Month: January 2018

A War Like All Others.

750x450 ancient greeceThose Who Can’t Learn From History, Are Condemned To Repeat It.  But Why?

An old friend and I are planning a cruise to the Aegean islands this spring.

I’ve known Dean for decades.  First, back in the ’80’s, when we were brought together by our mutual loathing for rail mass transit.  But 21st century Denver’s unreasoning lust for a 19th century technology won out in the end:  FastTracks, as we predicted, is billions of dollars over budget and decades behind schedule.  The long, miserable track record of other failed projects like this around the county made no difference to voters.

But why?  Because they swallowed, whole hog, the Chamber of Commerce’s line of light rail BS.

Somewhere along the way, however, I lost track of Dean.  Which isn’t really the right way to put it.  I had it from a usually reliable source that he had actually died after a long bout with prostate cancer.

But then one night, as I was opening mail in my “campaign headquarters” (my grown son’s former bedroom), what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a check from Dean to help fuel one of my runs for the Colorado House of Representatives.  “What,” I thought, “a check from beyond the grave?!”  No, of course not; the guy I met a few days later for breakfast, while, like me, somewhat worse for wear, was no ghost.

In any event, we’ve booked a cruise this spring to see Greece and the Aegean islands.  So, I’ve been boning up on my Greek history.

Athens, Sparta And The War That Doomed Greece.

One of the books I’ve listened to is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).  Considered one of the two fathers of the study of history, Thucydides was an Athenian and an eyewitness and participant in the events he described.

In effect a civil war, it was fought with the savagery that is typical of internecine conflict.  Its conclusion marked the end of Greece’s Golden Age, and left its two primary combatants, Athens and Sparta, burnt out husks of their former selves.

The other father of history, Herodotus, also a Greek, chronicled the earlier Persian Wars (499 to 449 BC) that pitted the overwhelming might of the Persian empire against a ragtag band of Greek city states led by Athens and Sparta.  Against all odds, the Greeks prevailed and the nascent idea of democracy was not strangled in its Athenian crib.

As the Peloponnesian War began, Athens was near the pinnacle of its influence, wealth, and matchless cultural achievements.  But from a scrappy democracy, imperial pretensions were beginning to appear.  What had been the “coalition of the willing” that had banded together to turn back the Persian threat a mere 18 years earlier, was now a restive Athenian empire: the Delian League.  Athen’s increasingly heavy-handed treatment of League members provoked its rival, Sparta, and contributed to the outbreak of the war.

Initially, Pericles, the Athenian statesman and general, persuaded his fellow citizens to adopt a defensive strategy, withdrawing behind the “Long Walls” that connected the city to Piraeus, the nearby port where its battle tested and nearly invincible navy lay could launch raids against Spartan territory.

More than Athen’s equal on land, Sparta pursued a scorched earth policy, squeezing Athenians into their walled city where they watched their olive trees and vineyards being ravaged.  But the Athenians, with their control of the sea lanes, could securely resupply themselves.

Stalemate: both sides settled in for a grinding siege.

Athens:  Democracy to Bullying Imperial Power.

But the crowded conditions behind Athen’s walls caused a devastating plague to break out in the war’s second year.  Thousands perished, including Pericles and most of his family.  Thucydides himself contracted the disease, but survived, writing about it in gruesome detail.  Social order collapsed, since most Athenians believed they were doomed anyway.

Remarkably Athens was able to rebound from this calamity.  Over the next 15 years, and with increasing ruthlessness on both sides, the war dragged on inconclusively.

Until Athens, in 415 BC, under the generalship of the brilliant, but unscrupulous Alcibiades, launched a massive sea borne invasion of Syracuse.  Like Athens, Syracuse was a democratic a city state.  It’s crime was that it was a Spartan ally.

The invasion ended in disaster for Athens, with its fleet at the bottom of the Mediteranean and the entire expeditionary force either slaughtered or sold into slavery.  While the war dragged on in desultory fashion for years thereafter, the ending was a foregone conclusion: ruin for all of Greece.  The way was cleared for Alexander the Great to subjugate the entire peninsula.

