Crowd Psychology

Imagine this:

It’s the middle of June, 1940. Germany has just conquered all of Europe. The British have just withdrawn their army from the continent, in a miraculous evacuation that was the only redeeming note in a catastrophic defeat.

The army had left virtually all of its equipment – just about everything heavier than a rifle – in France; it would pretty much have to be re-equipped from scratch. The Royal Navy had been badly bloodied. The Royal Air Force, likewise, leaving itself under strength to face the German Air Force in the upcoming campaign to try to bomb the UK either to the negotiating table or into a state ready to be invaded. German U-boats were ravaging the merchant shipping on which Britain depended for not only all of its industrial raw materials and oil, but virtually all of its food.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill went on the radio and gave a speech after the last of the British Expeditionary Force arrived home.

What speech did he give?

He could’ve given a realistic speech – pointing out the sobering facts of the situation, and readying the British people for what was likely going to be at best a disheartening and economy-gutting armistice that left them sitting alone on their island, and at worst complete conquest in the face of an invasion that would certainly follow, if the Navy and Air Force failed.

But no.

Churchill gave a speech that was, if all you cared about was the facts on the ground, utterly unrealistic; he told Britain, and the world, that the United Kingdom would fight to the last inch of ground, and if Britain fell the Commonwealth would carry on the fight forever, until Europe was free again.

It was a little like that poster of a mouse holding up a middle finger at a diving eagle; “the last great act of defiance“ was the caption.

And it was one of the greatest bits oratory in the history of the English language.

And it was completely unrealistic.

But it was leadership.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan had already proved he was the best president of my adult lifetime. His leadership had brought America back from the worst case of emotional depression it had ever suffered, and from an economic downturn every bit as nasty as 2008, but much more short-lived. And after running for office on a stridently anti-Communist message, he had already sent the message that Soviet expansionism was off the agenda, and made it stick.

He was scheduled to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate – the very symbol of divided Germany, and the high watermark of communism in the west.. It was a time when most political and academic “experts“ in the west expected the Soviet union – the “second world“ – was here to stay; well five years later everyone said the USSR was eventually going to collapse, nobody that anybody was paying attention to was saying it in 1987. They had the worlds largest military, the worlds largest nuclear arsenal, and they controlled a good chunk of Europe and Asia.

Reagan’s advisers urged him to take a moderate, conciliatory tone toward the east Germans, the Soviets, their new (or at least newish) leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the wall he was standing in front of.

To give a “realistic” speech.

 instead, he gave a speech that electrified the resistance in Eastern Europe, that galvanized support for democracy among the downtrodden, and did its part, along with much of the rest of Reagan’s policy, in the downfall of the Soviet union that had a thousand fathers by 1995, but was very nearly an orphan before Ronald Reagan was elected.

It wasn’t “realistic“ to the conventional wisdom of the day. It was leadership.

Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill, and he’s no Ronald Reagan.

This week, he said that he wants America to be “back to work“ by the Easter weekend.

Is this realistic? Maybe not. The experts say it’s unlikely. The legions of not very funny late night comics and blue-checked droogs say the idea itself is risible.. And the whole business of declaring America open or closed is mostly the responsibility of the state governments, and the free market itself. I, myself, plan on working from home (although I am working, knock wood).

But America is a restless, endlessly creative, impatient nation, overstocked with people who are not going to sit on their hands and wait for things to get better; it’s a nation full of people who are descended from people who came from all over the world, uprooting everything they knew, to make things better.

Trump could have echoed the words of the scientists and experts gathered around him. He could’ve lectured the nation like a hectoring schoolmarm, or like Barack Obama. But he’s got a stage full of experts, including his vice president, and more importantly 50 state governors, already doing exactly that.

Trump urging America to “go back to work“ Easter weekend is not the Dunkirk speech, and it’s not the Brandenburg gate speech.

It’s not eloquent, and it’s not going to go down in history.

But it’s leadership..

The economy runs as much on psychology as it does on money, analysis and marketing. It’s trends depend as much on how people are feeling as objective fact. Don’t believe it? Have you checked the toilet paper aisle lately?

The nation’s psyche needs a boost. Trump is setting a tone; the United States is not going to be on sick leave forever. He’s telling a nation with cabin fever that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When? Maybe Easter, maybe memorial day, but it’s coming.

It was brilliant. It wasn’t scientific. It may not of even been all that well advised.

But it’s what America wants to think, and wants to hear. We’re not stupid, we’ll hash out the details later..

Little Straw Men

A few weeks ago, I saw the new film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott “Little Women“. I’m told there are seven different versions on film out there – I’ve only seen parts of the 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn, and of course the 1994 version with Winona Ryder (of which the less said, the better).

I liked it. A lot. Yes, it’s a“Chick flick“, and I don’t care, because all I really care about is “is it a good movie“.

Around the same time, I saw a new statistic; a solid majority of doctors under the age of 35 or women.

That’s after a couple of decades in which the share of undergraduate degrees going to women has reached three out of five, on its way to an estimated two out of three in the next decade or two. This, as the education system becomes more and more dogmatically feminized, with the attendant treating of “boyhood“ as a pathology to be medicated into submission , and as the media seems to be incapable of showing males above a certain age as anything but loutish buffoons.

So I could see, perhaps, men staying home from yet another film that shows men as expendable cads (which, by the way, “Little Women“ doesn’t); It’s not like men don’t get a steady diet of that anyway.

But here’s an experiment for you: read this article – not a review – from the utterly underwhelming Kristy Eldridge  whom the Times helpfully notes, is “a writer”, entitled “Men are Dismissing “Little Women““. The article points out that the movie finished third in its opening week, behind two tent post blockbusters (Star Wars and the new Jumanji), and throws in a lot of pro forma “men just don’t care about female writers/artists/films“ whingeing.

One thing it doesn’t do is quote any men who don’t actually like the movie, or show any demographic evidence that men are shunning it any more (or less) than any other “chick flick“. Given that the film would seem to be at least a modest success (especially compared to the boat anchor 1994 version, which played like a high school production), that’d seem to be a little impossible if all those female viewers weren’t hauling their boyfriends/husbands along with.

The article promises male rage. It delivers Little Straw Men.

I have to suspect the article was written long before the movie opened

Hollywood Polishes The Cannonball

Some stories shouldn’t need Hollywood to go all, well, Hollywood on them to make them riveting utterly compelling.

But they do it anyway. And it’s almost always a massive drag.

It’s not a new phenomenon; The Battle of the Bulge was utterly atrocious, seemingly feeling the need to dumb World War 2 down to a cowboys ‘n indians movie – for an audience that had in huge numbers actually been there. Even as a kid, the Hollywoodisms (“They’re sending tanks! Send the artillery and infantry to the rear!”) annoyed me to no end.

The effect wasn’t always catastrophic: the Great Escape didn’t completely bastardize the subject, the greatest POW camp break in history – although adding Americans to the cast was an audience-grabbing anachronism (all Americans had been sent to different camps shortly before the escape’s famous tunnels were started).

But Hollywood’s wall of shame exerts a powerful vortex.

Stories that don’t need the Hollywood treatment get it anyway. 12 Strong – the dramatization of the events of the fall of 2001, where 85 Green Berets – count ’em, 85 – led an insurgency that drove the Taliban from the battlefield. What “improvement” does a story like that need? Well, it got little from the movie – which was watchable, but traded CGI for story all too often.

And the Tuskeegee Airmen’s story needs not even a whiff of gussying up; is there a bigger underdog war movie of all time? (There could be – if Hollywood ever produces Brothers in Arms, the story of an all-black tank battalion that became one of Patton’s best, written by none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). But gussying up it got, with Red Tails, a George Lucas labor of love that substituted P51 Mustangs for X-wings, Germans for Stormtroopers, and white bigots for Emperor Palpatine.

Now, when I saw that there was a remake of Midway in the works, I thought “at last, someone can improve on the turgid but accurate-ish 1976 historical epic. Then I saw the most dreaded six words in movies: “From the maker of Independence Day” (a movie, it needs to be said, that I detest with a cordial passion) and gave up all hope. Roland Emmerich would seem to have turned the all-in total-stakes back-against-the-wall fight by the battered American fleet against an undefeated Japanese Navy that outnumbered it by a prohibitive margin and had aims on closing the trap around Hawaii into a video game – and made an even worse movie than the 1976 version.

Worse still? If there’s a story in American history that’s begging to just be told, it’s Harriet Tubman. Her story is both pretty universally known and completely misunderstood; a gun-toting freedom fighter who defied the entire institution of slavery while running runaways to the North (or, more often, Canada) and returned to run a huge, effective spy ring during the Civil War? One hardly needs a screenplay.

But a screenplay we get – and it’s abominanble:

Set in 1849 Maryland, full of danger, rescues, superstition, frivolous gunplay, and pop-politics, Harriet demonstrates the current exploitation of African-American history, through historical revision, simply to sell tickets while aggravating political identity, tribal separation, and perpetual grievance — the same way that politicians manipulate voters.
Ever since Harvey Weinstein confirmed Hollywood’s Obama Effect, film culture has sought various ways of appeasing racial anxiety through movies about black victimization and white guilt. It’s the new diversity, as one of Harriet’s progressives summarizes: “Civil war is our only hope.”
…The difference in approach tells everything about the modern state of Hollywood race consciousness. Dismissing Demme and Morrison’s perception of slavery’s aftermath (its internalized stress and ongoing need for explanation, relief, and catharsis), Harriet looks at Tubman on a first-name basis, as if to standardize her travails into a Slavery Land thrill ride: She suffers spells after a head wound that causes hallucinations (or prophecies) that may indicate either madness or saintliness; she sacrifices her love life to crusading zeal (the film’s only complex moment occurs when her lover laments, “I’d a died for you. If you’d a let me”); and she frequently sings out her discontent in several message-driven musical interludes: “Sorry I have to leave” and “Lord, why you let me live?”

Even NPR took a pass on it.

Why, it’s almost as if Hollywood doesn’t trust moviegoers to make the right conclusions.

One Place That Ain’t Looking Through Me

About a decade back, I heard an interview on All Things Considered with Sarfraz Manzoor, who’d just come out with his book Greetings from Bury Park – his memoir about growing up as a British-Pakistani in Luton, in the Midlands, and getting immersed in Bruce Springsteen’s music. And I think I sat in the garage for a solid half hour, catching the whole fascinating story; someone who couldn’t have come from a more different culture than me, getting pulled on the same musical and personal odyssey by the same bunch of records.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you can see the grab. Right? I don’t think I need to restate the obvious.

I caught the show the other night.

First things first: This isn’t Mama Mia with Springsteen music. While there is the requisite act of the movie where Manzoor’s fictionalized version of himself, “Javed”, gets the same burst of recogniton while listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, the musical epiphany only opens the door to all sorts of conflict in real life – which, in turn, illuminates all sorts of the musical themes.

Any description of “musical epiphanies” from ones’ teenage years is bound to swerve into the cloying and mawkish at times. Teenagers are cloying and mawkish, and it doesn’t matter what culture they’re from. And so the movie’s occasional short-cuts through plot points, via lyric drops or the occasional borderline production number that might – hell, probably will – come across as cringingly sentimental to the non-belever comes across as cringingly autobiographical to those who’ve (raises hand) been there.

So – did I enjoy the movie? Yes, but that wasn’t my main takeaway. It’s more accurate to say I felt a lot of it in the pit of my stomach. The movie took me back to a lot of things from my teens and twenties, in pretty much the same way Manzoor remembers them. That’s a good thing.

Mostly.

And – no spoilers, here – the music isn’t necessarily the most important point of the movie. There’ll be another post about that before too long.

Cons? Yep, there were a few.

It’d be impossible to do a movie about eighties Britain, especially as a Pakistani, without throwing in some of the politics of the era. And Manzoor’s memories of the era include a lot of the prattle of the anti-Thatcher left – which sounded at the time every bit as intolerent and libelous as Big Left’s cant against conservatives (to say nothing of Trumpkins) today. The infantlism of today’s campus “progressive” seems modeled on the prate and gabble of European lefties of the era. That, and the occasional bout of Thatcher-bashing were to be expected. That wasn’t unexpected, or especially dishonest. On the other hand, the rest of the movie – which imparted a lot of humanity on Manzoor’s very traditional Pakistani family and most of the movie’s other, very disparate characters – had me expecting much better of one of the side-conflicts; when “Javed” met his (inevitably left-wing) love interest’s (inevitably) Tory parents, they were portrayed with all the nuanced humanity of a Joe Piscopo sketch on SNL. It was a throwaway – and the movie would have been better had it been thrown away.

So do I recommend it? If you’re not a Springsteen fan, you may not “get” it. Or then maybe you will. Who knows?

If you are? It’d be interesting to see what you think.

ASIDE: By the way – the movie reminded me that my theory – Springsteen is America’s best conservative songwriter – has been completely vindicated this past year. I suspect this would be to the chagrin of a former regular commenter – but alas we’ll never know.

More coming in the next week.

Unpacking The Invisible NPR Tote Bag

“White Privilege” has been all over the news this last couple of years.

 It’s been there because the Big Left has ordained that it should be.  My theory;  in a nation full of “privilege” – class, racial, academic, social and, let’s be honest, the privilege of being born here rather than Russia or Nigeria or Burma – Big Left needed to focus on racial, “white” privilege to whip up black votes for Hillary Clinton, a geriatric white plutocrat.  As a result, all discussion of other “privilege” is off the table.

Terms, Terms, Everywhere Are Terms: White privilege exists, of course.  It goes hand in hand with the idea of “we-ism” – the idea that everyone on earth is more comfortable around, and accomodating of, people more like them than less.

Beyond that?  In my more sardonic and less cautious days, I defined it as being a descendant of a society from a harsh, lethally inhospitable place that had zero words for “hakuna matata” but more words for “stab him!” than Eskimos have for “snow”; a dour, patriarchal warrior culture that killed everyone that had designs on enslaving them.  As a result, my culture has no commonly-held concept of being enslaved.  We  operate from the standpoint of people who’ve been free (or at least subjects of generally benign monarchs) as far back as our cultural memory goes.  On behalf of all my cultural cousins, I am sorry for those of you who are descended from matriarchal hunter gatherer societies that couldn’t effectively resist the slave merchants, but I can’t change history any more than you can.  Just the present – a present I and my cultural cousins have been trying to change for 240-odd years, now.

More soberly, and after interviewing a representative of Black Lives Matter on my show, I arrived at the idea that “white privilege” is the ability to walk into a room and not have everyone wondering if you’re “one of the good ones”.   It was a little after that that I first encountered the academic paper in which the term “white privilege” was coined, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.   It supplied fifty definitions of white (also male) privilege.

Every one of which, by the way ,translates to “freedom”, “justice” and “being accorded the dignity of being treated as an autonomous individual rather than a member of a group” – all of which are supposed to be values near and dear to our Republic and Western Civilization itself, and all of them things we should be working tirelessly to spread to everyone.

And when some mindless Social Justice Warrior jabbers about “smashing white/male privilege”, the proper response is “so – you want to smash freedom, justice and individual dignity?  See you at the barricades”.

Discussion of all other privileges – academic, social, class – were drowned out.  As they were intended to be.

But with the complete subsumation of the left by identity politics, it’s time to return the favor Peggy McIntosh did us; it’s time to define Urban Progressive Privilege.

Unpacking The Invisible NPR Tote Bag:  I’m going to borrow McIntosh’s format – which I suspect was actually tacitly borrowed from Jeff Foxworthy – of the simple list of attributes of Urban Progressive Privilege.

To wit:


Urban Progressive Privilege; Unpacking the Invisible NPR Tote Bag

Mitch Berg

“You were taught to see Urban Progressive Privilege as a bit of talk show rhetoric – not in terms of a very vislble system conferring dominance on my group via a meritless meritocracy”.   

As an urban progressive, you have been taught about “privilege” by others who have that privilege.  Being able to caterwaul about privilege is a prerogative of the privileged.

Like the concept of “white privilege” (which, conventional wisdom tells us, that “whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege”), the first rule of Urban Progressive Privilege is “I don’t believe there is such a thing”; it’s the water in which the Urban Progressive swims.  So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have Urban Progressive Privilege. I have come to seeUrban Progressive Privilege as an invisible and group package of unearned assets that I can count on using daily, but about which it’s hard to be anything but oblivious.

