It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

I just returned from my trip to Greece.  As you may remember from a previous post, I went with Dean, an old friend.  A few, quick reflections.

Go If You Can.  And, For My Money, A Good Touring Company Is Worth It.

We went with Road Scholar, a pun that says a good deal about the sort of people who sign up for the trips this company leads around the world: retired college professors, libriarians, and such like.  But there wasn’t a final exam on the vast amount of information that our extremely knowledgeable and friendly Greek guide, Eleni Petroutsou, imparted to us during the course of the week we spent with her bussing around the mainland. And then continued aboard the smallish ship, Aegean Odyssey,  cruising from island to lovely island for the following week.

Greece sunset view

No, the real exam came months earlier:  our bank accounts.  And it was a tough one.  On more than one occasion I heard the old gag, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” But, since I estimate that at least 60% of our 30 some Road Scholar participants were retired government workers (Dean estimated more like 90%), they might just as well have said, “We’re spending the inheritance of the children of the taxpayers who are so generously supporting us.”  But who would snicker at that?

Your Required Reading.

Well in advance of the trip, the company sent us a hefty list of suggested books on Greece.  I ordered most of them.  And read most of those. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi left me cold.  So did Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which surprised me given its exalted reputation.  Of these two books, I followed the sage advice that I heard somewhere not long ago, “There are too many good books to spend time on ones you don’t like.”

By now, you know I’m a sucker for history.  A couple of the books I’d recommend would be Modern Greece, What Everyone Needs to Know and Introducing the Ancient Greeks, From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.  

Modern Greece was particularly interesting.  Like many others, I suppose, I’d imagined that Greek history ended pretty much ended 2400 years ago with the close of the classical Golden Age and didn’t start again until the financial crisis of 2008.  Wrong.  Before winning its War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821, Greece endured 400 years of Ottoman/Turk occupation.  While our guide Elani did her best to play things down the middle, there was little question as to where she stood in regards to Greece’s long and glorious, but at times, tormented history.

For those really interested in cramming, here are some of the others:  The Parthenon, Athens, The Greeks, An Illustrated History, Greek Mythology, A Traveler’s Guide.  (I gave this one a pass also; seemed like a bunch of implausible fairy tales.  Although our expert guide made a good case that these apparently anarchic stories often go a long way toward explaining the more obscure aspects of the prehistoric Greek world.)

On my own, I also took the new Kindle my wife gave me for Christmas for a spin, rereading Zorba the Greek (the first time was decades ago).  I should have listened to my own better angels and quit long before I reached the bitter end; talk about unbridled nihilism.   Why this book is so widely praised is a mystery to me.  Well, not really.  It must be for many of the same reasons that Hollywood cranks out so many profitable stinkers.

And the worst of it?  It didn’t even have the courtesy to lull me to sleep on the excruciatingly painful and interminable flights to and from Zorba land.  Airlines!  Where they keep making the seats smaller.  And the people bigger.

Cruisin’

On the last day of the trip, I was savoring breakfast on the sun drenched fantail of the Odyssey in the port of Piraeus.  You know, my usual morning fare: an unlimited selection of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, cheeses, grilled vegetables, juices, desserts, etc., etc.

Now, does that goofy headline make sense?  “The kind of cruise where you get on as a passenger.  And get off as cargo.”  Remarkably, however, when I fearfully stepped on the scale on my return home, I actually seemed to have lost a bit of weight.  Guess that airline food is good for something.

That morning was also a last chance to visit with some of my fellow Scholars. Among them was a woman, Kristen, from Telluride, Colorado.  She and I had a tenuous connection through my cousin’s daughter, Denver chef Carrie Baird.  Carrie was a near finalist in this year’s Top Chef Colorado show.  At least one episode had been filmed in Telluride.  Kristen had seen some of the shoot.  You heard it here: six degrees must be a reality.

As we lingered over breakfast, a cruise ship about the size of a small-correction, medium-sized city shoe horned it’s way into port and pulled into a slip to our right.  The monster towered above our heads and took at least five minutes to lumber past us.  Lilliputian by comparison, I don’t doubt that our vessel would have been able to cut neat figure eights in the leviathon’s swimming pool.

And that was the beauty of the Aegean Odyssey.  Plenty big enough for all the creature comforts.  But small enough that our relatively modest passenger manifest didn’t completely overwhelm the equally smallish, quaint island villages where we made landfall.

And Eleni wasn’t just a smart cookie.  She also had sharp enough elbows to make sure that we got into town, saw the antiquities, and did our scholarly thing ahead of the leviathons’ mobs that usually followed so closely on our heels.

 

 

 

 

Our Strategy For Ending Our Endless Wars?

The Peace Of Exhaustionmilitary bomb disposal

If you, like me, have osteoporosis, you know that weight-bearing activities help prevent your bones from melting away.  So, I’ve started taking short walks once, and even twice, a day.  Retirement does that for you.

Often, I’m strolling around our neighborhood.  Thus, in addition to building stronger bones, I’ve  been reconnecting with a few neighbors whose kids, like ours, have grown up and moved away.  Young kids, between school, Scouts, sports and their other activities are often the glue that holds suburban neighborhoods together.  True, random encounters during neighborhood walks are less “sticky” than regular kids’ activities-but at least they help.

On two recent walks, at virtually the same location, I ran into a woman walking her frisky, English sheep dog puppy-thankfully on a leash.  I recognized her from some long ago connection with our kids, but, of course, I couldn’t remember her name.  To make matters worse, she, of course, remembered mine.

“Hi, Spencer,” she led off, restraining the lunging dog.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” I replied.  “But, please forgive me.  You’ll have to tell me your name.”

“Christy,” she said with a good-natured smile.  “Our sons were in Scouts together.  How’s Byron?”  Not only my name, but my son’s to boot!

“He was in the Navy on a sub for eight years,” I replied, “and then used that job as a springboard to get a job at Google.  How’s your son?”

“He’s in the Navy too,” she replied.  And then, very matter of factly she added, “He works in EODU.”

“EOD . . ?”, I asked, squinting quizzically as the sun declined in the west.

“Yes,” she replied, her lips still smiling, but a shadow falling over her face, “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.”

