Monday, July 23, 2018

Beyond a reasonable doubt, it's a big country in need of citizens

Stony Man Trail, Shenandoah National Forest

     The pump at the gas station was old. So after I dipped my credit card, when it came time to choose a fuel type, I mashed my fingers on the "87." Nothing. I paused, puzzled, then some residual muscle memory took over and I lifted the metal hook the nozzle had perched on. The pump sprang to life.
     Nor did the pump, after dispensing the gas, ask me whether I want a receipt—I've learned to refuse them; why print one just to throw it away?
     The receipt automatically spat out, and told me we had paused in Hurricane, West Virginia. I added it to the list of enigmatic Mountain State place names like Nitro and Mossy.
     "Hurricane?" The ocean is 500 miles away. 
     What you call something, and what it actually is or represents, can be two very different things. Turns out the town is named for windblown trees.
     It was odd last week to track President Trump's Helsinki performance at a remove, while on vacation. Missing the original event, following the radiating shock waves bouncing around Twitter. People kept calling it "treason" though I don't see how that could be. "Fawning" maybe. Not an attractive quality in a person, never mind a president. But not a crime either.   
     Hugely significant, for a day, then not at all, as the smoke cleared and there he was, untouched. The liquid metal man in Terminator 2. His supporters, gulled dupes clinging to their charlatan, undeterred.
     I don't want to insult them. There's too much of that. Several times we saw a billboard, "Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Jesus is Alive." I smiled, admiring the subtle jab. You'll believe what we do, it suggests, if you've got any sense.
     Really? He sure ain't alive for me. Or for lots of folks, and believing Jesus is alive is not reason, but faith.
     You can't drive five miles in rural America without some farmer shaking his religion at you, and not nicely either. Do they win converts with that? Or are they just venting their frustration at other people insisting on believing differently than they do. It's a threat, and they lash out, calling them irrational, even though irrationality is a definition of faith.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Traitor Week #7: Donald Trump—"No puppet; you're the puppet"

      The traitors we've looked at this week have one thing in common: betrayal of the country to which—or, in Judas' case, the person to whom—they supposedly had allegiance.
     Some did this by fomenting revolt. Some welcomed invaders, or sold information to hostile powers, or friends.
     What has Trump done?
     The short, candid, answer is: nobody knows.
     Maybe nothing.
     Maybe he just really likes Vladimir Putin. He certainly acts that way. No crime there. It isn't a crime to fawn.
     That said, Trump certainly acts like a man who's done something wrong. His continual assaults on the Justice Department, FBI, and particularly the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.
    If Trump is a criminal, then he's not a very smart one, hanging around the police station, cat-calling the investigators. Lex Luthor the man is not.
    Were I to say, "Trump is a traitor," his supporters would jump up and object that nothing has been proven. And they'd be right. But they, like their leader, are also assailing the process by which what Trump and his associates have done is being investigated. There is no proof he is a traitor. But there is no proof either to support Trump's cries of "witch hunt" mantra and his claims of bias. One email from one FBI agent.  It would be laughable to rational people, an increasingly small subset of America at this point.
     So Traitor Week was a smokescreen? Maybe. I don't know. You can't expect other people to assess the world clear-eyed and then refuse to do so yourself. We don't need to guess, we only need to wait. There is a truth out there, and it will present itself.
    What could that truth be? Perhaps Trump will be found to be deeply in bed, financially, with the Russians. Perhaps there really is a "pee tape." Perhaps his operatives merely huddled with Russian agents, eager to get their hands on the embarrassing Democratic emails the Russians stole, never considering that they were helping a foreign power undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, as fatal a stab at American democracy as can be imagined.
    We'll find out.
    Honestly, I'm not that interested in what Trump actually did. What is more important, to me, is how indifferent his supporters are to the possibility of Trump treachery. They just don't care. Nothing is going to make them care. This is worse than any meeting with Russians. Their my-side-versus-your-side, dodgeball mentality is a staggering revelation.
    Should it be? A hundred years ago we imprisoned pacifists and deported union leaders. In the 1950s, we were so terrified of the Soviets we adopted their methods, of loyalty oaths and star chambers and secret lists. Johnson lied to Congress to justify the Vietnam War, Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace Talks to help his election chances in 1968. We know far more about Trump's possible treachery than Americans knew at the time of those betrayals.
    Yet we don't feel better off.
    Maybe the horror of the Trump years is not that America became some awful place under his watch, but that a certain segment looked around and realized what we are. The illusion vanishes, the beautiful skin withers, and we see the grinning skull that has been here the whole time.
    Maybe that's it.
    No rush in figuring this out, to be honest. With a voting system hopelessly skewed toward rural Republican voters, I don't harbor much expectation of either flipping Congress this November or defeating Trump in 2020. If you immediately insist that Trump won't be re-elected, then answer this: who'll beat him, and where is that person now? What are they saying and doing? Because it sure isn't resonating now. It's a steady march of Trump Trump Trump and if you cup your ears against that chant and try to detect a warble of Democratic leadership you only hear crickets. It's maddening.
     Sorry to be Debbie Downer. I ran Traitor Week while my wife and I drove our younger son to law school in Virginia. The good news is, it's still a vast, beautiful country. People are still nice, individually. Make eye contact in Ohio and people will smile and nod, even wave.
     A young generation prepares to take up the task from us, and honestly, we have to be optimistic about that, because really, they couldn't do a worse job, could they? Couldn't screw up our country any more resoundingly than we have, could they? An ignorant president with vast, unjustified love for himself, and no concern at all for his country, supported by a devoted swarm of the passionately defrauded. We don't need Robert Mueller to tell us that. Could the next generation do worse than this?
    Of course they could.  There are hells below this one. Keep that in mind.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Traitor Week #6: Jonathan Pollard—"I never intended or agreed to spy"