Urban Progressive Privilege is like an invisible weightless NPR tote bag of special permissions, immunities, secret handshakes, Whole Foods gift cards, a virtual echo chamber accompanying everyone who has that privilege, filtering out almost all cognitive dissonance about political, social or moral questions, and a virtual “cone of silence” immunizing them from liability for anything they say or do that contradicts the group’s stated principles.  As we in Human studies work to reveal Urban Progressive Privilege and ask urban progressives to become aware of their power, so one who writes about havingUrban Progressive Privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

So – when assessing Urban  Progressive Privilege, can you say any of the following?:

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people who believe exactly as I do about politics, society, philosophy, morality and the like, all or nearly all of the time.
  2. I was educated from my earliest years through post-secondary education by people whose political and social beliefs mirrored mine, and who didn’t challenge any of mypolitical, social, philosophical and moral beliefs.
  3. My progressive beliefs were never challenged through four or more years of higher education – indeed, they were reinforced, while competing views were shamed and shouted down.
  4. When I went into the working world, my politics, social background or philosophy were never adversarially questioned.
  5. I work, very likely, in an environment staffed with people who agree with and never challenge my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions.
  6. My social life is made up of people who share, pretty much to a fault, my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptins.
  7. I can avoid, during my daily life, spending time around anyone who will challenge my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions.
  8. My neighbors – the people in my physical community in which I live – share, almost without exception, my political, social, philosophical and moral beliefs.
  9. If someone in  my social or professional life does express a point of view discordant with my and my group’s political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions intrudes into my sphere, I can count on overwhelming support from the rest of my personal, social, professional circles to defend me.  Those who don’t share our beliefs thus either keep quiet, or are shamed into silence.  Thus, their beliefs have no impact in my life. .
  10. My informational world – my news media, my online social circle, my institutional associations (churches/synagogues, my social groups – will not contradict my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions.
  11. I can count on the news media I listen to – my community’s newspapers, TV stations, as well as stereotypical outlets like NPR, PBS and the like – to reinforce my political and social assumptions.
  12. I can count on as the entertainment media not to contradict my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions.
  13. I can count on the education system in my community not to undercut the political, social, philosophical and moral I’ve tried to pass on to my family.
  14. My kids’ schools give them textbooks, lectures and other materials that reinforce, never undercut, my political, social, philosophical and moral worldview and that which I’ve tried to teach them.
  15. I can be fairly certain that when I go to my kids’ school, the principle will not condescend to me based on my perceived academic or social background.
  16. I have never had anyone laugh at the accent or vocabulary of my native spoken English.
  17. I can rest fairly certain that no “well-meaning” pundit or scholar will ever paternalistically castigate me for “voting against my interests” (as determined by the pundit’s / scholar’s political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions) for voting in accordance with my political, social, philosophical and moral beliefs.
  18. I can choose to ignore the parts of our society outside the East Coast, West Coast, and selected “progressive” archipelagos in between, and express not only ignorance but mockery of the rest of the country, without being seen, shamed, and scorned as a provincialist.
  19. I can express scorn for individuals, groups, religions and social classes that don’t share my political, social, philosophical and moral beliefs, accents and worldviews, entirely based on those beliefs, and not be shamed and labeled as a bigot.
  20. I can make racist, sexist and classist statements about people who do not share my community’s political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions, and rest assured I will not be castigated for violating community standards.
  21. I have never been treated as a foreign culture in my own country; I have never had journalists, academics or pundits dispatch a special group to research, analyze and report on why my social circle believes and votes as they do – because the media, academics and punditry are from my class, and share my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions; the more aware ones would be offended by being subjected to such a condescending, patriarchal bit of cultural chauvinism.
  22. My children and family are safe, almost entirely, from the economic, social and criminological  consequences of my political, social, philosophical and moral beliefs; indeed, I personally am almost entirely insulated from them.
  23. I can simultaneously say “I believe in science, and have a fact-based worldview” – while never being corrected, much less called out or scorned, for expressing beliefs that have no scientific basis (belief that there are no evolutionary differences between men and women, believe a human isn’t a human until it emerges from the birth canal, believe that there’s scientific evidence that homosexuality is genetic).
  24. I can simultaneously eschew racism and racists, even as I gang up with others like me to oppress black, latino, asian and females who disagree with my political, social, philosophical and moral assumptions.  I can say things like “That’s not a real, authentic (Black, Latino, Asian) person!” and not get scorned as a racist and patriarch.
  25. I can exhibit ghastly contradictions in my world view and be reasonable sure that nobody in my regular social circle is going to say or do anything about it; if I call someone I disagree with a “fascist” or “patriarch” or “1 percenter” while displaying Che Guevara memorabilia or studiously intoning approval for “Chavezism”, nobody in my social or professional life is going to castigate me for it.
  26. I tut-tut about the virtues of Western civilization and praise Multiculturalism – but do so entirely from a perspective that could not exist outside of Western civilization.  Nobody in my personal or profession or social circles ever brings this up, because they all believe the same thing.

I’m looking for more examples.  Keep ’em generic – not related to any specific issue.   .

Open Letter To Those Who Just Don’t Get It Yet

To:  Some Of You Trump Opponents Out There
From:  Mitch Berg, Ornery Peasant
Re:  Terminology

Dear Hollywood and New York Showbiz and Media “Elites”

As we come up on inauguration day, some of you are still sore about Donald Trump.  I get it.  I mean, I didn’t vote for him, either.

You’d like to pretend he’s not your president.  Yadda yadda.  Whatever.  Gotcha.  It’s a free country (and will stay that way, so quit  your whining), so you can say what you want, and I can mock you for it.  But relax; I’m not mocking you for that.  Not now.

No, this is worse.

It’s come to my attention that some of you Hollywood types are calling yourselves “the Resistance”.

Stop.  Now.

You are among the wealthiest, most privileged, most untouchable residents in one of hte wealthiest, most privileged parts of the wealthiest and free-est society in the world.   You lost an election.  In four years, you’ll get a rematch (although the way you all are going at this point, most of you will stroke out by mid-terms).  And you will get the rematch; there’ll be no dictatorships, no camps, no nothing.  Why, I bet a President Trump won’t even jabber about siccing the Federal Elections on your blogs, or turn a politicized IRS and DHS loose on your political movements, the way Obama did for eight years.  Our democratic process, imperfect as it is, will go on, and if you don’t go full-blown Joan Crawford on us, you might have a shot, again, someday, God help us all.

So stop using – I believe the term these days is “Appropriating” – the term “Resistance”.  That’s a term used by people who had actual skin in the game; the Jews who, as disarmed as you want us all to be, fought back against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto; the Norwegians who overcame the impossible and destroyed the Nazi nuke program; the Polish fighters who rose and took Warsaw, only to be betrayed by one dictator and hunted down like rats by another; the Danes who, the risk of a summary execution hanging over their heads, snuck their nation’s Jews out to safety; people who, with all hope extinguished, still pulled together and rose up and, mostly, died, but gave their tormentors and murders and bloody nose and, in a few cases, against higher odds than Michael Moore winning the NYC Marathon, survived the war to witness against their captors.

Real people, who left behind whatever hadn’t been taken from them, and fought a real enemy who promised to kill them and their families if they failed.

Not overpaid, plushbottom Hollywood prima-donnas upset that they can’t install their choice of president by coup now that the hoi polloi have rejected their candidate.

Here’s my promise to you; call yourselves “the resistance” to my face, and I will spit in yours.

That is all.

The Slogan-Based Life

SCENE:  Mitch BERG is at a hardware store, shopping for a chainsaw sharpener, when around the corner steps Bud GUNKEL, chairman of the CD2 chapter of “Former Republicans for Ron Paul”.  

GUNKEL:  Hey, Merg.  The only way to fix the system is…

BERG:  …yeah, I heard it.  To “withhold your consent from it“.   Feel free to tell the IRS, the BATFE and the Minnesota Department of Revenue you’ve “withheld your consent”; I’m sure everyone will get a good laugh but you.

GUNKEL:  He who would trade freedom for security…

BERG:  …deserves neither.  Good Lord, Bill, do you people ever communicate in anything but the form of clichés?   I mean, do you even know what that means?

GUNKEL:  It means he who would trade liberty for security deserves…

BERG:  …neither.  Yep, I got that.  Again.  I mean, have you thought through what it means?

GUNKEL:   What are you talking about?  What else could there be?

BERG:  Here’s another quote for you; without order, prosperity is impossible.  Without prosperity, liberty is pointless.

GUNKEL:  So you’d give up…

BERG:  …no, no, no, stop right there.   Here’s a quote back atcha; without order, prosperity is impossible.

GUNKEL:  So you want to be like a herd animal…

BERG:  No.  “Order” is a very broad term!   It just means that there’s a general understanding that everyone is playing by the same rules, and that if you bring you product to market, there’ll be consequences for people who try to steal it on the way to the market, or swindle you when they get there.

“Order” can mean “a voluntary agreement that whose end of, everyone holds up”, like the anarchists say; that’s perfectly legitimate.  And it can mean full-blown Danish bureaucracy regulating the transaction, or a medieval baron making sure everyone upholds their end of the bargain for the good of his fiefdom.   And the whole American experiement was built around the idea that order should be maintained with the minimum amount of government and force possible – while allowing for the inevitability, given human nature, that some was likely to be needed at some point.

GUNKEL:  So you mean government!  Government is theft!  Nothing but!

BERG:  Sure, if you let it get out of control.  And we in the US largely have, and that’s a very valid discussion to have.  But the fact is, human nature being what it is, it’s inevitable that if the means of keeping order disappear, while 99% of the people will be just fine, there’s that 1% who’ll decide that what they want is what you got.  It can be a mugger, it can be those accursed Methodists, it can be that whole group of people over the ridge that think your ancestors stole from their ancestors, whatever.

GUNKEL:  So you’re a warvangelical?

BERG:  No – I merely observe human nature.  As I observed in my book, while the vast majority of humans are perfectly content to live and work and produce and interact peacefully, there are some that prefer to take what others produce.  It’s just easier.

GUNKEL: So  you’d give up freedom for thirteen pieces of silver?

BERG:  Wow – way to mix milieus.  Here’s another quote for you:  without prosperity, freedom is irrelevant.  If you don’t have prosperity – if you’re a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer – “freedom” is a very relative thing.  You’re free to speak and worship and assemble – but you’re busy seeing to your survival from dawn to dusk, year-round, like a medieval fyrd.  Which means not only are your more abstruse freedoms irrelevant, but you have neither the time nor the energy to see to things like prosperity and order – making you ripe pickings for anyone who wants to take what you’ve worked for.  And this time you’ll have no surplus to see to your very survival!   Which is, by the way, a condition that also makes you ripe pickings for whomever would call himself your king, either against your will or, as tired and close to starvation as you are by this point, with your full consent.

GUNKEL:  So you will trade freedom for security!  Hah!

BERG:  You make it sound like a binary, black or white thing.

GUNKEL:  It is!    If you don’t have all the freedom, you have none of it!

BERG:   That’s just madness.  You say because the American people have given up some freedom, we’re no different than North Korea?

And no.  I won’t trade my freedom, all or nothing, for security – not while I have anything to say about it.   I will, as a constituent of a limited government that has a few carefully-enumerated jobs, engage some agents to keep the order we all need.  And no more.

GUNKEL:  That’s not how government works today!

BERG:  You’re telling me!  Y’see, that’s the problem with “libertarians”; they take poli-sci class absolutes and try to apply them to the real world.   So I’ll do it back atcha:  without prosperity, freedom is academic; without order, prosperity is impossible.  Therefore, without order, paradoxically, freedom is impossible.

GUNKEL:  So you say freedom is impossible?

BERG:   Nope.  I am saying that while absolute tyranny is very possible, absolute freedom cannot exist in a world where others have the “will to power” to become tyrants.

There is a trade-off; it’s the job of a free people to simultaneously see to the order that enables the prosperity that makes freedom possible, and make sure the “order” they create doesn’t become oppressive.

GUNKEL:  All involuntary order is oppressive!

BERG:  So you throw off a “government” that governs by consent of the governed…

GUNKEL:  Yes!

BERG:   And live in a world with only “gentlemens agreements” for order…

GUNKEL:  Yes!

BERG:   So that you can be conquered or killed by someone who took advantage of the fact that you have no means to see to public order?

GUNKEL:  Er…yes!  Better dead than…er…

BERG:  Naturally.

And SCENE

Film Review: “The Overnighters”

I went to the Saint Anthony Main theatre on Friday night for a showing of The Overnighters.

It’s a good movie.  It’s worth seeing.

But it’s more complicated than that.

The Punched Social Ticket:  In reporting on life and the people in the Square States (aka “Flyover Land”), our culture’s self-appointed elites have a fairly consistent three-part narrative:

  • Prosperity in the square states is at least a bad thing:  at worst, it’s an unmitigated tragedy.
  • People in Flyover Land are conservative in all the wrong ways:  Whether it be a staid, stolid “that’s not how we do it here” to a cripping setness in one’s ways to a harsh, unforgiving bigotry, the Square States are like Deliverance Lite in the eyes of our coastal cultural elites.
  • Faith in general, but especially Christianity, is always a veneer over boundless depravity: Christians, in the narrative, are deluded and usually bigoted dullards at best; hypocritical unto evil at worst.  The notion of redemption is always exposed as a toxic lie in the end.

Keep those narrative points in mind through this review.

We’ll come back to that.

Baggage:  Before I get to reviewing anything, let me be up front; I have a chip on my shoulder.

I grew up in a place that barely qualified as a cultural punchline for most of its history; a place famous for durum wheat and George Armstrong Custer and scary fringe characters and Minuteman missiles and the nastiest blizzards in America, and not much else.  A place that some don’t believe exists, that some have tried to abolish and cede back to nature (before all that oil), that still provokes a lot of ignorant babble from “cultural elites” and newbies alike.

And when I was getting established in the big city, almost thirty years ago, it wasn’t a long trip for a lot of people from “you’re from a punch line” to “you are a punch line”.

And pushing against that turned into a hot ball of rage that kept me warm on many a cold night in my twenties.

That, like the narrative, will return to this review.

Hopeless Opportunity:   The film is set in Willison, North Dakota.  It’s the epicenter of the oil boom.  Ten years ago, Williston had maybe 8,000 residents; today, it’s probably pushing 30,000, and nobody’s sure about that.

The movie’s protagonist – and for the first 90 minutes or so, hero – is Pastor Jay Reinke, minister at Concordia Lutheran Church in Willison.  We see at the beginning of the movie that Reinke is busy running an ad hoc program – the eponymous “Overnighters” – to provide shelter for people who are new to Williston and have noplace to stay.

It’s frequently a tough battle.  While North Dakota’s job market is smoking hot, it’s also more expensive to rent an apartment in Williston than in New York or San Francisco.   Property values and rents have risen to the point where some locals, especially people on fixed incomes, can’t afford to live there anymore.

And the job market’s not great for everyone; Reinke sadly informs an older black man who just got off the train that the oil fields are a young man’s trade, with brutal work and long hours and very difficult physical conditions.  For others – truck drivers – background checks trip them up.

In fact, if you didn’t look carefully, you would miss the parts where the filmmakers acknowledge the fact that the oilfields, overall, have a crippling labor shortage and that the unemployment rate is half the national average, and that Williston is a place where people with high school diplomas and (as one new arrival, a black man with a Chicago accent, notes on a cell phone) people with multiple felonies can make six-figure salaries.

It’s an acknowledgement, of sorts – a drive-by, if you will.  But beyond that?

The movie’s website says (emphasis added):

In the tiny town of Williston, North Dakota, tens of thousands of unemployed hopefuls show up with dreams of honest work and a big paycheck under the lure of the oil boom. However, busloads of newcomers chasing a broken American Dream step into the stark reality of slim work prospects and nowhere to sleep. The town lacks the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants, even for those who do find gainful employment.

Grapes of what?

You’d think they were moving to Detroit or Camden.

To assert otherwise would be to break the narrative; there is no real prosperity.  There’s just bitter, broken people serving the monstrous, otherworldly oil rigs that loom on every horizon.

The movie follows several of Reverend Reinke’s “overnighters” – men who had spent time camping out at Concordia; a young guy from Wisconsin who starts at the bottom and soon moves his way up to a supervising position and an RV; a black truck driver from parts unknown; a hopeless electrician from Georgia; a former meth addict from somewhere down South; an enigmatic and very intense New Yorker who leaves thematic elements dangling like ripped-out telephone wires.

And all of them, every last one, leaves Williston a broken man; the young Wisconsinite, driving while exhausted, rolls his truck and ends up with a broken vertebra; the electrician’s wife, lonely and overworked with the kids, demands he return home or else; the truck driver flunks a background check and walks away, embittered with Reverend Reinke.  And the latter two?

That gets into spoiler territory.

