Book Review: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

This is my seventeen-year-old, high-school-senior daughter’s favorite book. Followed closely by Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma, and anything else Jane Austen has written. Yes indeed, my daughter absolutely loves Jane Austen. She’s read, by her own admission, Pride and Prejudice at least a half dozen times.

My daughter is not an intellectual geek—not a library nerd with coke-bottle glasses and frumpy cardigans. She’s very stylish and a beautiful young woman (and a talented shopper, having bought enough clothes with her meager summer earnings to be able to sport a new outfit every day for the first three weeks of school). I’m only modestly biased. I’d know it, and admit it, if she were homely or bookish or nerdy. She’s not. So why this obsession over Jane Austen?

She told me to read Pride so that I might understand. I did. I am as mystified as ever. But then, I am also mystified as to the apparent obsession the literary community in general has over Pride. It seems to me that it is something like a Harlequin Romance, but set in late eighteenth century post-, or quasi-feudal manorial England, and written by someone with a good vocabulary and some decent insight into the human heart. Big Whoop.

Apparently among the landed gentry in England in those days, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or so goes the opening line to the book. I stumbled over that one, right out of the gate. Because it isn’t altogether clear to me that all single men possessed of a good fortune in any age, not just those possessed of a good fortune during Austen’s particular age, must be in want of a wife, or that even most of them are. And why must the single man have a good fortune to be in want of a wife? Does that mean that the first purchase a man wishes to make when achieves a fortune is a wife? And how does the apparent fact that he needs a good fortune to be in want of a wife reflect on the essence of the transaction? Is it then really true that all women are whores, their only distinguishing feature being their purchase price? And later on in the book appeared a man (Wickham) who had not made a fortune, but was seeking one through marriage. Austen’s truth might have been “universally acknowledged”, but that by no means made it true. It was once a universally acknowledged truth that the sun revolved around the earth.

It’s hard to tell who believes and conveys this universal truth, as it isn’t clear who the narrator of the story is, except that she has a third-person omniscience about the hearts, minds and affairs of the landed gentry in turn of the century (18th to 19th) England, but mainly sees the world from Elizabeth’s point of view.

I think the initial universal truth (that was anything but) might have been rendered by Elizabeth’s version of the story narrator’s perspective, but can’t be sure, a condition (of uncertain perspective) that prevailed for me throughout the book. Is the narrator also more or less the heroine, Elizabeth? Or is she simply a wise observer who knows that our perceptions should be Elizabeth’s perceptions? I really couldn’t tell, but I do know that if questions about the narrator’s perspective loom larger in my mind than the story itself, then I’m not getting what the author intended from the telling. Austen reputedly first titled the story “First Impressions”. My first impression of the story was much like Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, the difference being that I never came around to seeing the true value of its character, as Elizabeth eventually does with Mr. Darcy.

Having referenced without a proper introduction three of the story’s main characters, allow me to sketch out the plot so that I can better explain my observations (spoiler alert, don’t read further if you are one of the few people who have never read the book or seen the movie and don’t yet want to know the ending–though it is readily predictable a few pages in). Elizabeth is one of five Bennett daughters, among no sons (poor fortune that, in primogeniturical* England). Daughters are a liability in that day and age, as wealth (which is almost wholly comprised of land) is held by men. Thus arises the compulsion to find them all suitable husbands, which is the central tension undergirding the story.

Every time a new eligible male arrives in close geographic proximity (either with the Army regiment in Meryton, or in Elizabeth and Jane’s case, with Mr. Bingley, who is friends with Mr. Darcy, in Netherfield—a manor local to the Bennett’s) to Derbyshire, the Bennett girls, and all the other girls around town, get all aflutter with expectation. Mrs. Bennett sets the tone with her silliness. Mr. Bennett, on the other hand, is the only sensible creature to be found, aside from Elizabeth, whose insights as to the various intrigues make her lively. Mr. Bennett long ago distanced himself from Mrs. Bennett’s shenanigans through cynical witticisms and a private library, where he routinely retreats. For me, he is the only likable, interesting character in all the book, but is one that is only sparely sketched.

The two youngest girls, Lydia and Kate, are also the biggest flirts (for want of a better word), hanging around the Army regiment as often as possible when it is quartered nearby, chatting up the officers there (it is only officers or gentry who interest them—the vast bulk of male humanity, and the core of the regiment’s strength in this case, being invisible to their upper-crust eyes). Lydia eventually elopes with one of the officers, after the regiment has moved on to different quarters and she has been visiting as the guest of its commanding officer and his wife. This is a very big, very bad deal. It’s like the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, in the Bible. Or something. The object of her affections, Wickham, previously mentioned, had been run out of the regiment for failing to pay his debts, and sought the elopement as a covering excuse, even though the Bennett’s could nary afford to provide much of a dowry with the marriage even had Lydia and Wickham not so foolishly eloped.

