Senator McConnell, Why Do You Disrespect Justice Scalia?

Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing has led to the President doing his constitutional job of nominating a replacement and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell not doing his. McConnell refuses to even meet with the nominee, Merrick Garland, a centrist respected by both sides. Holding hearings and voting on him, the senate’s constitutional job, are out of the question. In the time-honored and almost magical way that politicians have of making their base, self-serving interests sound like high principle, McConnell very prettily says that deferring the decision until the next president is in office so that “the people have a voice” is the right thing to do. Of course, the people actually did have a voice and they elected Barack Obama to a second four-year term, not a three year term. Naturally McConnell’s pretended principled stand is really raw politics, as he hopes for a Republican to be elected president allowing the next justice to be a Republican nominee. But if a Democrat is elected, all the Republican principle of letting “the people have a voice” will dissolve, and the centrist Garland will likely get a lame duck hearing after all, just before the newly elected Democrat takes office and has the opportunity to nominate someone less satisfactory to Republican sensibilities. Would McConnell be talking about letting the people have a voice if a Republican had almost a year left in office? Of course not.

As the leading voice for the judicial philosophy of deciding cases based on the “original intent” of the Constitution, Justice Antonin Scalia would have to be appalled at McConnell’s “let the people have a voice” hypocrisy concerning the Justice’s replacement. The founders unquestionably intended “advise and consent” to mean precisely that, and doing nothing is not “advising” the President, much less “consenting.” If McConnell and company want to show respect to Justice Scalia, then abide by his oft expressed judicial philosophy and proceed with what the original intent of the Constitution’s framers clearly was: consider the nominee and have the senate give its advice in the form of an actual vote. Senator McConnell, why do you so disrespect the Justice whom you so profess to revere?

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Swooning for Trump

Iowa Republican caucus-goers have not even yet donned their sealskin parkas and mukluks and begun their trek across the windswept tundra to vote in their quadrennial confab, but Donald J. Trump has had them all aflutter for months. An innocent civilian cannot suffer through a single news cycle without scurrying for the foxhole under a cannonade of alleged news about the coiffure-challenged candidate, invariably including some choice apercus from  The Donald himself. We have learned, for example, by his own testimony that if he is elected, his presidency will be HUGE, and it will be GREAT, and Mexico will pay for a huge WALL, and EIGHTY PERCENT of killings of whites are committed by blacks, and he will bomb the SHIT out of ISIS, and all you need to know about how everything will be fixed and America will be made great again is that he will use MANAGEMENT, unlike all the STUPID leaders we have today who have been a DISASTER, one in particular. Some have claimed that DJT is really a sub-literate, misogynistic, deranged, xenophobic, bloviating, demagoguing, know-nothing blowhard. But I have to admit that he also has some bad traits, though it would be ungentlemanly of me to enumerate them.

I estimate that around thirty percent of the American population would actually like to see him as president. However, if he somehow were to be the GOP nominee, he would get at least forty-five percent of the vote on the principle of “my Republican, right or wrong.” But of those thirty percent who swoon for him, rejecting all others, a very significant number are closet fascists, the card-carrying Ku Kluxers and John Birchers of an earlier era. (Aside: I was getting a haircut yesterday, with Fox alleged News spewing in the background, and one of the waiting customers, maybe my age, observed that he was waiting for Obama’s State of the Union Address. The barber, whom I’ve long known to be of far right wing and racist persuasion, asked why. The customer replied that he was hoping somebody would “shoot him.” The barber said, “Nobody has the balls to do it.” Yes, I should have changed barbers a long time ago, and had another option availed itself, I would have, but that was it, I’m done. Actually, I did change barbers a long time ago, from the one whose Confederate flag filled a wall. So anyway let’s not pretend they’re not out there, and they’re sure not voting for any Democrat. The customer and the barber’s assumption of white, male, right wing solidarity in front of two other customers is itself telling. Now I guess I’ll be getting my hair “styled.”)

Many of the thirty percent are high school educated (or less) white males who consider themselves victimized by Obama-the-born-in-Africa-Muslim, the press, the government in general, and now Hillary and her adorers. And in their often self-pitying and angry world view, they are surrounded on all sides by a liberal or merely moderate cultural onslaught, and Trump is the blond Galahad come to slay their oppressors. Even more so than most politicians, DJT offers his admirers pabulum of intellectually digestible simplicity instead of nuance and complexity, a binary world of strong vs. weak, good vs. evil, smart vs. stupid, and especially us vs. them. The essential qualities of a president for the swooners are bombast, overweening vanity, political inexperience, a delight in offending, and a willingness to utter whoppers that they consider to be inconvenient truths—e.g., Mexicans are rapists, our leaders are stupid, Muslims were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City—statements which would be anathema to ordinary politicians even if they were true.