Not Invented Here:  Reinke starts out as a fairly unadorned hero; a plainspoken, very Lutheran-looking man who seems to be doing a superhuman job serving as minister, homeless shelter operator, counselor and rescuer.  At the beginning of the film, it appears his biggest enemy is Willison’s status quo; a city council that’s maneuvering to curb the Overnighter program; neighbors that are alarmed at all the new people coming to the church and working their way up the hierarchy (they usually start out sleeping in cars in the parking lot, at least in the mild summer weather at the beginning of the film; then they move up to floor space in the hall; then, finally, a cot in the fellowship hall).

The other glimpses we see of the locals are straight out of central casting; city councilpeople intoning their reservations, locals outraged about their status quo being upset; I was almost surprised John Lithgow didn’t come to the City Council and demand a ban on dancing.

Truth be told, outside the congregation and City Hall and the central casting Small Town Regulars, we see very little of Willison; neighbors that Reinke canvasses to try to reassure them about his charges; a newspaper publisher and his greasy, slimy reporter; one farm woman who, burned by a man who’d rented RV space before relapsing into methamphetamine, greeted Reinke and his film crew with a hunting rifle and a broomstick.

And then comes the word that some of the men have “sex offender” on their background checks.  And the movie’s third act begins.

Faith No More:   I’m going to try to walk the thin line between spoiling and reviewing, here.

Reverend Reinke, it turns out, falls short of his Christian ideals, as a believer and a minister.

On the way there, of course, we find that nobody was saved.  The unemployable are still unemployed.  The homeless end up with noplace to live.  The unredeemed, aren’t.

I say “of course” because that is the cultural elites’ narrative these days; faith is beyond futility; it is absurdity.  A few of the plucky heroes whom Reverend Reinke “saved” earlier in the film turned out to be pretty spectacularly un-saved.

All that is good in the movie turns out to be “good” – in sarcastic scare quotes.

Including – no spoilers, here – Reverend Reinke himself.

Every single person in the movie ends up, on one level or another, destroyed.

Expectations: Now, I don’t mean to say The Overnighters isn’t an excellent bit of storytelling.  It is.

And I’m not saying it’s not worth seeing, if you get the chance; it is.  The cinematography is absolutely glorious.  The editing and pacing and the storytelling itself is enthralling.  If I had to give it a rating, I’d say “Four stars, and I didn’t like it”.

Because truth be told, I walked into the movie fully expecting:

  1. Prosperity to be shown as a curse (or a mirage),
  2. North Dakotans to be depicted as clenched, bigoted caricatures, and
  3. Faith, the Church and its people to be shown up as frauds, hypocrites and hollow shells of sanctimony (or, at best, people whose flaws overwhelm and overshadow all good about them).

And I expected it because – the guy for whom the little ball of rage still burns deep down inside tells me – that’s the way it’s always been.  From the intelligentsia’s chortling about “Buffalo Commons” a decade ago, to MPR’s tut-tutting about all that unseemly prosperity on the Plains, to the NYTimes’ Gail Collins giggling her idiot giggle about having no place to shop and waiting in line at the Williston McDonalds, The Overnighters is an excellent story that fits squarely, unsurprisingly and predictably within the narrative.

It’s exactly what I expected.

And I wasn’t disappointed – or, put another way, I was deeply disappointed.

On A Rattlesnake Light Rail ‘cross The Hiawatha Desert

SCENE:  It’s 1985.  Mitch BERG – just out of college, hair waving in the breeze  and his elbow resting on the sill of his open driver’s side window – barrels down North Dakota Highway 200 at 85 miles per hour in his 1973 Chevy Monte Carlo.  Over the deafening racket of his small-block 350 engine (whose muffler fell off some time earlier, to BERG’s penurious horror but aesthetic delight) a boom box with a cigarette-lighter adaptor blasts  a cassette of John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow.   The Monte Carlo, covered in rust to the point where the driver’s side door panel flaps in the slipstream, wobbles and loudly grinds during BERG’s rare applications of brake.  But it’s a beautiful summer day in east-central North Dakota. 

BERG, dressed in a plain white v-neck T-shirt, an army-surplus dungaree shirt  and black straight-leg jeans, has a filterless Chesterfield dangling from his lip.  The coal on the end of the cigarette glows as BERG draws in a puff – and then almost instantly blows it out into the slipstream, studiously avoiding any inhalation.   In the back of the car are three guitar cases, a Fender amplifier, and two duffel bags full of clothes.

Suddenly, he notices a blueish smoke cloud in the distance.  He squints, tosses the half-smoked cigarette out onto the roadway, and shuts off the cassette. 

Gradually, he makes out the shape of a 1979 Subaru wagon.  It is parked outside the access road to a Minuteman missile silo, which sits about 200 yards north of the two-lane highway, encircled in chain link fence and razor wire.  A lone figure climbs out of the Subaru.   As BERG slows to a stop by the Subaru, we recognize a much-younger Avery LIBRELLE.  LIBRELLE’s car is festooned with anti-nuclear bumper stickers; the cargo area and back seat are crammed with signs demanding an immediate nuclear freeze, and declaring you can’t hug children with nuclear arms.  The Subaru, idling, continues to belch blue smoke. 

BERG pulls into the access road and brakes the Chevy to a stop by LIBRELLE’s car in a squall of metallic grinding, indicating the rotors and shoes direly need repair and replacement.   He turns off the engine, and the prairie is silent, but for the wind. 

BERG:  Hey – what’s up?  Something wrong with your car?

LIBRELLE:  Er…no?

BERG:  Well, it looks like you’ve had a bit of a fire. 

LIBRELLE:  What makes you say that? 

BERG:  Um…the smoke cloud?  It looks like a grass fire cominig across the prairie.  And it smells like burning oil… 

LIBRELLE:  Huh.  Haven’t seen anything.  And I think Subarus come from the factory like that.  Everyone in Minneapolis has ’em. 

BERG:  Huh.  OK – well, it looked like you needed some help…

LIBRELLE: Oh, I do!  I do!  I need people to carry these signs (points to stack of hundreds of Nuclear Freeze signs in the back of car) to protest the US Military’s race to armageddon, and demand that we allow the peaceful leadership of the Soviet Union to co-exist with the peace-loving people of the earth!  Which is all they want!

BERG:  And you came up here from Minneapolis…

LIBRELLE:  …looking for people to protest with me.

BERG:  And how’s that going for you?

LIBRELLE: Not great, so far. 

BERG:  Huh.  Well, people around here have a lot on their minds.  There’s  farm crisis going on, and most of the locals are trying to hang on and survive.  And most of ’em pretty much support the Air Force, anyway…

LIBRELLE:  So I’m finding out.  But you’ll help (LIBRELLE grabs a sign hopefully)

BERG:  No, no, sorry – I just thought you were, y’know, on fire or something.  I’m actually moving to the Twin Cities. 

LIBRELLE:  Oh, yeah?  Why?

BERG:  Well, I just graduated with a BA in English, and I want to be a writer and a musician, and there’s no much opportunity for that here.  In fact, there’s not much opportunity at all around here.  Job market’s kinda slow even for diesel mechanics and custom combiners, to say nothing of tortured starving would-be artists.  So I’m going to move to Minneapolis to try my luck at…well, writing, or technical writing, or music, or something.  Anything, really.  I have no idea what I’m gonna do.   I just know that unless they, I dunno, strike oil or something… (both BERG and LIBRELLE chuckle at the absurdity) …it’s never gonna happen here for me.  This place is never gonna be an economic powerhouse.

LIBRELLE:  But you can live the ideal life out here!  Be a hunter-gatherer!  Be in touch with the land! 

BERG: Er, no.  Looking for…

LIBRELLE:  The train!

BERG:  Huh?

LIBRELLE:  They’re going to build a light rail train down Hiawatha Avenue from downtown to the Airport!   They tore down all the buildings along Hiawatha Avenue twenty years ago to make way for it, and it’s going to get built any day now!

BERG:  Er, OK (starting to fidget)

LIBRELLE:  You’re a creative who’s moving to Minneaoplis because of the train!

BERG:  Um, what now?

LIBRELLE:  Mass transit!  It’s what draws creatives to the city!  

BERG:  Er, no.  That’s what I have a car for.  No, I’m moving there for opportunity – a chance at doing some things that really only occur in major cities.  I mean – huh?  Moving somewhere because there’s  a train?  Thats just weird

LIBRELLE:  Lalalalalalalalalalalalala!   The Met Council has spoken!  LALALALALALA!  (LIBRELLE grabs a Nuclear Freeze sign and hands it to BERG)

(BERG takes the sign, throws it into the front seat of his car, and starts the engine, which roars in unmuffled glory).

LIBRELLE (Starts to picket the missile silo)  No More Nukes!  No More Nukes!

BERG:  (Yelling over the din from his engine).  Hey, you know there aren’t actually any people in that silo, right?   That’s just where the missile is.   The people are in the command silo, which is somewhere else…

LIBRELLE: (Yelling back over the din):  Yes, I know there’s a feeble line of reasoning for fissile weapons.  A feeble line they don’t believe themselves…

BERG (Yelling):  No, er…yeah.  Yeah, that’s it. 

(BERG steps on the gas.  The Monte Carlo accelerates, as BERG turns the cassette deck back on). 

(And SCENE)

This Hard Land

Note to all you folks thinking of moving to North Dakota to start cashing in on the oil boom:  North Dakota is cold.  

There aren’t a lot of trees.  And outside of the eight or nine significant-sized cities (Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Devil’s Lake, Bismark/Mandan, Minot, Williston, Dickinson, and maybe Valley City), there just aren’t a whole lot of people. 

More below the jump, so the rest of the page can load…

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Tragedy On A Dimmer Switch

The nation wracks itself in grief – justifably – over the deaths of 20-odd children in Connecticut.  I’d shudder to meet the monsters that don’t recoil in horror and outrage.

I’m  struck, though, by the lack of outrage over the carnage in President Obama’s home town, the town run by the machine that put him in office, the city run by his former Chief of Staff.

In Chicago, since 2008, 622 children have been murdered.  That’s almost thirty Sandy Hook classrooms full of kids.  They didn’t have the “luck” to look, largely, just like the children of our nation’s “elite”, our media, business and wonk classes – white, exurban, upper-middle-class.  The died in ones and twos, not in a bloody pile that became a media feeding frenzy.  They weren’t killed by children of privilege, shot by weapons that the dominant political class was trying to turn into a boogeyman and political wedge; they were mostly murdered by their neighborhoods’ own criminal underclass, carrying mundane, mostly-stolen pistols and illegally-modified shotguns, almost none of them by any “assault weapon” anyone would recognize.

No – they’re mostly black and latino.  They’re mostly from poor families, students at Chicago’s wretched public schools.  And they live – lived – in a city that has been the American left’s social laboratory for the better part of a century.  And they died in a city that is a fully-owned subsidiary of the American left, and a key part of its national power base, and a place that has made it harder for the law-abiding citizen to buy guns than to buy crack, heroin or a hooker. A city that trumpets the ambitions – and exhibits the failures – of everything American “progressivism” stands for.

They’re minority, they’re poor, they’re rhetorical guinea pigs in America’s biggest leftist lab.

And they’re dying at the rate of seven or eight classrooms-full a year – not on one horrible bloody Friday, but every year, for years past and for years to come.

And outside their communities, their families, their neighborhood’s churches?  They die anonymously.

And there is the American left’s concern for “the children”.

So let’s do make sure that’s part of the “Conversation about Guns”, shall we?

Stay Hard, Stay Hungry, Stay Alive If You Can

I got an email from MPR the other day.  It was actually a combo email from MPR News and “The Current” asking what song we thought best summed up the state of the nation during this election season.

I wrote back with my suggestion – a song that has layer upon layer of significance to our nation, our society, our zeitgeist and the election itself.  A song that’s all about dreaming a big dream, and having those dreams run up on the rocks, and hitting that moment where you have to think “was that a dream or was it a mirage?”.  A song about that moment when you have to decide – do I drown, or do I sack up and carry on?

A song about truth and consequences.  A song that, on a work week after a long trip across the prairie, reminds me of the huge swathe in the middle of this country, the square states full of bitter gun-clinging jebus freaks like me that are, in fact, my home and background and blood and my past.  And that is, with a blessing and a tailwind, may be our nation’s future.

The song is “This Hard Land” by Bruce Springsteen.

It’s a song he wrote during a John Steinbeck jag, for Born in the USA, and that should have been on the album (be honest – would anyone miss “Downbound Train?”) and was in its day one of the most sought-after bootlegs in Springsteen’s oeuvre.

So many layers to this song, and to the reasons I chose it.

First verse?

Hey there mister can you tell me what happened to the seeds Ive sown

Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown

They’ve just blown around from town to town

Till they’re back out on these fields

Where they fall from my hand

Back into the dirt of this hard land

Thomas Hobbes, the 18th-century British intellectual who was one of the patron saints of conservatism as we understand it today, couldn’t have expressed better the fundamental conservative ideal that “life’s a bitch”, that there are forces that are bigger and more powerful than men and their dreams.

But well return to that.

Now me and my sister from germantown

We did ride

We made our bed sir from the rock on the mountainside

We been blowin around from town to town

Lookin for a place to stand

Where the sun burst through the cloud

To fall like a circle

Like a circle of fire down on this hard land

America is a land of myths.  Mostly big and glorious ones – like the ones that drew our forefathers, like the singer and his sister, from their old homes, the Germantowns and Norwayvilles and Saigon Centers, to This Hard Land.   Much of what America sees as its own self-image – whether the wilderness of the Badlands or the wilderness of the tradiing floor or the inventors garage or the moon or the neighborhood or the entrenched beliefs of the human heart – is about the epic American dream of going where your ancestors have never gone before, of being something they weren’t.

And over the past seventy years, it’s become about the marketing of those dreams, whether via John Wayne or “Hope and Change”.

But like all dreams – and their cousins, the myth and the chimera – they run afoul a brutal reality:

Now even the rain it don’t come round

It don’t come round here no more

And the only sound at nights the wind

Slammin the back porch door

It just stirs you up like it wants to blow you down

Twistin and churnin up the sand

Leavin all them scarecrows lyin face down

Face down in the dirt of this hard land

The prairie is dotted with the remains of old farm homes from families that just didn’t make it, flindered remains of their back doors still slamming in the wind.  Just as America is dotted with businesses that tried and failed, leaving behind empty buildings, rusty frames, doors drifting back and forth in the desultory breeze.  And yes, the wreckage of government initiatives like the one that’s dominated our political life this past presidential term, a dream – a chimera from a brief majority four years ago – of an undertaking that, despite the fervency of its dreamers’ beliefs, has failed as completely as the sodbuster in the song.  Whether through poor design, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being fundamentally wrong or – like the singer and his sister – just from suffering a bad run of luck in the face of a merciless and uncaring Nature, all of human existence is a tough grind dominated by forces we don’t, by ourselves, control.

Being human, we attempt to control them anyway – to bring order to the chaos, and to tame the untameable:

 From a building up on the hill

I can hear a tape deck blastin’ “Home on the Range”

I can see them Bar-M choppers

Sweepin’ low across the plains

Its me and you, Frank, we’re lookin for lost cattle

Our hooves twistin and churnin up the sand

Were ridin in the whirlwind searchin for lost treasure

Way down south of the Rio Grande

Were ridin cross that river

In the moonlight

Up onto the banks of this hard land

It’s human nature to try to bottle up and contain Nature, whether the nature around us or the nature inside us.

And it’s one of the great dividing lines in human nature, the one between those who are content for their “home on the range” to come recorded, to have the almighty Bar-M or The Almighty  or The One out looking for the strays, for those who are just fine being Julia“…

…and those whose dreams, or mirages, embrace the chaos that ensues where life and Nature, natural and human, are in conflict.

And the last verse is for them:

Hey frank wont ya pack your bags

And meet me tonight down at liberty hall

Just one kiss from you my brother

And we’ll ride until we fall

Well sleep in the fields

Well sleep by the rivers and in the morning

Well make a plan

Well if you can’t make it

Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive

If you can

And meet me in a dream of this hard land

Whether it’s the pioneer seeking more elbow room from all the other settlers and their choppers and tape decks, or from bouncing back from a failure, or a big part of a nation taking a deep breath and saying “this is not the path we want”, or, I dunno, Atlas shrugging for all I know, this verse – with allusions to Okies loading up their trucks and bidding their relatives goodbye, or immigrants climbing on the boat and wishing their old lives auf wiedersehen, or men kissing their wives and kids and mustering down at Liberty Hall as the drums and the hobnails rattle on the wind, or a people saying “thanks, Julia, and all the best to you and that mysterious niece and/or nephew that appeared a few frames back, but I’m looking for something a little more…epically mythical” – is the American myth; the idea that we are a restless pack of strivers looking for a newer, better, freer horizon.