But why?  Because Athens had gone from the birthplace of democracy. To a bullying imperial power.

America, Israel And Our Unnecessary Wars.

The United States has now been fighting wars in the Muslim Middle East for nearly 20 years.  We’ve kicked over more hornets’ nests than you can shake a stick at: Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Syria. Yemen.  All fruitless.  All enormously expensive.  All blood soaked for both us and our opponents.  All with no end in sight.

But why?  To make the world safe for Israel.

The Jewish dominated, neoconservative movement has played an enormously influential role in American foreign policy since at least the 1960’s.  Although it’s tenets have varied based on the needs of the moment, in recent years the primary focus of neocons has been Israel and the Middle East.  The movement has deep roots in the Jewish American community.  It grew out of the Jewish monthly magazine, Commentary, originally published by the American Jewish Committee.  The American State Department, rife with neocons, has become a virtual low-level department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it comes to the Mideast.  When Israel says “Jump,” our State Department asks, “How high?”

President Trump’s appointment of David Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, to be the US ambassador to Israel does nothing to dispel this perception. Friedman is cut from the same extreme right wing cloth as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Friedman’s Senate confirmation hearings were contentious, with a number of Israeli and American Jewish groups opposing it.  Friedman denounced his Jewish opponents in what can scarcely be described as diplomatic terms:  they are “far worse than kapos”-Jews who betrayed their fellows in the Nazi death camps.  While Friedman later attempted to walk back this language, his liberal Jewish critics weren’t mollified.  Several Jewish members of Congress opposed the nomination, as did five former US Ambassadors to Israel, who declared him “unqualified.”

No more helpful was the President’s recent announcement that the US embassy will be moved to Jerusalem.  Nearly every former US ambassador to Israel thought it was a bad idea.

The Israel Lobby.

And when not actually in government, Israel also exercises enormous influence over our foreign policy through a network of organizations described by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Harvard School of Government in The Israel Lobby.  According to the authors, “No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”

Of course, Mearsheimer and Walt have been accused of anti-Semitism.  Anyone who dares criticize Israel is, in the view of the Lobby, anti-Semitic.   It’s the perfect weapon for shutting down any reasoned consideration of what would be America’s best interests in the Middle East.

Why Not An Honest Broker?

In 1956, Israel, England and France invaded Egypt and took control of the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the waterway.  While the invasion was a military success, it was a diplomatic disaster for the three allies.

Under President Dwight Eisenhower, America was not yet in thrall to Israel; “Ike” played the crisis down the middle.  The three aggressors withdrew from Egypt.  The canal, which Egypt had blocked with sunken ships, was reopened.  America still had the standing to act as an honest broker in the Middle East.

No more.  In virtually the entire world, we are viewed as Israel’s handmaiden, its useful idiot.  Is it an accident that we are fighting wars with so many Muslim countries that surround the state of Israel?  And which consider nuclear armed Israel (although Israel is coy about its bomb) a threat to their existence?

Is America First?

One of the main reasons I was an early supporter of President Trump was that he promised to put “America First.”  Is it surprising that some Jewish scholars, commentators, and organizations have criticized the President for even suggesting that Israel be moved down the pecking order?  Unfortunately, with our never ending Mid-East wars, it appears that the Lobby is continuing to have its way.  And that Israel is back in the position to which it has long been accustomed: “We’re number one!”

Showin’ The Plan

750x450 wealth pyramidWhat Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger.  NOT!

Believe it or not, I’ve been blogging for nearly a year.  Why is that surprising?  Because my output is pathetically limited; I’ve so few posts to show for it.  I’ve come to believe that my work is measured not by words per minute. But rather hours per word.  I think it was somewhere in A Moveable Feast that Hemingway described his efforts, at times, to be like “chiseling through granite with a toothpick.”  I feel his pain.

Which, of course, brings us to the topic of self-help books.  I’ve read my share in my time.  Almost all of them in my Amway days back, in the early ’90’s.  I got in, hook, line and sinker.  My wife, in short order, jumped in the deep end with me.  And, believe me, we read plenty of self-help books.