Jonathan Pollard
      Jonathan Pollard is the only American ever given a life sentence for providing secrets to an ally. The Naval intelligence officer was arrested in 1985 for passing military secrets to Israel because, as he put it, "the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information."
    He always insisted, "I never intended or agreed to spy against the United States."
    No matter.
    As Traitor Week ends tomorrow with, of course, the man of the hour, we must realize that it doesn't matter what your intentions are. Or the entity with which you are colluding. Republicans trying to justify Trump's alleged collaboration with the Russians by saying the Russians aren't so bad are badly missing the point. They could be, not our fiercest enemy—as the Russians certainly are—but one of our closest allies, like Israel. Treason is treason. The crime could be a classified cookie recipe given to Canada. 
     It's important to understand why: it isn't so much the specifics of what is being revealed to whom, but the structure being revealed and who else might see it. The information Pollard passed along to the Israelis cast a light on American intelligence practices and procedures, and of course once the Israelis knew them, there was no guarantee where else they might go. And indeed, intelligence officials believe that material leaked by Pollard to Israel eventually found its way to the Soviet Union. 
     It's a shame that the GOP doesn't apply the same "the law's the law" rigidity it directs at every hardworking immigrant who crossed the border illegally decades earlier to the president and his associates. But hypocrisy is the grease on which Trump's America spins.
     So even if you just thought you were accepting the help of friendly Russian intelligence agency with a load of embarrassing emails of your rival in the presidential campaign, what matters is that you undercut your nation's vital interests—say, being able to hold free and fair elections—for your own selfish, private interests, whether those are pro-Israel or pro-yourself. Noble motives don't get you off.
     They might come close. Bill Clinton was about to release Pollard, but his CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign if he did—America's intelligence agencies tend to always take espionage more seriously than does the executive branch, Republican or Democratic. 
     During the Clinton administration, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was a vocal defender of Pollard—a reminder that having the back of traitors isn't new to Dershowitz, if their politics align with his.
     Pollard served 30 years of a life sentence—his wife, implicated in his actions, served three— before Obama commuted his sentence. Thanks Obama. Some Americans felt that Pollard's long sentence was unfair—Chelsea Manning served just seven years after releasing far more damaging documents to Wikileaks. But justice is a crapshoot, and should you get your hand caught in the machinery, the rest of you just might follow that fingertip in. Once you are stuck with an espionage charge, and that jailhouse door clangs behind you, it can be a challenge to get out.  The public tends to forget about you. Something for Paul Manafort and Trump's other confederates, abandoned by their boss to twist slowly in the wind, must be thinking about a lot lately. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Traitor Week #5: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—"A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."

     Now that betrayal of our country has practically become a Republican folk illness—79 percent approve of Donald Trump's disgraceful genuflection to Vladimir Putin this week—it might be the right moment to remind ourselves that liberals have done their share of traitor-coddling, once upon a time.
    Remember the Rosenbergs,. Julius and Ethel. A married couple in their mid-30s, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets . Julius had worked in a sensitive Army job during World War II; Ethel enlisted her brother who worked at Los Alamos.
     During their trial, and for decades after, the Left was enthralled by the notion that the Rosenbergs were innocent, victims of a police state trying to squash dissent. The couple had either been set up, or were being persecuted for non-crimes.
     Writers such as Nelson Algren, scientists like Albert Einstein, world celebrities like Picasso, all spoke out in defense of the Rosenbergs. Sartre compared the case to the Dreyfus affair—the Rosenbergs were Jewish. Which didn't stop the pope from appealing to Eisenhower for clemency.
     In calling for the death penalty, U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol said, "A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."

      Common wisdom is that Ethel was a bit player, condemned to encourage Julius to tell all he knew. It didn't work. "She called our bluff," a prosecutor later reflected.
      Those caught up in the Trump campaign collusion with the Russians should not forget Ethel Rosenberg. They might cling to the notion that whatever role they played was small they'd somehow escape notice. Ethel's low level of involvement didn't matter when the switch was thrown. 

     ''When you're dealing with a conspiracy, you don't have to be the kingpin," said James Kilshiemer, a prosecutor who built the case against the Rosenbergs. "You have to participate,."'  Treason is like pregnancy; you can't do it a little.
     The couple died in the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953.   
     After the fall of the Soviet Union, classified documents came to light showing that not only did the Rosenbergs conduct espionage, but recruited other spies to join them. 

     Even after their undeniable guilt came to light, some kept the flame,
     "While the transcriptions seemed inconclusive, they forced me to accept the possibility that my father had participated in an illegal and covert effort to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis,''wrote his son Robert Meeropol who defended his parents for years.
     "Accept the possibility..." "defeat the Nazis" -- because it wasn't so bad to hand over atomic secrets to a foreign power during World War II, since we both faced a common enemy. Nice try,
     A reminder: no matter how damning the evidence against any traitor, there will always be defenders. A 79 percent approval rating of Trump kowtowing to Putin means that no amount of proof will be enough to shake his support. We might as well get used to that now. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Traitor Week #4: Vidkun Quisling—"A vile race of Quislings"

