Wednesday, May 22, 2019

If We Can Keep It

Michael Tomasky

I managed to squeeze in two books on the plane rides between Ireland and Denver.  The first was IF WE CAN KEEP IT by Michael Tomasky, my favorite pundit.  It falls right in line with all the other stuff I've been reading lately (THESE TRUTHS, THE JUNGLE GROWS BACK, FREDERICK DOUGLAS).

After the constitutional convention, someone asked John Adams to comment on the strength of the thing they produced.  He said the constitution was good (or words to that effect) "If we can keep it."

That's quite an admonition and Tomasky's book suggests that we haven't been keeping it very well of late.  The subtitle adds "How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved."  And that's exactly what the book does.  It offers a tidy history of the US, focusing on the early seeds of polarization and how they grew and currently flourish.  He then offers suggestions to get us back on course.

The book starts with a really handy six page chronology of the events that got us to our current state of polarization.  This list starts with the Connecticut Compromise of July 1787 where the strange equations of representation in the legislature created the inherently unrepresentative United States Senate.  August, 1987 is another big date.  That is when the FCC, during Ronald Reagan's presidency, repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  The result was a proliferation of right wing talk shows.  And, of course, November 1994.  That is when Newt Gingrich becomes Speaker of the House, a black day in American history.

Tomasky also offers a fourteen point plan to reduce polarization.  It is listed there right at the beginning of the book and elaborated on in the last section.  None of his points are particularly new or surprising, but they all make sense.  Seven of his points are aimed at revamping the way our politics work by getting rid of Gerrymandering, reintroducing at large congressional elections. eliminating the filibuster, getting rid of the Electoral College or making it obey the popular vote, etc.  The other seven are geared to society in general and most of those involve tinkering with the educational system, especially things like civics education and cultural exchange programs.

Like I said, the book doesn't really offer many surprise solutions, but it does offer a crystal clear explanation of the situation and it sheds new light on certain portions of modern history that we might have forgotten.

It also has some great quotes:

"Today, most of us, whether we like to admit it or not, are consumers first, citizens second.  In the 1930's most people didn't see themselves that way."

"The American Friends Service Committee found that segregated private schools were opened in 31 percent of counties in five Deep South states.  Because they were religious academies, they enjoyed a tax exemption.  But in 1969, some black parents sued and were granted an injunction, and then in June 1970 the Nixon administration unexpectedly ended the schools' exemption.  And that's what originally got the religious right into politics--the fact that they had to start admitting black children to their school."

"Most people resist introspection; whole societies are no different.  Liberals,  however, tend to welcome introspection, and liberals and Democrats of that era [Carter years], starting with the pious man in the Oval Office, did quite a lot of reflecting on what was happening to the national character.  So surely one of the great secrets perhaps the great secret, of the conservative movement's coming success, of Ronald Reagan's success in particular, was to free people of this responsibility of introspection, to release them from the guilt in which liberalism makes them wallow."

"My civic self has rarely been more depressed than it was after September 11 2001, when President Bush, New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani, and others said that if citizens want to help the country, they should go shopping."

"Since 1990, not a single Republican House member or senator has voted for a tax increase."

"Before too long, the kind of car one drove, music one listened to, and salad greens one preferred were taken as indicators of political preference.  . . . The simpler, more straightforward choices (Branson, iceberg lettuce) were the preferences of 'real' Americans, while the fussier alternatives (Sonoma County, arugula) marked their adherents as elitists."

"Liberals want to fix the house up.  Conservatives want to burn it down and build a new one."

I've noticed, after rereading some of my recent book "reviews", that I keep mentioning the quote where James Baldwin says that "the world is held together, it really is, by the love and devotion of a very few men."  When I first heard him say that in a talk show interview years ago, it spoke volumes to me.  I always showed a tape of Baldwin's life with a clip from that interview to my AP classes, and I think it arrested them.

After reading the cross over history stuff I've been fascinated by lately, I see even more powerfully the truth in Baldwin's statement.  Jill Lepore's THESE TRUTHS,  Robert Kagan's THE JUNGLE GROWS BACK, and now IF WE CAN KEEP IT by Tomasky all tell the story of a country populated by selfish and venal men willing to stop at nothing to have their way.  These despicable human beings are consistently opposed by all those devoted and loving men and women that Baldwin talks about.  These are the people who somehow manage to, in John Adams' words, "Keep it."

