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25 Mar

Speaking “American”

Just the other day I heard someone at a neighboring table in a greasy spoon here in Portage  ranting about how immigrants to this country need to learn and exclusively use our American language. I had to swallow a laugh.

Our American lingo? No doubt the man  meant English, and I remember George Bernard Shaw’s great quip, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”  Lots of tongue-in-cheek truth to that, but there are some real  facts that could bear some light.

English is a relative newcomer to the world’s languages. For a long time, Anglise came before English, Anglise being the name of the dialect used by the Angles of Anglo-Saxon invasion fame. As angelcynn (the race of angles) preceded “the English” or  England (the unified political unit). Before English of Anglise there was Angllcynn, sort of the form we now call Old English, which looks stunningly alien to most modern readers,  but was used for about 700 years after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Still, it was not the language of the land. Not yet. Historians tell us that he main and almost the only speakers of Anglise were illiterate pagans.

The Angles came on ships from what’s now northern Germany and Denmark and they settled in the area now called East Anglia and moved east, and later north. The Saxons settled the south-east of the English island in the region now called Wessex. The number of people speaking Old English were few and there was no writing in it and no printing presses until not all that long (historically speaking)  before our boy Shakespeare plied his trade as a playwright in London.

England was still England, not yet Britain, Great or otherwise. In 1169 some folks from Pembrokeshire landed in southeast Ireland near Wexford, but it would not be until the 17th century before English would be fully established on the Emerald Isle. Slainte. Meanwhile, it wasn’t much in England either. Historians generally look at the English language as developing and settling into two phases, from roughly 450-500 up until  arond 1450-1500, which is when modern English began to develop.

A thousand years ago the English language had about 50,000 words. Today it has, not counting scientific terms, somewhere between 700,000 and 2 million words.  Obviously counting is not a clear-cut deal. The real point here is that native English, the old root Anglise or whatever it was called was fairly small, but it grew because it absorbed everything it came in contact with. Very few of the new words  were made up whole. Mostly they are borrowed from other languages, made from compounding old stuff or borrowed stuff, by putting wrinkles into existing stuff, or re-finding old dead words and blowing life into them again. Words, like people, are born, last a certain amount of time and die. Unlike people they can be brought back to life, but this isn’t common.

Linguists and historians tell us that English has been around for about 1,500 years, which ain’t long in the world scheme of things. Romans came, then other invaders, like he Angles and Saxons, Danes, the French, the Dutch, the whole legions of people and Englishmen traded all around the Med and later the world and all the time the language grew, and then they started colonies here, we kicked their butts out, declared ourselves to be the United States of American and began developing English based on all the inputs here, from Native Americans to slaves, to French, Spanish,. Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, all of those folks who came to this country legally and illegally and became part of us. Take a breath.

We are a gargantuan pile of ethnic, cultural and racial mutts in this country and our language reflects who we are. English is the most flexible, wide open linguistic tool on the planet. We can use our unique tongue to turn beautiful and powerful thoughts into beautiful and powerful words that not only thrill us, but move us to action. Yah, there’s some pragmatic reasons for their to be a common language in our land, but it’s not something to be forced. The sheer magnitude and variety of the strength of our language and what that confers on all of us should remind us of the power of diversity. If all that input has made our language what it is, the force that it is, why can’t we recognize the diversity of cultures in immigrants and what that has made of us and will continue to make of us, if we encourage it.  Even Arabic is with us every day and sometime when I have  more time to get my thoughts straight,  I’ll talk a little about the role of Arab culture and the language on our own.

I am a lucky man to be born here and to have  the privilege and a tiny bit of talent to allow me to recognize and take advantage of  the great gift of our language. Good for me. Good for all of us. Down the road, we can expect even greater changes in English as the mix of new immigrants switches from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and yes, even Europe, to Pacific Oceana and Asia major and minor. Keep in mind sportsfans. We are all Africans at the genetic level.

Over.

