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

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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You Might Be Anti-American!

In the wake of the flap the agenda media and the Sorosphere manufactured over Rep. Michele Bachmann’s statements a few weeks ago on Tinglyball with Chris Matthews, I wondered – is it possible to question other peoples’ motivations anymore?

I’m convinced – having not only read the accounts and seen the video of Rep. Bachmann’s appearance, but having talked with Rep. Bachmann about the subject – that Rep. Bachmann meant “people who don’t have the nation’s best interests at heart”, and “people who love America exactly as it isn’t and has never been”, when she said “anti-American”.  And when she said the media should be exposing this, she meant “doing its job, and giving people some means of critically examining candidates’ views”, rather than “witchhunting”. 

Not that facts or context matter, of course.

Are there “anti-Americans” out there?  In the sense that there are people who want America extinguished from the planet?  Probably none in public life that matter, Jeremiah Wright and his invocation of the Sixth Commandment notwithstanding.

But can someone’s commitment to “American” ideals – the things that our founding fathers enshrined, things like “one person, one vote” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, “the rule of law”, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – be criticized?

One of the most popular posts that’s ever appeared on this blog came out four and a half years ago, during a previous spate of demands that nobody question anyone’s motivation (“Don’t you dare question my patriotism!”).  Entitled “You Might Not Be An American If…“, it kinda summed up how I feel about Bachmann’s statement and, yes, the targets:

If You Believe: that America has problems – huge problems – then dissent is American.
But If You Believe: …that America’s problems make it an inherently rotten concept, then maybe you should think about whether you’re living in the right place. 

If You Believe: …that America’s projection of power around the world is immoral – then dissent is American.
But If You Believe: …that any projection of American power is inherely unjust because it’s America, then maybe you should be living in, say, Sweden? Just an idea.

If You Believe: …that capitalism is wrong because its inequalities are inherely unjust, then dissent is American.
But If You Believe: …that the free market is inherently, irrevocably evil, perhaps China would be a better fit? Just suggesting…

If You Believe: …that invading Iraq was wrong, then dissent is American.
But If You Believe: …that our temporary administration of Iraq is worse than Hussein’s 30 year reighn of horrors, then perhaps you should rot in hell we need to have an attitude adjustment.

At four years’ remove, I might add a few:

If You Believe: …that racism still exists, and that people (or even just White People) inflict it on others, then dissent is American.
But If You Believe: …that all of America (or just White America) makes its every decision based purely on racism (unless they vote for Barack Obama), then you might be Anti-American.

If You Believe: …the Constitution is a “living document”, then dissent is hunky-dory.
But If You Believe: …that the Constitution is itself a corrupt, vile document that never did anyone any good, then perhaps you should find a different society to live in, just on basic principle.

Wanna swat at Bachmann’s statement?  You gotta bring more game than most of her critics seem to be able to manage.

Square Bullets For The Infidels

I remember reading a book about thirty years ago – The Social History Of The Machine Gun, or something like that.  It was a pseudo-academic treatise, adapted for some shred of popular market appeal, that talked about the social roots of fully-automatic weapons.

In one of the first chapters, they included the plans for an early, rudimentary multi-chambered cannon.  It dated back to the 16th or 17th century, and had five or six chambers attached to a circular plate; the plate could be rotated to push the chambers up against the barrel for firing – sort of the anscestor of the Gatling Gun (or, for serious gun geeks, the multi-chambered Aden gun).

It had one extra feature noted in the plans; it used a traditional round chamber to fire round bullets “for use against Christians”, the plans noted (I’m paraphrasing).  But if the troops were facing Moslem troops, the plate could be swapped out for one with chambers bored for square bullets (and no, I don’t recall any plans for square barrel bores), on the theory that square bullets would cause grislier wounds and do more damage.  Of course, being Mohammedans, the extra cruelty was justified, at least to the inventor.

There’s nothing new, there, of course.  A teacher of mine in high school – a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the US or Germany, if memory serves – recalled that one of the first things that the drill instructors did in basic training in wartime was to dehumanize the enemy; Vietnamese and Japanese and German humans became “Gooks” and “Japs” and “Krauts” and what-have-you.  Because killing humans is hard – but pushing a bayonet into a hateful caricature is easy.

Of course, German society (like much of Europe) had a solid head-start in dehumanizing Jews.  Hitler pushed things over the edge – but when it came to reducing a class of humans to untermenschen, he stood on the shoulders of giants.  Hateful, loathsome giants.

For most people – normal, decent people, at any rate – the first step on the road to unspeakable hatred is the belief that somehow, your opponent is less worthy of the decency most of us afford to actual humans.  And once you get past that, really, it’s a hop skip and jump to any ghastly horror you can imagine.

Emily from X Perspective is, by the way, a normal, decent person.  But a recent posts shows some of the dehumanization that is swallowing the left in re Sarah Palin.

[Not following politics this week? GOP VP Candidate Sarah Palin’s 17-yr old daughter is pregnant. Which we’d ignore if Palin wasn’t adamantly anti-sex-ed and anti-abortion.]

I admit to a small amount of hypocrisy of my own here: in general, I believe we should leave the kids out of this election – it’s not the girl’s fault her mother is running for office. But this was just too spot-on not to share.

“We should leave kids out of politics – unless we really hate what their parents [supposedly] stand for?”

And then, all bets are off?  Because decency is only for people who believe as “we” do?

And where’s Palin’s “hypocrisy?”  She – and, we presume, her daughter and future son-in-law – are pro-life.  And they’re following through on that belief.  Perhaps that’s a form of logic impermeable by conservatives; either way, I’m just not seeing it. 

Leave aside that the Juno analogy is completely off.  It supports Palin’s, and the pro-lifers’, stances; the Juno character had the baby, which, by the way, pissed off the pro-abortion crowd to no end – especially here in the Twin Cities, from whence Juno screenwriter and last year’s Hottest Writer Ever, Diablo Cody, sprang a few years back; local “feminists” were in a aorta-busting froth that Ms. Cody didn’t have young Juno abort her “oops”, more or less as they are with Bristol and, for that matter, Sarah Palin.  On whom, by the way, “feminists” have also bestowed dictatorial power over her daughter and her “reproductive choices”.  But that’s just a sign of a photoshopper with no command of metaphor.

On the other hand, every time the left slags Palin and her family, there’s another struggling middle-class-or-lower family who realizes there’s somebody running for the White House who just plain gets it.  And that translates into votes.

So by all means, photoshoppers; photoshop on!

Heston

Go ahead and pick your Heston:

The academy award-winner?

Ben Hur was probably the first “serious” movie I sat through as a kid – the first time I ever got that a movie could be more than simple yuks and scenery, that a story could mean more than what was being put in front of you. Heston won his Oscar almost fifty years ago, before I was born – and the movie still amazes me.

Heston was an amazing actor. Brad Carlson links to an excellent video retrospective of Heston’s film career.