Vidkun Quisling
    Few traitors can commit their betrayals alone. They need collaborators, co-conspirators, dupes, lackeys, water carriers. Even the most famous traitors. As singular as the role of defense minister Vidkun Quisling was in handing Norway over to the Nazis in April, 1940, and as unpopular as he would become, he was not alone, as Winston Churchill pointed out in a speech on June 12, 1941, when Quisling's name was already well on its way to becoming a staple in most of the world's languages:
      "The prisons of the continent no longer suffice. The concentration camps are overcrowded. Every dawn German volleys crack. Czechs, Poles, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Yugoslavs and Greeks, Frenchmen, Belgians, Luxemburgers make the great sacrifice for faith and country. A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen while groveling low themselves. Such is the plight of once glorious Europe and such are the atrocities against which we are in arms."
   Joseph Goebbels was so dismayed to see the name of the Nazis' man in Norway being used as a synonym for "collaborator," he used his propaganda machine to try to similarly tar the names of pro-Allied politicians as synonyms for a people leading their country to disaster.
    It didn't work. Quisling's unpopularity couldn't be reproduced. He was already disliked in the 1930s, when Quisling created the Norwegian fascist party and embraced Hitler. Quisling was more enthusiastic about the Nazis invading Norway than Hitler had been, and had to convince him. 
       That only deepened when the war broke out and Quisling handed his country over to the Germans, infecting a group you might not expect: his supposed masters. The Nazis also grew to hate and distrust Quisling, because he couldn't get things done. He was too disliked.  When Quisling was installed as prime minister in February, 1942, his popularity was estimated at 1 percent, and was met with terror bombings and the resignation of the Supreme Court, en mass. He was more an annoyance than an asset; eventually the Germans had to forbid Quisling from writing to Hitler.       
    Not that much of this sank in. The vanity of the traitor knows no bounds. Even as the war ended, Quisling assumed he could slip out of this misunderstanding. He always had Norway's best interests at heart.  In May, 1945, he surrendered himself, arriving at prison in the silver-plated Mercedes-Benz limo that Hitler had given him. Quisling complained about being kept in an ordinary cell, and that its chair was too small. His captors were not sympathetic.
     Sullen and defiant, Quisling shouted out at his trial that he was the "Savior of Norway!" 
      He was sentenced to death before a firing squad, and executed in October, 1945. His last words were the very Trumpian, "I am convicted unfairly and die innocent." 
     Which leads to an interesting question: will it be "Trump," as in, "If he sells those secrets he'll become a Trump." Or the lowercase "trump"? And how many of his collaborators will share his deathless shame? Time will tell. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traitor Week #3: Benedict Arnold—"Whom can we trust now?"

Benedict Arnold
      No, I'm not Nostradamus—I conceived Traitor Week months ago, starting with Catiline, then Judas, and continuing today with the most famous traitor in American history, posting it now because I'm on vacation. Not that I knew Trump would put in a jaw-dropping display of obsequiousness and betrayal in Helsinki. But because he was a traitor last week, and last month, and last year. Only now it's finally dawning on some folks who have spent years being willfully blind. Welcome to the club. What took ya? And what's going to prevent you from doing that Terminator II metal man thing you do where, however the Trump is Great worldview is blown apart by reality, your folly somehow manages to reconstitute itself and keep plodding forward? 

     Whoever glorifies the past is displaying a profound ignorance of it. People weren't nobler or better back then. They were always people, alas. What happens is we forget the long stretches of selfishness and meanness, remembering only the stuff we want to remember: the moments of splendor, chiefly.      

      Although there are exceptions. With traitor Benedict Arnold, we tend to remember the treason and forget the glory that went before.
      Benedict Arnold was a hero of the American Revolution.He was with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga. Half his men died or deserted during the long march to Quebec City, where Arnold's leg was shattered by a British musket ball. He was brave, daring, dedicated.
     But Arnold's heroism, rather than fortify the man, only embittered him, and he felt less appreciated, more passed over (not without reason; he had powerful enemies). He sulked. He complained to Washington, who summed up the American mood of the moment in a way that would shock our veneration of the Spirit of '76.
     ''Such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole," the Father of Our Country wrote, "that I should not be surprised at any disaster that may happen.''

     That disaster was Benedict Arnold, who took his greed and jealousy and began putting out feelers to Mother England around 1779. He made contact with the British and, as befits the business man he had once been, carefully negotiated just how much he would get for the specific treason he had in mind—the surrender of the key American fort at West Point. 
      He earned the command, and all was going according to plan when one Maj. John Andre, of the British Army, fell into American hands carrying incriminating papers of Arnold's plot. Often it is not the traitor himself but his confederates, who first give away the game.
     "Arnold has betrayed me," Washington despaired. "Whom can we trust now?''     Not as many as Washington would have liked. A quarter of colonists, remember, supported the Crown, and given they had been subjects a few years earlier, it could hardly be considered treason, and more a case of picking the wrong side of history. With Arnold, the treason is more direct, since he wore a uniform.
     Arnold not only escaped, but published a letter, rationalizing his treason with the classic taken-out-of-context defense. As is common with traitors, he insisted he was a patriot, trying to make his country great again:
     "Love to my country actuates my present conduct," he wrote. "However it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions."
     Arnold escaped to serve the British during the war and to live in London afterward, his only punishment being that his name would go down in obloquy for the rest of American history. Although I would suggest that another name might soon be synonymous with treason, drawing even more scorn that Arnold's
     Although we are in different times and the amazing development now is that while Trump's treason has long been suspected and openly discussed, his supporters show an astounding resilience. There is no development so jaw-dropping that it radiates through the hands clapped over their own eyes. The skill of ignoring sins, honed on gaffes and insults, has proved strong and durable. The issue of just how strong and how durable is the point on which our country's future will pivot. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Traitor Week #2: Judas Iscariot—"Do quickly what you're going to do"