Great-the bomb squad.  You know, The Hurt Locker, a movie about the EODU guys in Iraq that I had to turn off at the thirty minute mark-I couldn’t bear it.

“Lord, have mercy,” I said, “where’s he deployed?”

“Well,” she responded, “right now he’s in Florida for training.”

My mind pretty much went blank after that.  I just remember thinking as I finished the walk home, “How does the woman ever sleep at night?”

Who’s Fighting All These Endless Wars For Us?

Yes, I know that Christy’s son, like all of our service members, volunteered for the military.  But that begs the question: why did they volunteer?

Because they’re patriotic?  No question-and God bless ’em.  But is it right to be fighting endless, dubious wars halfway around the world in the interests of what threatens to descend into mere displays of chest thumping jingoism at NFL games?  And how long before the patriotism well runs dry? And all that’s left is cynicism?

Or is it because Christy’s son and his buddies are adrenaline junkies?  Certainly possible.  Or just bored?  Also possible.  But maybe it’s because they need a job.  Any job.

Frankly, that’s what I suspected.  At least until I began doing the research.  But it turns out that, at least from what I was able to glean up through about 2008, enlisted recruits were more likely to come from middle and upper class neighborhoods rather than poor ones.  And since wealthier recruits are more likely to be white, the same data showed that whites are disproportionately bearing the burden in terms of fatalities and casualties.

Christy’s son fits right into that demographic.

The Army Is Too Big

The active duty strength of the U.S. military is nearly 1.5 million soldiers.  Over a third of those are in the Army.

Such a gargantuan force may have made sense when we were squared off against the former Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap during the Cold War. (Unless the Europeans, as can be easily argued, should’ve been defending their own countries.)  No longer.  All the men, women, equipment-and expense-required to sustain a force of this size is a classic example of the truism that generals are great at planning to win the last war.  But are much less capable, as they’ve amply demonstrated in the “War on Terror,” at winning the next one.

A few things can be said with confidence about our half million man Army:

  • It’s a standing, professional army.  And, as such, and as many of the Founding Fathers warned, they are more likely to become a law unto themselves. And a threat to the rest of us and our liberties.
  • Second, the great bulk of them are doing, in effect, garrison duty.  In other words, they have lots of time on their hands.  Not to mention, lots of very nasty weapons.  And, as the old saying has it, “Idle hands are . . . “

Although written before 9/11, this article by Tom Ricks, who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of defense issues, is a thoughtful look at the growing, worrisome gap between the military and the nation that it’s called on to defend.  With considerable justification, the military perceives much of our society as alien and very different, increasingly decadent and ill-disciplined.

Now, with the advent of the War on Terror, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the gap between our military and civilian worlds has done anything less than grow to a yawning chasm.  While we party-hearty on the home front, soldiers, during interminable deployment cycles, get their legs blown off.

While lengthy, you should read the Ricks article for yourself.  Among other things, it points out that military’s top brass has, increasingly, disregarded the historic taboo on inserting themselves in the political realm. Which, heretofore, has been the exclusive province of our elected, civilian leadership.

Further, relative to the population at large, the military is also much bigger than it used to be.  In 1933, it numbered about 240,000-a mere one-sixth its current size (the U.S. population has only doubled in the same interval.)

In the past, the military shrank dramatically at the conclusion of a conflict.  For example, within two years after the end of World War II, total U.S. armed forces went from over 12 million to about 1.5 million, a cut of nearly 90%.  In contrast, when our last “major conflict” ended, the Cold War, the force only shrank by about 35% from 2.1 to its current 1.5 million.

Again, unlike in the past, when the military was seen as a temporary interruption of “real” life, our all volunteer force nows looks upon the profession as a career.  Many of them have families to support.  Like employees of any other large organization, how will they take to “downsizing”-should it come to that?  Talk about having a tiger by the tail.

You think an uprising of disgruntled, “laid off” soldiers couldn’t happen here?  Think again.  It already has.  And not that long ago.

In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, a “Bonus Army” of over 43,000 veterans descended on Washington demanding immediate payment of a “bonus” from service in World War I. Technically, the money wasn’t due until 1945.  The reliably ham-handed President Hoover refused the demand.  When the vets ignored orders to disperse, Hoover called in the troops and the protesters’ “Hooverville” shanty town was burned to the ground.  Two marchers were killed in a clash with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.

Not long ago, I chanced to sit next to the furniture magnate, Jake Jabs, at the Capital Conference, a wonky policy confab for the hoi polloi on international affairs in Washington, D.C.  It won’t surprise you that I managed to steer the conversation toward the subject of our endless wars and the size of the military.

“The Army has all these men and equipment,” I began, “often lying around doing nothing.  You know,” I continued, “how business owners hate to see idle equipment.  Why would it be any different for the military and our politicians?  To me, it must be a constant temptation to put it to use.  And what do you use it for?  Fighting wars.”

“You’ve probably got something there,”  Jake replied, who, for all his zoo animals and “ah shucks” mannerisms, is smart like a fox.  “I sure do everything I can to keep my trucks out on the road.”

What makes us think it’s any different for our enormous, professional and standing army?

The Army Is Too Small

The great majority of the fighting that is now being done in the War on Terror is being shouldered by special forces, elite units that total about 70,000 soldiers, a mere sliver of the Army’s overall force of 1.5 million.  According to a recent Time Magazine story, at any given moment, about 8,000 of these troops are deployed in 143 countries, or nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations.

While in the past these units were a supplement to conventional forces, that’s no longer the case.  In small, specialize teams, Washington tells us that these soldiers are doing tasks that sound innocuous: “nation building,” “training” foreign troops to defend their own nations, winning “hearts and minds” through diplomacy.  (By the way, how did that “Hearts and Minds” thing work out in Vietnam?)

The reality, according to former Navy SEAL and now Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor, is very different.  “They’re not ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors.’  That’s bullshit.  They’re constantly engaged in kill-or-capture raids against known terrorists.  They’re combat boots on the ground, everyone of them.”

Of course, making war on most of the world is a big job for 8,000 troops.  Or even 70,000. Regardless of how good they are.  One result is an endless war for them.  Sargent Major Chris Faris, who was profiled in the Time article, was a member of the Delta Force.  He was home for a total of 89 days between 2002 and 2011.  Before yet another 6 month deployment, his 18 year old daughter asked him if he remembered the last birthday he was home for.  “No,” Faris answered.  “I was 10,” she said. Before walking out of the room.