And nobody, anywhere, writes about actors like Sheila O’Malley does:

My brother Brendan and I watched The Ten Commandments on the night before Easter, and expressed amazement, for the 100th time, how incredible Heston is, how inevitable. …even today, lulled to sleep by CGI effects, there is something stunning and terrifying about the Red Sea parting, well done! – but none of it would matter a whit if it weren’t for Heston’s commanding (pun) performance. He had no fear. He embodied courage, and was able to portray it larger than life. This is something NO actors have today – NONE – it is no longer the “style” of acting, and no longer in vogue. And that’s fine. Things don’t have to stay the same forever. But at least we could look back at one of the greats and say, “Ah. There. That is how it was done. That is how it should have been done.”

Absolutely true.

How about the “other” Charlton Heston, the man that stood for his beliefs at every turn – the one who marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, at the height of his career…

…at a time when social activism was not the fashion in Hollywood.

Joel Rosenberg:

In 1961, he attended a premier of one of his movies in Oklahoma.  The theater was segregated; he joined the picket line.  At a time when it was by no means politically expedient to do so, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  He was, throughout his adult life, a staunch opponent of communism, McCarthyism, and racial segregation.

A quarter-century later, Heston went on to spend the last fifteen years of his working life tirelessly fighting to protect the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans…

…which, for many people who were born too late to see Heston’s glory years on the big screen, was the Heston they knew best.

The Charlton Heston that drove more than a few people over the edge, helping cement the career of at least one polemicist, and assuring that he’d never do lunch in Hollywood again?  That was him.
Gary Miller:

Few did more than Charleston Heston to keep the stinking paws of the damned dirty apes off the firearms of law-abiding Americans.

Just like the patriarch Moses he played in the magnificent 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic, he did not live to see the promised land. But if an originalist majority on SCOTUS prevails in the soon-to-be-decided Heller case he will have died just short of the River Jordan.

Of course I owe that Charlton Heston – the guy who helped galvanize millions to turn the tide on two issues that mean a lot to me and many like me, civil rights that are seen as two sides of a coin, but should not be – something, too.

Or maybe the guy in a city and business and society full of libertines and faux libertarians, who achieved far beyond anyone’s dreams and ascended to the pinnacle of a career that he’d stumbled into and yet mastered, and devoted a fair chunk of his life to doing what was right and, at the end of the day, stayed married to his high school sweetheart for an entire lifetime?

How do you reconcile all those different Charlton Hestons?

You don’t. You appreciate the entire package on its own terms. Back to Sheila, who comes up with the words I was flailing at trying to find on the show yesterday, to capture an ideal that as usual Sheila nails without effort. I’ll be slathering on the emphasis:

The most stunning tribute of all, it takes my breath away to this day, is Richard Dreyfuss’ tribute. He wrote it for National Review – obviously a publication with political leanings that has nothing to do with who Richard Dreyfuss is, and how he votes. But, as I have said repeatedly on my blog, as I have chased people away from my site who seem constitutionally unable to play by my rules, as I have stated in my comment policy: when you are dealing with art, and the appreciation thereof, politics must take a backseat. At least if you want to have a worthwhile conversation. And then there are those who say, “I liked Charlton Heston BECAUSE of his politics” and that is just as idiotic. His work transcends. He was an actor, first and foremost, a “great pretender”. So talk about his work, please – there is plenty there to keep us chatting for 100 years at least! Nobody “owns” Charlton Heston. Nobody “owns” John Wayne. The most flaming liberal in the world could appreciate and love Red River, and those who put politics at the forefront are completely missing the point. What we are talking about here is love. And these actors who touch us, who get beneath our skins, who create something indelible … transcend all of that. The editors at National Review knew that, and so did Richard Dreyfuss.

I agree – and am awash in profound respect for a man that worked so tirelessly at the love he had for his craft, his country and its principles, and his family. Whose entire life is a monument to his love for all three.

As with Ronald Reagan (an underappreciated actor, albeit nowhere near Heston’s league), the different parts went together to make the whole man. You can – you have to, as Sheila correctly notes – appreciate them separately, and keep your art and your politics in separate silos. As Richard Dreyfus does, in the piece Sheila called out, and that you need to read. Written right after Heston’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s was made public five and a half years ago, it’s almost too full of perfect quotes. I’m going to grab two of them

I believe that films like Ben Hur were conceived because Heston was there to make them. He allowed these stories to be told because he was there to play the parts. …When I saw Charlton Heston as a kid, he took me far, far away, to places few actors could go. The only other American actor so comfortable outside of this era was Wayne, and Heston could time travel farther. Both held the magical alchemy that made me forget the commonplace of here and now completely. John Wayne allowed us into our American past. Heston, because of his perfectly male face, the depth of his voice, the measured almost antique rhythm of his speech, the oddly innocent commitment that allowed him to dive without looking into the role, took me farther, before the common era, as they say.

Somehow he was able to cut the myriad strings that connect us to our current lives, so he could inhabit our imagined past and imagined future so perfectly. So well did he do this that his discomfort was obvious when he played in the Now (actually, make that my discomfort, because he more than likely had a ball in the rare instances when he played something current). If it wasn’t the past it was the future. I could never have gotten to Ancient Rome without him, nor Ape City.

And…:

It has become fashionable to characterize his politics; almost as if his politics were a separate thing, like Diana’s popularity. People are either defensive or patronizing (if not contemptuous). I can only say I wish all the liberals and all the conservatives I knew had the class and forbearance he has. Would I be as patient or serene when so many had showed me such contempt, or tried to make me feel stupid or small? I doubt it, truly I do. This is dignity, simply and completely. A much more important quality than political passion at the end of the day, and far more lacking, don’t you think?

That may be the biggest thing to take away from Heston; to love what you do, to fight for what you believe in, to live a life you’re proud of, and to do it all with grace.

In remembering the man, his life, his accomplishments, his impact on this world – and as Dreyfus noted, the man in which they were all wrapped up and and coexisted so famously – you can note them all in parallel, and fondly remember them all.

And so I do.

And rest in peace, great American icon. You will not be forgotten.

I’ll take all of the Charlton Hestons. Thanks.

Continue reading

Saving Your Soul

Humans have a deep-seated need to belong to something bigger.

And I’m not just talking about the Minnesota Organization of Bloggers, here. Bear with me – Ed and I were talking about this on the show on Saturday, and I’ve got this urge to elaborate. And we know how ugly that can get…

———-

For most of history, that “something bigger” has meant “higher powers” and “eternity” – the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, Valhalla, Nirvana, whatever. Organized religion, for much of human history, has focused (or, depending on the religion and your point of view, exploited) that human need, for good (hope, charity, Haendel and Bach) or ill. Religion is a hot topic, one way or another, for most of the organized world’s people.

And part of being “part of something bigger” also means “being against something bigger and badder and on the other side”; to Christians, it’s evil in its many forms, from Satan to temptation to what-have-you.

After the left claimed God was Dead in the late 19th century, that human impetus didn’t go away, of course. People have exploited that human desire even as they denied the Higher Power that had been its focus.