The “pride” of the title refers to Mr. Darcy (or at least I think it does), who initially comes off as very pompous, when he first meets Elizabeth, at a ball or some other similar social affair these sorts of people continually attend—I really couldn’t deign to keep up. Wickham is initially thought to be the model of good manners and breeding by the girls, until Elizabeth finds out that Wickham, whose father was Mr. Darcy’s father’s manservant (or something like it) cheated Mr. Darcy, and tried to seduce his sister. Most of Mr. Darcy’s reputedly poor character and bad reputation among the girls could be ascribed to Wickham’s character assassinations, but imagine, it was Wickham who turned out to be the scoundrel. Darcy turned out to be not so prideful as Wickham turned out to be a fraud.

I’m not sure to what quarter the “prejudice” of the title should attach. I think it might be to Elizabeth, for she certainly was prejudiced against Mr. Darcy on the basis, mainly, of his reputation, but also of her first impressions of him. And she was also prejudiced to believe Wickham by his superficially suave and debonair style. But really, I can’t be sure. Truthfully, Elizabeth, who hasn’t much sense at all, still has more sense than the whole rest of the female characters in the book, combined (I’m trying to use commas as liberally as Ms. Austen, who, apparently, got a whole batch of them on sale down at the punctuation store, before she wrote the novel, which is drenched, with commas. The Brits, of that era, must have paused, quite frequently, for effect, or perhaps, to gather their thoughts.).

In the end, Elizabeth, after having first turned down Mr. Darcy’s proposal, which caught her by surprise, as did her subsequent feelings for him, ends up accepting his proposal. Elizabeth’s estimation of Mr. Darcy suspiciously changed just about the time she traveled out to his estate with her aunt and uncle and saw what great wealth he commanded and what great taste he possessed. Surely she felt that a man of such wealth and taste would be well served to purchase a bride like her, who though of lower station according to the very complicated class structure in post-feudal England that really only the English would understand, was quite his equal in every other regard. Surely! By the denouement, Jane, the sister closest to Elizabeth in age, is also married, to Mr. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley. So Mrs. Bennett has got three of the five married off in the span of about a year, if my reading of the time line is reasonably close. Not bad work for one as silly as she. Mr. Bennett, for his part, must be particularly relieved. Ms. Austen did yeoman’s work in finding three-fifths of the Bennett clan suitable (except perhaps in Lydia’s case) mates in the span of three short “books” as she calls the sections of the novel, in what might appear to be acts in a play.

The Penguin Classics edition of the book came with not one, but two, forwards, or introductions. The first introduction, and by first I mean positioned at the front of the book before the text of the book begins— was the one written latest, by Vivien Jones. At 39 pages (if I am doing my Roman numeral interpretation correctly), with complementary notes and further references, including websites like The Jane Austen Society of North America, http.//www.jana.org/, it took two sittings to plow through. My daughter wisely never bothered to read it. I wonder though, if there is a Jane Austen Society of North America, does that mean there is one for South America and Europe, perhaps even Africa and Asia? And if there is, what in the world do these societies do?

The only memorable insight of Ms. Jones introduction was that Elizabeth exhibited the first inklings of feminism by her dash through the fields to visit her sister Jane when she fell ill at the Bingley’s. That’s not at all what I got from the episode, even after having had the idea implanted in my brain before reading it. What I got was that Elizabeth was a young, somewhat impetuous and carefree woman, as many young woman of any era certainly are, behaving just as one might expect of a young woman whose life had not yet resolved to full acquiescence to social mores and customs, ever mindful of the risk of impropriety. If that is the sort of spark that started women on the liberation movement that it appears is intended to give them the freedom to behave just as caddishly as men, then so much the better I suppose. But really, it seems more likely that Ms. Jones simply read feminism into the episode because that’s what she hoped to see. It seems Jane Austen’s writing serves as something of an ink-blot test for the literati, who reveal themselves by what they see in her writing.

The latter introduction (in the chronology of pagination, not in time—it was written in 1972, well before Ms. Jones’ introduction), penned by the now deceased Tony Tanner (you know a book has been around awhile when the intellectuals writing expositions on it are as dead as the author), also carried on for 39 pages. I wonder if that’s just coincidental. Mr. Tanner brought in all manner of meanings to the book, delving into its juxtaposition with the philosophy of Locke and Hume, for instance.