Not surprisingly, endless war is taking its toll on the nation’s toughest soldiers.  In 2017, 11 special operators were killed in four countries.  That’s the most deaths that have occurred in that many countries since the Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Despite comprising less than 5% of the total military, they are now suffering virtually all combat casualties.

The disfunction attendant on this non-stop war has led the Pentagon to create a task force to address family crises, alcohol abuse, and suicide.  There is an open investigation into the murder of a Green Beret by two Navy SEALs and and the killing of civilians in Somalia by special operators.

Michael Repass, a retired general who formerly commanded special forces in Europe, says it best: “Our special operators aren’t just frayed at the edges,” because of their constant deployments, “they’re ripped apart at the damned seams.  We’ve burned through this force.”

To make matters worse, the tactics of choice for special operators, drone strikes and covert night raids, have probably inadvertently killed thousands of civilians across several countries, according to Andrea Pasow with Human Rights Watch.  How that magnitude of collateral damage has anything to do with making this country safer, rather than simply enraging our opponents and spurring terrorist recruitment, is a mystery to me.

Am I suggesting that the solution to these pervasive issues is to expand the force of special operators?  Absolutely not.  Rather, we should dramatically shrink the scope of the wars we’re fighting.

Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t had their bellyful of war yet.  Instead, according to Time, the latest brain storm is to shift the “training” function of foreign militaries to conventional U.S. forces by creating “Security Force Assistance Brigades.”  And how long, one wonders, before these brigades, like their special forces brethren before them, morph into “combat boots on the ground?”

Come Home, America

My son-in-law served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.  When I saw him recently, I told him about Christy’s son with the bomb squad.

“Yeah,” he responded, “we had those units with us once in a while.  But they could never keep up with the demand when I was there.  One time, I heard that a unit’s commanding officer got impatient for the bomb disposal team to show up.  So, he ordered one of his regular guys to go over and pick up a suspicious object and move it out of the way.  The guy,” he continued, “took about 10 steps and vanished in a cloud of black smoke.  The officer,” my son-in-law concluded, “was dismissed.”

Google tells me that it’s 5,966 miles from New York City to Iraq.  The bulk of that distance is over the Atlantic Ocean. The distance from Los Angeles to Beijing over the Pacific Ocean is even greater:  6,248 miles.

While our current crop of politicians seem to be ignorant of the significance of these elemental facts of geography, our Founding Fathers weren’t.  In The Federalist Papers: No. 41, James Madison wrote,

“Being rendered by her insular situation and her maritime resources impregnable to the armies of her neighbors, the rulers of Great Britain have never been able, by real or artificial dangers, to cheat the public into an extensive peace [military] establishment.  The distance of the United States from the powerful nations of the world gives them the same happy advantage.”

Correct me if I missed something, but last I heard the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are still there.  And, like 18th century Great Britain, America’s vast, watery moats are dominated by our unrivaled naval power.  We’re impregnable to a seaborne invasion.

So why do we maintain an army of 1.5 million and spend more on the military than the next 8 nations of the world-combined?  

Is it to protect our southern border?  Obviously not.  The invasion of illegals continues apace, the Wall remains unbuilt, and our D.C. elites, of all political stripes, have repeatedly demonstrated they couldn’t care less.  In fact, they cheer it on.

So we use our vast military power to invade and “manage” the rest of the world.  As if poking hornets’ nests in 143 countries is “management.”  When, in reality, it can’t be anything other than a costly exercise in the futility of making more people mad at us.

And when will it end?  Who knows.  But perhaps what’s in store for us is not real peace.  But a twilight peace of exhaustion.

My Name In Bright Lights

The Social Problems That Must Not Be Named750x450 stage lights

It happened on the morning of February 11, 2010.  I was walking from my parking spot on the grounds of the state capitol (one of the few perks of being a member of the General Assembly) to my business office on the other side of Broadway.

As I walked, I looked up to see the headlines crawling across The Denver Post building.  While I don’t remember the exact words, it said something like this: “Swalm: Dems bristle at his anti-poverty remarks.”  I made that walk many times during my eight years in the House; it was the only time my name made it into those bright lights (they’ve since gone dark).

The dust up came over an obscure bill dealing with a change to a state tax credit that redirected tax refunds from citizens who had paid the taxes in the first place. To low income Coloradans-some of whom may not have paid any taxes at all.  The Democrats who argued in favor of the bill said it was an anti-poverty measure.  I was particularly agitated because the ballot measure that created the tax originally contained a provision that any refunds would be shared by all taxpayers.  This bill overturned that voter expectation.

But what got the Dems worked up was my arguement that a transient, relatively insignificant tax refund would do virtually nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty.  And that what was really needed was a fundamental shift in attitudes among poor people around the issues of out of wedlock births, divorce, education, and employment.

As I worked my way down those talking points from the well of the House, more and more of my Democratic colleagues, their faces a picture of horrified astonishment, rushed from their seats to follow their Speaker, Terrance Carroll, to the front of the chamber. Where they gave voice to their outrage.

Carroll, who is black and was born in poverty to an unwed mother, thundered at the mic, “Representative Swalm’s comments are an insult to every single person who lives in poverty, who works their butt off every single day just to keep their head above water.”

Don’t Have Kids Out Of Wedlock

Note that Speaker Carroll didn’t argue that my facts were incorrect-they’re not.  Just that they’re “insulting”.  And, therefore, shouldn’t be discussed.  Why?  Because they’re politically incorrect. A classic example of hate facts-realities that the politically thin skinned, usually liberals, declare out of bounds for discussion because they put a favored group in a bad light.

Well, hate facts be damned.  I’m more concerned about the welfare of kids than I am about offending unwed mothers-who, after all, are adults.  Or should be.

The outcomes for illegitimate children, by virtually every meaningful measure, compare unfavorably with those kids born into families with a married father and mother.  Poverty, to be sure.  But that’s just the beginning of the bad news:  infant mortality, lower academic performance, emotional instability, criminality, drug use-all these, and more, significantly worse for children born to unwed mothers.