Marxism replaced God with ineluctible forces of history. Lenin turned that academic notion into a pseud-messianic crusade, an overarching “something bigger” that subsumed all of Russian (and, to his warped little mind, world) society. Stalin, a former Orthodox seminarian with a keen understanding of how people work, expanded his cult of personality to Messianic proportions – lessons the likes of Mao, Castro, Kim Jong-Il, Idi Amin and Pol Pot (himself a former Buddhist monk) exploited. And of course, they replaced Evil with a variety of enemies – class enemies, countries, anti-cults, whomever.
Hitler learned from Lenin’s mistakes, and did him one better; rather than banning God and the thousands of years of communal tradition His worship brings along, he co-opted it. An atheist, he wrapped himself and his party in the traditions of German Lutheranism and the mythology of German Catholicism, and – more importantly – the overarching German notion of Volk. This concept is a hard one to explain to Americans – I minored in German, and I’m only familiar with its outer edges – but it’s an idea at the nexus of the German land, language and history; Blut und Boden (“Blood and Territory”) is a phrase as familiar to students of Volk as “Domini et filii et spiritus sanctus is to Catholics, something with a meaning far beyond the literal to the adherent. Volk goes well beyond folklore and tradition, and was a sort of meta-religious link to Germany’s pagan past, underpinning German life and faith and culture the way paganism is just behind the surface of Latin, African and Caribbean Catholicism.

And so rather than having to spend time and energy vanquishing thousands of years of folk tradition and religious teaching, all Hitler had to do was take advantage of it.

Volk aided Hitler in putting a Big Evil – Judaism – in front of the people, as well; the Volk tradition viewed life on the land as inherently more noble and valuable than life in the towns; it viewed town and city life as corrupt and ignoble. And it associated Jews with city life, and at its extremes blamed them for its ills and corruption. The Lutheran Church in Germany drew heavily on Volk tradition and mythology, while the Catholic Church of the day added its own level of anti-Semitism which, again, was ripe for Hitler’s picking in Germany and especially Poland.

But in all cases, in the USSR and Red China and Nazi Germany and to similar extents in fascist countries everywhere, there were Big Enemies to replace the ones they’d abolished.

———-

Ed and I talked about Michelle Obama’s “Save the Nation’s Soul” speech on the Northern Alliance show last weekend (the podcast should be up soon). We called out this statement of Mrs. Obama’s:

And things have gotten progressively worse throughout my lifetime, through Democratic and Republican administrations, it hasn’t gotten better for regular folks. ….

We have lost the understanding that in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another — that we cannot measure the greatness of our society by the strongest and richest of us, but we have to measure our greatness by the least of these. That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.

Ed’s response on the show was similar to what he wrote on his blog:

But it’s the notion that only Barack Obama can save our souls that is the most offensive part of the speech, by far. Government doesn’t exist to save souls; it exists to ensure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. If I feel my soul needs saving, the very last place I’d look (in the US) for a savior would be Washington DC or Capitol Hill. I’ll trust God and Jesus Christ with my soul, and I’m not going to mistake Barack Obama for either one.

And my first reaction was similar; “Step off, ‘Chel.  My soul is between Christ and I”.

But it’s really a lot worse than rude presumption.  It’s not just that government is a lousy place to go for moral repair.  It’s that when govenrment tries to serve as a national soul, things break and people get hurt.
Fortunately, Jonah Goldberg just wrote an entire book on the subject, and the reaction to the book sparked a really great blog,  on which he writes;

Many of the tropes of a political religion/liberal fascism are evident. He exalts unity as it’s own reward. His talk of starting new and starting over often sounds like more than merely “turning the page” on the Bush-Clinton years. It sounds a bit like starting at Year Zero.

Which was the hallmark of Lenin and Mao; the past had to be wiped away (and its practitioners, real or imagined, sent to gulags) before the future could really get underway.

But what I find most intriguing is his rhetoric of destiny and “choseness.” He often makes it sound like he has been selected by forces of providence or God or simply history for this moment. He is, in Oprah’s words, “The One.” But even more interesting, he tells voters they are the ones. “This is it,” Obama proclaimed on Super Tuesday. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.” That’s pretty oracular stuff.

And…:

Such a vision is comforting because it plays upon man’s inherent desire to belong, to be protected by his fellow man and his community. “Strength in numbers” is the narcotic of all populists, the logic of all “people powered movements” as leftwing bloggers like to say (though for reasons that defy easy analysis, the left has mastered the art of casting itself as the voice of the dissidents against the oppressive, stultifying “herd mentality” even as it places the group at the top of its hierarchy of political aesthetics). This is the motivating passion behind the fascist quest for order.

Sometimes it sounds like Obama wants to talk about God’s plan when he’s talking about his own campaign for a New Order. But most times, you can see that he wants to stay on the secular side of the divide — where his white base resides — but without giving up the prophetic vision. He wants to persuade his followers, and perhaps himself, that he is elect, but he cannot do so without religious language.

There’s much more, and you should just go read it.

I get leery of the likes of Mike Huckabee (note: not “Huckajesus”.  Just…no.  Don’t) and his rhetoric – but invoking ones’ personal, transparently-visible, well-known faith (anyone who thinks Christianity has a secret agenda has been sleeping for the past 2000 years) into the White House is both limted by the Constitution and mediated by the fact that it is completely open and transparent.  Most importantly, it’s a very different thing than turning the state into its own pseudo-religion.

The Harvest Home

I was a 20 year old college kid working a grindingly-boring Sunday afternoon shift at KQDJ Radio in Jamestown, ND on February 13, 1983.

I was doing what I usually did on those boring Sunday shifts; playing records, doing homework, taking transmitter readings.

Then, the police scanner in the “newsroom” next door, which normally burbled with the desultory reports of DWIs and bar fights and traffic stops that make up the lives of most small town cops, suddenly erupted.  There’d been a shootout; officers were down; cops and sheriff’s deputies were being dispatched to Medina, a town of about 400 people about 35 miles west of Jamestown on I94.

It took hours to untangle the story, which became perhaps the most famous crime in North Dakota history, the Medina Shootout.

Two US Marshals, dispatched from Fargo to try to arrest a group of tax-protesters affiliated with the neo-Nazi-sympathetic “Posse Comitatus”, had been killed in the shootout that ensued.  Their leader, Gordon Kahl, and several others fled the scene.  The scanner reported ambulances on their way to the hospital in Jamestown bringing the wounded, which included Yorie Kahl, criticially injured by a gunshot; in one of the many ironies that day, Kahl’s life was saved by the doctor on duty in the Emergency Room that day, Dr. Evan Kostick, father of my high school pal David (himself a doctor today), and one of Jamestown’s tiny Jewish community.

News organizations in North Dakota today are remembering the 25th anniversary of the shootout – the Fargo Forum led and leads the coverage; others from the Bismark Trib pitched in; former Forum staffer James Corcoran wrote “Bitter Harvest”, the definitive book on the event, relating not only the shootout and the apocalyptic trial of the survivors, but the social sturm und drang that the event caused on the Northern Plains.

