Friday, October 29, 2010

Two Cheers for President Obama

       I feel a bit pressed for time regarding this post, so I beg your indulgence.  I want to say this before the election comes on Tuesday, and so I am going to plead that my thoughts are not as well expressed as they would be if I had more time.  That is, I want to transfer some of my responsibility as a writer to you the reader -- I am going to ask you to help me make my case, where you find that it is weak, and where you find that I could have better expressed myself.

       Before you agree to this task, I am going to warn you that I am going to be challenging -- very sharply challenging -- some of my very good friends.  Quite possibly you, if you are a person who considers himself, or herself, a conservative; and this is especially likely if you hold your conservative views with a sincerity that comes either from high political idealism, or devout religious conviction.

       If you are not in this category of conservative, then what I have to say may be of very little worth, and you may wish to save yourself the time it will take to wade through this business.  On the other hand, you may have a little curiosity about what a family quarrel looks like.  If so, welcome aboard.

       The reason I feel pressed for time goes back a long way -- as do most things in my mind these days, all things considered.

       Back in the 70s, I read an interesting book by the famous (and very effective) lawyer Louis Nizer, called Reflections Without Mirrors.  (Before we go any further, don't you have to admire a man who can write a book that can carry such a title as that?   I think he was a born teacher, at least in the sense that he was a very good explainer of things to laymen such as myself -- and juries.)  The book contained the entire text of his speech before the Senate, defending the sitting president and urging them to reject the articles of impeachment: to acquit and not to convict.  The speech was lengthy, eloquent, well-reasoned, and to me pretty persuasive.  Especially persuasive because it came from a man more associated with liberal jurisprudence than with conservative.

       Well, if you lived through the days of the Nixon presidency, you probably remember that he was not  impeached:  he resigned before the articles of impeachment could be approved by the full House of Representatives, as they certainly would have been.  There was therefore no Senate trial, and there was therefore no speech.  Nizer never gave that speech; he was never able to.  He couldn't have; the circumstances never arose in which it could have been given.

       So what was Nizer doing?  I don't know for sure, but I think he was simply applying his distinguished mind, retrospectively, to what might very well have been.  Perhaps in his mind, what ought to have been.   Suppose the situation had come to that; suppose a defense of the President needed to be mounted?  Of course, actual circumstances made the "speech" only an academic exercise; but its publication gave readers a chance to reflect, even if without mirrors.

       Perhaps Nixon should have been impeached.  But if so, should it not have been for the right reasons?  Exceeding his constitutional war powers, perhaps?  Ordering wiretaps against political enemies in violation of Fourth Amendment protections, maybe?   In other words, should he not have been accused and convicted purely on the basis of constitutional principles and issues?  and if by those lights he was justified, should he not have been exonerated?

       But that is not what happened.  And Nizer knew it, and apparently regretted it, as he seems to have had a real respect for the law and a devotion to its integrity.   In reality, Nixon was accused and tried in the popular media, and found guilty in the minds of the people who followed the media.  Not only legality, but truth and high standards of justice suffered great and permanent damage; as we were to prove twenty-five years later in the Bill Clinton Affair.   Again, a president was accused over matters that did not rise above common hypocrisy.  Surely, all but the most naive among us realize that in Washington, DC, the matter of a nationally-known politician receiving sexual services from a non-spouse government employee is a nightly affair.  Is it not?

       The reason I bring up the Nizer story is because of a question it raised in my mind when I read it that long time ago.  In my mind, I put it to Nizer, perhaps unfairly:  If you really thought this, if you believed this, if it was important: why did you not speak out when you saw an impending miscarriage of -- if not justice, exactly, then a miscarriage of truth?  When a serious unnecessary evil could have been avoided? When something different and better might have happened?

       But the time is now, not then.  The question is for me, not Nizer.  If you see a miscarriage of truth with regard to the president, will you say what needs to be said while there is still time for something good to happen?  And this is why I suddenly feel pressed for time.  I want to say something that needs to be said before next Tuesday's election.  I don't think I can say it half so well as Nizer might, but I think it needs to be attempted anyway.

       I hope that I shall not sound angry.  I hope that I shall not sound overly accusative.  I hope that I shall not sound cynical.  I hope that I shall not sound hopeless.  Little is accomplished in those states of mind.