Beyond that, in terms of politics today?  Every generation dreams of leaving a better world to their kids, as I do for my kids and my new granddaughter. We have a distinct chance, as things go, of leaving them a world that my ancestors in the Dust Bowl would look at and whisper “there but for the grace of God…”.  And unlike the the Okies, our immigrant forefathers and protagonist in “This Hard Land”, this time there’s noplace to ride away to to start over.  We’re stuck with this hard land.

For me, the song also is further evidence that Springsteen – my favorite American R&R songwriter since Johnny Cash – is America’s best conservative songwriter. Looking at his prime output from the height of his muse, there’s a case to be made that once you peel off the rhetoric and the Hollywood and the political dross of the past decade, his music was fundamentally conservative.  And I’ll make the case, since American conservatism’s most important non-electoral mission is to engage in this nation’s larger non-political culture.

More on this after the election.

Anyway – ask a question, you’ll get an answer.  Usually.

UPDATE:  Hobbes, not Hume.  Sigh.  It’s been a few years.

UPDATE 2:  Welcome, Bob Collins’ readers!

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Art Of Valor

I went with the Morrisseys to see “Act Of Valor” last Saturday.  You’ve probably heard about it; it’s the movie ostensibly about Navy SEALs starring, well, Navy SEALs.

The film’s gotten mixed reviews from the usual film-critic suspects.  Some point to the quality of the acting (while there are a few C-list actors playing terrorists, CIA agents and government officials, everyone in a US uniform is a serviceperson, mostly active-duty SEALs); others say that the script swerves from simplistic to outright jingo; some call it a “recruiting film”.

But it’s gone over gangbusters with the critics that really matter, the audience; it crushed the (admittedly lackluster) competition to be the top-grossing movie  in the country in its first weekend out, the weekend before last.

I don’t go to a lot of movies – the last two I saw in a theatre during their first runs were True Grit and, before that, Gran Torino.  But I figured it was worth a quick review.

First, A Minor Quibble:  There are few things I find as tedious as people who pick over otherwise-watchable movies looking for continuity errors.  There are entire sites devoted to the practice – and beyond the few really obvious howlers, the practice bores me stiff.

That said, there was one error that stuck in my craw – and maybe mine alone, among people who were not in the Navy.  After the initial raid into Costa Rica (I won’t give any spoilers), the “LT” – the commander of the SEAL platoon that stars in the movie – is standing on the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard, an “Amphibious Assault Ship” built to carry Marines and their helicopters (and the odd Harrier jump jet) to wherever they need to attack.  It looks like an aircraft carrier – and it literally is, in that it carries aircraft, in the form of helicopters and vertical take-off aircraft.

But in the scene after the raid, the “LT” is standing on the deck, talking with his wife on a satellite phone; he has to wait while an airplane (an S3 Viking antisubmarine patrol plane) gets shot off the deck by a steam catapult; think the opening sequences in Top Gun.  The scene ends with a long-shot of the Richard, its deck covered in choppers, and not a fixed-wing plane in sight – because the ship has no catapult to launch big fixed-wing planes.

It’s a minor quibble – but we North Dakotans are a seafaring race, and we take our ships seriously.

Next, A Major And Overlooked Spiff:  The cinematography is amazing.  Many have written about the  helmet-cam perspective shots during the firefights, so I expected heart-pounding, heavy-breathing first-person point of view shots.

But the rest of the movie is visually stunning on many levels.  The direction of action shots above and beyond the firefights is amazing; a scene where someone is being rolled into a carpet is not only edited with a blurry crispness that conveys the blurry confusion of the moment, but includes a shot from a rolling camera to complete the disorientation

The just-plain-cinematography – from the visual feasts of the Costa Rican jungle or the streets in the Philippines to the claustrophobic-yet-panoramic night fight scenes – was excellent, and often stunning.  If it weren’t for all the suicide bombs and exploding heads, parts of the movie could be shot for “Planet Earth”.

And visually speaking, it all comes together in one scene, where a bunch of drug-cartel sicarios who’ve been chasing the SEALS through the jungle wind up on the business end of a couple of boat-mounted miniguns during an incredibly adrenaline-blast exfiltration scene.  Between the cinematography, the film and sound editing and the direction, it’s an incredible visual of the mayhem on the business end of all that firepower; it’s an amazing bit of visual art, and I don’t mean that from an “America F**k Yeah!” or a “firepower pr0n” perspective.  Realistic?  I don’t know, I’ve never seen three miniguns hit a pickup truck.  Visually overpowering?  You bet.

The Acting: I’d heard all the stories, pro and con, about the movie’s “stars”, the SEALs (all credited pseudonymously, none of whom appear on the movie’s IMDB page) and their acting chops.

I’ve got three answers.

First – the goal of great acting is to make you forget you’re watching a performance.   Did the SEALs make me forget?  Yes and no.  There were scenes – mostly when the SEALs are off-duty and waxing colloquial – when you’re acutely aware that they’re saying lines from a script.  A few scenes play like high school theatre.  Not bad high school theatre, mind you – it takes a decent director to get things as close as they are.  I drove home thinking “if the movie were an indy film at Sundance about barristas in Seattle confronting their sexual confusion at an “Occupy” protest, starring real barristas, it’d be hailed as fearless and daring cinema”.

But – secondly, and perhaps obviously? – it was the scenes involving the SEALs plying their craft, doing the sort of things that in real life would send the most grizzled Hollywood stunt veteran running to his union to file a work rules grievance, that most made you forget you were watching a performance because, really, you weren’t.  The battle scenes, shot with a buzzy combination of traditional shots and rattly helmet-cam footage and edited to a modern sheen, tightly-edited enough to make Paris Hilton and Rosanne Barr look kinetic?  Sure, of course.

But if you’ve spent your life watching Hollywood action-adventure and war movies, with their somersaults and John Woo gun grips and all the other cliches that have grown up around the genre, one thing that impresses about the SEALs in the battle scenes is the extreme economy of their action.  There’s none of the dashing and Jackie-Chan-like somersaulting and pseudo-ninja buncombe of so many Hollywood movies on the subject;  my impression wasn’t so much “this is accurate” as “this looks real”.  There’s a difference.

The third bit about the acting is related.  There’s an interrogation scene – I won’t spoil it – starring the “Senior Chief”, the intelligence analyst of the platoon, an older SEAL (late forties, I’d guess) who has settled into middle age in the same way a rattlesnake settles into a cave; of the entire SEAL platoon, he, whoever he is, radiates the most effortless menace, with his grandfatherly (or Taliban-impersonating-ly) beard and his arklahoma accent and sense that he’s not trying to radiate anything.  He interrogates a suspect – again, no spoilers.  I joked with Ed afterward that the scene played like a community theatre production of 24.  I meant it as a compliment; as the Senior Chief drawls through his lines, there was also the acute sense that he wasn’t performing; that he knew the psychology behind what he was doing at a level that goes way deeper than Stanislavsky could ever teach.  He said his lines plenty capably; but he lived the role.  And while the scene took  some dramatic license – it took about five minutes, rather than the days or months it would have taken in real life – it was very, very effective.

Jingo – There are those – mostly on the left in Hollywood – who deride the movie as a “Navy recruiting film”.   There’s something to that; the closing credits are very, very long on people with ranks and billets in various Navy Public Affairs offices.  And Tom Clancy gets a producer-level credit.  Still, Obama-supporting Hollywood shouldn’t complain; since the President has both based his strategy on having lots of SEALs and other special operations forces while simultaneously cutting the regular militaries from whence those troops come, they’d best hope it works.

Beyond that, though?  As imperfect and occasionally mawkish as the film may seem to the jaded film fan’s eyes, it’s not Top Gun, or Rambo, much less Charlie Sheen’s Navy Seals.  There is a resemblance to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan; all of them pay homage in their own way to a “greatest generation”.  The closing crawl broadly refers to all manner of those who risk all for others, and for all the rest of us – everyone from firemen to fighter pilots to lifeguards.

But I thought – what’s the perfect film analog?  And in thinking of the movie’s “narration” – by “The Chief”, a real-life chief petty officer who is the platoon’s second in command – it occurred to me. not since John Wayne’s The Green Berets has there been a movie that unequivocally held up the “Warrior Ethos” – duty, honor, sacrifice for a greater good – as unironically good things.

And even that wasn’t quite right.

The narration is the bookend for the movie – and to a life-long civilian, it almost sounds like something from a cartoon, at first.  “My father told me the worst part of getting old was that people stopped seeing you as dangerous”, it starts.  But as it dissolves into the movie’s opening scenes, and then wraps back in at the end, as a paeon not to “appearing dangerous” – which is, itself, counterintuitive to most people today – but to the even more counterintuitive-to-our-culture notion of an almost-monastic dedication to something the rest of the culture considers distasteful, foreign, or just something for others to do, whether that something is going into burning buildings, repairing people in inner-city emergency rooms, or going where the bad guys are and killing them quickly and violently.

And then I figured out why it was so hard to find a movie since the mid-sixties that so unironically exalted that way of life; because there really hasn’t been one.

The Conductor

It was a chilly, rainy night in March of 1983.

I had a horrible cold – but no matter.  I was standing on a riser in a tumbledown little church in Pendelton, Oregon, with 69 or so other college kids.   And by this time in the tour, cooped up on buses for day after day, most of us were sharing colds.

I had just finished a brisk walk up to the stage for the second of three sets of the evening’s performance.  It was our seventh or eighth concert in as many days and nights.

The house lights dimmed, and the stage lights came up, blotting the audience from view.  We focused on the conductor’s podium, where presently a guy in a formal tuxedo climbed onstage.  His cheeks were puffy and red, but his eyes were clear and sharp- “fierce”, I’d say, if the fashion industry hadn’t so devalued the word.  He smiled -partly greeting, partly saying “can you keep up with me?”

He lifted his hands, and brought them down.  And we sang – launching a capella and without fanfare directly into “Have Ye Not Known/Ye Shall Have A Song”, two movements from Randall Thompson’s oratorio “The Peaceable Kingdom”, a piece lifted from Isaiah 40:21:

Have ye not known?

Have ye  not heard?

Hath it not been told you from the beginning?

Hath it not been told from the foundations of the earth?

(Here’s a high school choir doing it).

I sang my part, nestled into the midst of seventy college kids who, for a couple of hours, felt like a single organism that was much better than the sum of our parts, as the conductor – listed on the program as Dr. Richard Harrison Smith, and never anything else – wrung the last little bit of execution, passion and yes, joy out of the evening.

And while I didn’t dare make any facial expression, or even take my eyes off the podium, I smiled inside.

———-

I remember “Dick” Smith, as my dad always called him, probably about the same time he moved to Jamestown, ND.  He and his family – his daughters, Kristin and twins Karen and Kathryn, all about my age – came by our old house in Jamestown, along with his wife, June, who’d just been hired as Dad’s colleague in the Jamestown High School English department.   Smith had just taken over the music department at Jamestown College, after earning a PhD in music and an MA in Biochemistry.  I wonder sometimes if academia today would know what to make of a guy like him.

But  I was years away from knowing any of this.  I was six years old.

Now, if there’s one thing people in small college towns appreciate – or appreciated, in those days before the internet and ubiquitous TV and travel – it’s whatever scraps of culture they can get.  And Dr. Smith quickly started producing some amazing culture.

In town, we noticed this mostly from the college’s annual Christmas concerts – which morphed from sleepy little affairs into six-night runs with choir, concert band and elaborate production, lighting and sets, that drew packed houses and TV coverage.  Packing into the college’s Voorhees Chapel, to the smell of pine boughs and scorched gels, is one of the most potent memories of Christmas as a child.

Unbeknownst to me – because I was years away from caring about such things – Dr. Smith, starting in 1969, built the JC Concert Choir into one of the premiere college choirs in the United States.  One review from the seventies – and no, I couldn’t find it if I tried – placed JC’s choir among the top three small-college choirs in the US – in the same league as the legendary St. Olaf Choir, in the (choir geeks will know this) Christenson era.    In 1972, the Jamestown College choir became the first American choir to sing at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  In 1978, he engineered a visit to Jamestown by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to accompany the choir in a concert – the highlight being Bach’s Magnificat, if I recall correctly.

You might be thinking “this is a small college choir that fought above its weight”.  It was – but that wasn’t even the amazing part.

The amazing thing about Smith’s choirs throughout their history?  While the other top-flight choirs, like St. Olaf’s, were made up of music majors and especially voice students, Jamestown just wasn’t that big.  In the seventies, the place had 600-700 students, maybe a couple of dozen of them music majors.   Over ten percent of the entire campus sang in the choir – less than a quarter of them music majors.  Imagine a tournament-grade basketball team that was 3/4 walk-ons from the Theatre and English and Nursing departments; it was the same basic idea.

And so year after year, for almost thirty years, Dr. Smith created top-flight college choirs from virtually nothing.

———-

When I graduated from high school.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be – but I knew I wasn’t going to major in music.  Still, I’d had some musical training – none of it involving singing.  I played guitar, cello and harmonica, and sang in a garage band, in a voice that was best suited for shouting out Rolling Stones and Clash covers.  That was all the singing I ever wanted to do.  I was an instrumental guy, and proud of it.

I’d known Dr. Smith and his family for about 12 years by that point – his wife June was my high school creative writing teacher; Karen and Kathryn were classmates at Jamestown High School (Kristin graduated a year before me).

My mom worked as a secretary in the nursing department at Jamestown College, which would net me a nice tuition break, so in the spring of 1981 I enrolled at “JC”.  Of course, every penny counted, so I seized on every scholarship I could find.  I got a grant to work as a stagehand in the theatre department and, late in the game, was recuited to play cello in a chamber group, and percussion and guitar for the concert and stage bands.

One day, my senior year of high school, I went up to the campus to close the deal on the music grants.  I walked into Voorhees Chapel for a chat with Linda Banister – and my spidey-sense started buzzing away; something seemed just a little bit off.

There were always plenty of women auditioning. then and always, for 35 or so soprano and alto slots – but in a school like JC, finding guys who could fill the choir’s 35-odd tenor, baritone and bass seats was a constant battle.   Smith, and his assistant, Linda Banister (a voice teacher who did double duty as the choir’s manager) prowled the campus, looking for guys who sounded like they that could be jury-rigged into instruments in a choral ensemble; they filtered through high school transcripts looking for hidden semesters in “choir”; they staked out football practice, listened in the cafeteria, and even (rumor had it) prowled the dorms, listening for guys singing in the shower.  The men’s sections – the tenors, baritones and basses – were a grab bag of football players, computer-department night owls, and just-plain guys who could, to their amazement, carry a tune, most of them with absolutely no musical training whatsoever, most of them enticed by having $1,000 a year  lopped off their $4,000+ tuition; such was the choir’s clout.

Anyway – after a too-short discussion that ended up with grant in hand way too quickly, Mrs. Bannister said “Now you need to go down to Dr. Smith’s office”.

“Er – to  talk about the instrumental stuff?” I asked, warily.

“Yeah, sure!” she said, fast enough to make me even more suspicious.

I walked downstairs into Dr Smith’s office, in the basement of the chapel.  He was already sitting behind the piano.

“Hi, Mitch”, he said – first names were fine, he’d known me forever.  Then, before I could respond, “OK, say “Mi Mi Mi” and sing along with this pattern”.  He pounded out a “C” arpeggio.

Nonplussed, I sang.  “Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Miiii”, up and down the “C” chord..

He walked me through several more patterns, up and down the keyboard, figuring out my range.  “You have a good ear; we can work on the technique.  You’re a baritone!”

And that was pretty much it. I’d been shanghaied. Linda Banister was waiting outside the office.  “We really need you in the choir…” she said.  Being a small-town Scandinavian, my need to please others would have kicked in even had she not told me that singing in the choir was worth a $500/semester off tuition.

And so I joined the choir.  I’d be in the baritone section come the fall.

———-

Or would eventually, anyway.  Because before we could start choir that fall, Dr. Smith – and all of us, really – had a wrenching, existential diversion.

On top of being a great musician, arranger and director, Dr. Smith was also a footnote in medical history.  A very important one, actually.

In the summer of 1981 – the hot, arid three months before I started college – word made the rounds in Jametown that Dr. Smith had gotten very, very sick at the family’s lake cabin in northern Minnesota.  A very rare congenital enzyme deficiency had caused his body to start to destroy its own liver. He was in a coma and near death at a hospital in Fargo.