25 Mar

Looking Back at Religion Gone Awry

Hump Day, March 26, 2015 –We see so much screaming about the extreme barbarism of radical Islamists but seem to forget extremism has been the moving force in Christianity at times as well, and the atrocities not swo different. Here’s an excerpt from the late Carl Sagan (1934-1996) from a piece entitled “The Demon-Haunted World.”

He writes:  “Obsession with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared:

‘It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid having intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women.’

as well as generate numerous other calamities. With this Bull, Innocent initiated the systemic accusation, torture, and execution of countless witches all over Europe. They were guility of what Augustine had described as, ‘a criminal tampering with the unseen world.’ Despite the evenhanded ‘members of both sexes’ in the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.

Many leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly identical views. Even humanists such as Desierius Erasmus and Thomas More believed in witches. ‘The giving up of witchcraft,’ said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, ‘is in effect giving up on the Bible.’ Wm Blackstone, the celebrated jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted:

‘To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages of both the Old and New Testament.’

Innocent commended “Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger,” who “have
been by letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities.” If “the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,” the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.

The pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the later fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of the Witches,” aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in a Candle in the Dark, condemned it as ‘villainous Doctrines & Inventions, horrible lyes and impossibilities,” serving to hide “their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world.’ What the Malleus comes down to pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There is no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes – jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused.  

[Let me intercede and interrupt Sagan here. This presumption of guilt and the use of torture are the exact formula followed by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and by various Fascist regimes around the world.]

Sagan continues, “This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victims’ body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.

It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives – down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer form another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each “witch” was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted – that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Legions of women were burned to death. And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempt to keep him alive by transfusions (which resulted in the deaths of three boys), and by sucking the breast of a nursing mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children.”

Religions sometime come off their rails. Certain corners of Islam are only the latest example.  Isn’t there something in the teachings about casting stones if one is without sin? We need to deal with these people as the demented criminals they are, not write off an entire religion. The earth does not need yet another religious war that will create body count and settle nothing.

FYI, I grew up Catholic, attended parochial schools on Long Island and in Virginia,  and not once did I ever heard anything discussed about the Inquisition — or the implications of that foul episode in history.

Over.

24 Mar

Zorro Composes Flash Fiction

My old aircraft commander and pal, Zorro E.D., sent the following story to me today, wondering if I might find a publication home for it.

A Pilot’s Story:                                                     

 Once  upon a time a pilot asked a beautiful princess, “Will you marry me”? The  princess said, “No”!                                                           

 And the pilot lived happily ever after and flew airplanes all over the world and drove hot cars and chased skinny, long-legged, big-breasted flight attendants and hunted and fished and went to topless bars and dated women half his age and drank Belgium beer and forty year old single malt scotch and never heard any bitching and never paid child support or alimony and kept his house and guns and never got cheated on while he was at work and all his friends and family thought he was unbelievably cool. And he had tons of money in the bank and left the toilet seat up. The End.

Helluva fantasy. Over.

24 Mar

The Verse Vine

Tax preps done, the mind shifts from numbers to other things.

Making Food Believe It is Not Food

A trick of  accumulated skill

Some fine skulduggerying sorcery.

So simple in principle,

Mending line, erasing drag,

Replacing nature’s provenance

With your own,

Think modern trick like Frigidaire

To keep food real, (or looking so,)

Think of a testosteronal strawberry

Glistening red and

Puffing muscles atop a creamy hill

(Why red? you ask, because man and Brook Trout are eye-hooked by red)

Red jacks us up, infuses the energy of monster drinks. Cranks up our emotions,

prods us to do something.

Red says: pioneer, leader, ambitious, determined

The color calls up strong will and sends confidence to the shy and rubber-spined.

Getting the drift yet?

Best of all, red’s the color of motion.

It brings awake the life force and if that’s not fishing, what is?

Okay, okay, Candor here:  I pass over sexuality and turn-ons and such endearing folderol, not because I disapprove — I wholeheartedly do not– but truth: the  banks and water’re too damn  cold for such tomfoolery this time of year.)