I'm desperately looking around for more men and women like that.  They are hard to see and hear amidst all the noise.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Perfect . . .Brilliant . . . Lovely

A lovely lady dressed in a full length heavy topcoat--the kind horsewomen wear in bad weather--and a motor cap complete with goggles, stood in front of a long carriage drawn by a single Irish work horse.  The lady told me the breed, but all I remember is that it was one I had never heard  of.  Standing next to her was the driver, a roundish gent dressed in pretty much the same outfit as the lady.

"This is like a fairy tale, isn't it?" were the first words out of her mouth.

I couldn't disagree.

This was our first full day in Ireland.  We were standing in front of The Adare Manor, about to climb into the carriage with our hot chocolates in hand to take a ride through the estate.  I've always wanted to take a carriage ride through an estate.

The previous morning, our plane landed at Shannon somewhere between six and six-thirty in the morning after a six hour flight from New York.  We cleared "customs" in the blink of an eye and were greeted outside by a man carrying a sign with our name on it.  We were escorted to a black Mercedes and by seven-fifteen we were at the manor.  The doorman, P. J., led us to the check in office, opening doors all the way.  Everybody knew our name.  On the way to our room, a random bellman wandered down the hall, nodded, and said, "Have a wonderful stay Mr. and Mrs. Starkey."  We assured him we would.

The room was huge and the linen, a thread count of alarming proportions.  The bathroom had a separate shower with one of those rain shower heads.

Most importantly, the place was quiet.  Everybody seemed to whisper.  Fur Elise kept playing in the background.

We had spent the previous three days in New York.  We figured we would break up the flight to Shannon with a stopover.  We spent a morning and afternoon with Gavin, a beloved student, and had three great meals with Joe and Carol, our Jenny Lake friends.  The company was great, the food was sensational, but the corner of 54th and 6th Avenue is a lot busier than the expanse of lawn and woods outside our window at Adare Manor.  And we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves whenever we took a walk around the grounds.  Central Park, while a truly amazing expanse, has other walkers and bikers and runners and strollers and dog walkers and guys selling things that you have to move aside for.  It is just different.

We sat in The Drawing Room one afternoon at the manor having drinks.  In front of us was a perfect garden in full bloom stretching to the victory circle above the 18th green--they plan on hosting the Ryder Cup in the not too distant future.  Off to the side, along the sidewalk, I noticed a groundsman (they have 70) with a straight spade and little rake making sure the edge was straight.  It took him two double scotches to finish the task.

Perfect.  I used that word twice in the last paragraph.  They use it a lot in Ireland,  "I'll have half a dozen oysters."  "Perfect, Mr. Starkey."

Brilliant is another word frequently in use.  "I'll have the pinot noir with the main course."  "Brilliant."

Lovely is the other.  "I'll have the lamb however the chef is preparing it."  "Lovely."

Katherine and I have tried to figure out the hierarchy of the three comments.  We even asked the lady serving us afternoon tea at the Ashford Castle.  She was of little help.  However, when I told her we would have the champagne pairings along with the tea, she smiled, nodded, and said "brilliant."  I took it as a compliment.

We left Adare after three days that were indeed like a fairly tale and then another guy in a Mercedes picked us up and we headed off to the Ashford Castle and the little town of Cong, where "The Quiet Man" was filmed back in 1951.

On route, our driver stopped at the Cliffs of Moher and told us to take our time nosing around.  There was a sign at the beginning of the trail that read "This is to honor those who have died at The Cliffs of Moher."  It was a little daunting, but we followed the mobs of people climbing up to the summit.  There were people posing on the edge while family members took photos.  This is happening in the beginning of May, remember.  When June rolls around and the temperatures climb, I can't begin to imagine the traffic jam going up the trail.  And the trail gets really close to the cliff and there are signs that say the cliff edge is in fact crumbling into the sea.  The Cliffs of Insanity indeed.

The room was smaller and the whole place was a little dark, but Ashford Castle is all about elegance and spot on service.  And the food was just as good as the manor, maby better.

Mostly though, Ashford Castle and grounds is a place made for exploring.  There is an easy walk into Cong (Innisfree for all you John Wayne fans) that goes right past the spot where Father Lonergin loses a monster salmon and scolds Maureen O'Hara for not sleeping with her husband.