For my part, I drew very few philosophical insights from Ms. Austen. I was never aware that Locke or Hume much concerned themselves with romantic love or the social intricacies of manorial marriages, and of Hume, I’ve read most everything he published. I mainly know Locke for his political philosophy, the one that put property above all else on the rung of rights that accrue naturally to man. “Life, health, liberty and possessions” is how Locke formulated man’s natural rights, a listing that perhaps implies a hierarchy with property at the bottom, but one that was later clarified with Locke’s assertion that man has the right to extinguish the life of another to protect his property. It was Jefferson who changed Locke’s “possessions” to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. But apparently, for Elizabeth and all the rest of the girls, the pursuit of happiness effectively equates to the pursuit of a suitable marriage partner, and suitability in marriage is in large measure determined by the amount of property he commands, so either Locke or Jefferson would do. All of the female characters in Pride are resolutely materialistic. Only the reprobate males singularly are (Wickham is only concerned with money; Darcy, hardly at all). What, I wonder does that say about Ms. Austen’s view of late 18th/early 19th century females in England? Or, am I succumbing to the Austen ink-blot test with the query?

Tanner points to Elizabeth’s opinions and impressions of Mr. Darcy, initial and otherwise, as an expression of Locke’s epistemology (the manner through which knowledge and information are obtained). Locke was an empiricist. He believed the mind of a human is a blank slate at inception, with no a priori knowledge; that all knowledge is gained through experience. But Elizabeth’s mind was hardly in a virginal, blank-slate-state by the time she met Mr. Darcy. She had the experience of some sixteen or so years in the highly ritualized and structured English society of the time. She had surely, by then, met a great number of men eligible to take her as a wife. But every of her initial conclusions about Mr. Darcy were wrong. Her sensible experiences led her to believe him a haughty and prideful. That he turned out to be quite the opposite, and that her heart was so desperately changed through her visit to his English manor, points to something Locke’s empiricism never quite properly accounts for– though the mind may be a blank slate upon which the sensory perceptions of experience write all knowledge, the impulses of the heart guide the hand of the senses that scribbles the thoughts of consciousness onto the mind. The mind sees what the heart wishes it to see.

Elizabeth wanted to dislike Mr. Darcy at first, probably because he seemed unattainable and anyways representative of all that she deplored about the society in which she lived. She was utterly surprised by his initial proposal. Not capable of imagining that he might have been fond of her, and totally unaware of the source and nature of her own feelings, she immediately dismissed his proposal as absurd. But once the veil of what she saw as arrogance had been lifted to reveal a similar disregard in him for the strictures of the society (a commonality they shared that would surely be factored into the compatibility algorithms on eHarmony.com, were this a 21st romance), his haughty pride no longer stood in the way of her feelings. It was only a short journey from there to outright enchantment, particularly on seeing the immensity of his wealth and the refinement of his taste.

Through it all, Elizabeth saw only what her heart wished her to see. At first, her heart protected her from potential emotional injury and pain by warning her away from him, deploying the mind to conjure excuses to deny him the consideration it might otherwise have granted such an attractive person. After the first proposal, her heart let down its guard, opening the door for her mind to accumulate facts contrary to those formed of her first impression. By the time she witnessed the grandeur of Mr. Darcy’s English manor first-hand, her heart was searching for ways to love him and certainly, as Elizabeth openly admitted, the reality that Pemberley (his estate) sketched on her mind cleared the path for just that. The foremost concern of the heart is the survival and propagation of the body. If nothing else, Elizabeth is a perfect example of what both introducers called a “mercenary” ethic, i.e., of conflating her own welfare with the highest of moral values (though neither applied the attribute to her). In other words, Elizabeth is a perfect example of every living creature on the earth. There was nothing at all remarkable about her thoughts, or much of anything philosophically insightful in their portrayal.