       I am very deeply disturbed, but I hope to retain my inward balance and my outward composure.  I have been perplexed at the behavior of my American "conservative" friends for several years; as time passes, this perplexity is slowly elevating into horror.

       I hope to make a good case in a hard matter, and I am not sure I am up to it.  With this, I end my introductory remarks.

*  *  *  *

       I am not a member of, nor am I sympathetic to, either of our major political parties.  I once was;  but as Joseph Sobran once quoted St. Paul, I have put away childish things.  The best I can say is that each of them contains a few, a very few, leaders who love their country as much as they love their money.

       I carry no brief for the leadership of the Democratic Party.  Their performance since reasserting their Congressional ascendancy four years ago has been utterly disastrous.  I cannot, at the moment, think of any good that they have done.  I do not wish to defend the indefensible, nor do I wish to be a devil's advocate -- I have noticed that the devil already has plenty of legal expertise on permanent retainer.

       But I also carry no antagonism whatsoever for fellow citizens who are Democrats, vote Democratic, or are a part of local Democratic leadership.  I find them to be civic-minded, community-minded people who are often interested in the aspirations of the working class and the needs of the poor -- issues that should engage us all, but for which they demonstrate a special affinity.

       And I also carry no brief for the Republican Party:  and I fear that many of my lifelong conservative friends see the current election as an opportunity to vindicate their past Republican activism.  And anything that diminishes the opposition, as they see it, will redound to the benefit of their cause, which is to them unquestionably noble.  Enter the current bashing of President Obama and the justification of it.  He is a useful whipping-boy.  Get out the vote.

       But personally, I think that President Obama is being treated in a dangerously untruthful manner, and I think there is plenty of evidence that this is going on.  So I wish to defend him by offering two strong cheers, and a strong criticism of my friends who I think should know better.

       Here comes the first strong cheer for President Obama:

       As a junior Senator from Illinois, he had the courage to oppose the Congressional resolution that authorized the utterly misbegotten and misguided invasion and destruction of Iraq.  Hurrah!

       The War In Afghanistan was utterly wrong-headed, too.  (I'll save the explanation -- if you really need it -- for later, when I've got more time; I'm racing the calendar here.)  But at least the Afghan War could sport one or two flimsy fig-leaves to cover its naked ugliness -- Osama bin Laden Once Lived There, and really, what more reason could you need?

       But the Iraq War had no such excuse.  Any justification for war in that country required an intentional ignorance of British and American relations with that country for the past century.  An intentional, arrogant, stupid ignorance. You can quote me.

       Admit it; Obama got this absolutely right.  And he got this right as early as 2002, when the country was still in the grip of establishment-induced fear-and-war fever over the events of September 11.  And this single, crucial decision places him forever above the following persons and groups in both moral clarity and political courage:

       1.  The Democratic leadership.  This includes their think tanks, their Wall Street, and most of their congressional leadership, specifically including Harry Reid, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton.  They got it wrong, and still do.

       2.  The Republican leadership.  This includes their think tanks, their Wall Street, the Pentagon, and most of their congressional leadership, specifically including John McCain.  And Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.  They got it wrong, and still do.

       3.  The Bush administration.  This includes George W. Bush and his entire foreign policy team including Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and that pack of neo-conservatives that infested the Pentagon, the State Department, and the airwaves.  They got it wrong, and still do.  For too long, that included the braver and wiser Colin Powell.

       4.  The Israel lobby.  They got it wrong.  As it is written, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Enough said.

       5.  The Religious Right.  This includes evangelical and "pro-life" leadership, pastors, and many Christian broadcasting and publishing outfits.  It also includes an astonishingly large percentage of regular church-goers.  They got it wrong, and still do.  They should know better.  They do know better.

       6.  Me.  I knew what was wrong in 2002 also.  I said a few meek things.  I expressed a few serious doubts.  But it was go-along-and-get-along; mealy-mouthed, I now think.  I am ashamed.  I didn't put anything on the line.

       It's high time for some clarity:

       War is almost always wrong.  Everyone knows this, because the statement is very easy to demonstrate.  It is because war is almost always about either power, or money, or both.  Rarely freedom; very rarely justice.  History makes this very clear; the Holy Scriptures also make this very clear.  The Iraq war was no exception.  It was about money and power from long before its beginning.  The evidence is available, abundant, and unequivocal.  If you doubt this, you have been listening to the wrong voices.  Wise up; don't be the last person on your block to figure out something so blindingly obvious.  If you have been justifying the war, please stop.  Please.