We took one long walk past the archery range, the skeet shooting area, the equestrian center, and the falconry field and ended up in a series of gardens--walled gardens, terraced gardens, hidden gardens--each one more lovely, perfect, or brilliant than the last.

We stopped at Pat Cohan's Bar more than once.  The taste of Guiness (The Ashford Castle used to be the Guiness family home) has grown on me.  We shopped and bought a couple of tees and a big green hoodie for me.

Another driver; another Mercedes.  We left the Castle and stayed at the Bunratty Castle Hotel just outside of Shannon for our final night.  When we first got there, it was a little uncomfortable waiting for someone to open the door.  I finally rolled my eyes and opened the damn thing myself.  You just can't get good help anymore.   Our plane left at 7 am.  After a short flight to Heathrow, a long layover and a nine hour flight to Denver, we made it home.

Fairy tale over.

Memories just beginning.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Jungle Grows Back

America and Our Imperiled World
Robert Kagan

My poolside reading habits are getting to be a little strange.  My last three books by the pool were GRANT, THESE TRUTHS, and FREDERICK DOUGLAS.  They were all terrific, albeit cumbersome.  At least Robert Kagan's book is small, only 163 paper back sized pages.  I started it at the pool in Orlando, but only read about twenty pages.  I was too busy watching my grandchildren to concentrate.  I read the rest of it on the plane to Denver, finishing it somewhere over Brighton.

The world has enjoyed and prospered from some seven decades free from the horrors of world wars and global aggression.  That relative freedom is the result of the World Liberal Order spurred by the United States.  Prior to the great wars of the twentieth century, the power broker countries/regimes looked at the world as a kind of zero sum game.  If country A enjoyed a booming economy, that boom would be invested in arms and armies to both defend against the aggression of others and launch a few aggressions of its own.  Countries B, C, D, etc. would correspondingly build up their defenses/offenses.  Conquest and war was the name of the game.

That changed after World War II and its aftermath.  The USA helped rebuild Europe.  It made treaties insuring Germany would never arm again.  Implicit in all this rebuilding and treaty making, was the promise that the United States would use its might to give its allies the freedom to rebuild and at the same time would not use its might to gain advantage.

In other words, the USA laid the groundwork for the World Liberal Order, a belief in individual rights over nationalism, in free trade, and relatively peaceful cooperation between nations.  I said a belief in, not that those things were all happening.  But it is true, I think, that our nation and the democratic nations of Europe, govern themselves by those principles.

The problem with all this is that it is quite expensive, both in dollars and in lives, to insure that liberal order.  The United States, being in the best position geographical and economically, is more often than not left with the bill.  That's the price we pay for the world the way it is.

Conservatives will argue, Donald Trump does argue, even Obama kinda/sorta argued that we should not be left with that burden.  Countries should take care of their own problems.  We shouldn't do "stupid things."  The problem is that sometimes it is hard to recognize a stupid thing close up.  Maybe, even though it wasn't really our problem and should have been taken care of by other countries of the region, it was a "stupid thing" to stay out of Syria a few years ago.  Maybe if we had intervened, the refugee crisis in Europe would not be what it is today.  Who knows?

We kept the Liberal World Order in tact by getting bogged down in regional disputes, and "Conflicts" that fell short of the global conflicts of the mid twentieth century.  If you don't take into account that we have somehow stayed relatively insulated and safe, we have given more than we've received.

But the thing is that THE JUNGLE GROWS BACK.  Even though it might look "fair" to balk at doing the most to keep the jungle at bay, if we don't the whole world will suffer.  Who else but us?  It was hard for me to read the accurate criticism of Obama's foreign policy that seemed to be a retreat from our responsibility to the world, even though I can't imagine how Obama could have gotten enough cooperation from a paralyzed Congress to initiate any kind of action overseas.

Of course, the last part of the essay focuses on the world wide movement toward Authoritarianism and the Age of Trump.  The problems all the people like me are having accepting our President and the kind of thinking he represents, is that we all take it on faith that the ideals of the liberal order are the natural way of things, that the country and its thinking will just naturally evolve into the beliefs espoused in the Declaration and the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation and all those other icons of Democracy.