Does this mean that every child born out of wedlock is destined for failure?  Of course not.  Speaker Carroll is an obvious exception.  But it does mean that the odds of success are stacked against them.  And, unfortunately, those odds are rapidly getting longer as the percentage of kids born out of wedlock explodes, rising from 10% forty years ago to over 40% now.

These are the figures for the population at large, but across various ethnic groups the statistics often tell an even more disconcerting story.   Among whites, 30% unwed mothers; blacks, a catastrophic 77%; hispanics 60% (and the fastest growing segment); Asians 27%.  And, even in the few years since my name crawled across The Denver Post building, these numbers have gotten worse.

Don’t Get Divorced-In The Absence Of Abuse Or Infidelity

Elizabeth Taylor was the Hollywood star who, infamously, was divorced 8 times.  One anonymous wag said that she would often wake up in the morning, stretch luxuriantly, and say, “I feel like a new man.”

Such marital chaos might make sense, at least financially, for a woman pulling down a cool $1 million per film. But for the average person, especially a woman who winds up with custody of children, divorce is usually a financial tsunai from which she will probably never recover.  The numbers are daunting: 37% of households headed by a single woman are likely to be in poverty as opposed to just 9% of those headed by a married couple.  Marriage, in other words, drops the likelihood of child poverty by 82%.

The extent to which Hollywood glamorizes the social cancers that gnaw at our nation’s vitals are virtually limitless:  sex, violence, drugs, etcetera. Pick your poison.

But the example set by scantily clad starlets and their hunk, “husband of the month,” and which they wear on their arms like so many oversized baubles, is perhaps the most damaging.  Treating marriage like Kleenex might work, after a fashion, in La La Land.  And you have money to burn.  But for the average woman, who takes her cues from what she sees on the silver screen, it’s a prescription for financial disaster in her very different, very gritty reality.

Get A High School Degree

How’s this for a news flash?  “It doesn’t cost a dime to get a high school degree.  And,” I told Jessica Fender, the former Capitol beat reporter of the now much diminished Denver Post and whose story was translated into the bright lights,  “a high school degree goes a long way toward getting a person out of poverty.”

Again, the facts are there:

  • On average, someone without a high school degree earns about $25,000 annually and faces an 8% unemployment rate in the job market.
  • A high school degree?  About $35,200 annually and a 5.8% jobless market.  That’s a 40% jump in earnings and a 20% improvement in job prospects.  For a degree that doesn’t cost a dime.

Of course, it goes without saying, the higher the level of educational attainment, the brighter the earnings and job prospects.  But at least to begin, let’s begin at the beginning-a high school degree.

Get A Job.  Even A Minimum Wage Job. And Stick With It.

You might think that this one is the “duh” factor:  having a job reduces the chances of poverty.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as it may appear, given the bewildering array of welfare type programs, and their complex eligibility rules, that came into existence with the “war on poverty.”

For example, one of the issues we repeatedly discussed in the legislature was the “cliff effect“-the circumstance where a welfare recipient would lose some or all of their benefits if their job related income went above a certain level.  And, as a result, the family would actually be better off financially without a job than with one.  Crazy.  And, trust me, you really did have to be something like a rocket scientist to calculate the impact of job earnings on eligibility for things like low income tax credits, food stamps, child care assistance, and health care coverage.  It’s like three dimensional Chinese checkers.

This isn’t the place to try to resolve the cliff effect puzzle, an issue that has bedeviled policy makers ever since it gained prominence as a result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform efforts in the ’90’s.  Nonetheless, any solution should encourage work and avoid penalizing marriage.

But far more important than welfare in alleviating poverty is a robust economy.  As President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”   And this is particularly true of low income people.

In the late 1990’s the unemployment rate fell to about 4%, the lowest it had been in three decades.  That “tight” labor market raised wages across the board, but especially for low income workers.  For instance, the unemployment rate for blacks is typically two to two and a half times the rate of whites.  Which means that if the white jobless rate can be lowered by 1%, the black unemployment rate may fall by as much as 2%.  For black teens, whose unemployment rate is about 6 times higher than whites, each 1% drop in the white jobless rate may translate into a 6% drop for unemployed black teens.

Colorado is fortunate in that its current unemployment rate, at 3.1%, is less than the 4-6% that economists usually term “full employment.”  Which translates into rising incomes for all.  But especially those in poverty.

To Solve These Tough Problems, We Must Be Able To Talk About Them

I’m certainly not the first to spark a heated response by discussing these issues.  That distinction may belong to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a brilliant and daring sociologist who was a lieutenant in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Moynihan was responsible for what became known as the controversial, but still to this day influential, Moynihan Report.  Or, officially, The Negro Family:  The Case For National Action.

In it, Moynihan, initially set out to prove what, as he described it, “‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions.  Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”  In other words, the poverty that bedeviled most black families wasn’t causing black families to fail.  And that, instead, the implosion of the black family was the cause of it’s poverty.

As it did for me, Moynihan’s conclusion set off a firestorm of controversy. And charges of racism.  Nonetheless, Moynihan persisted.  As do I.

If political correctness is allowed to stifle a frank discussion of these politically charged issues, what hope is there?  The facts are clear that rates of out of wedlock births are not just a calamity for the black and Hispanic communities.  They affect everyone.

And it’s not as if there’s no hope.  As recently as 1950, the illegitimate birth rates for whites (about 3%) and blacks (about 18%-and much lower than the current 30% among whites) were at least within hailing distance of one another.  The historical evidence is clear:  black families can remain intact and succeed, even in the face of the often intense discrimination they faced before the enactment of civil rights legislation.

It’s not without reason that Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”  The Pope was a wise man in many ways.  But not least in his understanding of how strong families can be an “anti-poverty” strategy par excellence.  As well as inoculate people against many of the other social pathologies that beset us.

Just So Sad . . .

school shootings 2Compared To . . . ?

About two months ago there was a high school shooting in Aztec, New Mexico that resulted in the deaths of two students.  The shooter, who died in the incident, was armed with a Glock pistol that he legally purchased.  The weapon is widely used by both law enforcement and civilians.

My sister lives in Albuquerque.  With the tragedy occurring in her figurative backyard, my sister an sent an indignant email to me.  The subject line was, “Just so sad . . .”