And listened to even more Amway tapes from “Diamond” producers.  And drove to twice monthly in-town, “open” meetings to hotels around town (if you know what you’re looking for, you can see notices of these meetings if you happen to be at the right hotel on the right night).

And then driving to gigantic rallies, with thousands of distributors, from Orlando to Sacramento.  And many cities in between.  Four times a year.  Leaving Denver Thursday after work and driving all night to make it in time for the Friday night start of a frenetic “Dream Weekend” that would run into the wee hours of Saturday morning.  And do it again Saturday night. And then climbing back in the car on Sunday around noon, after a church service that was part of the weekend.  And bookin’ it back to Denver, arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning.  While trying to steer clear of the of the 2 a.m. hallucinations on I-70 in Kansas. Willing the glow of Denver to appear in the western sky.  And then having just enough time to fall into bed for a few hours of sleep before staggering, bleary eyed, in to work.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear accounts on the tapes of distributors getting into car wrecks;  it’s only surprising there weren’t more.  One in particular stands out.  He was a tough as  old shoe leather dairy farmer who said he got in the business because he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired of his blue john” existence.  When he woke up from the wreck, “the wheel was wrapped around the steering column.”  And, his growl implied, if you’re not tough enough to do it yourself, you’re a sissy.

Over the course of those four or so years, we talked to hundreds of people about Amway.  Very, very few joined us.  And those that did, didn’t stick around for long.  Far from making money, especially the much vaunted, residual income, we lost money.  True, it wasn’t much.  But at that point, with 3 little kids, we didn’t have much to spare.

But the worst thing about the business for me?  It was like pouring gas on my bipolar disorder.  Bipolar thrives on a variety of things, including inadequate sleep, stress, and financial worry.   The rally induced highs of the business were stratospheric.  The rejection induced lows of the business were Stygian.  Of these, the business provided a great abundance.

In retrospect, I’m very grateful for one thing about our Amway experience:  it didn’t kill us.  Either in a car wreck.  Or me with suicide; believe me, I thought about it more than once.  The thought of missing out on seeing our kids, and now grandkids, grow into the wonderful people they’ve become, is . . .

Is it possible to strike it rich in Amway?  Of course.  It’s a multi-billion, international business.  Someone’s got to be making money.  It just wasn’t us.

The turning point for me came at a “Free Enterprise” super rally at the the 60,000 plus domed stadium in Indianapolis we had driven to one summer.  Worked into a frenzy by speaker after speaker, the SRO crowd delighted in launching one raucous “wave” after another around the coliseum; I enthusiastically joined in.

But then it came time for the new “pins” to go across the stage-signifying couples that had reached a higher, more lucrative level in the business.  There weren’t many.  And of the high level pins, like Diamonds, you could count them on one hand.  Out of a crowd of tens of thousands.  I very clearly remember thinking, “We have a better chance of winning a gold medal in the Olympics than making it big in this business.”

So we quit.  But it’s a funny business.  Almost like malaria; very unpleasant, but once it’s in your blood it’s almost impossible to entirely shake.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally googled some of my big “up line” diamonds; can’t seem to help myself.  Like all of us, their stories are a mixed bag.  Some doing fine.  Some not.  With others, it’s pretty ugly, their feet of clay in full view.

But did it make us stronger?  Not sure.  But I will give it this: it didn’t kill us.

Hail, Caesar!

LGBTTQQIAAP. Or something like that.

I am so over radio talk shows.  I’m not a sports talk guy, either. And while I enjoy classical music, it definitely plays second fiddle to a good recorded history or novel while I’m on the road.

I’m currently listening to Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland.  Though it was pretty much chosen at random from the library’s shelves, I got lucky.  (Some reviewers, of course, like the book, some don’t.)  While it’s impossible for an untutored amateur like me to keep track of the enormous cast of characters that turn up over the course of 14 CDs, the gist of the story is pretty straightforward:  ancient Rome’s first several emperors after the fall of the Republic were, on the whole, a very unsavory bunch.  And even though it’s been 2,000 years since they ruled the world, their names still have the power to conjure up a rogues’ gallery of cruelty, treachery and deviancy: Caligula, Nero, Tiberius.