But that clearly isn't the case.  All those ideals had to be fought for and they had to be fought for again and again.  There was another force:  "From the beginning, liberalism inspired a virulent anti-liberalism.  Eighteenth and nineteenth-century critics . . . took aim in particular at the universalism of the liberal world-view, the elevation of the individual and individual's rights above nation, tribe, and family.  Such cosmopolitanism, they argued, uprooted tradition and culture and all that makes one most human.  They believed, as most people had always believed in a natural hierarchy of authority. . ."

We just assume it is given that people naturally desire freedom,  but there is an equal desire for the kind of security a strong leader would provide.  Those conflicting desires on all sorts of levels explain why the jungle keeps growing back.

"We would like to believe that, at the end of the day, the desire for freedom trumps all those other human impulses.  But there is no end of the day, and there are no final triumphs."

James Baldwin said that the world is held together by the love and determination of a very few individuals.  In the panoply of countries, the USA is one of those individuals.  We have to interject ourselves on the world stage.  Sometimes those interjections will be calamitous.  Sometimes they will be mistakes.  Sometimes they just might hold the world together.  "Whoever wants to retain his moral innocence must forsake action altogether." (Hans Morgenthau).

And the main thing we have to do is stop looking at things like trade in terms of winners and losers.  Real estate might be a zero sum game.  I don't think international relations should be.

Lots of people, myself included, protested the war in Vietnam.  I would be there protesting again if it happened today.  But if we hadn't gone into Vietnam, what would Southeast Asia look like today?  If we hadn't gone to Korea, how would the Pacific Rim be different?  I have no idea and neither does anyone else, but the questions have given me pause.

I firmly believe--always have--that the history of the world tells the story of good triumphing over evil.  The triumphs were hard fought and there was lots of backsliding along the way, but they were triumphs nonetheless.  This book hasn't made me change that opinion, but it sure has challenged it.

This is a great book.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Library Book

Susan Orlean

THE LIBRARY BOOK has been on the best seller list for quite awhile now and rightly so.  It is advertised as a book that explains the purpose of a library and the history of libraries in general, but that is misleading.  The book starts with the great Los Angeles Library fire of 1986 and traces the heartbroken reaction of the staff, the drudgery of cleaning up after such a huge disaster, the Sysiphean  attempt to restore as many books as possible, and the ongoing investigation into how the fire started and who might have done it.

It takes us through a succession of Los Angeles City Librarians and focuses in on a possible perpetrator, Harry Peak.  Through the course of this emphasis on Los Angeles' library and the entire LA library system, the book does in fact explain the many purposes and problems facing libraries and it gives a pretty thorough accounting of the evolution of library thought since the beginnings.

The main thing about the book is that it is absolutely compelling.  I finished it in three days only because I kept getting interrupted by eating and cleaning and taking care of grandkids.  But I was up reading at five in the morning before we headed out to the Y.  I was there at night sitting in front of the television with my head buried in Orlean's wonderful book.

Of course, that book and I were made for each other.  I have always loved libraries.

There was a beautiful stone building housing the Estes Park Public Library in the little park across from the grade school.  I loved going into that place after school and sitting down in the nice sized alcove at the back of the building where they obviously kept books that would fuel young imaginations.  When I was just a third grader, I read KNUTE ROCKNE:  ALL-AMERICAN in that alcove.  I also read all of the Misty of Chincoteague books and the Black Stallion books.  At my mother's suggestion, I read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN there.  Well, I started it and then checked it out.  I had it back in two days.  The same held true for THE EGG AND I and CALL OF THE WILD and THE THREE MUSKETEERS.  When I was in sixth grade, I started reading this weird little book called THE GREAT GATSBY in that alcove.  I checked it out.  Took it home, read it, and returned it without really knowing what it was about.  It remained a mystery to me until I was a junior at Loveland High School.  Miss Scott suggested I read it.

When my family moved to Loveland, I joined the forensics program at the high school and started researching for debate topics and building an ex temp file.  I loved doing research.  Finding out about things.  I marveled at how convenient the Reader's Guide was.  I carried a brief case in those days with files of three by five cards on whether or not labor disputes should by settled by compulsory arbitration and tons of pro and con arguments about the conflict in Viet Nam and student unrest on campus.  Give me a topic.  Any topic.  I had you covered.