And at the metaphorical and literal last moment, the decision was made to fly him to the University of Pittsburgh for a medical procedure that teetered on the brink of science fiction at the time; a liver transplant.

At the time, liver transplants were almost as rare and difficult as heart transplants; the liver may be, after the brain, the body’s most complex organ.  The biochemical system that the liver manages is as convoluted as anything in nature.  And it showed, medically speaking; at the time, nobody had lived even a year with a transplanted liver.   The body inevitably rejected the tranplant, as if it was a bacterium or a splinter.  The way it was designed to do.

Liver transplants were so experimental, insurance companies were still years away from covering them.  The key to success – and it was an immutably elusive key, up until the spring of 1981 – was to quell the body’s immune system’s natural response of sequestering it off and killing it.

Shortly before Dr. Smith flew to Pittsburgh that summer, a new drug – Ciclosporin – was introduced.  Refined from a fungus found in the soil somewhere in Norway, it’d been used in treating a variety of other diseases – but it was going to be tried for the first time to prevent organ transplant rejection.

And Dr. Smith was Patient 1.

It wasn’t just the drugs.  Some of the very equipment and techniques that make the miracle of liver transplantation seem so commonplace today were invented as a result of Dr. Smith’s surgery.  From a Pitt Medical School publication on the transplant:

Fortunately, a donor liver became available. As Dr. Starzl  (the surgeon who pioneered the technique of the live transplant at Pittsburgh) pointed out in his book, the surgical team fought throughout the night to control the bleeding during Richard’s surgery.

Anesthesiologist Dr. John Sassano administered two hundred units of blood, pumping each unit by hand. When Richard survived the operation and Dr. Sassano’s job was done, Dr. Starzl reported that Dr. Sassano broke down and cried out of relief and exhaustion. Dr. Sassano went on to invent the Sassano pump, a rapid blood infusion system still in use today.

The surgery lasted 14 hours.

That I’m writing this article today should tell you it worked – all the pieces; the surgical skill, the brand-new, untried techniques and drugs, and of course the liver, from a 19 year old auto-crash victim.

———-

It was a solid semester before he came back to the choir.  The cocktail of drugs he’d been given, including the Ciclosporin, had played hob with his system.  He’d gained a lot of weight; his formerly hawk-like face was swollen.  And he could only direct for short periods, sitting on a stool, before he’d get tired and hand the choir over to his backup director.

But once he started, you could tell he lived for it.

And during the second semester of my freshman year, Dr. Smith gradually worked his way back onto the podium; by the time of our spring tour, he managed to direct (as I recall) every concert at every stop on the way.

I’ll let that sink in; in eight months, he went from comatose to doing his job (albeit not at 100% just yet), with a stop along the way for a gruelling, body-crushing, experimental, never-before-seen bit of beyond-major surgery.

We knew it was remarkable back then; having nobody to compare it with – every previous liver transplantee had died in that kind of time – none of us knew how remarkable it was.

———-

If my experience with high school music groups – orchestra, stage band and the like – was like Pop Warner football, choir with Dr. Smith was like suddenly walking into Vince Lombardi’s training camp.

Smith was a renowned arranger and conductor; his specialty, oddly, was traditional Afro-American spirituals; a Canadian paper once praised the Choir for being the most authentic-sounding choir of rural white kids they’d ever heard.

Beyond that?  The programming every year was very non-trivial.  It spun between spirituals, modern/avant garde choral work, and the classics of the repertoire – and by classics, I mean the hard stuff.

The highlights?  Every couple years, Smith would break out a new Bach double-choir motet.  My freshman and senior years, it was Motet Number 7, Singet Dem Herrn.  15 minutes and 90-odd pages long, it required the choir to split into two separate choirs, singing Bach’s, well, baroque composition in eight part counterpoint and harmony.

All from memory.  Smith allowed no sheet music on stage, and the choir was rarely accompanied (as in, one song that I recall in four years).

Go ahead and try it in the shower when you get a moment.

That took discipline.  All practices were mandatory; you got two excused absences a semester, and even those were discouraged (I don’t remember taking more than one in four years).  The rules on stage were simple and uncompromising; once Smith stepped on the podium, in concert or late “concert rules” rehearsals, you didn’t look away, at the risk of a ferocious tongue-lashing during the break.   If you got sick on stage, you did not walk offstage; you sat down on the riser and your neighors closed ranks around you.  If your nose itched?  You let it itch; scratching your nose, or anywhere on your face, inevitably looked like picking your nose.  You didn’t question Dr. Smith on any of this.

The choir practiced four days a week, over the noon hour, to accomodate everything from after-school football practices to afternoon chem labs.   You earned that $500 tuition break every semester.

To turn that throng of misplaced football players, dorm-potatoes, waylaid cross-country runners, computer science majors and the odd musician into a solid choir, Dr. Smith smacked us with something that most of us had never encountered before, and only rarely since; an uncompromising demand for excellence.

Excellence is a word that’s gotten abused horribly in the past thirty years.  A wave of business books perverted the terms into meaning  “a businessperson given him/herself license to be a prick”.

The word itself never came up, that I recall, in four years with the choir.  But it’s what Dr. Smith demanded of all of us.  Whoever we were – wrestlers, pre-meds and vocal majors alike, we had it in us to do great music – Bach, or spirituals, or avant-garde adaptations of Shaker liturgical chants alike – the way God himself intended them to be done.   Perfectly.

And he didn’t tolerate half-assed choral music, and he never cared who knew about it.  Botching an entrance or scooping a high note could earn a section, or a singer, a chewing out in front of the whole choir – and the privilege of singing the part yourself, solo, over and over, as the whole choir sat and listened, until you hit it perfectly.

So we – wrestlers, pre-meds, dorm-potatoes, phy-ed majors and voice majors alike – developed a keen ear and a sense of precision that was new to many of us, even if we had some experience with formal classical music.

He had no time for contemporary music.  At least once a year, he’d get frustrated by some bit of pop-music frippery, and bellow “Do you think people will be listening to the Beatles in 300 years?”  I was often tempted to respond “if there’s an entire academic discipline dedicated to seeing that it does, then sure!”, but he didn’t sound like he wanted a discussion…

Even other choirs felt his wrath.  A choir from another college performed an assembly before practice one day.  A “contemporary” choir with microphones and a PA and accompanists and a repertoire of mediocre modern choral music, they were also – by Smiths’ standards – unforgivably sloppy in their intonation and timing; they were also slow in tearing down their elaborate stage rig as we filed onto the stage for our noon practice, and milled about in the chapel, chattering away, getting ready to go back on the road themselves.   We saw Smith, fuming at both the late start and the sloppy music, and took our places quickly and silently as the other choir milled about the place.  We just knew this could not end well.

When Smith finally got the podium, his face was red with rage.  He uncorked one of his vein-bulging jeremiads about the worthlessness of sloppy, inferior music – he referred to “this…crap!”, as I recall, which shut the other choir’s kids up but fast.  He ran down their intonation, their entrances, their reliance on a mixer to balance their – shudder – microphones, their sloppiness – and compared some of our own traits with what he’d just endured.  Then he had us ready up one of our own songs, in a tone that strongly hinted we’d best blow the doors off that tune.

And we did, as I remember.  We didn’t dare not stick the landing.  We sang the hell out of that tune, as the other choir silently shrank from the sanctuary.

We were the JC Choir, dammit.

Of course, Smith’s temper was tempered with a sense of humor and an approachable affability.  Sitting in his office, or on the choir tour bus, or during a good rehearsal, he was quick with a joke – usually awful – and a smile and a word of encouragement.

And it’s worth noting that his relentless pursuit of precision and perfection didn’t cover every aspect of his life.  Navigation was a good example.  While on tour, generations of choir members learned the meaning of the”Smith block”, as in Smith ordering the bus to a stop in some strange city in a place where the bus had a hard time finding our destination, and telling everyone to grab their luggage and walk the rest of the way.  “It’s just a block”, he’d assure us.  I remember walking a solid mile through the streets of Basel, Switzerland, enjoying a warm, humid evening on a “Smith Block”-long stroll, lugging my backpack and my concert clothes down the Totengässlein, feeling like a tourist.

Smith could laugh about that along with everyone. There’s a reason generations of students loved the guy.

———-

Jamestown College was a small, private, Presbyterian-affiliated school – a sister-school to Macalester, although without the political implications, in those days.  And like a lot of small colleges, Jamestown went through some lean years.  Part of it was the farm crisis; lots of small colleges failed back then.  Part of it was bad management; the college had a really, really bad president for a few years there.

But the school excelled at three things; athletics (the football, basketball and track programs were at the top of the NAIA Division III standings), nursing (one of the best nursing programs in the US at the time) and the Choir.

And so part of the job was to go out and raise money for the college.  For four years, our “spring break”, every year, was to go out on the road on a national concert tour.  Tours involved long days on the bus, taking off often before the sun rose, arriving in a new town late in the afternoon, setting up our risers and lights (that was my gig – I was a stagehand, after all), suiting up for the gig, taking a deep breath, singing a couple of hours, and then going home with a host family from the church that was sponsoring the gig.  We got a free day at the apex of the tour.

As of spring break my Freshman year, the biggest city I’d ever seen was Fargo.  Tour changed all that; each stop in turn, St. Cloud and Madison and Toledo and Philadelphia and Washington DC, was the biggest city I’d ever been in.

That’s us. We’re in the rotunda of the Cannon Congressional Office building, March 17, 1982. I’m in the third row, eighth from the left. Dr. Smith is conducting, natch. On the right is former longtime ND Congressman Mark Andrews.  Photo courtesy Katie Hall, who is “Doctor Hall” to you now, and lives in Fargo and is, I think, the far right girl in the front row.  

And in the three following spring breaks – Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, and every mid-sized city and tiny town with a Presbyterian church with a music-loving minister in between, we toured, ten or twelve days at a shot.

And the biggest tour of all – our trip to Europe, in 1983.  We sang in little villages – Uitgeest, Holland, and Altenburg, in Schwabia – and major cities, Basel and Mainz and Köln and, biggest and best of all, Notre Dame de Paris.

Where we stood, in a church nearly a thousand years old, built long before sound amplification systems were built, in a building designed to magnify the unamplified human voice, and sang at a mass stuffed with Bishops and Archbishops and other popery, and sang to packed houses, and thought for a brief moment that God had taught Man to build buildings like this just for choirs like ours.

And a few days later, in Köln, where we sang a duo concert with the Köln Polezeichor, the city’s police choir, themselves an excellent group.  After the show, the cops hauled us all and sundry to a bar frequented by Köln’s finest; our money was no good there.  And it was noted that Dr. Smith’s liver was now of legal age.  And as we partied into the wee hours, Dr. Smith had a beer (with his doctor’s blessing; Dr. Smith was as diligent with the gift that had saved his life as any human could be).  And as we walked – I was probably staggering more than walking – back to our hotel through the streets of Köln in the weeest hours of the morning, I looked at Dr. Smith.

And he was as happy as happy gets.  This – making music, and getting flocks of kids to make it, and make it very very well, was his happy place.

———-

The last time I sang with Dr. Smith was October, 1994.  The college threw a 25 year “All Choir Reunion”.  About 400 people – around half of the people who’d ever sung in the choir in those 25 years – came back to Jamestown to sing a concert with Dr. Smith.  It was such a huge event, we used the Jamestown Civic Center.   And people from my class in the choir sat with and sang among several generations of choir “kids”; some who’d been there at the beginning in 1968, and who’d been at that first “gig” at Notre Dame in 1972; some who’d just graduated, and hadn’t yet assimilated all that Dr. Smith had taught them.

And it was a joyous night – one of a short list of highlights of my own life.  I was able to tell Dr. Smith pretty much exactly that; how glad I was to make the reunion, and the impact he’d had on my life.  Of course, I had to stand in a long line; I think everyone was there to say the same thing, one way or the other.

Smith retired in 1998.  The travelling was harming his health.

———-

The average liver transplant holds out for ten years.  Partly it’s due to the whole “new liver” thing – all the risks attendant to transplants.

Partly it’s the drugs that bombard the body to make the transplant happen at all.  They take a terrible toll on the rest of the body – especially the kidneys.   Dr. Smith got a kidney transplant in 1997 – from his wife June, incredibly.   It bought time – and bought it for a guy who’d already run the account a lot further than anyone could reasonably expect.

Dr. Smith was the longest-lived person in the world with a liver transplant.  His transplant surgeon, Thomas Starzl, “the father of the transplant”, featured Smith prominently in his book Puzzle People – his own look into medical miracles and the people who live them.   Starzl chalked Smith’s survival up to many things – an iron-clad constitution, rock-solid faith, and a mission in life among other things- but at the end of the day, even that most gifted of medical scientists had little empirical idea how Smith had so clobbered the odds.

But the run ran out.  Dr. Smith died late last night; the kidneys, and the liver which had served two owners so well, finally gave out.  He was 73.  He leaves behind June – one of my favorite high school teachers – and his daughters, Kristin (a reproductive endocrinologist on Long Island), and the twins, Kathryn and Karen, my high school classmates, a teacher and nurse respectively, both in the Fargo area.  They’ll miss him of course – and so will the thousand or so of us whose lives he touched as director, and the hundreds of thousands who watched and listened to his work over the decades.

Yeah, me too.

Rest in peace, Dr. Smith.  And from the bottom of my heart, my condolences to June, Kristin, Kathryn and Karen.

———-

Back on that rainy night in Pendelton in 1983, the song turned into its homestretch; from the bombastic “Have Ye Not Known!” of the fanfare, through a turbulent middle section that seemed to represent the nagging doubts of the faithful, into the ending, the best part; a three-minute canon, simply repeating one line, over and over again:

And gladness of heart…

The line never changed – starting with the sopranos, quietly hinting it; the altos came in, more broadly, then the tenors, and then the basses, in a broad, three-minute crescendo.  But the song modulated through a circle of…fourths?  Fifths?  Mostly?  Big, broad, beefy resolutions  that just as suddenly modified into another set of fourths, like doubts resolving into answers and then into more doubts with even bigger, more satisfying answers.

I looked at Dr. Smith, on the podium, growing more animated as the volume swelled- because looking at the director, and nothing else in the world, what you did in the choir.  But as the song swelled, the diffusion from the stage lights seemed to me to form a corona of refracted light around the Conductor; maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe it was my eyes getting every-so-watery from the sheer sonic glory of it all.  And as his arms thrashed at the air, wrenching more sound, more passion, more joy from the moment, Dr. Smith looked ecstatic; the song and the choir were like a natural phenomenon, like he was playing a pipe organ whose pump was driven by a hurricane, like he’d wrapped his arms around a tornado with a “speed” button that only he could control.

Like God Himself could hear his choir, so he’d better keep us on our A game.

And I stood in the middle of that swirl of spine-tingling modulating fourths and fifths and ricocheting parts and,  for one shiver-up-the-spine moment, felt as close to transcending the here and now as I ever had, or have, in my life.

And I think Dr. Smith did, too.

It may have been a first for me.

Dr. Smith?  With all the choirs of farm kids and wrestlers and business majors that he wrangled into musicians?  He was a regular there.

The Gender Ghetto, Part II

Yesterday, we noted that critics like Kay Hymowitz are noticing young men today are “angry”.  They attribute it to the usual dog’s breakfast of feminist conceits; the young men are a little misogynistic, a little bit childish, a little bit full of inchoate rage over “poliitcal correctness” and changing gender roles.

I pointed out that while those roles are certainly changing today, they are no more jarring to the male sensibility than they were at any time from the 1960’s through the 1980s; I might argue that after three generations of “women’s liberation” and the broad acceptance of what used to be “Feminism’s” goals, young men today aren’t suffering any culture shock that men didn’t have, and much worse, a few decades back.

And we noted a scholarship program for “white” (more than 25% caucasian) males, which the Southern Poverty Law Center will no doubt classify a “hate group” before long.

And at the beginning of it all, we noted that subcultures that are attacked, persecuted, segregated or singled out over the long haul tend to adapt to it, in ways that address immediate-term survival over long-term good.

Why are 20-30-something males ostensibly turning away from dating, mating, and our society’s “courtship ritual” as it’s evolved in recent decades, in a way that their older brothers, uncles and even fathers and grandfathers didn’t?

———-

Back when I was in fifth grade, I had my first male teacher.  Mr. Buchholtz was a big guy, a former football player who’d done a hitch in the Navy in Vietnam.  He was the first male teacher any of us had had.

And he did all sorts of things – showed us how to tackle, how to to do karate kicks, let us play “tackle pomp” and “cops and robbers” and “army”, complete with “guns” we made out of sticks, the whole line-up of things that might have mortified the women who’d taught us through fourth grade, had those women not come up through an educational system that let boys be boys.