     I could have started Traitor Week with Judas, the ur-traitor in Western culture. 
     But everybody knows Judas, or thinks they do, so I decided to go chronologically and begin with Catiline, nearly a century earlier. 
     Plus Catiline has the benefit of being undeniably real, while Judas is obscured in  the mist of the Biblical—while few suspect Jesus was spun from whole cloth, after that the factual nature of the disciples is hazy at best. But Judas was no doubt an important literary figure, whose famed treachery, whether it occurred or not, echoes to this day. 
     In the 34th and final canto of "The Inferno," after a gut-turning, heart-rendering trip through all nine circles of Hell, replete with sorrow and torture, Dante gets to the very bottom, the sump of the pit, and his guide Virgil turns to him and says, in essence "Okay, now here you have to brace yourself." ("Ecco il loco ove convien che di fortezza t'armi" literally, "Here is the place where you need to be a fortress.") 
    Which of course makes Dante go cold and  feel faint, though that isn't anything new for him.  The duo turn the corner and see Satan, a giant, buried to his chest in ice. Three faces on one head, a toothy mouth in each face, and in each mouth a sinner in agony, being chewed to bits. 
    "That guy," Virgil says to Dante, "Who suffers the most is Judas Iscariot."
    Of course it is. Sins like greed and fornication are minor misdemeanors compared to betrayal, and Judas is the very definition. To be a Judas means betrayal. What's interesting to me is though almost every soul they meet in Hell is closely quizzed by Dante, allowing the damned to recount the crimes that earned them eternal damnation.
      There is no such questioning of Judas. He never speaks. The reader knows. Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, he led them to the Garden of Gesthemone. That's pretty much his entire role in the Bible. He does little else.
    The tougher question is why, and here even the Gospels disagree. Greed—those 30 pieces of silver. The aforementioned Satan injecting himself into his heart. That's the reading of John—Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him; the Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who, Jesus says, the person he is going to hand this bread to will betray him, gives it to Judas, saying "Do quickly what you're going to do." 
    Which sort of undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years or, as Joan Acocella put it in the New Yorker: "If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?"
     Apparently yes. Remember that "Judas" is just the Greek rendering of "Judah," which is "Joe" for Jewish people. Judas has to betray Jesus to justify his co-religionists' persecution, though I don't see why the Pharasees aren't enough.     
    Once the Bible finishes with Judas, however, popular culture gets in its licks, although its interpretation of Judas cuts across the spectrum.
    At one end, in Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," Pilate is treated so sympathetically, he becomes the good guy—the most richly-drawn character in the book, certainly more appealing than Jesus. Yet Bulgakov doesn't even allow Judas to kill himself; Pilate orders him assassinated, a grab at redemption.
    At the other extreme is  the hit musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," which could have more accurately been called "Judas Superstar," since it's really the story of his disillusionment with Jesus, his temptation, betrayal and remorse.
     The remorse, I would suggest, is the essential part of the story. Remember, the Bible was crafted, in essence, as a guide to behavior, and Judas is the model for all who sin, who betray not Jesus, the man, but his teachings. You might get the silver now, but you'll be sorry later. That's the Christian template for sin.
    That's their policy in the personal realm. In the political realm, when dealing with the sins of the powerful, we see another dynamic altogether. Christians line up to shrug sin off, when convenient, "Sure, Donald Trump sins. So do I. We are all flawed, all in need of grace." They wave away error. When they want to. 
     When they don't, it's damnation, both now and later. 
     Judas' motives come into play because motive is always a mitigating factor—are you doing what you think is right, or abandoning your principles for personal gain? The question of whether Trump genuflects before the Russians because he admires strongmen like Putin, because Putin has incriminating evidence against him, because of business interests, is something historians will argue over forever. My guess is that Putin saw something that 40 percent of the country couldn't: that Trump is a dumpster fire who will drive the country to the brink of ruin. So Putin backed Trump, as a way to strike at the country, and Trump fell in love with Putin because he is a broken man who adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never crossed his mind. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America never crossed his mind, locked on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so? 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Traitor Week, #1: Cataline "Our very lives and liberty are at stake"

Cicero denounces Cataline, by Cesare Maccari 

     Americans have a hard time wrapping their heads around treason. Maybe because our history is so relatively free of traitors Protected by our oceans, enjoying our supposed freedom and relative security, we just don't expect our citizens to be in the thrall of foreign powers. 
     Then again, considering that the Southern half of the country renounced the Union and broke away to form a new nation in 1861, all to preserve slavery, maybe we have treason aplenty, but just don't recognize it as such. Nixon, remember, scuttled the Vietnam peace talks to help himself get elected in 1968. Tens of thousands of American soldiers subsequently died. The truth came out, but barely left a mark on him.
     Even now, with a president so obviously enamored with the Russians, if not in their actual employ, nearly half our country displays a willful blindness even toward the possibility. They don't want to know.
     They should. History, including American history, is rife with traitors, and as their stories, each its own way, could be applicable to the current moment, and since readers might be unfamiliar with most, I thought them worth revisiting during the mid-summer lull, while I am on vacation from the paper and Donald Trump is holding his Treason Summit with his master, Vladimir Putin.

     Much of our Roman history comes to us through Shakespeare. We know Julius Caesar, and his murder, "Et tu, Brute?" Plus a few writers—Marcus Aurelius, Virgil—whose works remain popular. We are aware of the worst emperors—Nero, Caligula. We know the empire fell to various Goths and Vandals.
     And that's about it.
    Catiline isn't on the radar, or wasn't, until Donald Trump was elected and started his virulent opposition to key elements of our republic—the free press (when it disagrees with him); the courts (when they make rulings he doesn't like). His efforts to burn down our government evoked another patrician who wanted to burn down his motherland.

     In March, 2017, Nation reporter M.A. Niazi dubbed Trump, "The American Catiline," though his article bogs down more on the historical differences—Lucius Sergius Catiline lost two elections in 65 and 64 BC and his plot to seize power in 63 BC failed. He was killed in battle, which displays more courage than Trump could ever muster.

    Besides, Trump won.
    To me, the similarity is more a matter of tone, particularly after I took the time to read Sallust's "The War With Catiline" translated by J.C. Rolfe (Harvard University Press: 2013).

     The parallels pop out.
     "Catiline could be held up as a prime specimen of a decadent nobleman who sought political advancement by espousing the cause of the drowntrodden simply to maintain and further selfishly his own dignitas," Rolfe wrote in his introduction, using an untranslatable Latin word akin to "prestige."