Tanner brings in Hume to amplify the point he first proposed through Locke that experience is the source of knowledge. But Hume was no empiricist. He stood alone in philosophy as its greatest skeptic, pointing out quite forcefully that we can’t really know anything; that experience is, if we are to be consistent, no guide to truth. Just because our experience is that A always follows B does not mean that B causes A, or even that A will continue to follow B in the future. In Elizabeth’s experience, she initially misunderstood Mr. Darcy’s nature, i.e., she wasn’t clear on whether it was A following B or C following B so far as Mr. Darcy was concerned. But even when she discovered (compelled by the urgings of her heart) that A did indeed follow B for Mr. Darcy as she hoped, Hume would say that she had no right to expect it would always be thus. Ironically, the application of Hume’s metaphysical skepticism gets us closer to the true nature of human character than Tanner (or Elizabeth) would likely find comfortable. A does not always follow B in the behavior of human beings. People change. No effect A or cause B is ever quite the same as any other. If nothing else, they are separated by space and time. Hume is applicable, not to bolster the argument for experience as the basis for Elizabeth’s change of heart, but rather to demolish it.

Taking the book as a whole, I have to agree with Charlotte Bronte’s assessment, which was offered at the beginning of Tanner’s introduction:

What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

My thoughts were that the book was mostly silly, as it was about unserious stuff, and the characters weren’t all that interesting, except perhaps Mr. Bennett.
Austen did provide some witty repartee in the high-minded style of English gentry of the time. But the dialogue was so witty and the characters possessed of such a refined vocabulary that it strained the imagination to think that people really talked like that. The words were so delicately chosen and for such proper effect that it didn’t feel as if real people conversing in real time could possibly have spoken them. No one is so linguistically witty as Ms. Austen portrayed her favorite characters. It’s true that such linguistic cleverness was one of many strategies employed to enhance or maintain status among the landed gentry during the era covered in the novel, but to my way of thinking, it was an utterly banal use of one’s wits, and anyway it felt as if Ms. Austen’s characters must have had quite a spell longer for thinking prior to speaking than real life would have afforded them. Maybe it had something to do with all those commas.

The society of landed gentry in Pride were portrayed as unconcerned with the vicissitudes of economic and social developments sweeping the world (the French Revolution upending social, political and economic structure on the continent, the Industrial Revolution cranking to life, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions soon to be squashed by a consortium of forces, including England’s), or at least Austen didn’t factor them into her narrative. In actuality, the concerns of the world had to have weighed quite heavily on the minds of the gentry, particularly those of marginal rank, as were most of Austen’s characters. There was a great world beyond the balls and petite affairs of the idle landowning classes, and one that was rapidly encroaching on the transient serenity of the English manor. Austen completely ignored it, preferring instead to concentrate the intellect on the great problem that proper marriage presented to the idle classes of the day. From Austen’s portrayal of the utterly banal lives of the landed gentry, I rather think I would have preferred servitude and tenancy to lordship and ladies. I doubt that Austen intended people come away from the book feeling as I did. But then, I doubt I am the sort of person who would have been considered a member of her target audience.

Pride and Prejudice was perhaps aimed at just the sort of person back then who enjoys it now—young and female, probably enamored with British royalty as something of a fairy tale brought to life, and possessed of the belief that liveliness of character might make up for a deficit in station. In short, I think the book is of the same genre as the movies Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, where life for a young woman is a progression from destitution and drudgery to a fairy tale romance that makes it all worthwhile. Every girl wants to be a princess, even those with lively minds like Austen’s Elizabeth, and apparently even my own Elizabeth, the daughter who prompted my reading of the book. Few of them understand how oppressively dull and suffocating being someone’s property in such a manner is apt to be. But then fairy tales and fantasies are not really meant to come true.

*primogeniturical is not, properly speaking, a word.  It is simply applying the rules of English through which adjectives are made into nouns to a word which has so far escaped their clutches.  Primogeniture is the system of inheritance where the first-born male inherits all of the family property.  It was a strategy intended to keep large estates intact, and lasted in England from the Middle Ages until the 20th century.

A Father’s Day Dilemma

I’m not much on silly Hallmark contrivances like Father’s Day. I suspect most guys feel that way about most Hallmark holidays, and especially so when the holiday might personally involve them in some way. I figure my son and I have about the same ideas about Father’s Day, which is nice, as we rarely agree on much else. He texted me on the day to say, “Hey, butt-crack face, Happy Father’s Day.” He’s in summer school in college, so wasn’t home, and texting comprises the bulk of our communication these days, so I didn’t mind that it was just a text. And I really appreciated the ‘butt-crack face’ appellation. To think it was just a few years ago (five, to be more precise) that I was helping him to the bathroom and wiping his butt for him—things he couldn’t do by himself in his near-invalid state after his second bone marrow transplant. That little jab felt good. It was evidence of a return to a more normal state of father-son relations, post-transplant. It’s not good for a son to be too sentimental about his dad. We just aren’t built that way. And there was absolutely nothing normal about me being his 24/7 nurse for the couple of years that it took for him to recuperate from the transplant. Dads aren’t meant to spend that much time with teenaged sons, and particularly not for the reason that their butts might need wiping.