 

With our guidance, the presentation floats along as if Nature

Loosed the lot, bobbing happily,

Begging attention from jittery prey,

Strutting the stuff on top

For the wannabe predators below

Staring up with the twitches,

Thinking nervously, eat or not eat?

Be careful, be safe

And die the languid death of regret

The sure cost of chronic inaction? Or

Food, Not food? Watch, watch, yah, okay food,

Yeah food, geez, strike now? Geez,

Yah, food, rise, take closer look, yah sure

Oh boy, gotta be food, gotta be. Yah… food.

Food yah! Strike!

(Shit, not food! Not food! Spit it out! spit it out!)

All this drama bought from flimsy tarts,

Feathered tinsels wrapped on Daiichi hooks,

Floated without drag along a

Pregnant lies, done with the deliberation

Of Jesuitical patience,

A convert a year, maybe less,

So be it in God’s work, the slow crawl

Same as the Chicoms liked under Comrade Chairman Mao-Mao

Sloganeering away the present for future unspecified.

We who manipulate, play God.

Ask any trout.

[Portage, March 24, 2015]

 

23 Mar

Poem of Bygone Times (We Hope Bygone)

Waiting for the klaxon.

Waiting for the klaxon.

Alert

1.

Wrote Mozart, Day of wrath, day of anger
will dissolve the world in ashes,
as foretold by David and the Sibyl.
Great trembling there will be
when the Judge descends from heaven
to examine all things closely.

There is no time for prayer

When the klaxon calls at night and your only

Thought is death, your own or others.

2

We see feet spearing dumbly at openings

In the legs of green flight-suits

Neatly layered in folds on boots

On cold tiled floors

Making soft accordion tunnels

For ease and the suddenness of getting in,

A method to help us dance

In unison, one do, all do

Do it wrong, and we may undo

All that has to be done

With all our sleepy neurons firing,

Shoving each other around, the whole

Point here is jiffy-quick, out of sleep and bed

Simultaneously, slide your feet and legs

Down the cloth tunnels, spear black boots

Yank up the speed zip, wriggle the coveralls

Upward, twisting your shoulders, left then right,

Pull the zip from crotch to throat

Stop thinking steps, you’ve done this drill

Until you sometimes start to do it when the kids

Wake you from a deep sleep.

The whole thing here is speed

Delicacy only for those who inhabit normalcy

We hear in the halls the raucous klaxons

Squalling like a litter of newborns

drowning in their mama’s post-partum bleed.

3.

Righteous judge of vengeance,
grant me the gift of absolution
before the day of retribution. 

4.

They never blow the horn between midnight and six

An unspoken rule, like muting Marcel Marceau’s voice,

But it blows now, blows loud, keens, squeals, shrieks, and screams

We can smell the voice of death in passing,

Advertisement for the end of the world

Chattering fire-breath from the sky, falling even now

As we surge from sleep as lightbulbs

Snapping on instantly, gathering our heat as we move

From REM to ruin on the run

No words or language, we perform

As Ivan’s dogs, hard-wired to act

We unsleep instead of salivate

On the orders of a horn (not a bell)

We surge separately as one, joining

In the halls like water rills finding

The main course downward, awaking as officers with

Officers, enlisted with enlisted

Separate species separated in sleep

But merged as one in life stalking death

We flow in untalking, thinkless ant-lines

Through the tall gray halls, headed for a central exit

A bottleneck to undo time, some

Colliding bone-to-bone, muscles mashing muscles

Yet somehow keep careering through the doors,

Down steps, two or three at a time

Polished black Jackboots clacketing on unpainted concrete,

The last six steps banished with one long leap and out we burst

 Into frosted-nosehair-air, how fucking cold is it?