———-

Times were brutally tough in the Dakotas in the early ’80s.  The rest of the US was slowly recovering from a recession; it’d be hard to call what happened on the Plains anything less than a depression.  What the foreclosure crisis is to the inner city today, the farm crisis of the ’80s was to the Great Plains.

Some farmers – and some of the workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, which in North Dakota back then accounted for pretty much every job in the place – did what human nature naturally bids some people to do; blame someone else.  And for some – like Kahl and a thin film of like-minded people – it wasn’t a big leap from “losing your farm to the bank” and “losing your farm to Jewish Bankers”.  The Times’ review of “Bitter Harvest” notes:

The book that turned his head at an early age was ”The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” and it was written by Henry Ford.

It is based on a 1918 treatise called ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to be the minutes of a cabal of Russian Jews plotting to destroy Christianity and the white race and take over the world. Ford wrote ”The International Jew” in 1920, and it was not until 1929 that he finally conceded that ”The Protocols” was a fabrication concocted by czarist Russian anti-Semites.

Even so, as a young man in the 1940’s, Mr. Kahl believed it totally. He had considerable encouragement. He came of age at a time when the velvet voice of the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who reached into almost as many homes with his weekly radio show as Fred Allen, broadcast some of the nastiest anti-Semitic propaganda ever heard on the airwaves; when Gerald L. K. Smith established the Jew-baiting Christian Nationalist Crusade in Arkansas and gained a national following, and when Gerald Winrod, an apocalyptic fundamentalist preacher in central Kansas gained tens of thousands of adherents to a movement that came to be known as the Jayhawk Nazis.

Winrod’s son, George Gordon Winrod, kept the ministry alive.  I remember his followers leaving corrosively anti-semitic leaflets under the windshield wipers of cars in the church parking lot when I was in ninth grade.

Nobody in my circle bought into it, of course – but we all knew people for whom it rang true.  There was an audience, out there.

And they – like Kahl – weren’t necessarily easily identifiable:

When Mr. Kahl came home from World War II, he was 25 years old, and he was regarded as a hero. He had shot down 10 enemy planes as a turret gunner on B-25’s, and he had won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two air medals, a Presidential unit citation and two Purple Hearts. That was not all the metal he brought home. Surgeons never did get out all the shrapnel he took in the jaw, chest and hip.

So the combination of hard times and ready scapegoats found some adherents.

———-

Kahl escaped that day; with two federal agents dead, the federal law-enforcement machinery sprung into place.  Two blocks from the house where my father still lives in Jamestown, in Stutsman County’s then-brand-new courthouse, the FBI and an alphabet soup of other federal law-enforcement agencies set up their command post; local hotels were jammed with brusque men and women in sharp suits and/or, occasionally, battledress utilities.

And they were not happy.  Rumors began to circulate; the Feds were tramping about the prairie with big, nasty boots; they were conducting no-knock raids, presuming the locals guilty until proven innocent, acting like a hostile occupying power – or so said the rumors.

The previous summer, I’d worked at KDAK, a little station in Carrington, a town of about 2,000 about 40 miles north of Jamestown.   The station had also just hired a new “News Director”, a pretty mid-20-something named Peggy Polreis who’d just come from Carrington’s newspaper.  One of my jobs had been to make her broadcast-worthy.  I did a good job.

One day, a few days after the shootout, Peggy got a tip from a source that the Feds were going to search a farmhouse near nearby Fessenden.  She arrived on the scene to find that the press were being cordoned away from a farmhouse located a solid half-mile up the road, behind a shelter belt.

Peggy slipped away from the group, and crawled – so the story went – a quarter of a mile along the shelter belt, keeping out of sight of the cops.  She was, apparently, the only non-cop to see what happened.

The police – and, as I recall, a North Dakota National Guard armored personnel carrier – had surrounded the farmhouse.  A dog darted from an outbuilding; a policeman shot the dog dead.  The gunshot sparked more gunfire, and before long the farmhouse was completely riddled with bullet holes.  Finally, the police moved in…

…to discover the farmhouse empty.

It was one of many incidents that angered, and occasionally alienated, the locals from the Feds.

———-

How you look at the events of that winter (and the ensuing spring and summer, when the manhunt for Kahl led to a final shootout in Arkansas that left Kahl and another Christian Identity supporter dead) depends on who, and where, you were back then.

If you were a local, you knew that North Dakotans tend to be good, law-abiding people; they’ve voted Republican in pretty much every Presidential election since statehood, making them marginally less conservative than Utah.  And yet the Posse, and Christian Identity, found recruits and adherents – and it was no mystery why.  Radical fringes were no stranger to the plains; the Non-Partisan League, the Grangers, the Bund and other fevered activists had gestated in the area in response to other crises since the 1890’s.

So we weren’t surprised that some of the locals were sympathetic.  It was a minority – a small one – but it drew attention.  One of them even wrote and recorded – on a home cassette player, I think – a song praising and rooting for Kahl, during the manhunt and before the final fatal shootout in Arkansas.  It got a little play – mostly from news organizations who were reporting on the acceptance Kahl, the Posse and other extremists got from the area.

If you weren’t from the area, and didn’t understand it, it must have seemed odd.  And maybe a little scary.

———-

Hollywood certainly knows nothing of the area, and understands less about it.  But that didn’t stop it from making a made-for-TV movie, based rather loosely on Bitter Harvest, in 1991.  Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas starred Rod Steiger as Kahl, and Michael “Family Ties” Gross as an FBI agent from New York who flew to the state to help solve the crime.

The show got the basic facts right; the names, the places (most of the show was putatively set in Jamestown), the timeline (sort of).

But the Hollywood take on the area, and the locals, was bemusingly warped.  Part of it was the Central Casting version of small-town people; although North Dakota is a place where you can hear the Fargo accent (“Yah, sure, you betcha”) in a hundred little main street cafes and bars, the show had the local farmers speaking with cornpone Arklahoma drawls.  The locals, to Hollywood, were out of Gomer Pyle or, given the sinistry of the subject matter, maybe Deliverance.

Worse?  While there was support for Kahl (and even more criticism of the Feds’ heavy-handedness, arrogance, and occasional contempt for due process in the way they carried out the manhunt in the immediate wake of the shootout), Manhunt in the Dakotas showed something that was almost an active guerilla movement, with rocks and shots aimed at passing police cars, threats, Gross (and Larry Hunt as “Chief Walters”, a composite and sympathetic Jamestown police chief) being harrassed while driving in the countryside, and – in the movie’s climactic scene – the two walking, nervous, down “Jamestown”‘s main street as the “local radio station” played the pro-Kahl song (with a cheery intro from the DJ), both of them keenly aware of the hateful gazes of the locals (by now all of them seemingly Kahl-sympathizers) boring through them both, as if they were fully-bedsheeted Klansmen scurrying through Compton.