    That sounds familiar. Or consider Sallust's description of Catiline's motives:
     "His insatiable mind always craved the excessive, the incredible, the impossible. After the tyranny of Lucius Sulla, Catiline had been assaulted by the greatest passion for seizing control of the government, and he did not consider it at all important by what means he achieved his objective, provided he gained sovereignty for himself."
    Sound familiar? 
    Sallust saw Catiline as a reaction, not to adversity, but success.
     "Those who had easily endured toil, dangers, uncertain and difficult undertaking, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence a craving first for money, then for power, increased; these were, as it were, the root of all evils. For avarice subverted trustworthiness, integrity and other virtuous practices; in place of these it taught insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything."
     Trump wasn't conjured up by desperate poor Americans, but by desperate rich ones.
      Just as the right cavils against the media, even while Fox dominates TV news, so Catiline in his speeches made it seem like his rebellion was an uprising of those on the fringes, and not powerful insiders trying to grab even more.
     "All the rest of us, energetic, good—nobles as well as nobodies—have been a common herd, without influence, without prestige, subservient to those to whom, if the state were healthy, we would be an object of dread," Catiline told his supporters. "Accordingly, all influence, power, office, and wealth are in their hands...How much longer still will you put up with this, o bravest men?"
    Like Trump, he made tearing down the state seem easy.
     "We need only to begin," he exclaimed, "existing conditions will take care of the rest.
    Ring a bell? Sound familiar? The Roman mob also bought it. Ancient Rome was also a powerful republic stabbing itself in the heart.
     "At that period the dominion of the Roman people, it seems to me, was by far the most pitiable," Sallust writes. "Although the whole world, from the rising to the setting of the sun, had been subdued by arms and was obedient to Rome, although at home there was peace and wealth, which mortals deem the foremost blessings, nevertheless there were citizens who from sheer perversity set out to destroy themselves and the state."
     The Republic of Rome, like the United States of America, had no enemy who could damage it the way a committed traitor could. 
     The left tortures itself with polls, amazed that Trump's supporters cling with him. So did Catiline's followers
     "Neither was anyone out of such a great throng induced by a reward to betray the conspiracy, nor did a single individual desert Catiline's camp, a disease of such great intensity and just like a plague, had infected the minds of a great many of our countrymen."
     In a sense, we have it worse. Catiline was opposed by the greatest Roman statesmen of all time, Cicero and Cato. The Democrats are a ragtag, disillusioned band, placing our hope in Joe Biden.
   Cato saw the problems as an embrace of enemies and a paralyzing cynicism:
    "Citizens of the highest rank have conspired to set fire to their native land; they summon to war the Gauls, a nation most bitterly hostile to the very name of Rome....
   "We extol wealth, we pursue idleness. No distinction is made between good men and bad, and ambitious appropriates all the prizes for merit. And no wonder! When each of you takes counsel, separately for his own personal interests, when you are slaves to pleasure in your homes and to money or influence here, the natural result is an attack upon the defenseless republic."
     He tried to put the situation in the materialistic terms that even senators could understand.
     "I call upon you, who have always valued your houses, villas, statues, and paintings more highly than the nation; if you want to retain the possessions to which you cling, of whatsoever kind they are, if you want to provide freedom from disturbance for indulging your pleasures, wake up at least, and lay hold of the reins of government. At issue is not revenues or the wrongs of our allies, but our very lives and liberty are at stake."
    Cato's appeals at least inspired action. Today, the Trump crisis isn't even perceived by his supporters, at least not publicly. There is no one to stir them to resistance. At least not yet. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How much is that doggie food in the window?



     The deal the Costcos of the world make with their customers is pretty straightforward: you buy in bulk, we give you a discount.
     So instead of selling a box of cereal for $4, it sells three boxes for $9. You save a buck a box, 25 percent. More or less. Costco makes less on each box but sells more. Everybody wins. Sure, you have to store more stuff. But heck, we've been building these McMansions for years now. We've got the room.
     That said, you still have to do the math.
     I brought Kitty by Petsmart a couple weeks back to be groomed so she'll be beautiful — or, in dogtalk, gwoomed so she'll be bootiful.
     While there, I thought I would pick up more of the Nutro soft food she eats every day for breakfast, but not dinner.
     It costs $1.59 for one package—sometimes they have have sales, and charge as little as $1, when I celebrate the occasion by buying 40, 60 packages. It isn't as if the stuff goes bad. But no sales lately. It makes more sense to buy a four-pack for $5.59. Then you're spending $1.40 a package, a 15 percent savings.

    That's usually the choice. Singles or the four pack.
    But this time, something new, the "12 Variety Pack," for $17.49. My hand automatically moved toward it. Ooo, savings!
    Then I froze.

    Wait a minute...
    My rough math skills multiplied $5.59 for a four pack by three, and I got about $16.50 for 12 packs—really $16.77— or 75 cents less than the price of $17.49. It was cheaper to buy three 4-packs than one 12-pack.

     That's strange.
     I thought it might be a labelling problem, but the Petsmart clerk told me no, they don't price products. They just put them on the shelves. 
    Moving online, I stumbled onto There I could get a Variety Pack case of 36 for $44.49, or $1.23 per package.  Even less if I sign up for automatic shipping. I never need think about this again. I assume I could have a new crate shipped out every 36 days. 
    Why am I not leaping to this offer? Maybe it isn't enough savings. Kitty likes going to Petsmart; I take her on a tour of the place before delivering her to the careful ministrations of Igor in the grooming department. If I help drive Petsmart out of business by going for rock bargain by accepting the Devil's Deal of, I won't have a fun place to take her, and I'll have to find another groomer. Plus I'll drive by the empty shell and feel culpable, in some tiny way, for rending the social and commercial fabric of American life. That's a lot to risk to knock a few pennies off the price of dog food. No, there's economical, and then there self-destructive. Let's not to confuse the two. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Change is hard