There was a great little studying nook by a window on the third floor of the Regis Library.  When the rare mood to study struck, that's where I went.  My room with Phillip chain smoking Pall Malls was out of the question.  I just wish I had spent more time in that little nook.  My final GPA would have been more impressive.

But my favorite thing was taking my seniors to the library for research papers.  It was a lot easier for them than it was for me.  Instead of the Reader's Guide there was InfoTrac.  Instead of a card catalogue, everything was right there at the stroke of a keyboard.  I loved showing kids how to think through a project.  I loved talking to them about thesis ideas.  I loved seeing them get excited about a new "breakthrough" discovery.  I even loved reading approximately eighty research papers every spring.  It kept me off the streets and handing them back always provided a great way to start bringing closure to the year.

We used to take Willa and Jaydee to the library in Clement Park for story time.  It was wonderful to see a room full of four year olds in rapt attention.  Willa and Jaydee are in school now.  Those library days have gotten fewer and farther between.

I'm not trying to be sad or profound or anything boring like that.  It is simply a fact that libraries aren't that big a part of my life anymore.  I think I'm in my art museum period.  But reading Susan Orlean's terrific little book has brought some wonderful memories flooding back and I'm grateful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Frederick Douglas

Prophet of Freedom

"Whoever levies a tax upon [tea], will find the whole land blazing with patriotism and bristling with bayonets". . . but "Millions of a foreign race may be stolen from their homes, and reduced to hopeless and inhuman bondage among us and we either approve the deed, or protest as gently as 'sucking doves.'"  That's Frederick Douglass commenting on the "paradox of passing history."  It is just like in Jill Lepore's THESE TRUTHS.  America suffers from a kind of split personality.  America is all about freedom and liberty, except when America is all about building its prosperity on slavery.  Which is really to say that America is all about protecting its vested interests while spouting humanistic platitudes.

"His 'wickedly selfish' Americans loved to celebrate their 'own heritage, and on this condition are content to see others crushed in our midst.'  They lived by the 'philosophy of Cain,' ready with their bluntly evil answer to the famous question 'Am I my brother's keeper?'"  From that shower of quotation marks, we can conclude that Douglass believed, and with good reason, that Americans consistently answer that question with "Why should I care?"

Emerson said that "all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons."  James Baldwin made the same point:  "The world is held together--it really is--by the love and determination of a very few people."  Frederick Douglass was one of those people.

I just finished David Blight's biography, FREDERICK DOUGLAS PROPHET OF FREEDOM, a few days ago.  I started it at the pool in Puerto Vallarta and finished it two weeks later at home.  We don't have a pool to read by at home.  Plus it was snowing.

The book was an apt follow up to THESE TRUTHS because both works talk a lot about racism as the raison d'ĂȘtre for most of what transpired in this country.  Jill Lepore's book was an easier read for me, not only because I was by the pool, but also because Lepore writes better sentences.  Another reason is that Blight's scrutiny of his subject ends up making Douglass not very likable.  Of course, he had good reasons for  taking himself a little too seriously and for being ruthlessly unforgiving of his enemies, for carrying grudges, for riding roughshod over his long suffering wife, for "courting" rich white women, and for any number of other little transgressions that we all commit, but not under the same microscope.

The horror of his life while enslaved and the events leading up to his escape comprised the first third of the book and were the most captivating.  His up and down relationship with Lincoln and politics in general is a familiar story, but still fascinating and disillusioning at the same time.  His struggles to get his message out via a series of barely viable newspapers combined with a disfunctional family always asking for money and employment, juxtaposed to the giant he became on a lecture tour or in the political arena made up most of the rest of the book.  Along with Lepore's book, I now have the last part of the nineteenth century in America down pat.  Ask me anything.

The book also sheds meaningful light on many works of black literature.  Booker T. Washington is a figure in the last part of Douglass' life and the connections to Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN are all over the place.  All of Toni Morrison's works could have easily gotten their start from Douglass and his three autobiographies.  James Baldwin is there.  Malcolm X.  Martin Luther King.  Blight's book illuminates all those others.

Douglass undergirds protest movements of all kinds:  "You don't find truth in the middle of the road; you find truth beneath the superficial, mediocre, mainstream dialogue . . .buried . . .hidden . . . and when you connect with that truth, you have to take a stand."

I enjoyed the book.  I learned a lot.  But on my next trip I'm gonna try to bring paperbacks.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

"Old People Die,"

she said, shrugging her shoulders.