It was crap, of course, factually (no station in the state played the song, except as news) as well as socially (Jamestown is a college town of 16,000 that hosts a state hospital, and a school for the profoundly disabled, where Kahl had little traction; Kahl’s base of support was out on the isolated drift prairie).  But it was interesting, seeing how inscrutable “flyover land” was to the people who actually produce these things, and the almost-superstitious fear the place engenders.

———-

That part of North Dakota is a huge place in terms of the land and the sky; the human geography is much smaller.  In the 22-odd years since I left the place, whenever I meet other expats, it’s hard to go more than thirty seconds without finding a common acquaintance.

It’s the same with events.  Besides Dr. Kostick, and Peggy Polreis, I knew Darrell Graf – Medina’s police chief at the time (and Graf has actually turned up on this blog) and people in his family.  Scott Kopp was another – a guy I remember as a Stutsman County deputy who lost a finger from a Kahl shot that could have done much worse.  Another guy – a Medina cop who was on the periphery of the action – was my friend’s sister’s boyfriend (and, the last I checked, husband of about twenty years).

The internet can make you acquainted with even more people.  Scott Faul – one of the Posse members who was arrested, tried and did prison time for his role in the shootout – has a blog.

Twenty five years is a long time, even out there.  But memories are longer still.

How Many Fetuses Fit On The Head Of A Pin?

While I think my parents thought I might grow up to be an academic, I turned off that track bright and early. One of the things that sparked that swerve was the notion that you could – and many would-be professors do – slave away for years and years, and are still not really considered professors until they get “tenure”. Until they got tenure, life was an endless parade of crummy jobs, moving constantly, being treated like (by academic standards) crap.

I preferred the much more stable world of radio.

The point, of course, was that life on the academic track was nasty, brutish, and tenuous – until one achieved that magical state of tenure.

Which was, if nothing else (in theory) a fairly objective state. Either one had it, or one did not, and one usually knew what was required to get it. It was pretty black or white.

Some of life’s issues break out like that – with a black or white answer. Others, not so much.

And with still others, it really depends on how you come to the issue.

———-

Abortion’s never been my biggest topic. The way I figure, if we lose the war on terror, the Planned Parenthood staff and the Pro-Life Minnesota staff are both pretty well screwed. If this nation isn’t secure, none of us will be protesting at abortion clinics; if the nation is prosperous (ergo Republican), people will be either financially secure enough to want the babies, or working too hard to have sex enough to make it an issue.

Make no mistake about it, I’m pro-life. I think abortion is wrong. A pro-“choice” dogmatist will try to read some big pathology about “wanting to control women” into that. It’s garbage, of course; with two teenagers, I realize that my odds of “controlling” anyone are slim to nil.

No, it’s because I value human life and because being pro-“choice” involves a leap of faith that I can’t justify.

That’s right. The “anti-religious” stance on abortion requires the leap.

Bear with me here.

Last week, I was reading Jeff Fecke,writing over at “Shakespeare’s Sister”, your one-stop shop for shrill, skin-deep “feminism”. Now, I’ll admit – I’ve given Fecke a hard time this last year or so; partly due to things like this, sometimes for things like this, and largely for his nonpareil skills as a single-A-league Atrios impersonator.  Sometimes I read, sometimes I ignore.

But since he refers to me (later on), I figured it was worth a read.

My memory was tripped by this Monday quote from Mark Steyn. Ordinarily you’d expect he’d be saying something about how the Muslims have taken Oberammergau,

Given the influence of John Stewart on the left’s sense of humor, in a generation no liberal will be able to dismiss an opposing idea without some sort of labored exaggeration. I may hold a telethon.

But I digress:

but on Monday, he decided to take a break, and instead defend the stalking of a 12-year-old boy and his family:

Michelle Malkin reports that the blogospheric lefties are all steamed about the wingnuts’ Swiftboating of sick kids, etc.

Sorry, no sale. The Democrats chose to outsource their airtime to a Seventh Grader. If a political party is desperate enough to send a boy to do a man’s job, then the boy is fair game. [Emphasis mine]

“Fair game.” Now where had I heard that before?

I’m tempted to answer “the same place the writer learned – or didn’t learn – about context”.

But never mind; we’re about to find out!

Back in May, my friend and then-editor at Minnesota Monitor, Robin Marty, announced she was expecting a child. It was great news for Robin and her husband Steve, and obviously those of us who know them were happy for them.Now, Robin was and is a longtime supporter of abortion rights. Something about women having the right to determine what happens in their own bodies.

Well, let’s cut the euphemism; abortion rights is the ability for women to (depending on your point of view) destroy an inconvenient (or, rarely, dangerous) tissue mass, or destroy a human that can’t quite exist outside the womb yet.

Everyone can “control what happens to their own bodies”; it’s called “wearing a rubber”, “taking precautions”, “being aware that sex has consequences”, or – heaven/goddess/physiology forfend – keeping your clothes on.

The usual response is “sex shouldn’t be tied to having kids”. And it’s there that pro-life and pro-“choice” people split.

We’ll get back to that very shortly.

Anyhow, like many pro-choice women, Robin was still able to enjoy her pregnancy, knowing that even though it was early in her term, the fetus that she carried was going, eventually, to grow into her child.This is, of course, something those of us who are pro-choice get.

I remember that moment back when my daughter was in about her 25th week, when I was almost certain she was going to be a Crock Pot. The funny part was, I felt the same thing about my son!

I’m not quite sure what Fecke means by this; as a pro-life father of two, I most definitely knew my kids were – God or physiology or blind capricious fate willing – going to grow into the vexing, voracious teenagers they are today. Does he really think that there’s something about being OK with abortion that grants some special perspective on rearing children?

I’m willing to chalk it all up to sloppy writing – Fecke is nothing if not reliably imprecise. If, on the other hand, that is what he (or any other pro-“choice” person) believes – well, I’d love to hear more.

Let’s chalk it up to “sloppy writing” and ignore the digression and move on:

I knew that at one month, two months, even four months, my daughter really didn’t exist yet.

Let’s stop right here – since it does, in fact, illuminate the entire difference between the sides in this “debate”.  The overarching question is “when does life begin”; the empirical answer is “we don’t know yet”.  To the pro-life person, the response is “err on the side of life, since life is absolutely sacred”.  To the pro-choice person, it is…

…whatever it takes to support the fundamentally political thesis that undergirds the pro-“choice” movement.  In other words, a leap of faith.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A fertilized egg – without the aid of any medical intervention, either either caring for it or “terminating” it – will spontaneously abort itself, or “miscarry”, about 1/4 of the time.

And in places with no medical care whatsoever – including Minnesota, not much over 100 years ago, during our great-great-grandparents’ lifetimes – a child was 1/3 likely to die in childbirth, or within the first year thereafter.

Thus – without any aid (or assault) from medicine – a conceived egg left to its’ own devices has a 50-50 chance of becoming a living, breathing, independent human being, through a process that exists for no other reason than to create human beings, using physiology that – pleasurable and species-reinforcing side-effects aside – exists purely to create more human beings. Human beings that need some help getting started – a place to quickly evolve, we hope, from zygote to fetus to baby.