In particular all his supporters love his unwillingness to apologize or admit error about anything, even things on which they know him to be wrong. Were he to apologize or admit he might have been wrong about something—say, for example, mocking McCain’s legitimate war hero status—it would deflate his “brand” and expose a weakness that they cannot countenance. After all, strength means never having to say you’re sorry, and one should never let an annoying fact or a truth get in the way of a good storyline. Feeling the love, DJT has become an even greater bully than he was on The Apprentice, a show which thrived to the extent that it did because of his bullying, tough-guy tactics. His vast but terribly fragile ego cannot abide criticism, so mockery—the McCain charge, the blood coming out of Megan Kelly’s “wherever,” his spastic shaking to mock a journalist with a disability—becomes his weapon of choice, one that enraptures his worshipping fans though it may discomfit the few not quite yet fully in the fold. In all, it is more than a little possible to see comparisons to National Socialism in his candidacy: his venomous and theatrical screeds are offered as speeches; his stoking of fears of Muslims and Mexicans is reminiscent of Hitler’s scapegoating Jews; and his observation after a heckler was beaten and kicked at one of his rallies that “maybe he should have been roughed up” recalls the Brownshirts in sentiment if not in scale.

If The Donald were somehow actually elected, it would be the cognitive equivalent of installing a whiny nine-year-old in the Oval Office, with a few loaded assault rifles lying around on the desk and sofa. Surely nothing could go wrong. America would have its very own Kim Jong-un, with the added benefit of their dueling hairstyles. After a few weeks of President Trump, the reputations of Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover would skyrocket by comparison. He would be shocked by the discovery that the country actually has a constitution, and that his pronunciamentos, whims, and imprecations were subject to congressional scrutiny. Perhaps fortunately for him, his rabid supporters do not appear to have the numbers to elect him, thus saving him the disorienting revelations that he could not be Dictator of the United States and that realities and facts matter. As president, he would be confronted with the impossible drudgery, at least for him, of having to govern, as well as the appalling realization that actually being president is not at all fun like the improvisational joys and glories of campaigning for it. Like Sarah Palin as Alaska governor, he might actually quit. Of course the hurdle of getting elected in the first place is raised even higher by the enigma of DJT’s actual birthplace. Rumors have abounded for months that he was not, in fact, born in Queens, New York in 1946 as he claims, but rather in the small village of Dystopia, Vulgaria, to minor aristocracy in that benighted eastern European nation. If true, as a native Vulgarian, he would not be constitutionally qualified to serve as president. Whether such rumors can withstand media scrutiny remains to be seen, but what is unequivocally true is that so far he has never made public his birth certificate.

None of this is to say that I am a big Hillary fan. I’ll certainly vote for her, but I have no affection for her prevarications and occasional outright lies. Here is a little-known one, reported by now deceased critic-at-large Christopher Hitchens in his book And Yet . . . . He noted that in a trip to Asia some time ago, Ms. Clinton met mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, and “ever ready to milk the moment,” she told him that her mother had named her after him. How could she be foolish enough to say such a thing? She was born in 1947, and Sir Edmund was an unknown until the Everest climb in 1953. Hillary, do your math homework! Her spokeswoman Jennifer Hanley acknowledged in 2006 that it was not true, but observed that “It was a sweet family story her mother shared to inspire greatness in her daughter, to great results I might add.” OK, it’s just a tiny obsequious lie, sort of like Paul Ryan’s tiny self-aggrandizing one that he had run a sub-three hour marathon. But then there was also the “running under sniper fire” one in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996. Still, I’ll take Hillary over any of the Republicans, though Kasich seems almost honest and reasonable. Of course he doesn’t have a chance. Cruz is cagily holding fire on DJT, hoping for something from him that would be so bizarre or offensive as to presage a fall, allowing Cruz to rush into the breech and claim the presumably disillusioned Trump fantasists. Rubio poses as a moderate conservative, a pose which, compared to Cruz, may almost be true. Meanwhile Carson wilts, Christie scratches, Jeb pleads, and Fiorina snarls.

The funniest line of the campaign so far came from now departed and greatly unlamented Bobby Jindal, who, when informed that The Donald claimed the Bible as his favorite book, retorted that that could not possibly be true as Trump himself was not mentioned anywhere in it. But who knows, maybe The Donald got into all the animal sacrifice stuff. As for the Democrats, O’Malley, like the lesser Republicans, can be dismissed as a cipher scrounging for a footnote in the history books or maybe a gig as a talk show host. Meanwhile Sanders nips at Hillary’s sniper-dodging heels by advocating mostly reasonable and fair policies that even Democratic congressmen and senators would scorn to entertain, like raising taxes on the wealthy.

Several months ago it was easy to dismiss Trump as a gasbag mountebank. He’s still that, but the presumed self-destruct button that he was always on the verge of pushing has now been pushed a few dozen times and seems to be out of order. The only possible unpardonable gaffes for him among the true believers at this point would be a sudden embrace of some hint of gun control or a confession of atheism. The fact that his corporations have filed for bankruptcy four times has apparently elevated his economic prowess; his ignorance of what the nuclear triad is enhances his commander-in-chief bona fides; his three marriages confirm his family values; his sweet talk about Vladimir Putin burnishes his foreign policy cred. The lemmings live in a topsy-turvy world, where up is down and black is white. Let’s just hope there are not enough of them to lead us all over the cliff next November.

The Awakening of Miss Jean Louise

One might be forgiven for wondering if Harper Lee’s formerly lost novel Go Set a Watchman just might be the equal of To Kill a Mockingbird. For fifty-five years we have had just one volume of the companion set, as if we only knew The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but not The Mysterious Stranger. Watchman was written first, the story of Jean Louise Finch’s return to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama after a few years of escape in New York City. Was the return a mere visit to see her elderly father or was it permanent? We do not know, nor does the novel tell us, but we do know that Lee herself did eventually return to Monroeville, where at eighty-nine she lives today in a nursing home. Her New York editor in the mid-1950s seemed unenthusiastic about Watchman but saw possibilities in the novel’s frequent and sometimes lengthy flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and a rambunctious young girl’s 1930s-era evocation of free-roaming summers and invented games, but also Southern life, manners, and the color line.