       Now here comes the second cheer for President Obama.

       As President, he reached out to establish more peaceable relations with the Muslim world, and urged efforts at understanding and amelioration of grievances between Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel.  Hurrah!

       Of course it has gone nowhere.  Very few people in America want it to:  not the Democratic leadership; not the Republican leadership; not the Israel lobby; not the Religious Right.   Quite likely, not you.  Conservatives in America have joined forces with their counterparts in Israel to create the most formidable war-party in the world today.

       And the continuing justification of war, and hatred of peace, that characterize most of voting America today, are two very good reasons why I do not even begin to trust the tea parties or the conservatives or the big landslide that is supposedly going to happen.

       Hey, I'm for voting the bums out.  Pick your favorite bum and give him or her the old heave-ho.  I plan to, too.

       But don't blame President Obama for someone else's sins.  That's just plain wrong.  Especially don't blame him for yours.  That would truly be wicked.

       Because in at least two crucially important areas, President Obama has hewed to humane and constitutional principles -- in the same two crucial areas where his conservative (and all other) critics have absolutely abandoned them.  If these principles mean anything, he stands exonerated, and his critics stand condemned.

       Speaking for myself, I've been praying for that man in the White House who is increasingly alone and marginalized.  And I mean praying for him, not praying or working against him.  I urge you to join me.

       Going back to the first part of my post, I'm thinking of the lesson Louis Nizer's ungiven speech taught me.  Think about things carefully.  Stand up.  Say something for truth and rightness before something sad and irrevocable happens.  Don't wait till afterward and say, I thought so, I was afraid so.  Though if you do wait till afterward, go ahead and record your thoughts: they may give courage to someone else.

       Two cheers for President Obama.

       Speaking like a teacher, I'll just say this:

       Better do your homework.  A major test is coming soon.  You've already flunked the last several.  If you think this shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.  But I didn't write the curriculum any more than you did.  And I'm not the one giving the final, and I'm not the one grading it.  Best wishes for your success.

* * * *

       Well, I've been re-reading this post, and I think I could have said it better.  Especially about the second cheer.  But I'm going to post now.

       Comments welcome.  Disagreement welcome.  Agreement, of course, even more welcome.  In any and all cases, please keep it civil.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reading 'The Night I Met Einstein'

       I just finished reading a short essay entitled, The Night I Met Einstein.  The link was sent to me, via email, by a good friend.   Although we have not seen each other for thirteen years, we are in frequent internet contact.

       So I checked the website where it was posted.  The email had got it right.  The webster said there was no known copyright info, and went with it.  Bravo.

       I enjoyed the story.  It was about one of those human moments that make historic figures come really alive.  People and places suddenly take on dimension, and color.  Crucial insights into the inner person are revealed.

       But was the story true?  After all, this is the internet, and anybody can  . . .

       For instance, I had never heard of the author, Jerome Weidman.  (Sorry -- so many good authors, so many great links.)  So I checked out Wikipedia.  Oh, I know.  Wikipedia cannot be cited as a source in a "real" published work.  I have students who tell me this all the time.  Wikipedia is often hacked, they worry.  Its information is unbalanced, they warn.  Untrustworthy.  Unprofessional.  Et cetera.  Their teachers tell them so.

       Still, I found out from Wikipedia that Jerome Weidman was a real person.   That he was born and died at known times.  He was a writer; he was a part of New York culture; he had Jewish antecedents; he wrote some great short stories.  All fit the narrative; but if Wikipedia is unreliable, we still have no proof.  And even if the source is credible, was someone borrowing Weidman's good name just to write a hack piece to make us "feel good" about some famous man?  You know, like George Washington And The Cherry Tree, or Abraham Lincoln Taking Three Pennies To The Poor Widow?  Or Al Gore The Father Of The Internet?

       So I googled on "weidman einstein" -- didn't even have to capitalize or punctuate anything -- and pop!  there was a reference to a Readers' Digest article, November 1955.  From the facsimile of the cover, I could make out that there really was an article of that title, published under that author's name, in that magazine.   I found it further interesting that Einstein died in that year, and so it was logical that some "I-knew-this-great-man" articles would be published at that time in the popular press.  So I figure I've done enough due diligence.  I can heartily recommend this article to you as authentic.