But my daughter spent all week telling me of how much I would love my Father’s Day present. I didn’t know quite what to think of that. She’s seventeen, and really blossoming, coming into her own as a young woman—smart and good-looking and funny —the whole package (through no fault of my own—though the apple always fall close to the tree, it sometimes quickly rolls away), who’d been having a great summer after blowing away the college entrance exam (the ACT) with a 34 (36 is all that’s possible). I had told her all I wanted, and only jokingly, was a six pack of beer and a lottery ticket. It was something I’d heard on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Alabama doesn’t have a lottery and she’s not old enough to buy beer and she was watching Kimmel with me when he made the lottery ticket and beer joke, so she had to have known I was kidding. Right?

A few days after the Kimmel show, she had complained that she wasn’t old enough to buy either of the items, and that Alabama didn’t have a lottery. Was she taking this seriously? (I didn’t know lottery ticket sales were age-restricted, but it would seem harmless to let the kids blow their parent’s money on a ticket or two. Maybe the age restriction should cut the other way, and prevent parents from blowing the milk money on what amounts to a tax for people who are no good at math). I (again, jokingly) told her that if she really loved me, she’d find a way to Georgia or Florida, states close by that have a lottery, and get someone of age to buy a ticket for me, but that I didn’t really need the beer. I mean, I almost always have an ample supply stashed in the basement fridge.

Father’s Day came and I got that text from my son, but nothing at all from her. I figured she’d let it go. But I got a great present anyway when the San Antonio Spurs wrapped up their fifth NBA title in fifteen years, annihilating the Heat in Game Five of the NBA finals on Father’s Day night. This San Antonio team will be inolvidable (Spanish for unforgettable) for the way it played team basketball. It was a team of mostly non-Americans (with the notable exception of the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard) that cooperated to beat the best the USA had to offer. I really needed that Spurs victory. It restored my faith, not in humanity (who, upon examining humanity, could possibly have any faith in it?), but in my belief that over the long run, desire and effort matter more than innate ability. And that celebrating someone’s innate ability is about as puerile as celebrating their innate eye color. I rather like to think that nature matters, but that nurture always steals the show. The Heat were the most talented team in basketball, mostly because LeBron James is far and away the most talented player in basketball right now. But they weren’t the best. The Spurs, who kept pounding that rock until it cracked, were the best. Bully for them.

Obama better hope that the international community doesn’t take any lessons from these Spurs. If he thinks Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan look like a mess now, just imagine how things would look if France, Germany, Russia and China, et al, decided to cooperate to bring an end to this era of American hegemony. But as I’ve said many times before, sports aren’t a metaphor for anything, except maybe sports. International relations aren’t conducted through a best-of-seven championship format. And even if the Spurs’ victory gave our foreign antagonists some ideas, pulling a disparate group of nations together behind a common goal is much harder than harmonizing a disparate group of athletes chosen as much for their cooperative, yet competitive, demeanor as for their raw basketball skills. Besides, Vladimir Putin is no Gregg Popovich. So the Spurs victory shouldn’t auger ill for Obama’s foreign relation initiatives. Which is good, because Obama has a right proper mess on his hands. And it all started when he said what he didn’t mean, drawing a red line and ignoring subsequent transgressions of it. Alas, a story for another day. The lesson though is one that every successful parent eventually realizes—don’t say it if you don’t mean it. If you say it, you must be willing to back it up with overwhelming, disproportionate force if necessary.

Aside from the world slowly ripping apart at its seams, which is not much more interesting than watching grass grow, it seems there is not much happening about now. FIFA picked a good time to put on a World Cup. And by the looks of the things, if the US wins again (which would comprise two whole victories—enough to get to the round of sixteen), expect the American world to go gaga over soccer. For a brief interlude. Just like it goes gaga over stuff like the butterfly stroke in swimming every four years when the Olympics roll around, and then summarily ignores swimming the rest of the year. If through some miracle of divine intervention, the US wins the World Cup, figure that Obama will lead a parade of politicians to Brazil to bask in the international glory. Not that a win or a loss will have anything to do with him. That’s just what politicians do—figure out which direction the parade is heading and clamor to the front to present the illusion that they are the ones leading it.