And when I said let boys be boys, I meant “let them both exercise those “boy” traits – physicality, aggressiveness, spatial literacy – and learn to control them and use them appropriately.  You could play “cops and robbers”; you couldn’t accost Mary Jo Helmbarger with the toy gun and scare her.

Of course, the classroom itself was pretty well designed for girls, who develop verbally before boys do.  It all evened out.

And that was the system, thirty years ago.  Maybe even twenty-five years ago.

Mr. Bucholtz would be the subject of administrative discipline today, and most likely ostracized by his colleagues.

It was about twenty years ago that the theories of Harvard professor Carol Gilligan started to gain currency.  It was Gilligan’s theory that young girls suffered in school because boys, being more aggressive, were quicker to raise their hands and get attention; that young girls were neglected, and the neglect caused them to suffer – because the education system was just too masculine.  The theory – publicized in countless books by scholars, pop-psychologists and ideological feminists – was that boys’ innate aggression intimidated girls into being quiet and not getting their questions answered in class (among other charges), which in turn beat down young girls’ spirits, which was a form of systemic discrimination that had to be overcome.

And the educational academy reacted immediately.  Schools moved to start clamping down on “boy” things – aggressive play, games like “cops and robbers” and playground football and all the other ways boys have worked off their energy during recess since the dawn of the “sit your butt in the chair and learn what we tell you to learn” model of education.

Now, psychology has known for decades that if you make a person bottle up “who they are”, it’s going to cause psychological damage . It’s one of the reasons schools have bent over backwards, for example, to support gay students; because, they just know, if you make a person deny what they are for long enough, it’s going to cause damage.

Enlightened people would never think of demanding a gay student stop being gay.

But virtually overnight in pedagogical terms, it became the fashion to force boys to do just that; to bottle up who they were.   I’ve been noticing this for almost as long; I remember having this conversation when my stepson was in school, in the early nineties.  In one memorable conversation with a woman who was a teaching assistant at the University of London’s graduate educational psychology program back in 1998, I put that basic premise out there; her response, straight from the textbook of the day, was “yes, boys acting like boys is a pathology that gets in the way of good education”.  Direct quote.

Of course, Carol Gilligan was wrong. Christina Hoff-Summers, in The War On Boys, pointed out that Gilligan’s “research” was not only almost completely exempted from peer review, but Harvard wouldn’t release any of the raw data or methodology that led to her conclusions – which was, in those days before “man-made global warming”, considered pretty bad form.  Hoff-Summers pretty well shredded Gilligan, and the outcomes of the mania that had by this time swept the educational academy…

…but it was really too late.  School became a fairly dismal place for boys.  Especially the boys that couldn’t “go along to get along“.   Acting too much “like a boy” – being too aggressive, not channelling their energy into acceptable forms, which meant “being verbal, not physical” – could get a boy drugged into compliance.  Most outrageously, teachers started demanding  boys get drugged into compliance, and making the system make those demands stick.  In other words, raduates of the least academically-rigourous programs offered at most universities felt themselves empowered to act as practitioners in a field that took graduates of the most rigorous field, but one that even those practitioners know is still only vaguely understood.

Can you imagine what’d happen if science came up with a drug that could suppress a homosexual child’s identity?   The very fact that the idea had been researched would be condemned with vein-bulging fury, to say nothing of the actual act of producing and prescribing the drug.  And the furor would be right.

And yet our education system has been forcing half the student population to be something other than what evolution, brain chemistry and their physiology make them, and being drugged into submission and classified as “special ed”, and plopped onto the failure track  if they don’t go along.

And it’s having an effect.  The number of girls in college increased – from right around to slightly under half in the ’80’s, to closer to an estimated 60% of the population in the very near future.  It’s even more pronounced in the humanities and soft-sciences.   It’s gotten to the point that the mainstream media who trumpeted Gilligan’s “research” twenty years ago are fretting about the lack of men on campuses today.  If 12 years of school have been turned into an ugly ordeal, why should they stretch it out to sixteen years – even assuming that their drug-addled, special-ed sodden academic records allow them to get into a college.

So the question I’d like to ask Kay Hymowitz – the author of the book Manning Up that I went after yesterday – is “why are you asking why young men are shunning the dating life, when the real question is why do you expect young men who’ve had traditional masculine roles beaten down and treated as pathologies to be overcome  for their entire educational career and  young lives to suddenly turn into Prince Charming when they turn 22?”

As long as we actively suppress, and oppress, boys acting like boys – especially by way of learning how to be responsible boys, and thus responsible men, the way they always have – then Kay Hymowitz’ dating malaise is just the tip of the iceberg.

One Day At Jared ® Headquarters

SCENE:  At the headquarters of Jared ® Jewelry.   Patricia LOPEZ, the receptionist, is sitting at the front desk answering phone calls.

Phone rings.

LOPEZ:  Hello, Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry®…

VOICE on phone: Hello, this is Sol Gallivan, the Guardian of Empiricism.  What does your slogan “It can only be Jared” mean?

LOPEZ: Hello again, Mr. Gallivan.  It means the same thing it did yesterday.  It’s an ad slogan.

GALLIVAN:  But it implies that all meaning comes from Jared ®.  How do you substantiate that claim?

LOPEZ:  I don’t.  Can I help you?

GALLIVAN:  Yes.  Explain how you figure all meaning comes from Jared ®?

LOPEZ:  I really can’t, sir.  It’s just a slogan.  Thanks for your call.

GALLIVAN: But I…

(Phone hangs up).

(LOPEZ continues typing an email).

(Phone rings)

LOPEZ: Good Morning, Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry®…

GALLIVAN: Hello, this is Sol Gallivan, the Guardian of Empiricism.

LOPEZ: Hello again, Mr. Gallivan.

GALLIVAN: Could you please explain what you mean when your company says “it can only be Jared®?  Because it implies that there is some order to the universe, some eternal questions that are answered by your store.

LOPEZ: Yes, Mr. Gallivan.

GALLIVAN: Can you please tell me what those questions and answers are?

LOPEZ: No, Mr. Gallivan.

GALLIVAN: Because I’d like any empirical evidence that you have that your store actually imposes order on the universe.

LOPEZ: We’ll get back to you on that, sir.

GALLIVAN:  When exac…

(LOPEZ hangs up the phone).

(Jared LIGHT, CEO of Jared ®, walks in).

LIGHT: Hey, Patty.  What’s new?

LOPEZ:  Same as always.  That Gallivan guy is yapping about our ad slogan.

LIGHT:  (Yawns deeply).  OK.  Well, could you send one of the interns out for coffee…

(Phone rings.  LOPEZ holds up hand for a moment of quiet).

LOPEZ:  Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry®…

VOICE (on phone):  Yeah, this is Jeff Buckstein, security director for Jared’s ® Maplewood, MN store…

LOPEZ: Hey, Jeff.

BUCKSTEIN: Hey Patty.  I just had security haul off that Gallivan guy.  He was standing outside the store, yelling at people who were walking in.

LOPEZ:  What was he doing this time?

BUCKSTEIN: Yelling at people coming in the store that “there is no scientific evidence that It could, indeed, only be Jared ®”.

LOPEZ: Criminy.

BUCKSTEIN:  Please pass the word, OK?

LOPEZ: Will do.  Thanks, Jeff. (Hangs up).

LIGHT:  Gallivan again?

LOPEZ:  Yep.

LIGHT: Maplewood again?

LOPEZ: Yep.

LIGHT: It’s gonna be one of those days.

LOPEZ: Yep.

(Phone rings)

LOPEZ: Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry®…

GALLIVAN:  Hello, I’m Sol Gallivan, the Guardian of Empiricism.  I’d really like to know what you mean when you say “It can only be Jared…”

LOPEZ: It’s still just a slogan, Mr. Gallivan….

GALLIVAN:  I’m just wondering how you can sleep at night telling people untruths like…

(LIGHT motions to LOPEZ to give him the phone as GALLIVAN chatters away in the background).

GALLIVAN: …preying on the gullible and weak-minded…

LIGHT: Mister Gallivan?  This is Jared Light, CEO of Jared Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry®.

GALLIVAN: Mister Light, I’d like to ask you…

LIGHT: No, Mr. Gallivan, I’d like to ask you; if Jared Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry® is not what it can only be, what else can it be?

GALLIVAN: …

LIGHT:  Mister Gallivan?

(GALLIVAN hangs up the phone).

LOPEZ: Thanks, Mr. Light.

LIGHT:  No problem.

Hope 73. Tyranny 0.

It’s hard for us, today, to picture what the world was like seventy years ago.

The Nazis march into Paris.

For the better part of a decade, much of the world’s intelligentsia actively wondered if democracy’s day had come and gone.  Various flavors of totalitarianism – whose ghastly crimes against humanity had been hidden from the world by a compliant media – had their adherents and even admirers in the West; Hitler and Stalin had both won Time’s “Man of the Year” award – making trains run on time impressed journalists then no less than now.

Here in Minnesota, as in much of the US heartland, the demoralization of the thirties led to a splintered worldview; the Minnesota Democratic Farmer/Labor party was cozied up to Stalin (and would stay that way until Hubert H. Humphrey, in one of his great contributions to the integrity of American politics, tossed the reds from the party six years later), to the point where it opposed war with Germany, with whom Stalin was then allied via the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact.  In the meantime, the upper Midwest was a haven for the Deutsche-Amerikanische Bund, which favored rapprochement with the Nazis.

Stalin, from a Gus Hall fan site. Gus Hall was from Minnesota. The poster says “Happy To Pay For A Better Smolensk”.

Worse?  The totalitarians had just spent four years showing that their supporters in the West might have a point.  They conquered Spain.  Naziism dragged Germany out of the Great Depression (which had started ten years earlier in Germany than the rest of the west) well ahead of the rest of Europe or the US.  By all appearances, the Soviets were doing quite well too.

Poster for Nazi “Kraft Durch Freude” (Strength Through Joy) movement. Remind you of any recent City Pages ads? Me too

And World War II seemed to be the final nail.  Germany had swallowed up Austria and Czechoslovakia without a struggle; Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and, finally, France – theretofore Europe’s greatest military power – all fell in dazzlingly short order, sending the Brits reeling across the Channel.  Britain had beaten back the Luftwaffe the previous summer, but everyone expected Hitler to get ready for another invasion attempt in the spring; his U-boat campaign to starve Britain into submission looked, to insiders, to have a great chance of doing just that.

London burns after Scottish soccer fans, angered by three straight 0-0 tie games, run riot.

The Japanese also were going great guns, as well as rolling up vast swathes of China before their military juggernaut.  State Shinto – a pseudoreligion not a whole lot different than Naziism in its own way – seemed a viable option to many as well.

And everyone expected war between the US and Japan, and probably Germany and Italy as well.  It was a year away – but the buildup to war had already begun; Roosevelt had instituted the draft and called up great swathes of the National Guard already.

And so even though the world hadn’t fallen off the cliff into complete cataclysm – Germany wouldn’t invade the USSR for another eight months – everyone knew that the world was a horribly bleak place on December 8, 1940.  And nowhere was it bleaker than for the world’s democracies.  There were those that thought the classical American notion of liberty was on its last legs.

To say nothing of America itself.  As the fascist wave crested, the Nazi and Fascist and State Shinto leaders arrogantly looked at America, demoralized by a decade of depression and softened by the decadence of its “refrigerators” and “telephones” and “movies” and “vaudville”, and thought that America would love its prosperity too much to fight for others’ liberty – or even defend its own.

The “experts” around the world counted America out.

It was the day of the eighth playing of the 1940 NFL Championship.    And the Washington Redskins were the prohibitive, odds-on favorite of the same media and punditry that had applauded Mussolini, who lauded and feted Hitler and Lenin, who’d uncritically published and eaten up Walter Duranty’s mash notes to Joseph Stalin.

Against them stood the Chicago Bears.  The Bears had been a dynasty in the thirties, but it was a new, harrowing decade, and, like Darth Vader swallowing up the Republic, things in the NFL had changed as badly for the worse as they had in every other part of the world.  The Redskins, led by Sammy Baugh, seemed to tower invincibly over the plucky Bears, like Dolph Lundgren over Sylvester Stallone.

Sammy Baugh

The Skins had beaten the Bears 7-3 three weeks earlier, toward the end of the regular season.  As the teams headed toward the championship, at Griffith Stadium in DC, the Skins’ owner, George Preston Marshall, told the media (who else?) that the Bears were quitters and crybabies – exactly as Hitler was telling his minions about America, halfway around the world.

The Bears, like the Brits, like the Chinese, like capitalism, like democracy itself, had no chance.  Everyone knew it.

The “experts” said so.

———-

The Bears brought some of the same things to the table that America itself did, though.  Indeed, the juxtaposition should escape nobody; the Skins, led by the German-descended Baugh [*], faced the Bears, as polyglot a bunch of Yanks as the squad in any World War II war movie – with names like Musso, Osmanski, Clark, Stydahar, Macafee, Maniaci, Kavanaugh –  led by Brooklyn-born Sid Luckman, the son of pogrom refugees, and perhaps the greatest Jewish quarterback in the history of pro football.

Sid Luckman

And the Bears were at the forefront of a change in tactics; they ran from the “T Formation”, allowing greater flexibility compared with the ‘Skins’ single-wing formation – especially for Luckman, who’d become known by the end of his 12 year career as the NFL’s first great long-ball passer, even as under the bleachers at the nearly University of Chicago, other Jewish refugees were revolutionizing warfare forever as they carried off the first nuclear fission reaction.

The Bears, like America itself, brought a love of the underdog, and not a little bit of good ol’-fashioned America ingenuity and improvization skill.

———-

And so that morning, inflamed by Marshall’s arrogance just as their forebears had been enraged by Santa Anna’s brutality at the Alamo, the Bears took the field, and took the game directly to the Redskins, like the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes tearing into the Luftwaffe’s bombers.

And like the RAF – and like the US Navy would do a Midway a year and a half later, and the US Army would do at Omaha Beach in three and a half years, and in the Bulge in a little over four years – the Bears, against all odds, not only prevailed…

…but kicked the favorites’ asses.

73-0.

The “weak”, “crybaby” underdogs prevailed against the favorites.

Just as America itself did, five years later.

Would it have happened without The Bears’ epic victory, 70 years ago today?

Thankfully, we’ll never need to know.

But it’s worth observing that, as America’s fortunes waxed during the war years, so did those of The Bears, who won championships in 1941, the pivotal year 1943 and then again in 1946, setting up the successful reconstruction of Europe.

The 1940 Bears. Not just champions; titans of liberty.

The point being that the fortunes of America the nation, the shining city and the great experiment are inextricably intertwined with those other palimpsests of all that is great about America, the Bears and conservative exceptionalism.

It was in 1963 when our nation – a month past the murder of its beloved, patriotic president – needed strength.  And the Bears, led by Bill Wade and the first of many great Bears linebacking threesomes (Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Larry Morris), gave it to them with another come-from-underdog win against the New York Giants, featuring airtight defense and an appearance by a young Polish-American tight end, Mike Ditka, upsetting the Giants and putting a comforting coda on the end of a horrible chapter in American history.  Americans could to go bed that night knowing that all was well.

Of course, the Bears’ fortunes ebbed for the next twenty-two years – as did those of conservatism, and of America itself.  And the nation’s fortunes, as always, reflected that waning.  The drought years of the sixties and seventies coincided with the epic droughts in the rest of American society; the Bears, America and the GOP reached their nadirs, with  the fall of Saigon, Abe Gibron’s years as head coach, the WIN button, Stagflation, Watergate, Desert 1 – simultaneously.

And yet three great Americans rose from the ashes during this time, laying the groundwork for a resurgence; Walter Payton, and Republicans Ronald Reagan and Mike Ditka.  Payton led the Bears out of the Wilderness just as surely as Reagan led America.

Walter Payton…

Reagan and…

...Ditka. When America needed all three, they were there.

…Ditka. When America needed all three, they were there.

And in 1986, at the depths of the Cold War, when once again “the experts” united to claim that America had seen its best days and the “nuclear clock” was supposedly ticking down as remorselessly as the timer in “24”, and that the USSR and the Patriots might well be viable and unstoppable in the modern world, Ditka (mirroring the rise of that other great Pole, Walesa) and Reagan and Payton rose up, leading other great Americans, Singletery and Weinberger, Dent and Schultz, Kirkpatrick and McMahon, and against all odds scored epic victories for freedom at the 1986 Super Bowl and the Rejkjavik talks, both leading in their way to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism and, finally, the re-ascendancy of Western Civilization.