     My younger boy is moving to Virginia, and in my capacity as a full-service dad, Friday I helped him close up the apartment that, last September, I had helped him move into.
      Not that difficult. Drag some furniture to the van.  Not much. A desk. A chair. A lamp. A coffee table. The new bed will be delivered there. 
     Carefully fit it all in, add boxes and laundry baskets and assorted piles of blankets and coats. The starter set for possessions to come. What someday trucks and squads of burly moving men will do—gather up his possessions to drag them from Point A to Point B—took us two an hour. 
     When I tried to convey this to him, he scoffed. He's never going to own a bunch of stuff. No need to add the contemptuous, "Like you." It was implied. Prudent investments instead.
     "Smart," I said.
    Afterward, upstairs, while he touched up a scuff on a wall, I grabbed a broom and swept. Something spiritual about sweeping, fine dust across a dark floor.
    "You know," I thought to say, but didn't. "I once spent five days cleaning the basement. When I went into rehab. The basement was dirty and it just seemed the thing to do. Almost like being in a monastery, sweeping that black dust across the grey concrete floor."
     But I didn't say that. Shutting up is an art form.
     What I did say was this. I had noticed some coins scattered across his floor. A few quarters, some dimes and nickels. 
     I swept them toward the dust pan.
     "You've got some change on the floor," I said aloud. "Do you want it?" 
    "No," he said. "I don't like change."
    "Nobody does," I replied. A joke. I glanced over for reaction. None. 
     So here was my dilemma. Does dad hoover up the money? At first it felt like a petty, peasant thing to do. Scrabble the coins out of the filth. It was his money, not mine (of course, all his money is my money at this point; might as well get a little back). 
     Still, his dwelling, he's the guy in charge. Do I pluck up the quarters?
     If, in a few years, when he's at a big law firm, pulling down the elephant dollars, how will he look upon this memory, his old father, in his laughable baggy cargo shorts, carefully lifting coins out of the dirt and scraps of the dust pan? With contempt, right? Rich people feel enough contempt as it is for those negligent enough to spend their lives doing what they love but never getting rich at it. Careless of them. Add to that the dubious light that falls upon almost anything your parents do. The losers back in Loserville, losing.
     Is that the message I want to leave to him, as he embarks on this new phase of his life? Leaving and most likely never coming back, except to visit. Dad scrounging change out of the trash? 
    I lift the dustpan to tip it into the garbage. And paused.
    I'm a frugal guy, Alinea notwithstanding. If he weren't there, I'd certainly sky up the coins. A buck's a buck. I did insist he start work at 16. Maybe letting money slip by out of pride is also a message worth delivering. Every quarter counts. If he's going to feel contempt, might as well be for this. 
     He seemed focused on dabbing paint on the wall. Decision time.
     I knotted the big black trash bag and dragged it downstairs and out to the loading dock. 
    "That's it," I said, coming back into the apartment. "Ready?"
     He walked to the door.
    "Don't you want to do some sort of ritual?" I traced a cross of benediction over the room with two fingers, held high. "Your first apartment?"
     He walked wordlessly out onto the street, I followed, letting the door slam behind me. In my pants pocket, the coins jingled. 
     $1.50, not bad for a few seconds' work.
     That evening, in line to order dinner at Once Upon a Grill, I held the stack of coins up between my thumb and forefinger and showed them off to him.
     "Your change," I said, dropping the money into the white plastic tip bucket. "They'll appreciate it."
     He smiled. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Despite what Republicans say, they're fine with CERTAIN babies dying ...

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     When Republicans natter on about being pro-life and wanting to save babies, they're really referring to undeveloped fetuses. The dewy smokescreen of theoretical babies is designed to hide, to themselves if no one else, what they are actually doing: trying to impose their 16th century sexual mores on the unwilling, using American law to force religious dogma upon women who vigorously reject it.
     Regarding actual babies in the living world, however, they don't mind if our government contributes to the death of babies, particularly babies who are darker skinned and in nations other than our own.
     At first, the United States balking at joining an international effort to encourage breast-feeding seems like just more Trump administration water-carrying for the short-term interests of large corporations, long-term implications be damned.
     The ghastly situation was outlined Monday in a front page story in the New York Times: World Health Assembly officials were stunned when the U.S. tried to water down a resolution encouraging breast-feeding.
     But look more closely, and you realize this is not an abstract, economic issue. Just as cigarette companies, faced with shrinking American markets, turn to the less-informed abroad, so infant formula companies push their products in poor countries, where it is often mixed with polluted water.
     Tens of thousands of real babies die every year because of infant formula marketing now being boosted by the United States.
     The story was so damning that our president hurried to dispatch his usual deceptive tweet.

The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.
     Nobody suggests women be denied formula. And needless to say, Trump has the rest backward. Few, not many, women are so malnourished they're unable to breastfeed.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

I love wordplay as much as the next guy. However...