We got back from Puerto Vallarta exactly one week ago.  We've been there at least a dozen times and never get tired of the experience.  The weather is always beautiful (It actually rained one  morning as we were walking out of the gym.  I think that's the first time I've ever been rained on in PV.).  The food is always terrific.  The staff at Villa del Palmar treat us like we're family.  I got lots of reading in and even lost weight while doing it.  I also have an awesome tan.  Well, had an awesome tan would be more accurate.  I'm getting paler by the day.

However, the visit this time had the cloud of the shutdown hanging over it.  I kept worrying about the TSA lady at DIA who couldn't afford to take her sick cat to a vet.  I kept worrying if airports would still be functioning when we were scheduled to return to Denver.  I watched CNN in the morning!  I've never watched the news on vacation.  That's not true.  I watched a little bit of the election returns while in Belize two years ago and look what happened.  And to top it off, Ignacio, the wonderful guy at the breakfast buffet who makes Katherine's eggs every morning, can't get back to his welding job in Charlotte because his visa expired and he can't get a new one.  Katherine and Ignacio exchange hugs when we first show up at the buffet and they hug on our last day.  He doesn't make enough at Villa del Palmar to support his family.  The welding job was key to his survival.  And to make matters worse, asshole Americans on an all-inclusive plan don't tip the poor guy.  They even look askance at Katherine when she gives him 20 pesos every morning.  Stuff like that put a damper on my vacation spirit.

The other cloud that hovered over me was the fact that I was surrounded by old people.  Let's face it.  Villa del Palmar was never a destination spot for spring breakers or well-heeled millennials (is that an oxymoron?).  If you want that you have to go to Nueva Vallarta or downtown on the malicon where young people abound.  It's just that I've never noticed the aging clientele at the place until this year.  The fact that so many of us recognize each other from years past and that I, in fact, am seventy years old, should probably have alerted me to the whole age thing.

There was a stooped shouldered gray haired man (they are all stoop shouldered) who always got to the gym before we did and commandeered the running machine I liked to use.  That was okay.  There were others available, but he used the thing at a snail's pace while reading an aviation magazine.  Like, oh sure, he has an airplane.  I don't know.  It just pissed me off.  And there was the overweight couple a few years younger (!) than me.  The man just sat on the quadriceps machine while his wife lay prone on the hamstring machine.  I mean they just sat there.  Occasionally the man would kick one of his legs up against the pad and I did see the lady attempt to flex her knees.

During breakfast we liked to sit at one of the tables close to the pool area.  There is a little step up to the restaurant proper that one has to negotiate in order to get to the buffet.  Next year I want them to make a sign that disallows old people from eating at those tables.  The number of old folks who could barely scale that step was depressing.  One old guy almost lost his balance going down the step due to the extra weight he was carrying on his newly loaded plate.  I was so happy I knew CPR.

You can bet your life that the same guy who almost didn't make it over the step would  later that day put on a Tommy Bahama shirt, some long khaki shorts, white tennis shoes, all of it complemented by knee high black socks.  He and his wife would then take the bus marked Centro and walk up and down the malicon munching on skewered shrimp and drinking aqua fresca.  The scene down there was always quite festive.

Kathie and I looked at all this differently.  My response was, "Oh God, that's me without the black socks!"  She would say, "Isn't it wonderful how great we look compared to some of those people."  She has always been a glass is half full kind of person, but I've managed to love her in spite of that.

We stayed there for two weeks and as far as I know, no one suffered a heart attack or broke a neck climbing the step up to the buffet.  I think we got on the plane just in time.

But then I got home and immediately felt terrible.  Jet lag.  Not as much fruit.  No fish.  Snow to shovel.  A house to clean.  Cooking to clean up after.  It's hard to face all that when you relate to all the old geezers slumping around the pool in terry cloth lined jackets and yellowing toes.

And then yesterday I had a Facebook confrontation with a (shudder) angry young man.  One of my friends commented that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's feelings about income disparity and the ways to solve it were more in line with the founding fathers' ideas than most of the current old white men sitting in Congress.  I wrote a response saying that, for the most part, I agreed with him, but I wished that she would be more careful about  some of the misstatements she has a tendency to make.