But history didn’t end in 1990.  The Bears, like freedom itself, choked in 2006, against the Democrats and the Clots, leading directly to the defeats of 2008.

And after those dismal seasons, there were those that said the Bears and Real America would need years of rebuilding to be contenders again – if, indeed, either could do it at all.  That The Bears, like conservatism itself, were relics of a past unlamented by the likes of pundits Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz, or sportscasters Ed Schultz and Keith Olberman.

But when America, and Western Civilization, need to be saved, then the true heroes who walk among us will step up;   The Bears unpredictably have been rising out of nowhere to shock the league; the Mama Grizzlies, likewise, rose from nowhere to shock the political world.

Will it stick?  On the one hand, it’s too early to tell if justice, the Bears or conservatism will win out in 2011 or 2012.

On the other hand – we owe it to posterity to see that all of them do win.

But on the field as in and about the land, there is hope.  For conservatism is rising, and the Bears are contending, and for now there is hope.

Today, as seventy years ago today, you can thank God, Guns, Guts, and the Bears.

[*] Yeah, I stretched that metaphor too far.  Baugh was a great American, and was named “The most versatile player in NFL History” by the NFL network.  Luckman, for his part, served in the wartime Merchant Marine, playing in odd spare Sundays with the Bears.

A Day In The Life Of Every Uppity Conservative

ME:  Hi!

REPRESENTATIVE GROUP OF LIBERALS (RGOL):  Conservatism is fundamentally racist!

ME: Um – beg your pardon?

“RGOL”:  Racism oozes from every pore of conservatism!

ME:  OK, that’s what we call “bigotry” where I come from, but what the hell, I love a good ad-hominem argument.  Do tell!

“RGOL”:  Nixon’s “southern strategy” brought all the racists to the GOP!

ME: Er, let’s get back to “the south” in a bit here.  You did read my post last week about Jacob Weisberg’s article in that noted racist conservative hangout Slate, that noted there are distinct differences between Northeastern, Southern and Western conservatism, right?  How Northeastern conservatism is largely comfortable with big government but with an emphasis on making big government more fiscally sane – think Mitt Romney – and race is largely a non-entity, and in fact part of the roots of Northeastern conservatism are at least partly in the abolition movement?  And how Western conservatism, the conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan, is fundamentally libertarian, which means racism is anathema, since libertarian government is utterly color blind, and all real racism – the racism that makes people unequal before the law – is entirely a function of excessive and illegitimate government power, right?  Which leaves southern conservatism, which certainly had racists among its adherents, but whose fundamental “racism” is at least partly a matter of framing by, well liberals?

“RGOL”:  Of course we did.  Now – look at this list of southern conservatives and the racist things they’ve said…

ME: OK, you’re more or less dodging the point here.  Can individuals be racist?  Certainly.  I mean, every human in the world is a “we-ist”, more comfortable around and attuned to people like their own community, and less to to people less like them in ways that are manifested as everything from pointed humor to muted suspicion to blind hatred.

“RGOL”:  Right.  Like conservatism!

ME:  Well, no.  Liberals too.  I mean, mention, say, a white fundamentalist from Mississippi who resurfaces driveways for a living…

“RGOL”:  Hah!  Dumb redneck wingnut!

ME:  …or an NRA member…

“RGOL”:  Bigger gun clinging snake-handling cousin-kissing Jeeeeeebus freak hahahahahahahaha!

ME: ….right, or Sarah Palin…

“RGOL”:  Hahahahaha!  She went to community college!  Trig is Bristol’s baby!  She can’t even write and has fake boobs and slept with her deputy mayor and …

ME:  …or the Japanese…

“RGOL”:  Er…what?

ME:  Well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the godfather of the modern nannystate, did not only order the most singularly racist government action in the past 100 years – the mass internment of American citizens of Japanese descent – but did it after two terms in which he supported California’s deeply racist anti-Japanese immigration laws.

“RGOL”: …

ME: OK, fine, it was seventy years ago.  Still, your entire case that “conservatism oozes racism”  seems to be based on 1) a bunch of anecdotal stories of Republicans who said racist things 2) a bunch of memes from Media Matters and the like, that largely yank statements by the likes of Rush Limbaugh so far out of context you’re getting into borderline defamation, and 3) framing conservative issues as fundamentally racist.

To which I reply 1) Why does Robert Byrd never make it into those lists, 2) Gosh, a liberal flak group waterboarding context, notify the media, and 3) when your entire argument is designed to try to misleadingly frame your opponent as something evil – and we all agree that racism is a bad thing, right? – then you are committing a crime against truth!

“RGOL”:  What are you talking about?

ME: For example, every time a conservative talks about strengthening the Tenth Amendment, some idiot lefty will come back with “That sounds like “states rights”, which was once used to defend slavery.

“RGOL”:  Right!   Conservatism supports slavery!

ME:  {{facepalm}} No.  No, we are pretty much the opposite extreme; we are the party of individual self-determination.  And, by the way, it is a fact that Jim Crow after 1900 was largely a government initiative that overrode the free market; that in most southern states, the business community – which are stereotypically conservative, right?…

“RGOL”:  Bosses!  Bosses!

ME: …right.  They largely opposed Jim Crow, since Jim Crow took anywhere from 10 to 50% out of their markets!

“RGOL”:  But the southerners were racists!  And Nixon brought them into the GOP!

ME:  Well, no and yes and no.  The “Southern Strategy” sought votes from southerners who were upset over a variety of things – federal intrusions into property rights and free association as a matter of principle, the size and growth of government, and the federalization of an awful lot of things that had always been left to the states.  And yes, there were no doubt some among ’em that were upset that the Feds poked their nose into race relations – because a racist citizen’s vote counts just as much as yours does.  Which galls the crap out of me when I see some of those anti-semitic filth at left-leaning demonstrations, by the way – but I digress.  The framing of all southern conservatives’ flight to the GOP as race-related has become part of the conventional wisdom, to the extent that all defenses of the thesis become tautological.  Just watch:  “The southern strategy was not primarily about race”.

“RGOL”:  But the southern strategy was racist because it brought racist southerners into the party…

ME:  Thanks.  I rest my case.

“RGOL”:  …um…

ME:  Move along.

“RGOL”:  Yeah?  Well…what about Arizona?

ME:  Jeez.  More framing.  The Arizona law – which most Americans support, in its final form – is about securing our borders.  That is one of the missions of government, no?

“RGOL”:  But it’s racist!

ME:   Huh?  Let me ask you something; if Minnesota were awash in Canadians sneaking across the border, and illegal Canadian immigration were forcing down American wages, and if in coming here they rejected American culture and upheld Canadian culture with their back-bacon and hockey-worship and mass drunkenness, and if the Canadian Army were charging across the border to help out Canadian drug smugglers and killing people on our side of the border, that “illegal” Gordon Fitzpatrick wouldn’t replace the “illegal” Juan Jimenez as the boogeyman du jour?

“RGOL”:  But that’s just dumb.

ME:  What if our hypothetical Gordon Fitzpatrick was pro-charter schools and anti-card-check?

“RGOL”:  Then he’d be racist and he’d hate children…

ME:  Er, yeah.  Look – do our laws mean anything, or do they not? Are we a sovereign nation, or are we not?

“RGOL”:  Er…huh?

ME:  …

“RGOL”: You are obviously a racist.

ME:  Riiiiight.

My Tax Day At The Capitol Mall

So I not only got to attend the Tea Party at the State Capitol yesterday, but it was my immense privilege to be the lead-off speaker; mine was the first in a long stream of excellent speeches, including that of my NARN cohost  Ed Morrissey, whose speech I videotaped and is currently up at Hot Air, and Twila Brase, and Katie Kieffer, who will no doubt post video, also gave an excellent speech.  There were more.  Many more.

Lil ol me.  Courtesy Peter Anderson.

Lil’ ol’ me. Courtesy Peter Anderson.

I estimated about 1,500 people at the event at its peak around 6:30 or so.  It was good-sized, jovial crowd – but not quite as big as last year.  Some people were worried about this.  I’m not; last year, people were upset, and wondering what the hell to do, and the Tea Party was like a psychological life ring to a whole lot of people whose political activism had never gone beyond going to the polls, maybe, every couple of years.  Over the past year, though, conservatives have changed; we turn out for rallies; we call Congresspeople in vast numbers; better yet, of the 11,000 who attended last week’s Bachmann/Palin rally, over 1,000 volunteered to be election judges.   We saw similar results last night.  Conservatives are doing what they need to do to turn the spirit of the Tea Parties into the action this nation needs.

One group that was not in evidence were the “crashers”; this wasn’t the case everywhere, and the Saint Paul Tea Party was ready with a sizeable group of volunteers armed with orange vests and cameras to handle security – but other than half a dozen “Tax Me More!” activists who stood across the street for about half an hour, and a “Thanks To Taxes” billboard-truck that desultorily circled the capitol grounds (the billboard seemed to imply that we have children, sunshine and sex because of taxes), there was really no “opposition” at all.

And while last year I saw a few signs that made me cringe, I didn’t even see much of the far-out fringe in the crowd this year, either.  I mean, if you’re one of those lefties who gets the victorian vapours over references to John Galt, then yeah, I suppose the crowd was big and scary.  But the far-out, Alex Jones fringe was mostly absent from the rally itself.  I saw not a single “Birther” sign, much less anything I”d call racist.  Indeed, almost all the far-out fringe contingent…

…was up on stage.   For some reason, one of Toni Backdahl’s co-MCs was a guy from AM1710, a little 15 watt AM station in Maple Grove that could be charitably said to be out there on the Alex Jones fringe of the movement.   And one of the opening “musical” acts was a kid in an “InfoWars.com” t-shirt (these are the folks that make the radical Randers shake their heads and go “good lord, how wierd”) who did a pseudo-rap rant that might have fit in at an anarchist rally and whose message would have made me cringe even had the kid not considered “intonation” part of a socialist conspiracy.  There were also a few speakers that sputtered about the unconstitutionality of the income tax, which is pretty much the norm at these things.

Now, I don’t fault the Tea Party’s organizers for including a lot of people that I, personally, disagree with strenuously – because that’s the whole point of the Tea Party.  It’s a group of people, some of whom would not normally agree about anyting, gathering together for a common cause; making government smaller, more responsible, and less frivolous with our rights and liberties.

And so I say “Yay” to all; the mainstream-of-the-mainstream Republican, the disaffected Democrat, the Ronulan, and everyone in between, and all of us who are united behind the idea that we are all created equal, and that people aren’t free until government is limited; let’s all kick ass in November.

Indeed, the only problem I heard about involved a reporter from “The Uptake”.  He’s a local leftyblogger who usually blogs anonymously; he went by “Steve” on the Uptake’s video.  Now, he interviewed me briefly last year; I never saw his final product, although I was told either his voiceover or his editing really mangled the context of my interview; I wouldn’t know – I don’t watch the Uptake much.  I did another standup with him after I got offstage – I figure if he and the Uptake want to Maye what I said, it says more about him and them than it does about me.   He referred to the people around him as “tea-baggers”; I gently corrected him, but I got a sneaking hunch it was a tell as to “the Uptake’s” overall tone of “coverage”.

But shortly after that, a few of the orange-clad security guys came up to me and said they’d been getting complaints about the Uptake’s crew.  I asked them for specifics; they took me to a couple that that said the Uptake’s crew hadn’t identified themselves as a “news” crew that was going to publish an interview online, and that they seemed to be trying to get them to say something stupid, to make them – Tea Partiers in general, it seemed – look stupid.    The woman said that the “reporter” seemed to be trying to pick a fight with her, trying to one-up her on her knowledge of issues; “I”m not an encyclopedia, I can’t answer all the questions he has right away”, she said, still visibly exasperated.   Her husband, a Vietnam veteran, echoed his wife’s thoughts; “he was trying to pick a fight; he was harassing us”.

I walked away, wondering – is “the Uptake” still trying to be an actual news organization, or are they down to trying to do bogus Jon Stewart-style “attack” man-on-the-street interviews?   It’s entertainment, I suppose, watching a self-professed “smarter-than-thou” taking pot shots at those he and his viewers consider inferiors for cheap yuks.  But is it “news?”

Now, I haven’t contacted The Uptake about this, and I doubt that I will; when it comes to “reporting” on the Tea Parties, even the mainstream media seem to find waterboarding context acceptable.  But I think it’s curious that an organization that is fighting for its standing on the Capitol Press Corps would seemingly take such gratuitous liberties with the whole idea of “journalistic ethics”, whatever they are, with this kind of behavior, if true.

Bill Salisbury at the Pioneer Press, and Jessica Mador of MPR both did good, balanced jobs of reporting on the event; or at least I got no complaints from security about either of them (except from the guard that Salisbury bowled over in his rush to interview Katie Kieffer).

I’ll be looking forward to next year.  Goodness knows there’ll be work to do.

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There Will Be Drool

The DFL is heading toward a convention that will bestow its usual “kiss of death” to whomever gets it – usually the candidate that makes the “progressive” activists that control the party the most tingly; this will lead to a summer of hammer-and-tong DFL fratricide leading up to a September primary that will determine the real candidate for governor.

This combined with the fact that the DFL is in a historically disorganized state, and heading into a headwind of disaffection with Barack Obama and a GOP with new leadership at its head and a Tea Party chasing it to relevance, and the DFL and its minions are desperately in need of a sideshow to draw attention away from their own cage match.

Dave Mindeman at mnpAct wants to direct the reader to the sideshow they’re counting on – the neck-and-neck GOP endorsement battle between Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer:

The Emmer vs. Seifert free for all on the GOP side of the governor’s race is heating up. Both sides are capable of some prolific attack dog politics. And it will get nasty.

It is gradually developing into a conservative base vs. party establishment fight. Emmer is increasingly drawing endorsements and support from conservative bloggers, conservative activists, and conservative leadership. Seifert has support from old line party leadership and the more traditional Republican base.

Which is an interesting way for the local leftysphere to put it, given that both Emmer and Seifert are routinely portrayed as “conservative extremists” whenever they’re mentioned in any other context.  But it’s not untrue; Seifert’s got the organizational mojo, Emmer’s a conservative firebrand and the best stump speaker in Minnesota politics today.

The two have developed a recent history. Emmer had challenged Seifert for Minority Leader a few years back and then refused to vote for him for Speaker in 2009. Emmer has been waiting awhile for this opportunity and he is cashing in.

Add to all of this the fact that delegate strength to the convention is nearly evenly divided and you have the makings of an old style, no holds barred, nasty party convention.

Yep.  The GOP convention is going to be a donnybrook, very possibly crazier than the 2002 convo.

It is noteworthy that Seifert has been particularly critical of Emmer’s voting record of late. The in-depth research style has the definite ring of a Brodkorb type tactic. Although the former MDE attack blogger has been careful to be neutral in his capacity as party deputy chair, his fingerprints are almost detectable in the current Seifert strategy.

It’s no big secret; Seifert’s the “insider”.   The party has several years invested in Seifert as minority leader.

But this – and the idea that for every yin there needs to be an opposite yang – leads Mindeman to a fatally flawed assumption or, if you are more cynical, to the gaping whopper the DFL wants you all to believe about the MNGOP in the upcoming election; the sideshow, if you will, to try to distract the voters and encourage the DFL troops as they go through their own cage match this summer.

He starts out OK…:

Looking over the general Republican landscape, let me make a speculation…and mind you this is only an opinion.

The conservatives are putting a vested interest in Emmer. He is emerging as their consensus choice. Emmer has a wind at his back as he makes his case for the convention.

Yep.  The GOP’s conservatives are using the endorsement process as it was intended to be used; as the time to reject compromise, to declare “death or glory”, to come home with their shields or on them; to campaign for the most conservative candidate left in the race.  They don’t want the consolation prize; they want it all.  And correctly so; now is the time to fight like hell for the brass ring.

Seifert’s supporters, by the way, are doing exactly the same thing.  Because now is the time for the fight.

But it’s on May 2 that Mindeman’s theory goes to pot.

If Seifert manages to wrest the nomination away from Emmer in a bloody convention, you will see a party that will go into the fall campaign divided. A conservative backlash might just stop the conservatives from coalescing around Seifert, reducing his turn out and possibly moving toward some other third party or maybe even forming one.

Let me take you back in time to 2002.  Brian Sullivan – who was and is every bit as conservative as Tom Emmer – had the backing of the conservative base.  Tim Pawlenty – who held the same position in the GOP caucus that Seifert does today – and Sullivan were every bit as closely locked together as Seifert and Emmer are today.   And some of the punditry, especially on the left, predicted exactly the same result; that Sullivan’s supporters would stay home, that conservatives would break away, that the GOP would battle itself into irrelevance.