So Lee returns to her typewriter. In a fine, easy prose, sparkling with tidbits of humor, she creates a Southern small town world as seen by Scout, the nickname of the young Jean Louise, as she navigates ages six through nine, along with her older brother Jem, her father Atticus, their black housekeeper Calpurnia, her playmate Dill, and a cast of lesser but well-drawn dramatis personae. Indeed the language is a little too fine for the six-to-nine year old narrator, a fact which invites a legitimate criticism of the novel. But on that point a willing suspension of disbelief is justified, given that even the precocious Scout could not otherwise reward us with scores of little gems such as:

Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody.

But Mockingbird is not solely a story of Southern rhythms of the mid-1930s as seen through the innocent eyes of a very young, tomboyish girl ever willing to scrap with the local boys and averse to all impositions of femininity. Lee goes straight to The Great Forbidden in the catalogue of white racial fears: black men raping white women. That particular miscegenation is for whites de facto rape; the idea that interracial sex between black men and white women could be consensual is too abhorrent to be conceived, while that between white men and black women is almost an entitlement, though mentioned only in whispers. The only acceptable outcome to this affront to white sensibilities is lynching, whether judicial or extra-judicial.

This is the scenario Atticus faces as the lawyer for Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of “ruttin’ on my Mayella” by the much-put-upon white trash lowlife Bob Ewell. Ewell, Scout tells us, “was the only man I ever heard of who was fired from the WPA for laziness,” after which “he resumed his regular weekly appearances at the welfare office for his check, and received it with no grace amid obscure mutterings that the bastards who thought they ran this town wouldn’t permit an honest man to make a living.” As becomes obvious to any objective eye in the courtroom, Mayella has broken the “code” and lured a black man into her shanty house allegedly to move a piece of furniture, kisses the frightened man, and then sees her father at the window and begins screaming as if she has been attacked. Tom runs, and Ewell beats his daughter. Soon enough, father and daughter both easily slip into victimhood and cry rape, and at the trial Atticus coolly eviscerates the mendacious Ewells on the stand, earning their simmering hatred. But reason and facts succumb to the “code,” The Great Forbidden, and so the all white, all male jury comes to its inevitable verdict.

Jem and Scout have been secretly watching the proceedings from the balcony, unknown to Atticus. Scout’s near deification of her father is rooted in her memories of her gentle, loving father who lets her crawl into his lap and reads to her. Despite all Scout’s scrapes, misadventures, and general pugnacity, Atticus is never really angry with her. Though not of an age capable of fully understanding the quiet courage of her father and the esteem in which he is widely held in Maycomb, Scout’s trust in him to know almost everything, to always do the right thing, and especially to always be there for her and Jem form the circumscribed and idealized perspective she has of her father. And she is not far off: reading Mockingbird, one finds a man worthy of imitation—a desire to be more like Atticus, less temperamental, more equable, more laid back.

Two decades later, in Watchman, Jean Louise returns from New York to Maycomb to visit her aging father. Little has changed in Maycomb, and little has changed Jean Louise’s image of her father. The color line is as firm as ever, and Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia, quietly grieving over the fate of her grandson who has accidentally killed a pedestrian, is an almost unheard of literal crossing of that line. It does not go well. But it does provide the final chapter in Jean Louise’s awakening. As a girl, she was innocent of the color line’s social mores which enveloped her, and had seen Calpurnia as a mother substitute, dispensing love and discipline with equal fervor. But now, weighed down by age, her grandson’s predicament, and long memory of the unbridgeable divide between white and black, Calpurnia barely speaks, and the realities of the color line rend the cherished memories of Scout’s childhood innocence. Plaintively, Jean Louise asks in parting, “Did you hate us?” After a pregnant moment, Calpurnia shakes her head, but Jean knows that she had a right to.

But the full catastrophe had already begun with Jean Louise’s discovery of a snatch of paper about a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council. What she now sees as the lie of her childhood crescendos with her clandestinely watching her father introducing white supremacist and state Citizens’ Council leader Grady O’Hanlon, all in the very courtroom where Atticus had so nobly defended Tom Robinson some two decades before. Seeing her father even at the courthouse meeting, much less introducing this reptilian creature, sends her rushing outside, puking her insides out. The disillusionment, the loss of innocence, is almost complete. Her sort-of boyfriend Henry is as complicit as her father. What they and the Citizens’ Councils see as a justifiable defense against the presumed onslaught of the NAACP in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision is, to Jean Louise, the howling of the Ku Kluxers railing against the possibility that Negroes might be as human as white folk. And the man she vaguely thought of marrying, and even more importantly, the man she had idolized since before she could walk, were in league with that constellation of odious views up to their armpits. Her faith and trust have been ripped from her, awaiting only Calpurnia’s melancholy head shake to be complete. Jean Louise had simply endured her Aunt Alexandra’s assumptions of class superiority and higher breeding, her supercilious presumption of white benevolence, and all her corseted, self-deluded entitlement that are the poison and ignorance of skin color aristocracy. But her father was pure, the embodiment of racial integrity, the defender of her faith. Yet now, with her own eyes, she had seen that it was not at all so. He was a monster. He may not have burned a cross, but was he not in their camp? It is a small step from radical disillusionment to white-hot anger and loathing, but the step after that is a long one. Finally, through the ministrations of a wise uncle, she comes of age. She takes that long step to a reluctant acceptance. It is not an acceptance of beliefs contrary to her own heart, but an acceptance of her father’s imperfect humanity.