Because immigration is often a bone of contention between us, that vexed topic also worked it’s way into the discussion.  She was particularly upset that the shooter was a white, American male. And, according to her, that these are the people that pose a real threat to our safety-as opposed to illegal immigrants.  As she put it, “Who is killing more of us?  White American males or illegal immigrants?”

And now we now have an even worse school shooting in Florida.   Again, the shooter was a white, American male.  But this time the shooter survived the episode, was arrested and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.  The latest reports are that while the shooting was underway, four deputy sheriffs were hiding behind their nearby patrol cars-rather than storming the building. And that law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, ignored warnings signs of the danger posed by the shooter.  The shooter was armed with a legally purchased, semi-automatic, AR-15 rifle.  It’s estimated that there are several million of these weapons in circulation in the country.

Rivers of electronic ink have already been spilled discussing gun violence in this country.  What can be said that hasn’t already been said?  Well, here are a couple of ideas.

Compared To Most Of The World And Most Of Its History, America Is Peaceful

This is going to sound crazy coming on the heels of these horrific shootings, but by comparison to most of the world and for most of it’s history, America is peaceful.

The bloodiest war we ever fought was our Civil War, which left about 700,000 dead, more than the rest of our wars combined.  A terrible tragedy, without question.  But by comparison to the rest of the world, the US is a piker when it comes to blood letting.

One hundred years ago, Europe was nearing the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars”-which did nothing of the sort for that bloody continent.  In four years of savage trench warfare, over 9 million combatants lost their lives; additional millions of civilians perished.

But World War I was just the prelude to an even more horrifying conflict:  World War II.  This time, there were over 24 million military deaths, and nearly 30 million civilian.  American deaths (about 419,000), were a tiny fraction of these mind numbing totals.  And behind most of these countless deaths and maimings there were loved ones who, no doubt, experienced every bit as much grief as those who were left behind by our school shootings.

Am I making light of the shock and intense sorrow that has followed the school shootings in our country?  Of course not; it’s just to put it in context.  Do you charge me with being cold hearted?  Fair enough.  But what’s it called when you’re more grieved with 19 murders-than with the industrial scale slaughter of 24 million?

In light of these terrifying numbers, preachy articles like this one from an English newspaper, comparing European and US gun violence, and which are so prevalent after something like the Florida shooting, strike me, at best, as historically myopic.  And, at worst, as hypocrytical.

“But,” you say, “those wars were a long time ago.”  That’s right.  So was The Holocaust-and the 6 million who died in the gas chambers.  Are you saying, “It’s time to put The Holocaust behind us and focus on Florida”?  The question answers itself.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details.  But please, don’t lecture me about how “peaceful” Europe is in comparison to America.  Scholars estimate that the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, may have been responsible for up to 50 million deaths.  This quote, usually attributed to the Communist monster, is particularly apt here: “A single death is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic.”  Yes, America has its share of tragedies.  But, thank God, we’re short on statistics.

Compared To Whom?

There’s an odd thing about these mass shootings that you probably haven’t noticed.  And that’s that not all of them are committed by white, American males.  In fact, a sizable number of these killings are committed by culprits that aren’t white, American males.   And the reason you haven’t noticed this fact? Because the main stream media doesn’t want you to notice it.  It doesn’t fit into their meme of white, American males as violent, gun happy criminals.

But the facts, here, tell a different story.  Immigrants of all races, both legal and illegal, have killed at least 635 and wounded at least 2,160 as of December, 2017.  And that doesn’t even count the 3,000 killed and over 6,000 injured in the September 11 attacks.  But these facts are often concealed in the coverage of these immigrant crimes because the main stream media usually doesn’t even talk about these attributes of the culprit. Unless he’s a white, American male.

So, is it atrocious when a white, American male is involved in one of these horrific crimes? Absolutely.  But it’s every bit as bad when the criminal is an immigrant, regardless of his race.  And if it’s relevant that some of these crazed criminals are white, American males, then the ethnicity and immigration status of the the culprit should be relevant and reported in all cases.

Compared To What, Realistically, Can Be Done

I live within a few miles of where the Columbine High School massacre occurred.  The body count in that tragedy left 15 dead (including the 2 perpetrators) and 24 wounded.  The Superintendent of that school district, Jason Glass, knows all too well the suffering caused by these crimes. Since the Florida shooting, he has weighed in on school safety with some ideas worth paying attention to.

First, he doesn’t believe that more restrictive gun control laws or arming teachers will get any more traction this time than it has after the numerous, previous incidents of this kind.  Thus, he doesn’t believe we should waste energy on the politically impossible.  And, that, instead, we should focus on the politically possible.

Superintendent Glass thinks the following are possible:

  • Putting trained, armed law enforcement officers in every school.
  • Increase funding for school mental health services.
  • Redesign schools to be more like airports, stadiums, and other public facilities, so that access is better controlled.
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security.

I think three of the four of these ideas make sense.  I’m opposed, however, to turning the problem over to the federal government-even the funding.  If the feds fund school safety research, it will almost certainly try to impose a “one size fits all” solution.  When I was in the legislature, I learned that the “golden rule” rigidly applies to federal funding:  he who has the gold, makes the rules. Colorado isn’t California or North Dakota or New York or Alaska. We’re smart enough to come up with a solution that works for Colorado; keep the feds out of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Not Left Or Right

male refugees floating in by boatIt’s Globalist Or Nationalist

My sister, to put it mildly, is well traveled.  Throw a dart at the globe, and there’s a good chance that, on one trip or another, she’s been there.  Or, at least, on that continent.

While I’ve been out of the country a few times, I’m pretty much a home body.  That gives us a different perspective on things.

It’s also true that, politically speaking, she comes down to the left of me.  Which isn’t too surprising, since I fall somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.  Our political  discussions can be contentious.  On more than one occasion, I’ve stated my resolve that “We just shouldn’t talk politics.”  She responds, “You’re right.”  And, don’t you know, next time we’re together, we’re back at it.

One of the issues that has been a regular bone of contention is immigration.  We’ve emailed articles and links to websites back and forth trying to drive home our points.  All to little avail.