But the convention, as long and brutal as it got, had exactly the opposite effect.  To win the endorsement, Tim Pawlenty had to adopt one of Sullivan’s key driving points – the Taxpayers League’s “No New Taxes” pledge.  And for the imponderably vast majority of Minnesota conservatives, that was more than enough.

Tim Pawlenty took the pledge – and, more importantly, has honored it for eight years, now.  And I, as a fire-breathing conservative talk show host, could care less if he took a trip to the arctic with Will Steger that had absolutely no policy ramifications, as long as he stuck to the point that mattered – stymying the DFL’s plan, “spend like crack whores with stolen gold cards”.

In short, the bruising endorsement process had exactly the effect it was supposed to; a candidate won, but as a result of his fight to get endorsed, he took the keystone of his challenger’s platform to the Governor’s Mansion with him.

Emmer may have a better chance of holding the party together but he is going to carry some baggage as well.

Nope.

Look – I’m not backing any particular candidate, at least not publicly.  Not yet.  But I’ll tell you this; even if you are a stone-cold Tom Emmer zealot, you have to realize that not only would Marty Seifert be a better governor than any of the DFL’s pack of hamsters, but that Marty Seifert’s voting record in the House is more conservative than Tim Pawlenty’s ever was.   Seifert is a conservative.  As conservative as Emmer?  Perhaps not – but plenty good enough.

So campaign like hell for whomver your candidate is – Seifert or Emmer.  Because for once,  conservatives are in a win-win situation.   Whomever gets the nomination will be a better, more conservative governor than any of the alternatives available to us today.  Neither will be perfect – but perfect, as they say, is the enemy of “plenty good enough”.

There will be blood.

No.  There will be coffee, and shouting, and more coffee, and pictures of delegates sleeping at 2AM with drool coming out of the corner of their mouth, and more coffee, and Excedrin, and five or ten or fifty ballots, and concession and acceptance speeches, and handshakes, and meetings, and buried hatchets and smoothed feathers, and looks out the window at the Tea Partiers who are done asking nicely for results.

And on the morning after the final gavel, there will be a campaign that hits the road at the head of a mostly-unified GOP that has a three month headstart building a winning campaign, on its way toward capping off an epic comeback.

There will be coffee, drool and victory.

Three words to live by.

Give Me Half A Pound Of Soul

An ambulance crew brings in a shooting victim; one shot to the chest, one to the head.  There was a lot of blood loss from the chest wound, and the victim is in immense cardiopulmonary distress.

The head wound missed the medulla, at the brain stem, the part that controls the heart and breathing and the rest of the body’s automatic functions (and, for most of the Minnesota Progressive Project staff, their writing as well) – so the victim didn’t die instantly.  But the victim seems to be non-responsive; there are indications his brain functions are badly damaged; he may be in a coma, or worse.

So the doctors give up and administer a massive overdose of morphine to kill the patient, because it’s all over anyway and why drag it on?

Well, no.  They don’t. They stabilize the patient as best they can.  They check further to see if the brain is really shut down; if it’s not, they do what they can to restore function.

When in doubt, they err on the side of saving lives [1].

Now, I don’t write a lot about abortion.  I’m opposed to it, of course; I’m personally pro-life.  I find most of the arguments in favor of “choice” to be self-indulgent and childish.  I’m going to skip most of them – it’s nothing I haven’t written about in some depth, of course.

With that in mind, the argument about the “viability” – the idea that a fetus isn’t really all that terribly human until it’s “viable”, or capable of living on its own – is perhaps less stupid than most.  It’s wrong, of course; after three kids, I can say with authority that a “fetus” isn’t “viable” until it can get a job and pay its own rent.

More seriously?  I believe that since a fertilized egg, left to its own devices (no medical intervention for or against its existence – just like in our great-great-grandparents’ time) will gestate for nine months 75% of the time, and those who get that far will be born alive two out of three times (those stats are from primitive cultures like 1890-era rural Minnesota), it’s fairly clear that whatever the physics and physiology and metaphysics behind the process, the whole thing is intended to create living, breathing human beings.  Beyond that?  I think it’s fairly clear that since preemies have been successfully brought along to fairly normal lives as early as 22 weeks into gestation, that the idea that a “fetus” isn’t “human” until a 40-week fetus’ umbilical is cut is a self-indulgent, illogical absurdity.

None of the above, by the way, touches on spirituality at any level.  It’s nothing but logic, so far.

But I’m a Christian.  I believe  that every person (except Ryan Seacrest) has a soul.

“When?”

We don’t know.

Souls are not measurable.  There’s no place in human physiology that’s been identified as a “soul fill valve”, leading to a “soul tank” where the ephemeral concept is kept.  It’s not like a brain wave, much less synonymous with it, and if it were, the gunshot victim in the example above would be out of luck.  Not everyone agrees that there is such a thing; atheists all bet the “under” on Pascal’s Wager.    No matter – if you assume there is no soul, and are motivated by anything other than naked self-interest, it actually makes the question harder to resolve.  We’ll come back to that.

So the question – part of it, anyway – is “when does a fetus get a soul?”

Dog Gone at Penigma writes a very long treatise that says, essentially,  we don’t know because spirutual authorities have never agreed on the subject:

I have read widely on the subject of our human soul and spirituality, and listened to many different voices pontificating ther dogma on the subject in the course of satisfying my own curiosity…This breadth of recognition might suggest some sort of consensus, some unanimity of understanding, a clarity and agreement on definition, right?

Of course, not.  Ecclesiastical bodies have fought long, bloody wars over the subject; when two of the great Christian denominations have been split for almost a thousand years over the Nicene Creed and the job description for saints, when Presbyterian congregations fall into epic near-blood-feuds over applause in church, to say nothing of gay marriage, looking for general consensus on the nature of the Soul is hopelessly optimistic.

There is no consensus across history or across the geography of our planet on any single specific aspect of that essence we name souls. We don’t agree on what it is; we don’t agree on when it is inside of us; we don’t agree on the origins. We don’t even fully agree on whether or not the soul is immortal or eternal; some believe that the soul can die, others that it grows as the body grows, with experience. We don’t agree on how, where, and from whom our souls derive. We don’t agree on who or what possesses a soul.

DG goes on to note that even within Christian tradition, the idea of the genesis of the soul has knocked around a bit:

The Christian tradition is contradictory. The roots of early Judaism posited that animals, at least some animals, had souls, as do other religious and spiritual traditions. In Islam, the belief is that the soul enters the body of a fetus in utero after 40 days. Not 90 or 180 days, not 30 minutes, and not at conception; they are quite definite on the 40 day figure. But then, in the Islamic faith, not only humans have souls either. Djinn and angels also have souls in that faith’s traditions. In the Druidic tradition, and in many other traditions (the many irreverent verses of “Give me that old time religion” are playing in my head) so do some trees and other inanimate objects.

Right.  But then, traditional religion from the dawn of time until pretty recently believed all sorts of stuff we find crazy today; insert boilerplate here about burning witches and kosher laws and selling indulgences and human sacrifice and stoning gays (oops; one religion still does that).

Of course, in that era people couldn’t tell with any certainty that the crop they planted in April wouldn’t be eaten to the ground by bugs in July or blown away by a sudden storm in August; people never connected “taking a dump upstream from where you get your drinking water” and the hacking, fever-ridden wave of deaths that would periodically befall the village; in a village where the people had raised vegetables and sheep for uncounted generations, humans were born the same way the animals were; the way nature had left the process.  And it was an ugly process; 1/3 of babies (of the 3/4 that weren’t miscarried earlier) were stillborn or died of complications during delivery, as did 10% of the mothers (with each birth); and that was even before infant mortality set in.

So given the exceedingly crude nature of “science” back when years had three digits and the world’s major religious leaders were half a generation removed from raising keff and goats, especially the understanding of human physiology and development at the time, the question “when exactly does the soul inhabit the body” was purely academic; like “what will I wear on my third date with Scarlett Johannson”, it might be fun to think about, but the practical application is pretty minimal.

But today, the vast majority of “fetuses”, barring pseudomedical interference and, of course, miscarriage, survive until birth and beyond.  Not only that, but as noted above “fetuses” born just past half-term go on to live normal lives – utterly unthinkable even a generation ago (which, if logic rather than politics reigned, would make most non-health-related third-term abortions murder).  We don’t know when life is viable, but the boundaries keep getting pushed back.

The objective boundaries, anyway.

And since, unlike my third date with Scarlett Johannson, the essense of life is actually a valid, testable question these days, the question “when does viable, human life begin” isn’t an academic question.

100 years ago, the gunshot victim in the first paragraph might have been given up for dead without bothering with a trip to a hospital.  Today, science can find out if there really is a brain function in there that can be nursed back into control of the body.  People what would have been give up for dead fifty years ago walk among us today.

And definitions of “when does a human become human” written a thousand years ago by people for whom it was an utterly academic question are no more informative to us today than surgery textbooks from 1700 are to the Mayo today.

Leaving aside the fact that the concept of “the soul” is ephemeral and unmeasurable in any way; even the fairly objective measurement of “when life begins” is, paradoxically, more difficult than ever, since science has made the instrumentation and criteria so much finer than before.

And so the paradox is, if you care about the intangibles that make humans human, the more we know about how life works, the less meaningful the attempts to put an arbitrary, “objective” limit on them.  How do you put a number on something that gets less measurable, the better able to measure it you theoretically are?

Since we don’t know – and, unlike the rabbis of the Old Testament and the druids and popes and mullahs of 1000 years ago, we know what we don’t know – then if you believe that human life has any intangible but real value (call it a “soul” if you want, or “worth as a human life” if you don’t), then the only logical response, as with the gunshot victim above, is to err on the side of life.  If we don’t know life to be absent in an organism that is intended to live, then you assume it – he or she – is alive.

And you can tell Pope Pius II I said so.

[1] Although with Obamacare in place, they’ll have to check with a committee of government accountants and lawyers for medical advice, first.

Kill The Death Penalty

This post is an expansion of a comment in a thread way down below.  Partly because my monkeying with my code this morning put a crimp in my morning blogging schedule.  Partly because the subject deserves it.

I oppose the death penalty, not because I break with most conservatives on the issue, but  because I am a conservative.

Stay with me on this one.

Conservatism is about upholding time-honored truths.

One of those truths is that the individual – one of the “Free Association of Equals” that our society is supposed to be, in the conservative view of things – is of supreme importance, and should be protected from the excesses of government. It’s why we conservative natter on about things like the Tenth Amendment – because we uphold the worth of the individual; there are some things that, to protect the individual, the government should just stay out of.

This directly contradicts the notion that individuals are “eggs” to be broken in the interest of the state’s convenience to make a social “omelet”. Frequent liberal commenter “RickDFL”’s left a remark in the comment section yesterday, that actually sent me looking for a remark about eggs and omelets that I coulda sworn Lenin or Stalin or Mao or Hitler made. No dice – the closest I got was Stalin’s “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” – but Rick (I puke in my mouth a little bit in writing this) is right; it’s something one of them would say.

Conservatives do believe that the pursuit of good requires sacrifice; the Americans who died at Omaha Beach and Gettysburg and Chosin Reservoir were also of incalculable value, and they did nothing to deserve what happened except serving their country, and their loss was a tragedy for all of us. But they died (most of us believe) for a greater good, in a time and a place and for a cause for which there was no alternative, and which helped bring immense good as a result.

Killing an innocent person to “deter” the guilty? It brings no good (the guilty party goes free forever!) (I mean, what DA is going to say “oops – killed the wrong guy the first time! Let’s try this again!”), there is an alternative, and, lest we forget, it kills an individual who did no wrong – which is exactly who this society is supposed to protect.

And it echoes Andrea Dworkin (or Catherine McKinnon?  Jeff Fecke?  I get confused) who said it’d be “good” if men got falsely imprisoned for rape, to make all the real rapists a little more afraid. It’s an idea straight out of the worst of the French Revolution (which had no problem executing the innocent “pour l’encourager les autres“), carried on via Stalin and Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot.

Hypothetically, if the system could be “perfected”, would I support it? Sure. But that’s another tenet of conservatism; mankind can never be perfected; the hypothetical is pointless. And to a conservative, protecting people from the problems that human imperfection brings to government drives what government is supposed to do – including impelling government to back out of big parts of our society.

So since…

  1. Mankind – including prosecutors and the police – can never be perfected, and…
  2. these imperfections kill the innocent, and…
  3.  killing the innocent is immeasurably evil, and…
  4.  since a foolproof alternative exists that surely and swiftly punishes the guilty (remember – life in supermax without parole begins at sentencing; death takes an average of 12 years) while protecting the innocent, and…
  5. protecting the innocent is one of society’s supreme goods, then…

…abolishing the death penalty is supremely conservative.

To me, the logic of my stance depends on the five interconnected points above – all drawn from orthodox conservative beliefs to a finely-polished “t”.  If you want to disagree, by all means do it in the comment section.  But if you can’t successfully attack that five-point chain of logic, I’m not sure you’ll get a lot of traction with me.

Three Or Four Races Are Plenty

I’m sitting looking over my broad, tree-lined avenue with a glass of single-malt, and the sky is blue and the white families with their happy, present-sotted kids are wandering past on their errands, and the election is over, so let’s all relax and quit irritating each other, OK? Michele Bachmann, Erik Paulsen, Jim Oberstar, Betty McCollum, John Kline, Colin Peterson and that other guy are about to take office, so all you black people just get over it. Go stock up on watermelon and spare ribs and maybe real estate in Liberia. White people still rule this country. Deal with it. Boom Shakalaka Boom.White legislators plan to bring sanity to Washington, and why not begin with Congress? It has been sorely in need of reform for a long, long time.

Democrats intend to bring reform to Washington, and why not begin with the United States Congress? It has been sorely in need of reform for a century or so. Equal representation for all people is a good idea in theory, assuming they are half smart, but then you look at Keith Ellison, an incurious frat boy from the state of Humphrey and Mondale, and you think, whoa, something is wrong with this picture. We need some horizontal control.

Let’s start at the beginning and redraw the map. First of all, is there a reason for South Central Los Angeles to have a congressional representative? I have often wondered about this. Why give a House seat to a half million wannabee gangbangers, pimps, crack addicts, prostitutes and derelicts while Utah gets one lousy House for millions of honest, hard-working people? (Compton has roughly the population of Salt Lake.) It’s OK if South Central LA sends somebody with brains and an independent streak, but when they send a couple of Black Democrat hacks, then it makes no sense.

The idea behind the Congress was to create a representative body of wise counselors who rise above the petty tumult and think noble thoughts and do the right thing in a pinch. Can you think of a time when Los Angeles’ representatives have done this? No, you can’t. So let’s bite the bullet and make Compton a federal protectorate and appoint an overseer – ooh, what a perfect word! This would be a good assignment for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s done a heck of a job in south Chicago, so let’s give it all of Compton and, while we’re at it, Newark. A wonderful postcard place, but what have its congresspeople done other than grub for federal largesse for Newark? Change the name to “Housing Project # 447227” and put HUD in charge of it.

While we’re at it, let’s admit that Detroit, El Paso and Philadelphia have never been completely comfortable as part of the United States. They’ve tried to fit in, but it just isn’t working, so let’s allow them to pull out and find their own path. You could attach El Paso to Juarez and make a lovely little desert nation out of that, and let Detroit join Canada, and make Philadelphia an “independent” nation. Add Camden New Jersey to it. They really are part of the same thing. This leaves us with 40 or 50 House seats unoccupied (more if we simply assumed that all black people could be conveniently represented by a few token representatives, since they all vote the same anyway. It’s called consolidation, folks. It goes on all the time in corporate America and also in local school districts, so let’s make it work for America.

We White people will personally foot the bill for the new, incredibly convoluted district maps. This is a promise.

We now have 40 states and 20 extra Senate seats to parcel out. Give some to ex-CEOs. This would rescue them from their lonely lives on the lecture circuit and lend some pizazz to the place since they’d be free to spout off and say whatever they think. People would sit in the galleries to listen to Lee Iaccocca. He’d be down there sawing away with Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley and maybe some former bank and auto execs. Let them in the club and put that experience to use. And give congressional seats to the NRA and the GOP itself. This would definitely add brains to the assembly.

And that is how you create a permanent white majority. Al Sharpton showed us the way. Learn from the master. Those dinkeldorfs who ran the show for 40 years must never be allowed to return to power. Take those fuzzy-headed libruls to the cleaners. Subject them to alternative interrogation techniques until we get to the truth. Keith Ellison would make a decent host of a daytime quiz show. He came dangerously close to running for president. Ai yi yi yi yi. Let’s get to work.

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