    And people think "every goddamn day" is edgy...
    Wednesday I was leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles—after a more than two hour wait for a simple driver's license renewal; get on the stick, Jesse White. 
     There it was, in the parking lot. I raced over, pulling out my iPhone.
    But clicking a few pictures was not enough.
    I had to know. 
    "Why are you asking?" said the voice that answered the number a few hours later. 
     I explained.
     "It happened in a bar," owner Ross Reed began. "Forty years ago."
    "Seandell's," he continued, a bar in Lincolnshire, at Milwaukee Avenue and 22, now long gone. "As red neck as red neck gets."
     He was in the tree business, understand. Sold a lot of firewood. Firewood goes in fireplaces. Creating smoke, that billows up chimneys and, eventually, over time, dirties them. 
     "So many people were asking who I knew in the cleaning business," said Reed. The tree business cools down the in fall, just when the chimney-cleaning business heats up. 
     "One night I was out with the boys in 1980, and I said, 'I kinda like sitting in a nice warm living room instead of being up a tree in a blizzard,'" Reed said.
    He started the business with a landscaper friend, Kevin Winkler. A business needs a name. Names were discussed. A certain sooty pun was unspooled. 
    "They said 'No way' and I said, 'watch me' and it's been Ash Wipe ever since."
     Officialdom didn't blink. 
    "Oh hell, I'm incorporated with the state, my own trademark," he said. "If the government can accept it...."
    So can the chimney-owning residents of the tony North Shore? So does the name attract customers? Or drive them away?
    "A little of both." 
    But between the two, business booms.
    "It's crazy," said Reed, 59. "Here it is, middle of July, I'm absolutely slammed. I don't advertise."
    With that truck you don't have to.
   Ever find any interesting stuff clogging up chimneys?
    "Lots of times you find animals," Reed said. "The coolest thing I found is a letter to Santa Claus written by a girl named Sarah. The family in the house had been there 25 years and didn't have a Sarah. They knew the people they bought the house from: no Sarah. I could tell from the dolls and toys she asked for, the letter was from 1910, 1915, discolored from time. It had gotten stuck up behind the damper. The lady from the house wanted it; I would have framed it, hung it up. I hope she kept it. That's one of the cooler things. I've been waiting to find the box of diamonds that grandpa hid up a chimney, but it hasn't happened yet."
    We talked for a long time. Sadly, some of the more interesting things he made me promise not to repeat here, and I'm a man of my word. These rich people and their fireplaces...
     While on the subject. How do you clean a chimney?
    "Brushes," Reed said. "You send 'em up. "You do it from the bottom up, because if you do it from the top up you got no control. You push the brush up, with a vacuum running, to catch it before it gets out of hand. In some of those mansions in Lake Forest: white carpet, white furniture, white dog, white wife... you get one speck of it in there and you're in trouble."
     No doubt. I did not envy the man his clientele. 
     A cleaning costs $150 to $200, "depending on how far I have to drive." A mansion can have five fireplaces. Or more. He's cleaned the fireplaces of homes about to be torn down. He's cleaned the chimneys for artificial fireplaces.
     "You really don't got to clean 'em with gas logs," he said. "I tell 'em that. They say, 'Well, I'll feel better if you do it.' My honesty only goes so far. 'You got seven fireplaces. You want me to pretend like I cleaned 'em? Okay...'"
    Then, out of the blue.
    "I don't wear my top hat anymore. It's in a drawer, but I don't wear them."
    But you did?
    I started in '79. I have hats as old as I am. The real McCoy. I bought it because that's what chimney sweeps wear. If you see someone up there in blue jeans ..." 
     He paused, to let the thought sink in. "But if they're up there in a top hat, you know immediately what they're doing."
      He said that chimney cleaning began in Germany 800 or 900 years ago, and the top hat tradition began with undertakers throwing away their top hats and tails and chimney sweeps taking them. 
     We talked a long time, and I hung up with reluctance, wishing I had a fireplace.



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What's something that women in prison just can't get enough of? Books


     Among the hardships of prison — bars, noise, other prisoners — there is the trouble with books.
     Prison libraries tend to be small, their books old, dated and falling apart from use. And in a penal version of the old joke about the food at a Catskills resort being lousy and in such small portions, use of these small, out-of-date, battered prison libraries tends to be heavily restricted.
     “Sometimes a woman or man might have access for half an hour every two months,” said Vicki White, a volunteer at Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a group that does just what its name implies.
     White contacted me because she saw that “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” the literary recovery book I wrote with Sara Bader, had come out in paperback — the only person in the wide world who noticed, as far as I can tell. Would I consider, she wondered, donating 20 copies for female inmates, who often struggle with addiction.     
Vicki White
    “Right,” I thought. “Like that’s going to happen.”
     Still, I was curious about the group. The paperback publication is significant to them because they can’t send hardback books.
     “Many prisons require paperback only — security issues,” White said.
     When CBWP was founded in 2002 it originally shipped books to prisons in bulk, where the boxes would sit in mailrooms, unopened. So the founders assembled a library — about 8,000 volumes now — and began filling specific requests from prisoners.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

'No doubt'

Thomas Hobbes
     "Scientia potentia est," Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. "Knowledge itself is power." 
     Which is why this particular era in our nation's checkered history can be thought of as The Great Abdication of American Power, since we are in full retreat from what we know to be true, racing willy-nilly to embrace what our leaders wish were true.
     Accusations of the president colluding with Russia? A "witch hunt." Again and again, drilled into us. Before a charge is leveled or evidence shown. 
    Is the president a traitor? Half the country doesn't know and doesn't care and never will.
    The respected lawman conducting the investigation? Hopelessly compromised. The media? Fake. Except for news flattering Trump. That always seems on-the-level. 
    Does this contradiction bother millions of Americans? No.
    We act like what we don't know won't hurt us. When it can and does and will. Consider climate change. 
     The weather ratchets warmer, day by day, year by year, gradually, on average. It's hotter than it's ever been. That warm weather drives storms, fires. We see it all around us. 
     The nations of the world gathered, agreed to do something with the Paris climate agreement. It wasn't a lot, but it was a start.
    Then Trump was elected. And our country crawled before industry, in general, and the coal industry in particular, naming a paid lobbyist, Scott Pruitt, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a government body he used to regularly sue.
     Being a shill of the coal industry—a paid lobbyist who continued to hoover up favors as EPA head—did not end Scott Pruitt's career with the federal government last Thursday, when the president accepted his resignation.
     Trump knew what they were getting. Pruitt was chosen because he was a shill. Pruitt was Oklahoma attorney general and a hireling for the coal industry. Since the complexity of that phrase might elude some readers, I should elaborate: the fossil fuel industry paid him hundred of thousands of dollars to encourage the use of coal.
     Of course Pruitt kept that gravy train rolling even after Trump made him administrator of the EPA, while he also vigorously began trying to dismantle the environmental regulations put in place to keep the country from being polluted and the world from burning up, and urged Trump to pull out of the Paris accords, where the nations of the world had banded together trying to reverse climate change—the process by which carbon dioxide, created by burning coal and oil, collects in the atmosphere and causes the climate to become warmer . 
     There is no question this is happening. Unless you sell the stuff causing it to happen, or are in the employ of people selling the stuff causing this to happen. Knowing the truth, we could have done something, were trying to do something. Almost did something.