Let the Flag Come Down

A seminal moment occurred on June 17 when twenty-one year old Dylann Roof entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat with a Wednesday Bible study group for about an hour, then pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot nine of them to death. Roof’s flagrant white supremacist views, as seen in photos of him with a gun and a Confederate flag, as well as his stated desire to start a race war, have brought to new life a vigorous debate about the Confederate flag, and particularly its display by government bodies on public property. South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley bravely declared that it should come down from the Capitol grounds. The legislature, after beating down some foot-dragging amendments, approved, and on July 10 the flag was officially lowered to widespread cheers and moved to a museum. Even the flagpole and fencing were removed. Meanwhile Mississippi legislators seem content to let the fervor cool as time passes, knowing that having the only state flag that contains, in its upper left corner, the entire Confederate flag puts Mississippi’s flag under an unwelcome glare.

The question of whether the Stars and Bars should continue to fly on Southern states’ public properties pits Southern ultra-conservative ideologues claiming to defend their “heritage” against progressives, moderate Republicans, and especially black Americans, all of whom know, when all is said and done, that the flag really is about white supremacy. The likelihood that few flag supporters could name a single relative in the Civil War severely undermines the heritagers’ claims of ancestral affection and protestations of racial good will. A realtor friend of mine told me a few years ago that when a house would become available for sale in a white area, some neighbors would put up a Confederate flag to deter possible black buyers. It was unequivocally not about “heritage.” Both the white homeowners and any potential black buyers knew exactly what that flag meant: blacks audacious enough to buy would be entering hostile territory.

The flag’s meanings are multi-layered, but heritage is the least of them. “Heritage” is the benign cover for the many malign realities. Fueling the white supremacist meaning, the flag is a statement of defiance against the great accumulated stockpile of right wing Southern white grievances—a black president, civil rights, black advancement and accomplishment, the daily necessity of interaction with black people on an equal basis, or, worse, in positions of authority, all of which presumably come at the heritagers’ aggrieved expense. So the flag is their proud statement of defiance against all of that. It is not coincidence that the state of South Carolina did not raise the flag at its capitol until 1962, as the state’s racist senator Strom Thurmond railed against civil rights, and the state legislature gloried in thumbing its collective nose at the civil rights-loving federal government and Yankee interference with the “Southern way of life.” Yankees, claim the heritagers, have been interfering with that way of life since its apogee in the antebellum years, and the war, symbolized by the Confederate battle flag, was the glorious scream of defiance to end that Northern interference. In fact, the heritage actually being defended is the infamy of a revolt against the United States, a revolt costing over 600,000 souls and innumerable limbs and traumatized lives. The revolt’s sole purpose, without which it would not have happened, was to preserve America’s original and most shameful sin. That is the real heritage represented by the flag—hatred and violent defiance of a government that would end the South’s presumed right to own, exploit, torture, and rape other human beings.

Southern heritage, of which I too am a part, is already well represented at county courthouses across the South. Statues and monuments to the Confederate dead adorn courthouse lawns, and I have no heavy brief against that. The county I live in, Forrest County, Mississippi, is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunate, but so be it. The flag, though, is another matter. Statues and monuments to war dead really do reflect heritage, and I can respect that in the same way I can respect, say, actual German war dead. But the flag is not about those real humans dying in a morally contemptible cause, but rather about present day grievance and message-sending. I can respect my great, great grandfather and Civil War veteran Larkin Creech without retreating into the suspect sentimentality of “heritage,” without approving the morally bankrupt cause for which he fought, and without waving an inflammatory flag whose current real meaning we all know.

Bring On the Clowns

The spring of the year preceding a presidential election has arrived, and again we are entertained with the quadrennial parade of professional pifflemongers to the steppes of Iowa, a state inebriated by the hypothesis that it alone has the wit and discernment to distinguish the genuine pretenders from the merely egomaniacal. Iowa takes for granted its sagacity in the matter of judging cows and would-be presidents at state fairs, so other states wishing to wrest control of Iowa’s perpetual first-in-the-nation status would do well to acknowledge the bucolic charms of Iowan prairie life and the political wisdom they invariably confer. And so every four years—but nary a one in between—the lowing herds of nostrum peddlers and gasbags obtrude themselves on proud Iowa, sip coffee with the salt of the earth in Mama’s Café, order up a plate of hotcakes and corn syrup, and nod earnestly as local boy Billy Bob dilates on geopolitical conundrums and especially the need for the ethanol subsidy. Then it’s back on the bus and down the straight, flat road. Collectively they form a claque of traveling grovelers, mountebanks, and dancing bears whose bedrock convictions sway with the prevailing winds and the vagaries of the particular audience. Who doesn’t love a great circus, especially the clowns?