But she gave me an article from a recent edition of The New Yorker during our last visit that made an impression on me.  It’s entitled, You Will Not Replace Us.” The European thinkers behind the white-nationalist rallying cry” by Thomas Chatterton Williams.  I’ve got to hand it to my sister, it’s definitely worth a read.  And, I must confess, goes a good way toward proving her contention that she’s more open minded than I am.  Which, again, isn’t too surprising, since when it comes to immigration, I can pretty much look through a knot hole with both eyes open.

The line in the article that really jumped out at me appears near the end when the author turns his attention from Europe to the United States:  “And yet the country has nonetheless arrived at a moment when once unmentionable ideas have gone mainstream, and the most important political division is no longer between left and right but between globalist and nationalist.”

Coming from an historically leftist publication that’s produced in a city that has represented the belly of the leftist beast, this is a remarkable concession.  Politically speaking, it’s the equivalent of a tectonic shift in earth’s crust in the blink of an eye.

But consider.  Running on a decidedly nationalistic platform, Trump’s resounding victory confounded everyone:  the Republican establishment; Hillary still hasn’t resigned herself to it; the mainstream media remains in a state of dazed disbelief; the pollsters missed it by a mile.

The Brexit vote was equally unexpected.  And, basically, was also a show down between globalism and nationalism.  And the resentment in the European Union over the heavy handed, “right thinking” globalist bureaucrats in Brussels doesn’t stop with Britain.  A majority of citizens in many European countries support a ban on further immigration from Muslim majority countries: they want their nations back.  In this, they are following the lead of the globalists’ favorite te noire, Donald Trump.

The article quotes at length a leading French philosophe, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, according to Thomas, “has long embodied elite thinking on the French left.”  With respect to the hordes of impoverished Syrian refugees washing over Europe, Lévy has written, “They are applicants for freedom, lovers of our promised land, our social model, and our values.  They are people who cry out ‘Europe! Europe!'”

At this, Thomas charges Lévy with “blithe cosmopolitanism” when, from his impeccable apartment in an exclusive Parisian neighborhood, the multi-millionaire Lévy dismisses the concerns of average Europeans about the hordes of Muslim refugees descending on the continent.  This callus attitude, continues Thomas, “can fuel resentment toward both intellectuals and immigrants.”  To which I can only add this suggestion for Monsieur Lévy: “Keep it up.”  And so he does; further on in the article, he flatly declares that France “has no refugees.”

The central theme of the article is one originally suggested by the French writer and member of the alt-right, Renaud Camus:  “The Great Replacement is very simple.  You have one people and, in the space of a generation, you have a different people.”  Explains Camus, the replacement is the result of mass immigration and low birth rates among native French people-and other Western countries and peoples.  (Here, by the way, is a thoughtful, non-boogieman manifesto of the alt-right coauthored by a gay, Jewish prankster/bomb thrower and a writer for Breitbart.)

When asked why the notion of the great replacement resonates so widely in so many places, Lévy dismisses it as a “junk idea.”  “The Roman conquest of Gaul,” asserts Lévy, “was a real modification of the population in France.  There was never something like an ethnic French people.”

It’s ironic that Lévy is so dismissive of the possibility of French ethnicity.  Because, as a Jew and a strident proponent of Zionism, he certainly seems to believe that Jewish ethnicity is no “junk idea.”  And, for that matter, that Jewish blood is sufficiently pure to be inextricably linked to the soil of Israel.

In January, 2015 Lévy addressed a meeting of the UN General Assembly on antisemitism in these terms:  “The Jews are detestable because they are supposed to support an evil illegitimate state-this is the anti-Zionist delirium of the merciless adversaries of the reestablishment of the Jews in their historical fatherland.”

This is intriguing language.  Imagine his “delirious” outrage if a member of the alt-right, on the basis of ethnic “purity,” attempted to claim an “historical fatherland” in front of an august body like the UN.  Lévy would be calling for their heads on a platter.  Evidently, only a Zionist is entitled to argue for an “historical fatherland” on the grounds of ethnic purity.  And only Jewish blood is sufficiently pure to save it from being a “junk idea.”

But Lévy, no more than any other disciple of identity politics, can’t have it both ways.  If Jews can press their case on the basis of race or ethnicity, so can blacks, and Hispanics, and Asians.  They do.  And they are.  As the article asserts, this is the new way of the world.  So, why not whites?

Lévy might not like the fact that it’s “no longer left and right, but globalist and nationalist.”  At least, when it comes to Europe and France.  But he, apparently, is perfectly content with the notion that Israel and Zionism and Judiasm represent a near apotheosis of blood and soil.  He better get used to the idea of other groups practicing what he really preaches.  Because it’s coming.

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.

All Fall Down: The American Way of War

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It’s As Lethal To Us As It Is To Our Enemies

Let me say up front that I’m a Clint Eastwood fan.  But to the extent he’s a publicist and apologist for American wars of aggression, count me out.

When I was a kid, Rawhide was a staple on our TV-but what’s really stuck with me is the theme song: “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’

Then there was Eastwood as the ultra-tough, cigarillo chomping “Man With No Name” in the Spaghetti Westerns.  My junior high school buddies and I use to love climbing aboard an old Denver Tramway bus, dropping a dime in the fare box, and riding downtown to watch Clint gun down Eli Wallach at the elegant Paramount Theater.

I took a break from Eastwood during his Dirty Harry period. Although I can’t remember for sure, I imagine that I thought that I was too sophisticated by then for films that resolved all problems with a magnum .45 revolver.  The boycott continued with the orangutan (?!!) in the Every Which Way franchise; too silly to even give it a thought.  It was years before I seriously paid attention after that.

The movie that got me back on the band wagon was Gran Torino.  And, of all places, it happened at the YMCA camp at Estes Park during a retreat for men at my church.  Led by a gifted pastor, Rich Pilon, we watched the film. And then discussed its significance, including the obviously Christian symbolism as Eastwood, arms outstretched, dies in a hail of bullets to save a family from the savage predations of a criminal Hmong gang.

Sure, the film was imprinted with Eastwood’s trademark violence.  Or, rather, threat of violence-he doesn’t shoot anyone.  But it was far more than that.  It was thoughtful.  And thought provoking.  At multiple levels.