I must confess. I was pulling for Ghana to pull a three-peat (unlike the Heat) in their recent match against the US. Not because I hate the US, but because it would have made Ghanaians so happy and proud. For crying out loud, the tiny sub-Saharan land has only about 25 million people, with a per capita income of roughly $1,500. And its soccer team beat the US team in the last two Cups. The US incidentally has a population of well over 300 million and per capita income of roughly $50,000. So it was a really big deal that the US beat Ghana in its first World Cup outing this year. Next up is Portugal. It has only about 11 million people, but is much richer than Ghana, at about $22,000 in per capita income. As the soccer gods (i.e., FIFA, in all its corruptions) have decided that soccer is not interesting without which it is tied to the nationalistic impulse, and as I have foresworn any real nationalistic identity that would yield such an impulse—I consider myself to be a human being on planet earth first, and only secondarily a citizen of a government ruling over a portion of it—I reserve the right to root for any World Cup team I choose. And mine is not the US. I’m hoping the Argentinians beat the Germans in the finals. Considering how many Argentinians have German antecedents, it would be an internecine struggle, something like a family feud, but only if one family spoke a guttural, chopped, consonant-heavy language that does justice to the head but utterly butchers the heart, and the other spoke a lilting, Romantic, vowel-laden language so heavily laden with emotion that its with words go on for sentences.

While I still basked in the glow of the Spurs victory, my daughter left late the next evening after dinner to “get ice cream” with a romantic interest of hers. I was a bit surprised that she’d finally gotten the boy to take her on a date, sort of. She’d had a crush on him for the better part of a year, which finally found a venue for expression this past spring break, when she tried beer and the boy, for the first time each, at the same time. I only know because she told me about the encounter. She said she drank about three and a half beers—enough to get you good and tipsy if it’s your first time. What I don’t know is how much she drank of him. But I told her that they don’t write country lyrics like “tequila makes her clothes fall off” for nothing. Aside from that, I didn’t do much parenting. What’s the point, really, in getting all pompous and pontifical about stuff you’d done many times by the time you were her age, but from a different (i.e., male) perspective that she perhaps didn’t quite understand?

The kid is something of a bad boy. But “He’s so cute!” As my daughter exclaims. He’s a crack baseball player but doesn’t smoke the stuff, preferring instead the ganga weed. As a sophomore starting pitcher on the baseball team the year before (he’s now a rising senior, like my daughter), he was under constant surveillance by the seniors to ensure he showed up to the games sober enough to play. But he’s apparently quite the catch, at least for the crowd my daughter runs in. He has a girlfriend at another school (adding to his mysterious allure, no doubt) but has not let that stop him from chasing after my daughter, who, though she is desperately in crush with him, plays him for all he’s worth. When they finally got together over spring break, she was the “it” girl at school for a couple weeks. Nobody else at the high school had ever kissed the boy. And she did! I sweated it out for a month wondering whether beer was as effective as tequila at making a girl’s clothes fall off. It had been awhile since I’d used either one as an aphrodisiac. There’s no point in wasting good beer or tequila on a fifty year old woman who’d just fall asleep for the trouble. But whatever my daughter and the kid did that night on the beach, it didn’t produce a baby. Whew!

My daughter was back from her ice cream date by the time me and the wife got through with an after-dinner stroll. She was lounging around like teenagers do. The television was on, but only to provide white noise while she tapped at her cell phone like a trapped prisoner tapping out Morse code, apparently trying to glean some important piece of information or make a communicative connection that might change her grim life. She finally looked up to acknowledge our arrival and remarked that it sounded like something was wrong with the refrigerator downstairs. This was odd. Generally speaking, the house could be falling down around her and she’d be the last to notice. She lived at the home we provided her on Roxbury Road, but never was really there. But I’m the maintenance man. Anything that goes wrong is both my fault and my problem with which to deal.

So I asked her what it sounded like. She was vague in her response. I asked if she was sure it was the refrigerator, because the air conditioner fan upon which the family depended for its very survival, given the subtropical climate in which we were embroiled, had been making some strange noises at startup, like it was reluctant to lurch into its decreed purpose of pushing dehumidified and cooled air into the house. I suppose even industrial strength air movement machines can suffer from the ravages of inertia and procrastination. She said no, that it was definitely the refrigerator, but still, she couldn’t describe the noise. I let it rest at that, recovering from the stroll in the stultifying heat and humidity for a bit before going to check on the refrigerator.

When I finally went down to check on things, I found that the refrigerator was humming along just fine, trying to keep cool a new twelve pack of Yuengling (not a Chinese beer, the name not withstanding—it has been brewed by an outfit in Pennsylvania for over a hundred years and is a very good, but inexpensive, American lager) that had a note scribbled on top, “Happy Father’s Day! Sorry it’s a day late.”