The sort of detail we parse in passing,

Save for later if we’re still alive (not a certainty)

And if it even matters then,

But fuck it is cold, can feel the freeze

Right through the thick blanket of basal cells

Clinging like hibernating sweat to our souls

Into our truck, starting rough, grinding gears, drifting turns,

Lights flashing red all around us, from poles

And building corners, towers and power lines, we ignore all  traffic signs

Race through dropped-rope gates,

Stop the truck, sprint for the bird

No talk still, only motion, group silence,

The ominous push for speed, we block

Sounds of klaxons singing church all around us

Scramble up into the guts of the bird, pulling on helmets,

Get a surge of electrical juice from a ground-cart,

Get the lights going, madly toggling switches,

flicking in freaks, reading checklists out loud

All business, there is no chittychatshit in this night

The pilot calmly says “Gang-starting four,”

And we hear the charges thump and blow and the buckets

Begin to turn as the fuel flows in and lights the fires

And engines scream the banshee song, joining

The klaxons outside,

We are the wolves of the apocalypse

Not the wolves that hunt and kill, but the wolves

That feed the killer wolves, give them life to make dead.

We know we could be rolling in seconds,

All ears and thoughts suspended to await the words of the next one minute,

Engulfed by sounds, radio voices

With deliberate enunciation, Blah… Blah this is Blah… Blah with a Blah… Dot… message,

Alpha… Romeo, Alpha… Romeo, my old man had a car of this model, What does that mean, Alpha… Romeo? I mantracize as I rip open envelopes to get the winning code.

 

5.

My mind breaks the reverie, all dispatch shed by color alone,

Not red not red not red, thank god, not red,

Which is the color of the end of the world,

The trumpet will send its wondrous sound
throughout earth’ssepulchers
and gather all before the throne. 

6.

We were called from bed in the middle of a night not a full four minutes ago

And here we sit stiff in our seats, pulling on parachutes, four J-57s howling and screaming like

Animals wanting loose, we write down the alpha-numeric letter sequences,

Realize this is only a drill not real, feel our heart rates drop,

We never know with these things which it will be

Drill or Armageddon, the gap between the two,

Far narrower than the still-sleeping in homes can possibly imagine.

7.

Kyrie, eleison.
Christe, eleison.
Kyrie, eleison.

 

8.

We carry plugs for the cockpit windows

When war breaks out

To keep from being blinded

By errant shining mushroom blasts below.

There is no romance in delivering death

Even in final colors. There is no time for prayer

When klaxons caw at night and your only

Thought is death, your own or others.

There being no box for prayer on checklists.

Can we go back to bed now, Boss?

The question addressed to our AC, who stands in for God.

Amen, and so forth go forth to do it all again.

9.

I need my zenicillin. Over.

[Portage, Mar 23, 2015]

21 Mar

Afternoon at the Theatah…

We gave ourselves an anniversary gift today and went to a matinee presentation at  Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University. Once there, Lonnie and her friend Mary Lou left me lurching alone in the lobby while they went in search of the public biffy and I settled against a wall to watch the tides of humanity, which turned out to be  a marvelous mix of people, the highlight being a small flotilla of apparently intellectually disabled folks, including a tall fellow in a short-sleeved red shirt, walking with his hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of him,  rhythmically moving his head from side to side, with a huge SEG (Shit-Eating Grin) spread across his face, — one of those deep, soul-wrenching smiles — and when he looked at me, he stuck out his tongue and I saw the smile and his twinkling, delighted eyes, and I, being, on occasion, a congenial sort, stuck my tongue out at him, which set his head to nodding even more energetically  as the group sashayed past me into another part of the theater. The sheer joy in this slightly ridiculous moment left me slightly high and distinctly joyous. Lonnie and Mary Lou rejoined me and found me with my own SEG and I regaled them with the experience, just as the flotilla returned and sailed by and Tall Fella and I once again stuck out our tongues at each other, and he was smiling and looked back at me and put his forefinger to his mouth and mimed shhhh! Naturally I  reciprocated, and he nodded again, and on the crew floated toward whatever port they were bound for. This put me in the perfect happy, loopy, slightly silly mood to step into the dark to watch the thundering antics of Blue Man Group. Serendipity is often a sweet spice of life.