To the pro-“life” person, the implication is that one of sex’s consequences is that, if the right sperm meets the right egg, the couple – fella and dame – are entering into something that transcends either of their own lives, much less their own bodies; the creating of another human being, who will – physiology or God or remorseless chance willing – will one day be just like us, only maybe a little better. Because sex has such far-reaching, legitimately life-altering consequences, we alter our behavior accordingly – we abstain (even to the point of abjuring sex outside of marriage), or we are extra-cautious, believing as we do that a “fetus” is something that might not be “viable”, per se, but that is intended to be viable (knowing also that no “fetus” is “viable” until it can hold a job and pay its rent), and which is imbued with a moral significance by the very fact that it is intended to be human one day. Something we have no more right to extinguish for being inconvenient than a hospital has to euthanize intensive care patients (who, indeed, are often no more capable of living outside the ICU than a 18 week old fetus is of living outside the womb.
To a pro-“choice” person, the zygote is a mass of tissue until – at some hard-to-determine point that nonetheless seems to usually swerve to the side of convenience, including up to the moments before birth in all-too-many cases – it isn’t.

In summation: cohesive view about the role of reproduction in life and the ethical and place of the “fetus” in that process, versus belief in a mystical change in state from “tissue mass” to “human” that takes place…when? When the head comes out? When the “fetus” gets past the earliest point medical science has been able to sheperd a preemie to life? When government, in the infinite wisdom of a body of people who eschew studying either science of philosophy for the here-and-now noodling of the law, says it turns into a human?

Given that, wouldn’t it be much more fair to say that “given my attachment to the notion of this mystical unknown threshold, I believed she didn’t really exist yet”. Because you have no objective, empirical measurement – nothing analogous to, say, “it exists”. Such a belief is, objectively, no more grounded in fact than belief in a flat earth or Ron Paul.

And – since this post moves on to talk about thresholds for taking offense at satire – Fecke should be aware that the notion that a fetus “doesn’t exist” is no less objectionable than saying a profoundly handicapped child or a comatose person “doesn’t exist”.

Had my ex-wife suffered a miscarriage, we would have been sad, of course, but I know in my bones that we would not grieve the way we would…well, let me put it this way. I can type “if my ex-wife suffered a miscarriage.” I can’t even bring myself to type out the hypothetical that would apply to my daughter now. The mere thought makes me sick to my stomach. If anything happened to my daughter, a part of me would die, forever. I would never be the same, and I would never want to be. Had my ex suffered a miscarriage? It would have been sad, and we would have grieved for the idea of the child we’d expected.

Which is true, as far as it goes; every day of my then-wife’s pregnancy, I hoped and prayed for her health, and theirs – just as I hope God or blind cruel fate keeps the drunk drivers and diseases and random tragedies at bay for them. I hoped for this before they were born, and as they’ve grown and turned into people with personalities with whom I have three combined decades of history, it’s only grown.

But – this is rather important – that’s a matter of human nature, a sign that you are a fairly normal parent.  One has developed attachments and history with a seven year old; with a “fetus”, there are only hopes.
It’s not an objective metric about the beginning of life.

This is a roundabout way of saying that one can believe a fetus is not yet a person, and still be excited about pregnancy.

Abortion is, obviously, one of the most contentious issues there is. Like many such issues, there is a hard core of 10% on the right that wants it banned and criminalized, and 10% on the far left that wants to make it a civil sacrament. In between, there are an awful lot of shades of belief, including many – myself included – who are fundamentally libertarian, but believe personally that life begins at conception and that a “fetus” – given the fate that God or physiology or remorseless fate has in mind for at least half of them if you leave them alone – is attended with a little more moral gravity than a toenail or a plantar’s wart, and that just because God or evolution or what-have-you has set things up so that that incipient life form needs a female uterus for a few months isn’t a sign of its lack of ethical and moral weight, but a sign of how much weight the whole idea of physiology, sex, pregnancy, reproduction and men and women themselves have in the great scheme of things.

Is it a belief? Yes. Not much different than “a fetus is a blob of tissue until we really want it not to be.

Which ties us, at long last, into the real subject of this post – something that was even more contentious than the abortion issue itself, at least among regional bloggers, few months back:

And Robin was. So like any good blogger, she posted an image of the first ultrasound.

At this point, enter Tom Swift, crazy Minnesota blogger and erstwhile GOP candidate for school board in St. Paul. (I won’t link to him, and if he finds his way back here, Melissa, terminate him with extreme prejudice.) [As good a symbol of gutlessness as I’ve seen, really – Ed] He blogs under the name Swiftee, and he created an image to welcome Robin and Steve’s child into the world:

You get it? Because Robin was pro-choice, she might decide to abort the child she wrote about, so let’s get it some protection.

Not to speak for Tom Swift – a person who truly needs nobody to speak for him – but that is the most overdramatic possible reading of his point.

What was his point? Maybe that any “fetus” – not Robin’s, in particular, or not just hers – might have reason to be nervous, since the same consciousness that decides he or she is important enough to carry to birth can change his or her mind. Or maybe – given the number of people who don’t credit a fetus with “existence” until the umbilical is cut – that given the existence of partial birth abortion the “fetus” is never really safe. Maybe that a mythical, cognitive “fetus”, lacking an objective, hard-wired standard like “Tenure” that’d cause his/her parents (in general, not Rew and Smartie) to consider him/her a real person, isn’t any safer than that non-tenured professor – except the fetus isn’t going to wind up teaching freshman literature at Normandale if he/she doesn’t make the convenience cut.

Caustic, tactless and very, very pointed? Sure. Not that that’s ever really stopped anyone from ripping on commentators before.
But we’ll come back to that.

That’s not the interesting part of the story, though. Swiftee’s image got those of us on the left seething, but we let it go, primarily because we don’t want to give him the traffic. But that seething got back to local blogger Mitch Berg, who styles himself as a “reasonable conservative,” someone who believes in hitting his opponents hard, but fairly. And Mitch’s response to Swiftee was what I remembered:

Is Robin and Smarty’s baby “fair game” for satirists, given that

1. she put the ultrasound out on her public website, and
2. she and her colleagues from the “Minnesota Monitor” rentablog she “edits” have stumped for abortion on demand and partial birth abortion, and fumed and phumphered when the SCOTUS shot the procedure down?

Well, I’d say “I hope not” – but of course, in the world of internet “cartoonists”[…]pretty much everything is fair game. If there’s an unflattering or embarassing pic of yourself out there somewhere online, it’s going to pop up sooner or later, intended to dink at some belief of yours or another.