Dickens’ Own Fleurs du Mal

Few if any novels have distinctly moistened my eyes, but Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities recently achieved that distinction in its last pages. I had read the novel perhaps forty-five years ago, and I now read the very same paperback copy that I had read so long ago, priced at an astonishing half dollar, marked with occasional underlinings and rare marginalia from that long-ago first read. I remembered that I liked the book, and I remembered a few essentials of its plot, but all of its intricacies and moral implications were long gone.

For some reason, however, I had remembered it portraying a more Burkean view of the French Revolution, that is, a view more from the aristocratic parapets than from the hollow eyes of the oppressed masses. Possibly I unfairly calumniate Burke, not having actually read his history of the Revolution. Twain, by contrast, defended the Revolution by comparing the relative drops of blood it spilled in the 1790s to the “hogsheads” of blood spilled by the church, crown, and nobility in the centuries preceding. Twain’s view would have found much sympathy with French atheist priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), whose loathing of the unholy confederacy of church and state, especially in their joint barbarous extortion and grinding oppression of the wretched peasantry, was poured out in secret scribblings by candlelight.

This universal and all too human theme of the oppression of the poor by the privileged rich does finds its way, as I had forgotten, into Dickens’ historical masterpiece. Most of the plot inevitably focuses on the period of the Revolution and its lust for human heads provided by the National Razor. But only one of the sympathetic characters, Darnay, is aristocratic by birth, and he repudiates that heritage and its cruelties to earn his own way in his adopted England. More poignantly, Dickens eviscerates the contempt of the aristocracy for all of those unkempt and bestial masses who encroach upon the nobility’s privilege and entitlement simply by the masses’ wretched existence. Darnay’s father embodies this contempt in his wholly remorseless though unintended striking and killing of an infant by his reckless coach careening through the narrow Paris streets, condescending to be bought off by flinging a coin on the cobblestones to the child’s distraught but unappeased father. Darnay’s uncle, no less intoxicated by centuries of unearned privilege and entitled importance, rapes a young peasant woman, then kills her brave and youthful brother who presumes to draw a sword on him for the crime. Then father and uncle together, fearing the doctor whom they abduct to tend to both dying victims, conclude that he is not to be trusted with the truth and connive to have him thrown into the Bastille for twenty years.

Dickens is no friend of the guillotine, but he knows its gestation and birth in the long centuries of the highborn tyrannizing the downtrodden, and thus comes the Revolution: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit, according to its kind.” The tumbrils rolling through Paris streets carrying to their execution the newly humbled aristocrats side by side with the lowborn, contrived enemies of the Revolution were only a little while ago “the carriages of monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!” Evil sown is evil reaped, and the brave Sydney Carton, just before the blade falls, peacefully envisions these “long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.” But rather than an endless cycle of the oppressed supplanting their oppressors, only to become the new oppressors, Carton, and Dickens, see hope: “. . . a beautiful city and brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” The feckless and wastrel life of Sydney Carton is wholly redeemed by his love of Lucy and her family and the great sacrifice he makes to save them as he bows down on that “retributive instrument”: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Unsolicited Advice to My Children

Parents and children have a highly evolved disconnect on the subject of unsolicited advice: Parents feel compelled to give it, and children have no wish to receive it. Parents have a biological need to dispense the fruit of their experience, and children have an equal need to roll their eyes and ignore it. But it’s tradition; after all, Franklin and Jefferson did it, and as a paean to tradition, I’ll give it a stab as well. Actually mine will be hidden since it appears in an unread blog. This allows me the pleasure of giving it without the annoyance of the eye-rolling. But in fact, it’s probably more advice to me than to my children. So, here goes.

Live within your means; find a good life partner; forgive freely; seek happiness, knowing that material things are not the means to it; do meaningful work; be not too proud, remembering that some of your accomplishment is the result of sheer good fortune and unearned gifts; be sparing in complaint; be slower to judge others; find humor in the everyday; give more, take less; love more; strive to find the right thing and to do it; share and be generous; try to leave the world a tiny bit better than when you entered it; temper justice with compassion; cry some, but laugh often.

“Religious Freedom,” Gays, and Mississippi’s Trainable Fleas

It is such a shame that the Mississippi legislature chooses to invent problems that do not exist, while ignoring so many that do. With the Senate’s unanimous approval of the “religious freedom” bill protecting businesses from having to trade with people they think might be gay, the Senate manages in one stroke to align itself with the state-sponsored racial discrimination of half a century ago, invite economic retribution, violate the equal accommodations component of the Civil Rights Act, and incidentally do nothing to enhance religious freedom—all while very effectively illustrating Mark Twain’s observation that “fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Where are the plaintiffs complaining that their religious liberty has been compromised? None. Zero. Nada.

If the legislature is truly concerned with religious liberty, they might start with amending the Mississippi Constitution, which, in Article 14, Section 265, states that “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold office in this state.” In effect, while the legislature bucks and brays about what it considers religious freedom, we have in fact an officially theocratic state, where religious belief is a constitutional requirement for elected office. There is no freedom not to believe, or even to have no opinion. To be meaningful, religious freedom cannot just be a matter of having the freedom to choose among theistic offerings; it must also embrace the right not to believe. Thus the current “religious freedom” legislation, rooted in anti-homosexual sentiment, is a farrago of hypocrisy, mean-spiritedness, petulance, ignorance, pandering, and grandstanding—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or at least nothing worthy of a legislature supposedly smarter than fleas.