16 Mar

Fighting Fishcops Recruit New (Old) Blood

The MCOA, Michigan Fighting Fishcops hockey team plays benefits all around the state for good causes. This weekend they recruited Grady Service to come out of long-time self-imposed retirement. 

Front of the Fighting Fishcops sweater (that's technical hockey talk for a jersey]

Front of the Fighting Fishcops sweater (that’s technical hockey talk for a jersey]

Back of the sweater.That's Service's detective number.

Back of the sweater.That’s Service’s detective number.

16 Mar

2015 MCOA Banquet a Success

We attended the Michigan Conservation Officers (MCOA) annual fund-raising banquet Saturday night in Auburn Mi (just east of Midland). Huge turnout. Got to see the legendary Michigan conservation giant Bob Garner and have a good talk with DNR Law Enforcement Division chief Gary Hagler. My many-time patrol- partner, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers (acting lieutenant) was name MCOA Officer of the Year. Got good update on progress at the academy (lost seven of 44 so far), and assessment from State police pal who teaches some of the academy classes is that this is “a great bunch.” That’s a high compliment for an academy class. Good food, good time. It’s fun to be with officers when they’re off duty and can relax. Over.

Milling around, scmmoozing.

Milling around, scmmoozing.

Getting everyone organized

Getting everyone organized

MCOA Officer of the Year, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers

MCOA Officer of the Year, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers

The legendary Bob Garner with his legendary smile.

The legendary Bob Garner with his legendary smile.

11 Mar

Yellow-brick roads and the marriage of fraud and gullibility.

This excerpt is from an essay by Lewis Lapham, “Paper Moon,” in Spring 2015 LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY. The publication’s issue’s sole subject is Swindle & Fraud.

This is fine writing and history at its best.  I offer it solely as tasty brainfood for all my thought hungry friends of all political stripes. Everyone these days seems entirely disenchanted with poltics and blames the politicians for this turn of affairs, but we as a country and as an electorate put them into positions of power, buy what we want from their image-making and seldom question our choices. Enjoy.

“L. Frank Baum, now chiefly remembered as author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but known to contemporaries as Chicago’s leading trimmer of department-store display windows, told his associates in 1898 to let the hats and shoes and furs “come alive” as if they were figures on a stage, to bring the “goods out in a blaze of glory,” invest them with color “that would delight the heart of an Oriental.” Baum commodifies the chorus to Shakespeare’s Henry V, who calls upon “a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”  to invest the groundlings in the Globe Theater with the scene and sound of battle that “did affright the air at Agincourt.”

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts/Into a thousand parts divide one man/And make imaginary puissance./ Think when we talk of horses that you see them.

So too the sales promotions that fabricate the retail merchant’s view of heaven, shape with the hand of romantic  metaphor the willingness of the customers, gentles all, to see what isn’t there, to pay, and pay handsomely for paper moons sailing over a bottomless sea of human hope and desire. Fortunately so. Were it otherwise, America’s colossal shopping malls and banks too big to fail, would like “cloud-capp’d towers” and “solemn temples” on the enchanted islands of Shakespeare’s plays, melt into thin air, dissolve, fade, leave not a rack or an ATM 3ehind.

No different from any other loyal American who loves to be fooled, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t drawn, mothlike, to the candles flickering in the wind of imaginary puissance. As a boy in San Francisco in the 1940s I found the American hero as noble knave and knight errant in comic books and Hollywood –movie palaces, in hard- and soft-boiled detective stories, with a troupe of confidence men performing in books by Mark Twain – Sawyer and Finn, but also the Duke and the Dauphin, the Yankee in King Arthur’s court, the jumping frog of Calaveras County. At boarding school I was introduced to Homer’s Odysseus, “man of twists and turns,” well schooled in the arts of dissimulation by the goddess of wisdom. In the years since I’ve yet to come across a confidence game as satisfactorily played as the heroic exile’s return to Ithaca – the setup is the disguise of feeble old age, the con protracted with the stringing of the great bow, the sting as unerring as the feathered death that did affright the air at Agincourt.