And best of all for me?  It touched on some of the taboos, like the high rates of black crime, which the rest of Hollywood so often misrepresents as the fault of a racist judicial system.  Imagine seeing this Gran Torino scene featuring black thugs in your typical Hollywood film.  You can’t-because there aren’t any.  (Interestingly, the cowardly, white “wanna be” thug in the scene is Eastwood’s son, Scott.)

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot.  Or Worse.

My most recent encounter with an Eastwood film was in our basement where, while working out on the elliptical, I happened to catch some snatches of American Sniper between flipping back and forth to avoid commercials.  The title alone was a dead give away: the war in Iraq.

I came in very near the end of the picture.  Scenes follow in rapid succession.  The lead character, Chris Kyle, is visiting maimed soldiers in a hospital.  He’s working the spotting scope for legless soldiers in wheel chairs at the rifle range.  He’s horsing around with a big pistol in the kitchen.  He’s bidding his wife and two little sons goodbye at the front door.  A foreboding shadow falls across the wife’s face.

At that point, I turned it off.  I couldn’t bear to watch what I thought would be the inevitable conclusion:  suicide.  According to a recent VA study, 20 veterans a day die from suicide.  More active service soldiers are succumbing to suicide than are being killed in combat.

And, sure enough, when I turned it back on a few minutes later, it’s Taps, the grieving widow, and the honor escort to the cemetery.  A suicide for sure, I thought.

Nonetheless, I put the film at the top of my Netflix list and watched it without commercial interruptions-but in segments that lasted only as long as I could endure the  elliptical.

There’s nothing understated or subtle about the harrowing combat scenes of this film; the bodies pile up like cordwood.  Mostly, of course, they’re anonymous Iraqi insurgents-for whom most of the audience feels no sympathy.

Our sympathies are reserved for the relatively few American casualties.  And, above all, for Kyle’s wife, Taya, as she endures four interminable deployments while trying to raise the kids of a father who is more often absent than not.  For obvious reasons, the marriage is on the rocks for a good part of the film.  And, sure enough, studies have shown that lengthy deployments significantly increase the risk of divorce among military couples.

This is a great film.  But almost certainly not for the reasons that made it the highest grossing US film of 2014.  And the highest grossing war film of all time. Or Eastwood’s highest grossing film to date.  No, the money is mostly about the shoot ’em up, the gripping suspense and the heart tugging human interest.

The Ripple Effects of Failure

No, this is a great film, because hidden in plain sight, it tells a story that cries out to be told: the calamity the war in Iraq has been for all involved.  America.  Iraq.  The US military.  And, perhaps most importantly, for the last vestiges of the notion that our country remains a limited republic.  Rather than a hideously overextended empire that is infected with all the vices that, if God is just, will inevitably lead to its fall.

The human costs to this country are almost unfathomable.  And are prominent in the film.  Nearly five thousand dead.  Tens of thousands of amputees, countless traumatic brain injuries and cases of mental illness, including suicides.   The enormous psychic toll extracted from the spouses, children and families of these physically and mentally maimed soldiers is a harrowing subtext of Sniper.

It’s almost obscene to set these human costs against the ruinous financial expense of our military adventure in Iraq.  But to fail to do so would be to ignore the elephant in the room of the movie.  Credible estimates from the CBO and others run as high as $3 trillion.  Most of which, of course, is borrowed.

While the film doesn’t touch directly on the financial burden of the war, it can be inferred from all the high tech, high cost weapons that constitute the American way of war. And which figure so prominently in the movie.  But while gold plated weaponry hasn’t won the war,  it sure has fattened the wallets of defense contractors and their lobbyists.  And allowed Congressmen to boast about “bringing home the bacon” when their district lands one of these lard laden plums.

Despite the undoubted courage of the American soldier, the film also makes clear it that we are no closer to “winning” now than we were when we first invaded Iraq fourteen long years ago.  (Even the ham-handed Soviets had the good sense to get out of Afghanistan after 10 bloody, futile years.)

And, this, despite the fact that the US is fighting an enemy that, relatively speaking, is armed with cheap, nearly stone age weapons: AK-47s, hand held rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices.  But, more important than any weapon, an enemy also recklessly determined to defend his family, home, religion and country.

But if the human and fiscal cost of this interminable war has been high for this county, it pales by comparison with the price that Iraqis have paid.  Again, this is not a topic Sniper dwells on; but, once more, it’s hiding in plain sight.  Massive military and civilian casualties are the inevitable byproduct of the extraordinary violence that American weaponry rains down in a conflict largely fought in a densely populated urban setting.  And there are more than enough gory scenes of “collateral damage” in the film to drive home the point.

While estimates of Iraqi casualties vary wildly in the fog of war, they fall somewhere between 100,000 and 1.2 million.   It’s beyond doubt, moreover, that many of these casualties are non-combatants: women, children and the elderly.  Add to this the untold misery of the millions of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons that have been generated by the war, and to describe the conflict as a “calamity” is an understatement.

The Federalist Papers is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the US Constitution.  The catalogue of evils the Founding Fathers ascribed to standing, professional armies is well documented in the book: my edition has no less than 10 entries under the “standing armies, fear of” heading.  Among them?  The crippling expense.  The threat to liberty arising from the danger that citizens will come to look upon the military not as their protector, but as their master.

But what is most tragically ironic is that the book convincingly makes the case that this country doesn’t even need the gargantuan military establishment on which we now spend more than the next 8 nations combined.  

Why?  Because last time I looked, the map shows that this country is still surrounded by massive oceans.  In the Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton argues that our situation is comparable to Great Britain’s which, due to the much narrower seas that border it, hasn’t been successfully invaded since the 11th century.  And, therefore, requires no more than a robust navy and and a small army.

Of course, I know that in the jet age we need an air force to protect us from intercontinental bombers.  And, even more importantly, an airtight missile defense given the world’s nut jobs, including the one in North Korea.

But why does a bloated, exorbitantly expensive military like the one with which we are currently burdened make any sense unless we’re enamored of playing the bumbling world cop?  Or we just like picking fights?  Or feel compelled to provide material for horror films like American Sniper.