When Letter-Writing Was Art

The mail is so abysmally boring these days, and so it has been for some time.  I strolled out to the mailbox today without the least sense of anticipation, long inured to the wad of paper trash that passes for mail in the twenty-first century. First in the pile was a Humana solicitation, presumably seeking my business for Part D Medicare coverage. I did appreciate their forthrightness, however—they announced on the envelope that “This is an advertisement” instead of pimping the envelope up with “official business” and all the other mimicking of government correspondence. The next item was a solicitation for Dish television, sent from Houston, addressed thoughtfully to “OUR NEIGHBOR AT” followed by my address and accompanied by numerous asterisks, various codes in both numbers and letters, and about fifty vertical marks of different lengths, all no doubt intended to enhance our neighborly feelings and gloss over the fact that they were two states away and didn’t know my name. Neighborhoods just aren’t what they used to be. Yet one has to go through it all or risk missing some bill. Next in the pile was a thin cardboard flyer solicitation from Wesley Medical Center, addressed to “OUR FRIENDS AT” followed by my address. Since they were actually in Hattiesburg, I had graduated from “neighbor” to “friend.” Again, there were those fifty vertical marks of various lengths on the adhesive address label, probably indicating the degree of friendship. The next two actually had my name: an invitation to the luncheon for retired folks from The University of Southern Mississippi, and the newsletter from the Salvation Army. Finally, an L.L. Bean catalogue. Happily, no bills. And of course, no actual personal letter, by which I mean a letter from someone I might actually know, maybe even handwritten.

It has not always been so, of course. Almost any adult over 30 can remember a day when written personal communication was not by texting or email, but through actual letters, handwritten, on stationery or even lined paper, in envelopes, with a stamp. From the writer’s licking the seal of the envelope at one end to the reader opening it at the other could take from two days to two weeks, and of course things could change during that time. Now contact is instantaneous, whether from down the hall or around the world. But as recently as 1989, in the Late Pleistocene pre-email period, it took a minimum of a week, and often more, for my near daily letters to get from India to home, and it seemed like even longer to receive letters from home to wherever I was in India. A letter, especially from a sweetheart or spouse, was a small treasure, sometimes ripped open to be read avidly on the spot, sometimes tucked away to be read and savored in a quiet, private moment. Letters were deeply embedded in the culture, even in our music: The Box Tops’ “The Letter” (“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane. . . .”), Elvis’s “Return to Sender,” The Beatles’ “P.S. I Love You” and “All My Lovin’,” Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” and R. B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria” are among many examples of “obsolete” songs no more likely to be imitated today than you are to get a letter in the mailbox.

I have been reading my father’s letters to my mother when he was in the Pacific during the Second World War. They apparently wrote each other about every two or three days, and some of his were eleven or twelve pages, though his writing was rather large. All of his letters from a war zone went through the censor, with the envelope bearing the censor’s stamp, since any reference to specific war activity or even mention of their locations was forbidden. Thus they are filled with the banalities of his daily life, much love-talk, plans for a future together, and routine mentions of which letter he received from her, how long it took, or semi-playful chiding that he had not received one from her for several days. Hers typically took two weeks to arrive, sometimes almost a month, and he would read them in some private place and then save them for another reading in the evening. No phone, no Skype, no Facebook, no twittering, no email—only letters. In addition to actually getting a letter, the anticipation of getting letters, especially from home, was itself a deep pleasure, and if none arrived when expected, well that could ruin a whole day. I well remember a tiny event during an all-summer Scout trip to Alaska in 1963, when each Scout was required to send one post card home per day. We received mail about every week, usually at a national park office, and one week I remember another Scout—a country boy named Baxter, older, probably shaving for three years—visibly saddened that he had received no letter that week, while all the rest of us had. I even wrote his Mom, urging her to more diligence. A few fellows had sweethearts back home, and naturally those letters were supremely prized, as well as the source of some jocularity among those of us less favored.

Love letters constitute the most important sub-genre of the genre of letter-writing. In 1980 a trove of the love letters of the  twelfth century Heloise and Abelard was discovered, and I remember thinking when I read them some years ago that the student, Heloise, wrote slightly more eloquently—and more erotically—than her tutor, Abelard, the great philosopher and churchman who was castrated at the orders of Heloise’s uncle when he discovered their liaison. The mere fact that those letters were originally preserved though somehow lost for nine-hundred years is testimony to their importance, their vividness undiminished. She, having borne Abelard’s daughter, secretly married him to minimize the scandal (though protesting partly to protect his academic reputation), but soon got herself to a nunnery, though their love was unabated. The passions expressed in those letters reflected the great but lost love of her life, and those passions boldly triumph over the religious life—she became an abbess—to which she had effectively been sentenced. A particularly memorable passage captures the perfect intermingling of her love and passion: “if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.” Perhaps sitting in an attic today somewhere in England are some equally passionate letters from one William S. to the mysterious dark lady of the Sonnets. I have also enjoyed, being a father of adult children, the letters of Galileo’s daughter Celeste, who, like her sister, was illegitimate. That status prevented her from being married in polite society, despite the long and loving relationship of Galileo and their mother—who later, with Galileo’s blessing, married another man. Galileo arranged for both girls to enter a convent. For some reason—resentment, illiteracy, disinclination to write, who knows—the sister never wrote her father. But Celeste wrote often. Her letters reveal her to be gentle and self-sacrificing, as well as adoring and deeply solicitous of her father’s well-being. Perhaps, like Heloise, the cloistered life gave her letters an even greater intensity, poignancy, and beauty.

