anyway.
Carter's rhetoric is inflammatory and meant to say, if you disagree with my side, then you can't have a good reason we can discuss and therefore it must be a product of racism. It is because of statements like this that he has so often played the fool the last few years. He hasn't done President Obama any favors with these comments and maybe he doesn't care. Ex-presidents often think they are still relevant, and for a few weeks he will be. That's because cable news needs something to talk about.
The real flap is mostly, of course, over health care, which dominates the political scene. I offered my own solution a few months ago; use the power of charity, augmented by increasing its tax benefits, to fuel non-profit organizations to supplement various medical needs. Part of that plan has now arisen in the idea that a not-for profit insurance company would be a good way to force for profit companies to compete harder. I have no problem with a not for-profit-insurance company competing with for profit companies in health any more than in other industries. I do have a problem if it is subsidized by the government, because then it's not really competition, it's destruction, followed by government takeover. But, perhaps I'm a racist for thinking so.
Last week, after Joe Wilson's unfortunate outburst during Obama's speech, Maureen Dowd - who - sorry liberal haters - is a great writer (no worries, though, so is Ann Coulter) - took aim by writing that even if it was "unfair" to say so, that when Wilson said, "You lie," he meant, "You lie, boy." I commented on the New York Times page as follows:
Seriously? You are not going to castigate him for calling Obama a liar during his speech, you are going to make believe that he added "boy"?
It's not "fair or unfair," it's just plain unfair. Especially because you know that people will read it and just remember the "boy" part, not that you made it up. Wilson was rude, unprofessional and even, idiotic. But to target people as racist because of where they live - well, I live in the South too. I guess that makes me a racist.
The other day I commented on a Jonah Goldberg piece where his defense of birthers was that people who believed the government was involved in 9/11 were even more nuts. We get the same ridiculous, over the top, nonsense from both sides.
If you folks can't write about something that actually happened, why do you have these big jobs?
p.s. I usually like your column, and you are a great (although biased) writer, but this was just silly. Come on.
However, if one of Dowd's points is that there is still a lot of prejudice in the South, I'm not going to argue too much. For example, The Daily Kos reports a poll showing that “birthers” are a regional phenomena. 69% of them are born in the South. The suggestion is that because the South held onto Jim Crow so long, this is a holdover of racism. Maybe so. Living in the north of the South, it seems to me that there is a little more racism here than in New York, where I spent most of my life. However, this is purely anecdotal, and I can’t be sure that this is so, and admit a bias to believe it given U.S. history. Also, I’ve met any number of people down here who are anything but racist. But it is also a place with a strong history of anti-federalism and state’s rights, not exactly the Obama administration’s strong point.
It is no more fair to decide that Joe Wilson was rude because Obama was black as it is to believe that Obama is being less than honest because he was black. In fact, put Clarence Thomas up as even the Democrat candidate and see how many conservatives would happily vote for him. Most.
Now maybe Wilson had a knee-jerk conservative reaction to Obama. That I buy (although I do agree with his point that Obama was not telling the truth, at best, being slippery, but he was rude and that doesn't serve his side at all, any more than the Pink Ladies influenced debate by interrupting congressional hearings). But Dowd has knee-jerk liberal reactions every week.
Calling someone racist without good grounds is almost as bad as being racist, some might think exactly as bad. It certainly happens much too often.
A number of times during the presidential election I was asked with incredulity – HOW I could vote for McCain? I had a list of reasons which even my political accusers agreed were, at least, reasons. I won’t bore you here with it as I already lost that one. But one reason I voted for McCain definitely was not that Obama was black. I, and I know many others who voted against him (even, I think, John McCain), who thought it was a significant moment in our history that a black man was elected. But one of the few personal faults of Obama that bothered me during the election was the too frequent race cards thrown by Obama’s staff or supporters, particularly in the primaries. He stayed out of it for the most part and still does. I appreciate that. But, I thought he should have actively countered it during the election and he failed in that.
Obama can’t control Carter (no one can). But, he could, in passing, say, "I disagree with President Carter’s belief. Racism does exist. But most of my political adversaries have principled positions that differ from mine. Let’s have a debate about the best thing for America." That would impress me. His press secretary, Gibbs, has pretty much said so, and Obama gets his chance this Sunday on the news shows.
Speaking of Jonah Goldberg, here was my comment on his absurd little piece on the birthers, defending them on the basis that "truthers" who believe that the towers went down as part of a U.S. government plot. Admittedly, it sounds suspiciously like my comment to Dowd, as I wrote them close in time:
That's your argument? Birthers are nuts, but truthers are more nuts? You should have mentioned the "flat earthers" and the "no moon landers". That would make birthers look even better. Come on. You are better than that.