So – did Swiftee “cross a line” with his cartoon? What line? Where? In the coarse thrum of the political blogging interchange, I’m not sure there’s a line left anymore; any line one person draws is someone else’s sport to cross, and ones’ best bet is to strictly separate the personal and the public (as, indeed, I do). The one that civil people try to observe when dealing with one another…

Very Pilate-like, Mitch was. But it was that line — “fair game” — that caught my memory. Mitch styles himself as reasonable, but if you cross out the official hemming and hawing, [I’m official? Who knew? Did anyone catch my title? – Ed] Mitch’s meaning is clear: heck yes, the child of Robin and Steve is fair game. If you can make a political point by attacking the Martys, then by all means, go for it.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

Here’s something else I wrote about the whole flap last spring – something that reveals a lot more about my side of this flap than the bit Fecke chose to quote:

A fetus baby with a helmet. It’s kinda funny, if you don’t know the people involved. Still funny when you do, but it makes me a little uneasy. I generally prefer to keep politics impersonal. And yet it’s hard to look at, say, this (not safe for work or queasy stomachs; it’s the end-result of a “partial birth abortion”, and it’s horrific) and not want to make it very personal and not-abstract-at-all for those who support it.

One thing that most of us who favor free speech accept as a given is that nobody has a right not to be offended. Many of us – myself included, and the orthodox Catholic Tom Swift even more so – are offended by the existence of abortion, especially the partial-birth variety, via which parents not a whole lot different than Rew or Smartie could decide that the baby, as Fecke noted at the beginning of this post, “didn’t exist yet”.

Did it bother me that Swift took a photo from someone I actually know, like and respect? Of course it did. I like the Martys. I wish ’em the best; I’d be pleased as punch to bring a basket of garf rags (cloth diapers), A’nD and Desenex to the baby shower. I also think that, as people who’ve assumed the role of public figures (when Rew took on the job of editing the local sorosblog “Minnesota Monitor”) they were nuts to put any part of themselves or family life out in public. I’ve been a “public figure” of one sort or another since I started in radio when I was 16; I’ve had anti-semitic death threats (I’m not Jewish), I’ve had stalkers (and still do, although they’re really not very smart ones) – and so I keep my kids, my job, my girlfriends (when I have one) and their kids religiously out of this blog and everything else I write. Partly because anything you do put out there is “fair game”; partly because the concept of “fair game” is unfair.

Tom Swift is also a friend, someone I know and respect – but to call him a “bull in a china shop” is to underestimate a bull’s tact, as least on the blog. He’s the kind of person every pro-“choice” activist wishes would just shut up and go away.

And while I wish that the world – and its agent, in this case, Tom Swift – had left Rew and Smartie’s ultrasound pictures alone, and that this flap wouldn’t have involved two sets of friends of mine (and that puppies didn’t die, for that matter), the fact is that Swiftee was right. It was perfectly-aimed satire – and for left-leaning public figures (as Fecke is) to barber that it’s “tasteless” opens us all up to an endless dissertation about “tasteless” satire that the left defends even more blythely on principle, and with even less consideration, with counterexamples and counter-counterexamples, ad infinitum.

It sucks that it involved people I know.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Fecke post without the jump from out-of-context to unsupportable:

What is happening to the Frosts is not unusual, and not unique. It happened to Melissa and Amanda when they had the temerity to be women with opinions who wanted to work in politics

Who had made a blogging career out of saying some things that were every bit as objectionable as Fecke finds Swiftee, and which a bunch of unpaid conservative bloggers had the “temerity” to point out to people. That’s what we do. To paint Melissa Macewan and Amanda Marcotte as hapless victims is both a crime against context and, oddly, intensely anti-feminist.

It happened to John Murtha, who had the unmitigated gall to be an anti-war ex-Marine. It’s happened over and over, and will happen over and over again.

Just ask Gennifer Flowers!

Mitch was right: there is no line anymore, at least for the right. Everyone is “fair game.”… If they can attack a woman using her own ultrasound records for the sin of being both pro-choice and an excited expectant mother, they will do it.

Leave aside Fecke’s sloppy use of the omnipresent “they”, as if right wing bloggers are part of some monolithic medusa controlled by some central brain, and the irritating victim-mongering. Let’s shoot for honesty, here (on the off-chance that any of Fecke’s audience read this) – nobody “attacked” Robin.

And if the “fetus” “doesn’t exist” as a person yet – that was Fecke’s line, remember – then where’s the attack?

I’ll ignore all criticism, by the way – I think I’ll adopt Jeff’s “I know you’re not really a person” as a defense…

Continue reading

The Real Victims?

It was eight years ago last Saturday that the FBI ended its 24 year manhunt for Kathleen Soliah, who’d been living in Saint Paul as Sarah Jane Olson for a couple of decades.  Married to a local doctor who professed unawareness (successfully, even though he’d been a student radical in the sixties as well) that he’d been harboring a fugitive involved in a a murder and conspiracy to blow up police cars with the cops still in them.

She was arrested in leafy, “Leave It To Beaver”-esque Highland Park, where she’d lived for most of two decades.

The incident uncovered an old, fermenting rift in Twin Cities’ society; people who believed that since Olson/Soliah had spent two decades working as a politically-correct, ultraliberal DFL pseudo-radical, active in pro-“choice” and gun control and getting out the vote for far-left DFL candidates, that she’d more than paid her penance for her role in a conspiracy that, after all, had been back in the seventies when everyone was doing it, or wanted to, versus people who believed laws were for everyone.

On the first side; many of the Saint Paul DFL’s leading lights, who pitched in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Olson/Soliah’s legal defense fund and insisted loudly, sometimes shrilly, that Olson had more than paid her debt to society by just plain being her.

Tara McKelvey interviews Fred Peterson and Sophia Peterson, Olson/Soliah’s husband and daughter, in Marie Claire.

 I am prepared for some version of radical when I walk into the Highland Grill, a diner in downtown St. Paul, where I am meeting Fred Peterson for the first time. Instead, I get Middle America academic: Sitting patiently in a booth, Fred is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a long-sleeved, black shirt. His gray-speckled beard matches his shaggy gray-brown hair, which is casually brushed off his forehead. I am surprised that daughter Emily has come with him. Slender, with long eyelashes, heavy mascara, and thick hair reaching past her shoulders, Emily maintains a defensive posture. On the subject of the SLA’s radicalism, she says, “Back then, everyone was.”

At 26, Emily is almost the same age as her mother was during the raid in ’74. “She lived in Berkeley,” Emily says, trying to explain her mother’s affiliation with the SLA. “It was kind of normal.”

I’m starting to see the problem here; it won’t be the last time.

Dr. and Sophia Peterson on the shootout that killed six SLA members:

 “That became Sara’s private business,” says Fred. “The LAPD massacre of the SLA was a bellwether event-the first televised SWAT team -” “Team murder,” Emily interrupts.

On harboring a fugitive – knowingly or not – for 20 years, former SDS member Peterson:

“You know, The Fugitive Becomes a Soccer Mom. They’re all stereotypical images of deceit. None of that applies when you’re just living a life and raising kids. People would say to me, ‘How could you accommodate such a depraved criminal mind? How can you live with the knowledge of what happened in the past?’ It captures the American psychodrama. But it was not real.”