In the American political sphere, no letter exceeds Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby for sheer rare beauty and metaphorical power in its attempt to assuage the inconsolable grief of a mother who, according (wrongly) to the War Department files, had lost five sons in the War: “. . . I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.  I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.” Though Lincoln must inevitably take the laurel for presidential prose, Jefferson was not far behind, and John Adams not so far behind Jefferson. After their Revolutionary friendship, then later their bitter presidential rivalry, the aging Sage of Monticello wrote the aging Sage of Quincy. Several hundred miles apart, they never saw each other again, but for eleven years they wrote each other endearing and widely ranging letters, including another memorable one in the sub-genre of “consolation letters,” from the widower Jefferson to Adams on the death of the latter’s beloved wife Abigail, late in 1818: “. . .Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine. . . . but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again.” What a pleasure those two aging giants must have experienced after the fires of their political enmity had been extinguished by time and wisdom as they read each other’s letters of friendship and collegiality, almost right up until their simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826, fifty years after their signing the Declaration. A scholar of Benjamin Franklin’s letters refers to the period as the Republic of Letters, denoted by its “serious correspondence,” and notes how Franklin bunched up his overseas letter writing right before the ship was to set sail. With the twittering, email, and Facebook of today, no one born after 1990 can possibly imagine the fraught anxiety or the quivering anticipation—and often both intertwined—of waiting a month to hear from a loved one, or needing to heavily tip the ship’s captain to make sure the treasured letter arrives at its proper destination.

Or even a week. I still have the letters of my first serious girlfriend from her six week study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. To this day, forty-eight years later, the name “Salamanca” has a curious magic for me, partly from its mellifluous sound but more so from its conjuring up a youthful and innocent summer where two virginal lovers lived the travails of separation, mitigated by daily letters. Absence did make the heart grow fonder, but the absence was lessened just barely but oh so necessarily by the fact that that handwriting was hers, she had held the letter, perhaps kissed it, and left just a hint of that familiar perfume on its pages. I still remember walking down the driveway to the mailbox after my day of construction work, hopeful of at least one; two if I had missed one the day before or it was a Monday. I was sixteen, she was fifteen, and her Salamanca letters re-read today, just as surely as mine would, almost ache with a plaintive sweetness, a nearly unimaginably naïve innocence, a tender playfulness, and the full expectancy of an enchanted future of marriage and parenthood. Four summers later, I wandered Europe and my letters to the woman who became my first wife still took about a week, and many days of that trip I made my way to the American Express office seeking her letters to me.

After all, things could happen in the days or especially weeks between the writing of the letter and the reading of it. In Ken Burns’ 1990s production of The Civil War, many viewers found the single most poignant moment of Burns’ rendering of that cataclysm to be the reading of a beautiful letter from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Numerous viewers of the show, including me, requested copies of the letter from PBS stations on which the show aired. I still have my copy, though not in his own hand, unfortunately, and it is moving with every reading. The letter anticipates the possibility of his death: “Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field. . . . I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. . . . But Oh Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and darkest nights . . . always, always and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again. . . .” A week later, perhaps about the time Sarah read those words, the author of this gentle letter was killed at the first battle of Bull Run.

I am not sure of all the forces inviting me to engage in my recent frenzy of letter-reading. I had read the Jefferson-Adams correspondence long ago, as well as the letters of Nietzsche (letters much overshadowed by his “philosophizing with a hammer” books), the slightly disappointing and sometimes too obsequious letters of Voltaire, and the deservedly heralded letters of Keats, who at twenty-five died of tuberculosis in his room which I visited by the Spanish Steps in Rome. Orwell too died of that scourge at age forty-nine, and on a friend’s recommendation I recently read his letters, many suggestive of his unwillingness to be duped by the Left or the Right. He had directed his literary executor that if he did not live to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, the manuscript should be destroyed. Thus put in a letters frame of mind, I read that first girlfriend’s letters, a small book of history’s love letters, and re-read Henry James’ delightful novelette The Aspern Papers, having remembered how much I enjoyed it as a college freshman. Based on the letters of Shelley to Clair Clairmont, the book focuses on the enterprising and deceptive efforts of a young gentleman scholar conniving to acquire the letters of long deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern to his youthful lover Juliana, who is now an ancient, haughty, and frail recluse, and who is rightly suspicious of her young tenant and fiercely protective of her treasure. The reader never learns what the letters reveal, and neither does the scholar, who after a long campaign hastily retreats from Venice following Juliana’s death and the guileless but shocking proposal by Juliana’s spinster niece for his acquisition of the letters. Proposal rejected, she burns the letters.  Perhaps gentlemen should not read other gentlemen’s—and ladies’—mail after all. But these days “mail” means almost everything except letters. In such a case, we must read those of a previous generation, since we receive none of our own.