       Now here is a little question.  Is somebody's intellectual property right being violated here?  Certainly not the author's:  he passed away in 1998.  The publishers of Readers' Digest?  Well, DeWitt and Lila Wallace have been gone even longer -- since the 1980s. (Yep. Wikipedia again.)  Does some successor corporation retain the worldwide publication rights?  Oh, probably there is a lawyer and a judge somewhere who can be persuaded to think so.   Where there's a will, there's litigation.  And there's never been a law yet that somebody couldn't turn into sausage.

       Or, let's get even more personal.  Could I be held guilty of conspiracy to defraud Successor Corporation B if I urged you to go to the website located at  . . . dot-com?  Am I being absurd?  I would like to think so, but there are people being prosecuted for the very horrible crime of having downloads on their personal computers.   The software police are out there, faithfully protecting us -- or somebody.

       And there are other people currently spending unlimited time in US prisons (I didn't say serving sentences; many of them have not had the dignity of trial and sentence) for doing even less:  for doing, in fact, precisely nothing, except allowing themselves to be kidnapped by some of their bounty-hunting countrymen and getting sold to bounty-paying agents of the US government for $25,000.  Global War on Terror; you know.

       And while we're on that subject.  (Which we have been, as a nation, for over nine years.  And I didn't bring it up; and you didn't either; but it's here; and it's going to be here until the last political or military prisoner is released, and their captors and wardens held to answer for what they have done.  Which doesn't look like it is going to happen any time soon.)

       As I say, while we're on that subject:  Given that the civilian leadership of our country are Republicans and Democrats; and given that they, the leaders of both parties, are jointly and severally liable for continuing acts of terror, sabotage, deception, kidnapping, murder, bombing, unlawful imprisonment, starting aggressive wars -- all of which are in violation of (a) international law (b) the US Constitution (c) the Holy Scriptures (d) natural law, or (e) all of the above; pick one --

       . . . then if you are a member of the Republican or Democratic Parties, or vote for their agents, are you not a member of a terrorist organization, giving them aid and comfort -- according to our own current legal climate, which you do not energetically oppose?  (Unless, of course, you do energetically oppose it.)

       Am I kidding?  No, I'm concerned.

       After World War II, people who were merely members of the Nazi Party were held responsible for all of Hitler's crimes.  "We didn't know,"  they said.  "You should have known," we said.  Collective guilt, it was called.

       During the Cold War, Americans who carried Communist Party cards were held responsible for all of the malicious evil that emanated from the Kremlin.  "The Soviets are communists; they are mass murderers.  You are a communist; therefore you are, etc."  Guilt by association.  This all may have happened before your lifetime; it happened during mine.

       *       *       *

       Did you notice how I just killed the nice opening of this article with a combination of legalism and fear?  Do I think you are "really guilty"?  No.  Nor am I.  But also, neither are a lot of people that we, and/or our media, and/or our government,  deem guilty. 

       So I think it's time that we-the-people did some reassessing of our responsibilities, and the very real-world effects of what we think, say, and do.  Or that others do in our name.

       In my view, we live in a very, very screwed-up world.  And country.

       *       *       *

       Back to the beginning.

       The real original purpose of this post was to share a link to a story that I find intellectually satisfying and deeply humane.  It makes me want to love that flawed old scientist, Einstein, who managed to see so much.  It makes me want to know more of Jerome Weidman through his writings.

       If you are interested in the article, you can find it on the net in about 10 seconds.  Enjoy.   And I hope to hear from you in the comments section.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You've Got To Read This Book!

       The title of this post is also the title of a book that I picked up in a bookstore a year or two ago.  Of course, I had to open it up -- not so much because I was giving in to curiosity, but mostly because I was hooked by the self-referencing quality of the title.  And since I've read Douglas Hofstadter's magnum opus, Godel Escher Bach,  I've been on the lookout for delightful examples of self-referencing.  Someone out there remembers that "makes Amber laugh" makes Amber laugh, and so on.  Thanks, Bert.

       But I digress.  And when I say "I digress," I digress.

       The real reason you have to read the book is that it contains over fifty short essays written by interesting individuals, some of them moderately well known, about books they have read that especially influenced or entertained them.  Writers like Jack Canfield, Stephen Covey, Bernie Siegel.  Books like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, The Brothers Karamazov,  The Human Comedy.  Even Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf -- read and commented on by a Holocaust survivor.