Among the confidence men on the program at Yale College in the 1950s top billing was reserved for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Maj. Jay Gatsby, big-game hunter, World War I hero, collector of jewels “chiefly rubies.” The narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel admits that on first listening to the major tell the story of his counterfeit life he was hard put to restrain his “incredulous laughter” because the threadbare masquerade was “leaking sawdust at every pore.” But on sober second thought that lasts no longer than a paragraph, his doubts give way to “fascination…it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.”

So also journalists and politicians skimming hastily through cue cards illuminating illusory talking points in a society abject in its adoration of graven images. My instruction on the methodology I owe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic Senator from New York in the years 1977 to 2001, effective legislator, eloquent orator, once-upon-a-time ambassador to the United Nations.

Somewhere in the mid -1980s we had been summoned to appear on the same radio news show, and in the green room awaiting our turns at the microphone, Moynihan ran through the long list of subjects on which he was presumed to be reliably informed – education, health care, foreign policy, highway construction, the multiplication of cancer cells. He didn’t bother to restrain his incredulous laughter. No senator could possibly know what he or she was expected to know, he said, but one was obliged to keep up  appearances. Let the people understand how little their rulers know, and they might be frightened. When we talk of politics, he said, I think of a “fourth-grade Christmas play. The little boy comes out onstage wearing a crown of paper stars and saying that he’s the north wind.” The thought pleased him, and when he was called into the studio knowing himself to be leaking sawdust at every pore, he paused in the doorway to strike a pose, adjust his expression from smiling to solemn, glance back over his shoulder to say, “Enter the North Wind.”

Understand government is representative as representative in the theatrical, not the constitutional, sense of the word and Moynihan’s  observation was in keeping with that of Socrates instructing his student Glaucon in the used of “noble falsehood” as the stuff with which to bind society in self-preserving myth. Children must be taught to know what the rulers of the city would have them know in order to maintain the health and well-being of the body politic. “All of you in the city are brothers’ we’ll say to them in telling our story,’ but the god who made you mixed some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are most valuable.’” Whether the story is true or false matters less than the children not forgetting their duty to believe it.

Fast-forward  the lesson into the 1934 translation by Joseph Goebbels, minister of culture for Adolph Hiter’s Nazi Germany, the noble falsehood becomes “propaganda…a necessary life function of the modern state,” the creative art that gives light and warmth to the body politic, and with it the power “to win and hold the heart of the people.”

Ask why the power failed in Germany’s Third Reich but not in Ronald Reagan’s America, and the answer, at least in part, is one proposed in the fourth century by St. Augustine, the founding father of the Catholic Church. “Not everyone who says a false thing lies, if he believes or assumes what he says to be true…that man lies, who has one thing in his mind and utters another in words,” but a man may say a false thing “and yet not lie, if he thinks it to be so.”

Goebbels knew he was lying. Ronald Reagan did not. A movie actor thing like a paper moon in the make-believe Hollywood sky, the great communicator never doubted that all of it was so – America the beautiful as painted by Norman Rockwell, the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart, the major motion picture produced by Cecil B. DeMille with music by Rodger and Hammerstein, the theme park by Disney. To an electorate that in 1980 was sick of Jimmy Carter’s niggling malaise, Reagan offered a happy return to an imaginary American past, a country “above all…where someone can always get rich.” During his eight years in office, playacting more for the benefit of others than for himself, Reagan was near perfect in his lines  (“Honey, I forgot to duck.”), sure of hitting his marks (on Omaha Beach, at the Berlin Wall), tipping his hat (straw, top, or dress uniform), snapping a sunny salute to a Girl Scout cookie or nuclear submarine. At ease with klieg light and sawdust, he preserved within himself the imperturbable calm of a public statue or a department-store window display.