Thank You, Ms. Lerner, for Doing Your Job

The formula for polemical writing typically advises beginning with acknowledgments of the valid or at least arguable points of the other side. These acknowledgments are typically rather perfunctory, though well meant. But I really mean them: any targeting by the IRS of a group solely on the basis of political ideology, while giving a pass to groups with the opposite ideology, is wrong. Richard Nixon should not have done it when he sought to have the IRS target specific individuals known in his circle as his enemies list. The IRS should not have implied that the NAACP was treading on dangerous ground relative to its tax-exempt status in George W. Bush’s administration, nor should it have attempted to intimidate a church that had a speaker—not a church employee—advocating some political point not friendly to the Bush administration. The Nixon case had nothing to do with tax-exempt, non-profit status, unlike the Bush cases and now the Obama case.

I remember no particular outrage in either of the Bush cases. Now, however, we have a full-blown ersatz scandal, with both Republicans and Democrats preening in high dudgeon. But there are some specifics to this case that I have heard nowhere else other than from Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, The Last Word. These include: (a) the actual law states that organizations should be denied tax-exempt status unless their activities are “exclusively” devoted to “social welfare” and thus not even a little bit political; and (b) as early as 1959 the IRS essentially ignored the law Congress wrote and passed, and substituted the word primarily for Congress’s exclusively. That one change in wording means that organizations which claim that their primary purpose is social welfare, but which allow up to 49% of their purpose to be devoted to political advocacy, would be approved for tax-exempt status. But by the law, as actually written, the IRS could not approve their tax-exempt status since any political activity would bar that status being granted. So, by law, only an organization that is exclusively a social welfare organization—which is to say, an organization without any political action activity at all—can be granted tax-exempt status.

Democrat Carl Levin in 1994 inquired of the IRS about the use of these two mutually exclusive terms, exclusively and primarily. The IRS replied in a letter obtained by O’Donnell that the IRS interpreted the word exclusively to mean primarily. This is the point that should make us mad with the IRS—that somewhere, at least by 1959, it was violating the law by rendering one critical word in the law null and void, and all on its own substituting for that word another word that was totally incompatible with the word Congress wrote. The difference between exclusively and primarily is the difference between dog and cat or often and never—they are not exactly opposites, but they do not overlap since they each exclude the other. They are not subject to possible misinterpretation by being roughly synonymous like sometimes and occasionally. They mean very different things, and the IRS had no business changing the meaning of the law by changing those words. The IRS doesn’t tell us that we should “primarily” or generally not cheat on our taxes, but that we should “exclusively” or never cheat on our taxes. They would not be happy if we “primarily” didn’t cheat. God didn’t tell Adam and Eve to try not to eat the apple, or not to eat much of it, or not to eat it unless it looked like it was about to rot. He told them, quite unambiguously, Don’t eat the apple. There was no room for interpretation. When the IRS changed that one word, they committed their original sin.

So since the IRS should all along have been following the law and rejecting applications for non-profit, tax-exempt status for groups engaged in any political activity at all, it was actually right to be questioning or rejecting applications for groups with Tea Party in the name, just as it would have been right had it received applications from groups with Democratic Party, Republican Party, Communist Party or other groups who are obviously engaged in politics, and not just primarily, but exclusively. But even by the lesser standard of the word primarily, they should have been rejected, or at least questioned, since an organization which included in its name a well-known political group could reasonably be assumed to be primarily devoted to political activity rather than social welfare. What we don’t know is how many liberal groups with red flag words in their names were applying and, equally important, being accepted for tax-exempt status. We do know that many conservative groups were applying, but without knowing about the number of liberal groups applying and being approved, the notion of “targeting” is itself misplaced. And if the number applying is small, then the word targeting is simply wrong. You just can’t compare fifty to two. We don’t know the numbers, and we should know them before passing judgment. If, on the other hand, the fictitious Tea Party for American Progress and many similarly named groups were being stalled or rejected, while a roughly equal number of the equally fictitious Radical Leftists for Radical Change and other similarly named groups were not, then we have targeting. Either way, it is reasonable to infer orientation from such names. They tell us their purpose; we know what Tea Party means these days, just as we know what Occupy Wall Street means. When the name itself bespeaks political action, whether left or right, the IRS employees asking for more information before granting tax-exempt status were not stalling but doing their job. And their boss, Ms. Lerner, was apparently doing hers. Nor should we forget that many conservative Republicans would love to see the IRS dismantled, so it seems no huge stretch to conclude that many conservative groups took the opportunity to exploit the IRS misinterpretation of the law that allowed them to conduct political fund-raising and advocacy behind a charade of “primarily” social welfare fronts, all while mooning the very organization they loathe. By contrast, and presuming their applications were comparatively few in number, liberal groups were either too honest or too dumb to exploit that same misinterpretation.

So the IRS is guilty, but not of what it is currently being accused. It is guilty of changing the meaning of the law decades ago, and continuing to ignore the original meaning to this day with impunity. I have not heard a single legislator berate the IRS because of that. Why has no Congressman hurled thunderbolts at the IRS for unilaterally changing the law that Congress itself wrote and passed? That change has led us to this: judgment calls as to what is 49% political and what is 51% political. Returning to the law as written, with that unambiguous word exclusively, would get us away from that by eliminating from tax-exempt status any group doing any politics at all. In so doing, it probably would make most Americans happier knowing that the tax system is not effectively subsidizing numerous political groups whether of the left or the right.

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