The catalogue of crimes and sins run the gamut:  parricide, matricide, and and pretty much any other of variation of “cide” that you’ve heard of-and probably some you didn’t even know existed.  Incest was endemic.  (And probably goes a good way toward explaining the madness that keeps turning up like a bad penny in the dynastic line.)  Pederasty?  No big deal.  Nero, in a rage, kicks his beautiful, pregnant wife, Poppaea, in the stomach, killing her and the baby.  Seized with remorse, he has a young boy who looks like Poppaea made into a eunuch and marries her(?) with great pomp and ceremony.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Nor was virtually any other deviant sexual coupling out of bounds.  One book reviewer says that Holland, certainly no prude, “can’t quite bring himself to describe them in full.”  That’s a mercy-since there’s plenty that’s not left to the imagination.

Holland also makes it clear that he shares his ancient sources esteem for the “simple, republican virtues” that were rapidly giving way in the face of the degeneracy and luxury of the empire.   In doing so, he thus gives these monsters credit for at least this: they were moral agents.  In other words, they were capable of acting in reference to right and wrong.  They weren’t mere puppets hanging from the strings of their genes or hormones.

Now What?

So, where do we stand now, 2,000 years on?  Is moral agency an archaic notion that must give way to puppetry?  Increasingly, especially in reference to our sexuality, the answer seems to be, “Yes.”  The evidence?  LGBTTQQIAAP.  A bewildering array of initials that would tax the imagination of even the most creative of Rome’s sexual free thinkers:  Lesbian.  Gay.  Bisexual.  Transgendered.  Transexual.  Queer.  Etcetera.  And so on.  And so forth.

Must all these exquisitely fine gradations of what, for millennia, have been seen as abnormal expressions of human sexuality be granted moral immunity because, as their advocates contend, they’re genetically hard wired into our DNA?  Which is another way of saying, at least in regards to our sexuality, we’re no longer moral agents?  Apparently so.

But what does this say about us as people in a larger sense?  Who can doubt that sex plays a central role in who we are as humans?   But, if our sexual conduct is beyond our control, can we still be considered the only creature whose defining characteristic is the capacity for rational thought and action?  And, if so, where does it all end?

Two potential resting places come to mind.

First, what we do with ourselves.  But isn’t it obvious that we are already well beyond this stopping place?  Old taboos are viewed, at best, as quaint.  And, more realistically, hurtfully repressive.  What is LGBTTQQIAAP, if not an affirmation of this?

When I was in junior high, our gym teacher taught us boys a sex-ed class.  While we squirmed in discomfort next to our fathers, the teacher soberly warned us about the dangers of masturbation.  Now, kids that age are introduced to, and not discouraged from exploring, all manner of previously unexplored frontiers of sexuality.   At Ivy League campuses BDSM clubs are officially sanctioned.  And what takes place beyond the “hallowed halls” of academia I will certainly leave to your imagination.  The instinctual animal reigns supreme.

And then, of course, there’s what we consensually do with others.  And this certainly seems like a secure stopping place.  It definitely should be.  It’s the clear message we are getting from the outrage being expressed over the sexual harassment scandals currently so rampant in high places.

But how do we restrain the animal instincts of people when the culture teaches that, at least when it comes to sex, we aren’t moral agents?  You tell me.  And if your response is that we need to make the laws tougher, I don’t agree.  There aren’t enough cops or prisons.  And do we really want to live in a sexual police state?

I sat through more than one sexual harassment training session when I served in the legislature.  They’re about as close to a bad joke as you can get.  If an adult who has the moxie to get elected to office isn’t smart enough to have a grasp of the principals of decency that a kid should have learned in grade school, heaven help us.  (Which is, in actuality, where we should be looking for help.  But to even suggest such a solution would probably be considered, in many quarters, worse than the illness itself.)

Otherwise, we might just as well revert to the practice of having malefactors go to the black board in front of the class and write, 100 times, “I will not harass that woman over there. Or do something worse.”   Which public humiliation would, no doubt, be a far more effective deterrent than sprinkling platitudes over an anonymous training course.   Nonetheless, even I will concede this for an indoctrination session:  while we don’t need to be told the difference between right and wrong.   We do, occasionally, need to be reminded.  