So, she had taken my words to heart and bought me some beer—even more than I’d originally requested, I guess to make up for the absence of a lottery ticket. My breast filled with pride. But only for a moment. Then I started thinking, and figured out that her ‘date’ had likely been to go and buy the beer. She had enlisted the aid of baseball boy—who liked beer almost as much as he liked the ganga weed, so knew the places where it could be bought by minors. Am I the worst parent ever, or what?

So I trudged back up the stairs with a bit of trepidation. How do you tell someone how grateful you are for the thought while at the same time berating them for its stupidity? Along the way I recalled how I had been caught buying beer at a quick mart by the County (as we called the deputies who patrolled the unincorporated streets of the little suburb where I grew up) when I was a teenager. Nothing much had come of it. The deputy took my beer (!). Then called my mother to come get me. A few weeks later, we had to go to see a juvenile officer who told me sternly not to do it again or it would go on my permanent record. I had told my daughter about all this. Was she trying to relive my misspent youth? I’ve tried to tell my kids over and over again that my life, which I have always been very open about with them, is no sort of template from which they should model theirs. I mean, I’ve done okay, but mainly in spite of myself. I am honest with my kids about my misspent youth in order to provide them an example of how not to do things, not so that they might emulate my stupidities.

I told the daughter that I had ‘discovered’ the problem with the refrigerator—that it was burdened with trying to cool an unexpected twelve pack. She coyly grinned and asked did I like her Father’s Day present? I replied that I did, but asked how she had acquired it—was that what she and baseball boy had done on their ‘date’? I guessed correctly, because she admitted that they had gone to one of the local quick marts that are notorious among her crowd for being willing to sell beer to underage customers. In fact, baseball boy had been willing to purchase the beer for her, but she had insisted she do it herself. Or, maybe he dared her—I couldn’t quite get the story straight. “Whew” I thought again at this relationship she’s carrying on with this kid. But at least it wasn’t a baby. I didn’t want to go overboard in berating her. She knows my history, and I’d have had a hard time convincing her at how detrimental the affair was to my life. But why bother with risking something like this when it’s just for a stunt? I bought my beer to drink. I don’t think she’s decided beer drinking is anything to do on a regular basis. She could have been arrested. But I wasn’t going to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

No, that job was left to the wife. Who, as soon as the daughter left the room, started in about how I should have done more to discourage her from this sort of thing, blah, blah, blah. The wife has for some reason decided to completely foreswear that she ever had anything like her own misspent youth, including all of her drinking/drug/sexual indiscretions (and I know of many, as I’ve known her since high school) and preach that something along the lines of Puritanism is the only route to success. She doesn’t get that all she’s doing is being selfish. She lived exuberantly and free for many years before settling into her workaday life. Now she doesn’t want her daughter to have the same fun because of how it might make her look, and because of how much of a hassle it might be to deal with. On the railroad of the wife’s life, fun is just a car you occasionally visit as the train clatters along the tracks to an unknown destination that just must be good because it is the one to which the rails are headed. But you can’t get off the train and the train never stops. It just keeps on rolling. I’ve hoped for some time now that the train would, like Jack Johnson’s song, please, please just break down, but it’s not happening. Not even when the son had leukemia did she bother to step down from the train and have a look around.

If you are male, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that both women were mad at me by the time the whole thing was through. The wife is mad for my not having been sterner with my daughter, which is not just a little bit ironic because she knew about the daughter’s plan when it was hatched and said not a word. And my daughter claims that I don’t trust her judgment. Neither of them are talking much to me as I write this, almost a week later. So it’s a win/win.

But in some respects what’s really going on here is ages old female competitiveness rearing its ugly head. And I’m stuck in the middle, which experience has taught me is a very, very bad place to be. It’s almost best to just run as quickly away as possible if you find yourself a pawn between two headstrong women vying for power. Or to get rid of one of the women. I finally dumped my sister for my wife after a few years of a low intensity conflict between them for the primacy of my heart. But that’s sort of hard to do when one antagonist is your wife and one is your daughter. I’ll have to figure something else to do. Or, just ignore the whole thing as much as is possible.

Two women mad at me and not talking to me is plenty enough to say grace over, but the whole affair left another dilemma in its wake. There was now a twelve pack of very good beer in my fridge. But it was the bounty of ill-gotten gains. Should I drink it, or pour it out, like that deputy sheriff did lo those many years ago?