You would think I just told a woman to smile!  My FB friend clicked like on my comment, but others challenged me to list some examples.  Another person told me to pay closer attention.

I commented again, this time listing a few of her statements that, according to Polifact and The Washington Post Fact Checker, were false.  The Fact Checker gave her (insert Gasp) Three Pinnochios.  I also repeated that I was a fan of AOC.  I thought she was a breath of fresh air.  I would have voted for her had I been able, but I just thought she would be even more effective if she was a little more circumspect.

One of the outraged types responded that ALL politicians say things that aren't true.  What I needed to do, he counseled me, was look at the big picture.  Stop nit-picking.  He went on to say that old Democrats like me were destroying the party because by picking on poor AOC we were suborning the evil collusion between deep pocketed lobbyists who had already "filled the pockets" of every member of congress.  He was really pissed and all I said was I really like AOC and wished that she would be more careful.  I guess that is what a millennial calls nit picking.  I told him that I knew as a 70 year old, my opinion was by definition worthless, but I wasn't going to apologize for my age.

I wanted to tell my granddaughter Jaydee that same thing a few months ago when she looked at me and said, "Gramps, you're old!"  I protested that I wasn't all that old, but her sister Willa assured me that I was.  Jaydee looked at me once more and said with confidence, "You're gonna die soon."  Die!  I told her that I was not going to die and asked her what made her think of such a thing.  "Old people die," she said, shrugging her shoulders.

That angry little Facebook type should take umbrage in that.

Sunday, January 20, 2019


Jill Lepore

Political equality.  Natural rights.  Sovereignty of the people.  These are the truths our country is based on.  Thomas Jefferson said these truths were "sacred and undeniable."  Benjamin Franklin changed that to "self-evident." In THESE TRUTHS, Jill Lepore sets out to discover how those three truths have weathered the evolution of this country in the last 250 years.  She uses those truths as a lens to look at the American Experiment.

It is not a particularly pretty picture, but it is a thrilling book not least because Lepore writes with such beauty and power.  Starting with the rather surprising discovery of America by Europeans rather than some other group, she then begins to show how a systemic pattern of conquest fueled by bigotry and the rationalizations to excuse that bigotry enabled our founders to justify their conquest of the continent.

It is a 250 year long story (so far) of rulers and the ruled.  It is, to put it mildly, disturbing.  Lepore calls it the  "American book of genesis: liberty and slavery became the American Abel and Cain."  This seeming contradiction is evidenced in a country whose founding documents proclaim that "all men are created equal" while that very country grew rich on the scarred backs of Africans ripped from their homes and Indians forced down a "trail of tears."  And this is not just a southern phenomenon.  Half of colonial New England's wealth came from sugar grown by West Indian slaves.

Lepore's modern history shows in glaring detail that without exception every effort to emancipate whoever or whatever needed emancipating--blacks, women, indians, homosexuals, immigrants of color--was shot down by those powers profiting from the subjugation of those groups and those "sympathetic" to their cause by their cowardly acquiescence.  George Washington could have sent a powerful message by freeing his slaves (the most indelible image of Mount Vernon to this visitor was the slave quarters out back), but he didn't until after he died.  Jefferson behaved identically.  The list of founding fathers who hypocritically held slaves is too long to mention here.

The subjugation of The Ruled grew more sophisticated as we became technically savvy.  Public opinion pollsters, propagandists, public relation offices, political consultants:  They all manufactured lies in their spin factories to keep The Ruled under their thumbs, to promote the candidacy of racists and opportunists.  They lambasted the coastal elites for looking down their collective noses at blue collar voters in the heartland and calling them stupid, but they all counted on that heartland stupidity to buy into their contrived messages, their outright lies.

This all brings us to the current state of affairs, to Donald Trump and his profiteering minions.  I don't know if this is true, but it is hard to imagine that Lepore didn't have Trump in her sights from the very moment she started researching this book.  "A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility," Lepore states in her epilogue.  "A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders."

The main thing I take away from this book is an insight about myself.  I was an indifferent history student in high school and college.  I took pride in getting a B in classes without putting in the appropriate work, without really reading the books.  I kinda sorta knew everything in THESE TRUTHS, but I never fully understood until I read it.  I will always be thankful to Jill Lepore for that.

Postpone all further activities and read this book.  At the very least, it will piss off the folks at FoxNews.