And speaking of birthers, they are out of their evalovin’ partisan minds just the way the liberals who thought Bush was going to declare martial law if Obama won were out of theirs. People don’t like it when others disagree with their politics and they tend to make up stuff and believe almost anything about their “enemy”. I laugh when I read that some society, like Iraq, for example, is susceptible to rumors and myths, as our own culture is awash with them.
One of my favorite myth/rumor busters is John Stossel, who has been commenting for years on the silly things Americans believe and demolishing them with facts. He recently announced his move from ABC to FoxNews where he felt he will have more time to explore his libertarianism, which I find to be an elastic term difficult to pin down. I have my libertarian instincts, and if you put a a gun to my head and said pick an -ism to describe yourself, I might just settle on that, although I would be very unsatisfied with the answer and greatly prefer the even more amorphous independent/moderate. In response to Stossel's online request for suggestions I wrote as follows, venting my usual anti-partisan rant:
I picked up one of your books one day (never saw your show as I never watch network news) and recognized a sympathetic soul - the fears Americans have, the things they believe, are often absurd. And you nail them, one after another.
However, although I hope you continue your approach on Fox, please do not fall under the Fox spell that everything left is wrong. We have too much tunnel vision on tv - whether on the networks, Fox, CNN or MSNBC. In my humble opinion, partisanship makes everyone a little bit crazy and both sides believe things that aren't true as articles of faith. Bust all myths, not just liberal ones (and they both have plenty).
For example, conservative radio and tv hosts' claims that it was conservatives who gave us the the civil rights acts are just so much nonsense. That comes from mixing the concepts of Democrat/Republican with conservative/liberal. If you read the votes on the acts, you can see, the split was not so much Democrat/Republican as it was North/South. The southern Democrats were primarily conservatives, the Northern Democrats primarily liberal, but whether Republican or Democrat, the push for civil rights came primarily from liberalism.
In other words, be the same maverick you were on network tv on Fox. If you were going to MSNBC, I'd be asking you to do the same, but in the opposite direction – bust liberal myths too. Vex your bosses and you will draw fans like me.
Politicians change over time. Often they mellow with age. Pat Buchanan is one of them. He was for a while the leading extreme Republican. At least since he started working for MSNBC and spending a lot of time with Republican moderate Joe Scarsborough, Pat Buchanan has way mellowed. He was so hated on the left that it took me a while to convince a couple of liberal friends that he really was cuddly and grandfatherly. They came around after they saw him a few times.
That doesn't mean he became a liberal - far from it. One of the more distasteful aspects of his early rhetoric for me was the belief that diversity is bad for America. There was a time when his feeling was quite intense, but he states it more gently now. Recently, he posted an opinion piece where he blamed the increase in partisanship and uncivility to diversity. I commented as follows:
I admire Mr. Buchanan's knowledge and experience, but this is just hooey, as he must know given the depth of his historical knowledge. First, America was always a diversified country - what it wasn't was a country where power was shared among different ethnic groups. There were always blacks, Hispanics (speaking Spanish), Protestants, Catholics (at the beginning very few), Indians, etc. and their cultures always intermixed. Take something that seems as solid and fixed - classical music. It itself comes from the contributions of people all over Europe whose people and governments were often at each others' throats during that same time period it was being developed. Where do you think Jazz came from? It didn't pop out of Benny Goodman's clarinet and Bing Crosby's throat - it developed primarily from Black music - Whites liked it and contributed to it. There was always old music and new music; there was always a mix of languages (I'm for one official language - English - for government, law and school). You could go on endlessly. That's what great about America. Diversity can be unsettling, but eventually, when given time, develops into culture we all think of as "ours". America does have big problems (always will) and two political cultures at odds with each other. But, as I'm sure Mr. Buchanan knows, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were battling away in the very first cabinet. My advice - relax; try and get together on what we can; be fairer to the "other side" than you perceive they are to you; and read history. People like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann are popular among their fans because they are extreme and often just absurd, but there are other more moderate voices out there. Mr. Buchanan used to be an extremist, in my view, but has grown into a more balanced position. He used to be one of the verbal bomb throwers, and I'm glad to see he has less patience for it.
I think the national Republicans are without honor, ideas, or courage.
I couldn't help but write back as follows reporting on my previous evening with a group of conservatives here in town:
Oh, now I get it. It's the Republicans who are at fault. See, I was confused because I had heard that about the liberals last night, although I believe they used "mentally ill," "without a clue" and "without morals". I was also told that "you moderates" (meaning me, not you) are the problem. That I expect. No one likes the guys who point out that both sides behave the same way. It ruins the illusion of good and evil, right and wrong.
Had enough? Giving up your partisan ways? Fine, I'll stop for now, but I will be watching.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
- 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 . . . .