       And the real reason I'm writing a post called "You've Got To Read This Book" is not because I really think that you've got to read a book entitled You've Got To Read This Book.  Or even the books that they think you've got to read.

       I want to invite you to think about a book that you have enjoyed -- and tell the rest of us something about that book in the comments section.  What interested you, and why?

       Just a couple of days ago I proposed this to a very small group of old friends.  One of them suggested Death in the Long Grass, by Peter Capstick.  Another one recommended The 5 Love Languages, by Gary Chapman.  Neither of which I have read.  Both of which, I plan to.

       The best books I have read, I stumbled across; or they were suggested to me by friends.  Certainly not because I was following any kind of "reading program," though I'm a fan of Great Books.

       Me?  I'm thinking about Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance -- a great book that I never would have read if it hadn't been recommended to me by a good friend.  Thanks, Steve.  

       Feel free to add your bit in the comments section below.  Suggest a title.  Talk about it.  Or just comment on other peoples' suggestions.  Don't wait for my review of Zen and the Art to appear before you introduce yours.  It was twenty five years, no joke, from the time that Steve recommended it, until the time that I bought the book at a used book sale, so don't be surprised if my comment is delayed a bit. 

       So, whether you're coming to this post in the first five minutes after it appears, or the next five weeks, or after five years (will this blog be here?), dive in.  See you in the comments section.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This One Is For Joe Sobran

       Joe Sobran passed away last week at the age of 64.   I remember him from the days, back in the 80s, when Reagan was in the White House.  At that time I was a regular subscriber to National Review, and Joe was the editor of it.

       Somewhere in his writings he indicates that he was undergoing a slow but serious change in political philosophy -- he would eventually distance himself from the "established conservative" movement.  Politically, he grew to like and trust the libertarian Murray Rothbard; spiritually, I believe, he sought increasingly to be shaped by the moral philosophy of the Catholic faith.  Good, and very good.

       I, too, was changing:  as the conservative movement drifted from principled opposition to communist tyranny, and replaced its ideals with mere military-industrial opportunism, I began to see less to like, and more to be concerned about:  Gulf War I, for example.  It began, in the H. W. Bush administration, with the April Glaspie affair, and concluded with an unseemly military triumphalism.  "Conservatism" under Republican Establishment management was becoming associated with fiscal irresponsibility, deceit, policy reversals, treachery toward other nations, and dishonorable treatment of former enemies.  And lots of bullying war.

       A couple of years later, I read (in National Review) that William F. Buckley, the magazine's owner, had fired Joe Sobran, the magazine's long-time editor and featured writer.  I remember the infamous Buckley article, "In Search of Anti-Semitism," that accompanied Sobran's exit.  I was puzzled by the flap; I didn't know the gory details, and Buckley's prose came across to me as murky.  Soon after, for reasons I don't remember, I let my subscription to NR lapse.  Maybe I lost confidence;  maybe I just lost interest.

       The long and the short of it is that I lost contact with the very fine mind of Joe Sobran for about a decade;  I reconnected a few years ago.  Thank goodness.  Joe affects my political philosophy like Wendell Berry affects my natural philosophy.  Each one says to me, "This is what you can think; indeed, what you might already have thought, if you were a smarter, wiser, clearer thinker."  Like drinking water from springs, I cannot tell whether it is from last week's local rainfall, or groundwater that has been resting for thousands of years -- what matters is that it is clear and good.

       Well, Joe's gone now.  I saw a recent picture of him.  His serious ailments had devastated him, and I thought he looked terrible.

       No matter:  the Resurrection will take care of all that at the right time.  His spirit has moved to higher places, and we can still share some of his good mind.  I am glad for his part in the Great Conversation.


       I hope that some of you will post your comments.  Please be patient, if the comment thing doesn't work right away.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hello, world!

       When I first learned a computer language several decades ago, I was introduced to the common custom among programmers that the first program should simply be getting the computer to display the words, "Hello, world!"

       And when I began to write, I noticed a strong inner tendency to preface myself.  Like the nervous speechmaker who begins with: "Before I begin speaking, I would just like to say . . ."

       So before I begin posting, I would just like to post . . .                                                                                          

       Hello, world!