I wonder if it was real for Myrna Opsahl’s?  Opsahl, whose death at the hands of those who became “unreal” fugitives, including Fred Peterson’s wife, was fobbed off by the SLA’s Emily Harris (as quoted by Patty Hearst) with the following statement:

Oh, she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor. He was at the hospital where they brought her.”

Maybe Sophia Peterson never read that statement:

“I always tell people she wasn’t a terrorist. She was an urban guerrilla,” says Emily, smearing Blistex on her lips while waiting for the waitress to return. Like her mother, Emily has long hair and pale skin-a classic beauty. Today, she’s wearing a pink blouse that’s peeking out from beneath a worn, black leather jacket.

Along with her looks, she’s inherited her mother’s passion for social issues, working as a Head Start teacher with homeless 3- and 4-year-olds from a Minneapolis shelter to help them prepare for kindergarten. “It’s hard,” she says. “A lot of these kids don’t even have coats or boots.”

But on the other hand, most of their mothers weren’t slaughtered by ideologues, either.

 Let me digress here; I remember seeing the photos of the Peterson girls – and Dr. Peterson, for that matter – around the time of the arrest.  I figured there’s no way Dr. Peterson didn’t know she was a fugitive, especially when I heard about his background in the SDS.  But my heart went out to the kids, who were in their early and late teens at the time.  They didn’t ask for any of this.  Did they?

Well, not at the time.  But it seems to be a family legacy; a second generation of children of immense privilege wrapping themselves in phony “revolution” and…

…victimhood?

“In the end,” she says of Olson’s sentencing, “we had to watch our mother be pulled away by two big cops. The aftereffects have been debilitating. I don’t know if people can understand that.” …Sophia comes back downstairs and tells me no one can understand the suffering her family has experienced. She has a flair for drama: Describing her mother’s reaction to the second World Trade Center tower collapsing, Sophia places her hand over her heart and slouches toward the ground: “She said, ‘I’m screwed.'”

On the one hand, I can’t imagine the trauma. 

On the other hand, I know one family who can.  Perhaps young Sophia needs to talk to these people – the family of Myrna Opsahl, the woman that their mother was convicted of murdering.  Click on the link and read the entire site – including all the damning evidence against Soliah/Olson – before you go assigning too much sympathy.

As to Sophie Peterson’s 9/11 tableau – perhaps that was one “good” side-affect of the terrorist attacks; never again, G-d willing, would middle America look at terrorists with the same gauzy, soft focus that Soliah’s generation handed down to us.

I don’t know where Nick Coleman stood on Soliah/Olson eight years ago – I was busy with other things, and not reading him regularly in those pre-blog days – but he makes an appearance:

“She betrayed the people who befriended her by having lived this secret life. Her family and her friends have suffered incredibly,” he says. “At some point, you have to face these charges. And even though she had a family, the only honorable way out of this dilemma was to turn herself in. I’m kind of mad about it, to be honest.”

But as all of us who live in St. Paul remember, it was the smug moral equivocation of Soliah/Olson’s fellow Highland Park DFL cronies that set the tone of the day.  Prominent DFL politicians led the fund-raising and the demands that justice be set aside for one of their own who’d proved herself, if not repentant for murdering Myrna Opsahl and plotting to kill Los Angeles cops with firebombs, at least a good DFLer.  A pre-Powerline John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson wrote a seminal excoriation of this crew, “Kathy’s Clowns“, in the American Enterprise back in the winter of ’99:

The local response to her arrest was a vast outpouring of support. Democratic state legislators and former St. Paul mayoral candidates Andy Dawkins and Sandy Pappas were her most outspoken and visible defenders. Pappas, for whom Soliah had raised campaign funds, attacked the FBI for tracking her down and wondered aloud, “Don’t they have any real crimes to fight?” It is difficult to imagine what crimes Ms. Pappas considers more “real” than murder, bank robbery, and attempted murder. Welfare reform, perhaps.Dawkins’ comments on the case were equally bizarre. He has invoked events from Selma, Alabama to Kent State in defense of Ms. Soliah, as though they could somehow explain why it was reasonable to rob banks, assault bank customers, kill Myrna Opsahl, and attempt to murder war veterans and policemen. Dawkins says that the allegations against Soliah, if true, represent “a momentary lapse in judgment.”It is perhaps not surprising that Soliah would receive support from Democratic officeholders of the flakier sort. What is more surprising is the undeniable grass-roots movement that has emerged on her behalf. Soliah’s friends and allies have produced a cookbook containing her favorite recipes, held benefits to demonstrate their support, and raised $1 million to bail her out of jail. Local church groups and the “theater community,” in which Soliah was active, have rallied to her defense.

No less interesting than the magnitude of Soliah’s support are the virtues with which her advocates credit her. She is described as a “Democratic activist,” “a true humanitarian,” a “social activist, marathon runner, volunteer and soccer mom,” an actress who hosts fund raisers for Democratic candidates, a gourmet cook who “is involved in every peace and justice issue that comes along.” Peace and justice. Soliah’s brother encapsulated her defense in these words: “There’s not this dichotomy between what Kathy was and what she is now. She was doing the same things in the early ’70’s.” Terrorist or soccer mom; there’s not much difference, from a leftist point of view, as long as you’re devoted to “peace and justice.”

But eight years later, some of the neighbors – the “clowns” – still haven’t gotten the word (emphasis added):

Olson was a “spectacular artist,” says a friend and member of their church.  [A community theater colleague] recalls how Olson used to appear in local theater productions. “That woman does have charisma. To this day, it doesn’t really make sense to me. She’s a very gentle person. I think what Sara is guilty of is having made a bad choice of friends.”

Not a woman who needs redeeming, then?

“Redemption?” she shakes her head. “For Sara, I don’t see any – she was already rehabilitated, if that needed to be done. She’s [in prison] to be punished.”

 “If that needed to be done”.

McKelvey closes the piece:

It’s 11 o’clock at night, hours after my visit with Sophia at the family home. In my hotel room, I log on to my computer. I’m surprised to find an e-mail from her. In a heated, 17-line message, she says she wants nothing more to do with the article. It’s an emotional outpouring, and she sounds angry and paranoid-convinced I will distort her version of events…I wonder why she has decided to tell me this now. She’d known for weeks about the story; my business card was tacked up on her bulletin board.

Fred, too, retreated after our meeting in the diner, though in less explosive terms, expressing mixed feelings about the “tough questions” I’d asked. “Sara would express caution for sure-if not be outright chagrined,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Thanks for dinner?”

Via e-mail, I ask Emily if I can see her again. She wrote back this: “We, as a family, have experienced a deep hardship and sadness with our mother being away from us. About meeting with you on Sunday, I will have to see if I feel up to it on that day. I have your cell phone.”

She never called.

Kudos to McKelvey, who left the big questions – “do these people really believe all this everyone was doing it crap?” – for us to answer for ourselves.

(Thanks to commenter Soliah.com for the pointer)