     Now we're just blinding ourselves to the problem, in order to maximum our short term gain. It's like burning your home's floorboards in the furnace on a cold day.
     As scary as this is, even scarier to see how it is perceived.
     I used to think it was just Fox News. But looking at the reaction to Pruitt's resignation, I happened across a Wall Street Journal editorial that begins: 
   Chalk one up for the swamp. The permanent progressive state finally ran Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, and the tragedy is that Mr. Pruitt gave his enemies so much ammunition.
     President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon that he had accepted Mr. Pruitt’s resignation. Mr. Pruitt cited the “unrelenting attacks on me personally” and his family that have “taken a sizable toll on us all.” He’s right about unrelenting. Dozens of reporters have examined every furl of Mr. Pruitt’s forehead since he started the job.
     Dozens! Oh my! As if scrutiny is a bad thing. The editorial mentions a few of Pruitt's more minor abuses and then lets loose with this startling sentence: "Mr. Pruitt says most of this was false or exaggerated, and no doubt much of it was."
     "No doubt." Could you summarize the requirement to be admirer of the current administration better in two words? You cannot doubt what he says, no matter how obviously incorrect, or contradictory, or petty. Easier to imagine a Deep State bogeyman—I suppose we should be grateful it isn't the Jews, yet, because when you're imagining a shadowy presence to blame for your own faults, it usually falls to them. Maybe that's coming.
    So Pruitt had to go, not for corruption, not for tearing down regulations but—as the New York Times reported—because he was coveting Jeff Sessions' job and Trump got tired of reading about his daily excesses and petty grifts.
    The Journal faults Pruitt, not for viewing his office as a personal dole, but for appearing to do so. He isn't responsible for what he did—that's the Deep State, the "collaborationist press" and the "left's environmental agenda." Not because he was terrible, but because it looked terrible.
     These people have "no doubt" their pieties are true, because it is in the financial interest of a few, who put out a lie, that their supporters slavishly believe, contrary to their interests. I wish I had the knowledge why, but I don't. Talk about powerless. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

The first 100 questions about Rev. Pfleger's Dan Ryan protest

     Rev. Michael Pfleger's anti-gun violence march shutting down the Dan Ryan was the big Chicago story over the weekend. It raised a lot of questions. Here are the first 100:

1. Who were the protests for?
2. Does anybody not know about the problem at this point?
3. If so, will they learn about it from this?
4. Or were the protests supposed to jar those already aware into action?
5. What should those people do?
6. Aren't those inconvenienced by closing the Dan Ryan the ones whose attention the protest is trying to snag?
7. Are they now more sympathetic?
8. Or less?
9. Did the mayor really suggest the march might deter shooters?
10. What dream world is he living in?
11. Is this crisis even a matter of caring?
12. Can we care the problem away?
13. Don't officials care more about the Dan Ryan being shut down than Chicagoans being killed?
14. How screwed up is that?
15. Did you answer "totally?"
16. How does awareness help, anyway?
17. Aren't residents of violence-plagued neighborhoods plenty aware?
18. What should they do?
19. Start jobs programs?
20. Is the march mainly for their benefit?
21. Ever notice how personal responsibility is rarely mentioned?
22. Is that blaming the victims?
23. Why do protests insist affected communities don't control their own lives?
24. Do they?
25. Aren't protests appealing to some higher power to fix everything?
26. Isn't that what priests do every Sunday?
27. Is question No. 21 a sign of white privilege?
28. Should this column have been written by a black pundit?
29. Would it offer different questions?
30. What are those?
31. Would those questions have more validity?
32. Why?
33. Or why not?

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why do buried lives become important?

      Am I the only one seeing the ghost of Floyd Collins?
     He flickered into mind after those boys were trapped in a cave in Thailand, a dozen soccer players and their coach. 
    When the search was going on, as each day passed, hope dwindled. Then they were found but, in a cruel twist, getting them out was neither immediate nor perhaps even possible. It involved a six hour dive, in near total darkness, for children who could not swim. Found but not safe.
     Collins was the Kentucky cave explorer, on Jan. 30, 1925, he became trapped 55 feet underground, while trying to find a new entrance to the Crystal Cave. He too could be seen but not rescued.
     The next two weeks became an early American media circus, as primitive radio stations set up, barkers sold food and souvenirs. A reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, William Burke Miller, began wriggling into the cave to interview Collins, and sent out breathless dispatches: 
     CAVE CITY, Kentucky, Feb. 2-Floyd Collins is suffering torture almost beyond description, but he is still hopeful he will be taken out alive, he told me at 6:20 o`clock last night on my last visit to him.     Until I went inside myself I could not understand exactly what the situation was. I wondered why someone couldn't do something quick, but I found out why.     "I was lowered by my heels into the entrance of Sand Cave. The passageway is about five feet in diameter. After reaching the end of an 80-foot drop I reached fairly level ground for a moment.     From here on in I had to squirm like a snake. Water covers almost every inch of the ground, and after the first few feet I was wet through and through. Every moment it got colder. It seemed that I would crawl forever, but after going about 90 feet I reached a very small compartment, slightly larger than the remainder of the channel.   This afforded a breathing spell before I started again on toward the prisoner. The dirty water splashed in my face and numbed my body, but I couldn't stop.     Finally I slid down an eight-foot drop and, a moment later, saw Collins and called to him. He mumbled an answer.     My flashlight revealed a face on which is written suffering of many long hours, because Collins has been in agony every conscious moment since he was trapped at 10 o`clock Friday morning.     I saw the purple of his lips, the pallor on his face, and realized that something must be done before long if this man is to live.
     Miller won the Pulitzer Prize. Collins died of exposure after two weeks, days before a shaft sunk trying to reach it would have broken through. The fates of those boys are still in the balance.
      Why do such stories resonate? Collins would be followed by a number of others—Baby Jessica McClure, the 18-month old girl who fell into a well in Midland Texas in 1987 comes to mind. When children are involved, world attention is even more transfixed.
     Maybe it's the optimist in me, but these stories touch on something precious. They remind us of the value of every life. Experts from half a dozen countries, including the United States, which sent Navy divers, rushed to Thailand. It was breathless, front page news. The same children who would be turned away from our borders with a sneer of mocking derision were suddenly of enormous value—suddenly, I would suggest, be given the enormous value they deserve. 
      I hope that the boys are rescued, all safe, and reunited with the parents. And moreover, I hope that the world, relieved, sees the contours of a lesson in this. Why do people only become important when buried alive? Why are the lives of others precious only when they are put in peril? Something to think about.