What’s Next?

“Predictions,” as Yogi Berra famously said, “are difficult, especially about the future.”  Nonetheless, I’ll go out on a limb.  Or, rather, two limbs.  You decide which is more likely.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is among the best known dystopian predictions of what the future holds for us as sexual beings.  It’s the world of the feelies. And shaming if one isn’t sufficiently sexually freewheeling. And the dream world of soma.  Are these predictions any more outlandish or disheartening than what we’ve seen come to pass in reality?  Probably not, given that we live in an era when same sex marriage has become, in remarkably short order, about as American as apple pie.  And an era where, like the few, stubbornly retrograde dissenters in Brave New World, to question what has become the new, conventional wisdom about things sexual is to risk being consigned to the outer darkness.

But nothing grows to the sky.  The pendulum swings.  There is another limb, even in popular culture.

Consider Ground Hog Day; it sketches out an alternative, more hopeful vision.

Counted among the finest comedy films of all time, it features Bill Murray, a self -centered, low life weatherman who, trapped in a time warp, is condemned to relive the same day, over and over.  But who eventually comes to understand that to live, he must die to self.  The turning point shows Murray, arms extended, throwing himself to his death from a tall building.  When he rises the next day, he begins living for others rather than just himself.  And rather than trying to manipulate the film’s beautiful and virtuous romantic interest into his bed, he wins her heart through acts of service.  Before the credits roll, they are planning their wedding.

Another film that represents a tender, green shoot pushing into our our burned over sexual landscape is Blast From The Past.

Also a comedy that packs a punch, it features a hilarious, perfectly “square” family that locks itself into a bomb shelter under Los Angles in the mistaken belief that the Cuban missile crisis resulted in nuclear armageddon.  When they emerge 35 years later, their cute suburban tract home has been over run by porn shops, irradiated, “mutant” prostitutes who “can be whatever sex you want,” and lowriders that lurch down LA’s mean streets.

Adam, the son who was born just as the family went into the shelter, is sent on a mission to get enough supplies to last until the mutants kill each other off.  He meets the foul mouthed, but reluctantly honest Eve, and hires her to help him navigate the many perplexities of la la land.  Including getting a non-mutant wife.  Eve scoffs at the idea of marriage, asserting that “Everyone is divorced. Just talk to my divorced parents.  Talk to my divorced brother and sister.  Everyone knows that marriage bites the big one!”  She does, however, concede that she might be able to “help get you laid.”

As the movie progresses, though, Adam’s relentless courtesy and old fashioned decency takes its toll on Eve’s cynical, thoroughly modern heart.  Near the end, Eve is fingering her wedding ring in a house that is a replica of the suburban home where the story began.  Except it’s out in the country, situated in a new Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve share with his parents.

Eve reflects that, “Adam says that this is simply how things work.  First, the parents take care of the children and then the children take care of the parents.  He says, historically, that’s how it works.  Whenever Adam gives me such obviously incorrect information, I just smile and look out the window.  Why spoil his dreams?  They’re such wonderful dreams.”

Dream?  Or Nightmare?

Because I know how to use Google, rather than because I was able to labor through James Joyce’s Ulysses, I know that it contains this line: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

So, as the Romans would say, quo vadis:  which way, America?  Toward an admittedly less than perfect dream of a man and a woman committing to life together where, in the sometimes fiery crucible of marriage and family, they learn that life’s most important lesson is to die to one’s self? And live for another?  It’s not easy.  It’s not meant to be.  But it’s been designed to help prepare us for something infinitely better.  A place where the dross that can make this life, at times, a nearly unbearable nightmare, is finally left behind.  For a joy that surpasses our wildest imaginings.

Or will we settle for something far less?  Where, by indulging the insatiable, apparently infinitely variable demands of our sexual selves, we are merely preparing ourselves to be gluttonous beholders of our own distorted image in a nightmarish house of mirrors from which there is no exit.