So, hey, how’s this military industrial complex thing working out for us?  Not so well?  I agree. The catastrophes that have befallen our misadventures in Vietnam to Afghanistan and now Iraq amply prove the point.  The Soviets learned their lesson. Why can’t we?  Or, if we’re too proud to learn from the Russians, can’t we at least heed the advice of our Founding Fathers?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Know How This Movie Ends

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And It’s As Ugly As Harvey Weinstein

The road must be my muse.  At least, my recent, solo trip from Denver to Spokane to visit my daughter and her family gave me plenty of time to think.

Several days into the trip, I drove by a lonely place on I-84 between Boise and Pendleton called Farewell Bend.  It’s the spot where the pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail left the dependable water of the Snake River before turning west and heading into the arid, rugged country of eastern Oregon so they could skirt the even more treacherous terrain along the Snake.

At Farewell Bend, the hilly county on the Oregon side of the river looked like a tablecloth that’s just come out of the drier: all folds and gullies covered by sere, end of summer grass.

Holiness or Hypocrisy?

Decades ago, an uncle of mine, Bob Lee, with his wife, Anne and their six kids, lived in a tiny ranch house tucked away in one of those gullies.  During the school year, Bob was a teacher and a coach in nearby Ontario, Oregon.  In the summer, he irrigated alfalfa in one of the swales that empties into the Snake there.  Year ‘round, he raised cattle.

When I was a kid, my family made annual summer pilgrimages to Idaho to visit our many relations there.  One year, my mom threw my brother and me in the car and we drove the extra 60 or so miles from Boise to visit her brother and his family at the ranch.

Our family has deep roots in the Nazarene church. At one point, “holiness” was church dogma: no smoking, drinking, dancing or movies.  My dad’s father, before he died of TB as a young man, was a professor at Nampa Nazarene University just west of Boise.  My parents met and got their degrees there. My mom’s brother, Byron, was also a graduate before he became a Nazarene Army chaplain; he was killed by “friendly” fire in the Korean War.  The athletic complex at the school is named after him.

Bob and his family were still staunchly, old school Nazarenes when I was there that summer.  Several of his kids and grandkids have remained Nazarenes to this day (the “holiness” rules, however, have been relaxed in recent years).  Many have graduated from the University, worked at the school, and have pastored Nazarene churches.

On that visit, my mom dropped me off so I could see what life was like on the ranch for a few days before she came back to pick me up.  I think the deal was that if I liked it, I could come back for a longer visit and help Bob buck hay bales and move irrigation pipes.  I didn’t do it-something I regret.

Perhaps in reaction to his mother’s cast iron morality, my dad went badly off the “holiness” rails after his father died.  He took us to the much more freewheeling Presbyterian church when us kids were growing up.  He smoked like a chimney, enjoyed two martini lunches, and had nothing against the movies.  He didn’t dance only because he didn’t enjoy it.  But I certainly never saw him indulge any of these habits in the presence of his mom.

And then he left organized religion altogether; he prided himself on being agnostic.

So, as my dad’s son and a “sophisticated” adolescent from the “big city” of Denver, the holiness that I saw up close in the front room of Bob’s little house struck me, at best, as quaint.  And, even more, silly.

They had a TV, but it was pretty much off limits-even in TV’s “golden age” with shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Shows that now seem so improbably innocent.  But that didn’t make much difference anyway-cascading snow was about all you could get that far out in the country from the foil enhanced rabbit ears that sat atop the TV.

One of the older girls had, somehow, managed to get her hands on a Beach Boys record that she put on the record player. I stood up, said, “Let’s dance!” and began gyrating my hips and arms in an awkward imitation of the “Twist.”  My cousins tittered-and stayed well away from the dance floor.  I wonder where Bob and Anne were when I was carrying on like this?

It’s easy to make fun of the likes Bob and Anne and the Nazarenes.  What hicks.  What boobs.  What rubes.  What hypocrites.

But who was closer to being on the right track?  The Nazarenes and my cousins with their holiness rules?  Or me with the Beach Boys and the Twist in my uncle’s front room?  Or my dad with his cigarettes and Scotch behind his mother’s back?

In his short poem, The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost ponders the choices we make and how, at the beginning, there doesn’t seem to be much to choose between them.  But, over time, and because “way leads on to way,” the roads we travel lead to dramatically different destinations.

The Road to Weinstein

Now, “way leads on to way” has lead this country and its people to the hideous likeness of a Harvey Weinstein.  What started with “I Love Lucy” has, way on to way, led us to the appalling pornography of some of the films that Weinstein funded and promoted, including the violent, sleazy, but critically acclaimed “Pulp Fiction.” (Confession: somehow made aware of the buzz around this film, I watched it on NetFlix until the drugs, violence, sex and general anomie made me turn it off about halfway through.)

And now it comes out in a New Yorker article that Weinstein hired thugs, formerly of the Mossad, Israel’s security service, to blackmail his accusers to prevent them from coming forward to expose his serial sexual predations.

In his famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tells the story of the handsome Gray who strikes a Faustian bargain that allows him to pursue his life of dissipation while, apparently, neither growing older or having his life of corruption manifest itself in his appearance.  He does so by way of a magic portrait of himself hidden in his attic that reflects what is really happening: year by year, the picture grows increasingly decrepit and hideous.

It is plain that Harvey Weinstein, despite all his money, power and Botox, doesn’t conceal a similar magical portrait in his attic.  Now exposed for what he truly is, his face betrays all the ravages of a life poorly lived.

Of course, Weinstein is now also an easy target; once the dam burst, everyone is piling on.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  I would be perfectly content to see him behind bars, assuming he gets a fair trial-which is probably a stretch, given his enormous power and ability to tilt the scales of justice in his favor.

But Weinstein is almost besides the point.  He is only one of the numerous, aggressively malignant tumors that have metastasized into a body politic besotted with Hollywood culture.

I wonder what the picture in our national attic looks like?  Sure, we may look good (sort of) on the outside.  But how many of us would be appalled if we came face to face with that portrait of ourselves?  Or, even more scary, show it to the world?

Am I suggesting that we, as a nation, go back to that remote ranch house on the Snake River with its holiness rules?  That might not be an altogether a bad idea.  But, way leads on to way, that fork in the road is a nearly infinite distance behind us.

But failing that, what do we do?  A good place to start would be to take a long look at our own personal attic portrait.  And, feature by feature, and as God gives us the strength, begin by giving ourselves a spiritual facelift.