The Saturday-matinee crowds loved him, so di the national news media. How could they not? TIME magazine’s “sweet soul with firm if simple beliefs,” Reagan was as amiable a confidence man as Gatz, so obviously having such a good time on the White House vaudeville stage that it was easy to forgive his lapses of memory (the names of his own cabinet members, the whereabouts of Poland), his frequent flights of fancy (air pollution caused by too many trees, ketchup a nourishing vegetable).

Nor did it matter that 138 officials in the Reagan administration were investigated, indicted, or convicted on various charges of criminal fraud or misconduct, or that the Iran-Contra arms deal was comic farce played with a troupe of Iranian mullahs and a junta of Nicaraguan thugs depicted by President Reagan as “the mortal equivalent of the founding fathers.” Congress never found out what happened to the money, the weapons, or the hostages. The questions were irrelevant because what mattered was the warmth of Reagan’s winning smile, his golden album of red, white, and blue metaphor instilling consumer confidence in an America that wasn’t there.

The  ancient Greeks were careful to distinguish between deceptions that served the public good and those engineered for private gain, the former set forth as works of art or the comforts of religion, the latter as brazen theft from a vast and inexhaustible  supply of human vanity and greed. The Reagan administration was capable of both. The wandering rhapsodists aboard Melville’s Mississippi steamboat drew distinctions between a swindle that “dimples the cheek” and one that “curdles the blood,” but all of them held to the opinion that it’s a good thing – and speaks to human nature – that men can be swindled. Their willingness to be fooled is a credit to their character, proof that their hearts and minds are not yet set in stone. Pride goeth before a fall, but trust goeth before a sham. The rule of thumb guided Ronald Reagan in the White House, confident in his conviction that “the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of that future because he knows it will be a great place.”

Which is the one true mark of American exceptionalism, the deal on the table of the democratic gamble with fortune, all present shuffling the currencies of contrived appearance. Encountering a stranger on a train (in an airport lounge, a motel parking lot, or a bar in Casablanca), who but an American envisions a prospective friend instead of a probably enemy? “There may not be an American character,” said the British essayist V.S. Pritchett, “but there is the emotion of being American…that feeling…of nostalgia for some undetermined future, when man will have improved himself beyond recognition and when all will be well.” Pilgrims outward or homeward bound on yellow brick roads made of their own invention, Americans tell  each other traveler’s tales  — the story so far, youth and early sorrow, sequence of exits and entrances, last divorce and next marriage, point of financial departure, estimated time of spiritual arrival, the bad news noted and accounted for, the good news still to com. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.

Over.

08 Mar

Six Weeks Hence, the Mind Works the Future

Writing about fishing is almost more fun than doing it and in any case my mind can conjure perfect weather rather than the crap the opener usually drops on us.

An Emerger Called Guilt

[March 6, 2015]

 

Such a helpful girl,

Her and those looong legs,

She says, “They can screen you for it,

At the derm clinic?

You know, how you scratch

Like a dog after a mole

In sooty crusted-over snow?”

But I keep silent and endure,

It’s only larvae of obsession

Creeping outward through fat

Winter muscles toward my skin,

While the south wind blows softly

And spring beckons.

“They have salves,” she goes on,

 Not one to quit easily,

“To give one respite,

It’s prolly nothing.”

But I know she’s  got it wrong.

The only cure for this is time,

And warmer air, spring sprung,

Snow gone, last Saturday in April

Me on the bosky riverbank

Fly rod poised, watching for life,

Careful as a bombardier

Before pressing the release

I am thinking of allures that worked

In past years, always something

With a lovely smidge of red,

My nose, my eyes, feathers in the fly

I can imagine guiding it

Under the end of that sweeper

I marked in my mind

Five minutes before dark on the

Last day of last season

Kept its promise

All to myself. No doubt

God now punishes me with the itch,

A penalty for my selfish ways.

We have been down this lane before

Will survive it again.

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