I didn’t know. I considered that the way I gained possession of the beer might be akin to the manner in which the early Christians gained possession of animal meat from pagan sacrifices. Their dilemma was whether to eat the meat though it had been sacrificed to gods they didn’t believe in or, to shun it in order to make a point. In Acts (Chapter 15, verse 29), Luke flat out said no, they shouldn’t eat the meat, but his prohibition was couched between two others, in a paragraph that also prohibited sexual immorality. It seemed something like dicta. Paul was pretty mealy-mouthed about the whole thing, hemming and hawing his way through 1st Corinthians, Chapter 8, without ever really reaching a conclusion, observing that eating meat sacrificed to idols is generally okay because idols are meaningless to Christians, but not if the act of doing has the effect of bringing someone who observes it closer to paganism, thereby losing them to Christ. I guess Paul would be fine with Christians eating the meat of pagan sacrifices so long as they did it alone. As I usually drink at home, what could be the harm?

Then it occurred to me that the Exclusionary Rule in Constitutional jurisprudence might apply. It prohibits the use in court of evidence gained through a search or seizure that violates the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Should I abstain from drinking the beer because of its character as the fruit of a poisoned vine? But the vine wasn’t poisoned, except, it occurred to me, by me; in so far as I planted the seed with my derelict youth, my daughter reaped the whirlwind (which is mixing biblical metaphors, I know, but I’m having fun—besides, if you know I mixed my biblical metaphors then you know exactly what I meant). It may have been my nefarious deed all those years ago that yielded this twelve pack of beer. Maybe I should just pour it out.

After spending fifteen or so seconds mulling all this over (mostly subconsciously—you’re getting the slow motion description of how the gears were churning), I remembered my other dilemma—I was trapped between two women vying for power. Though it was win/win right now as neither of them were talking to me, I knew there’d be hell to pay once the dam of silence finally broke. I was gonna need lots and lots of beer just to muddle my way through. So I popped a tab and enjoyed again the feeling of fizzy silk sliding down the back of my throat.

The women are both still mad at me. But the beer tasted great, as always.

 

 

The San Antonio Spurs–perhaps the most selfish team in basketball

It was disgusting to watch, the selfishness on display in the first half of last night’s Game Three of the NBA finals. The San Antonio Spurs proved, with their crisp, relentless passing and their refusal to take an open shot when somebody else might have a better one, that you can’t spell team without “me”. These guys don’t care about anything except winning a championship, and they’ll selfishly do anything it takes to get one, even when it means passing the ball to another man if he has a better shot, or (even further along the enlightened self-interest trail), even when it means passing the ball to someone who might be able to set someone else up for a better shot. It’s insanity. How are the Heat supposed to compete with that level of venality and greed? The Spurs aren’t right.

The half was a blizzard of San Antonio scoring. The Spurs hit 75.8 of their shots from the field, the highest ever in half of an NBA final. At one point, their field goal shooting percentage exceeded their free throw shooting percentage, practically unheard of in the annals of the National Basketball Association.

The Heat, playing basketball the good old fashioned way, with fancy, chest-thumping, crowd pleasing dunks and other outrageous feats of athletic derring-do, that were always followed by the Angry Black Man Scowl when executed by one of the Big Three (James, Bosh or Wade), made a run in the third quarter that brought them within seven, after being down over twenty at the half. At one point in the quarter, LeBron showed off his ball-handling skills, dribbling between his legs three or four times before posting up for a swishing jump shot, much to the crowd’s pleasure. He knew they wanted him to shine, to play basketball like he was auditioning for the Harlem Globetrotters, as much or more as they wanted him to win, so he unselfishly gave the crowd what it came for, but only occasionally. I mean, they can’t expect him to look like Meadowlark Lemon the whole night long, can they? His unselfish grandstanding was not enough for the relentless self-centeredness of San Antonio. The Heat still lost, but at least they looked good individually while doing it.

At one point, Chris Bosh of the Heat tried to mimic San Antonio’s selfish play, feeding Chris Anderson underneath the basket for an easy dunk. But afterwards he didn’t just selfishly sprint down the court, refusing to grandstand over one good play like the Spurs do. He stoked the crowd like they wanted, gesturing for them to give him more love like they knew he deserved, all while sporting that Angry Black Man Scowl the Heat fans have come to know and love from all their Big Three stars.

The Angry Black Man Scowl humbly asserts that basketball is about a lot more than basketball. It is about social justice. It is about the chance for the black man to right the wrongs of the ages by his ability to throw, jump and shoot on a basketball court. With the Heat, you know they’re doing this for a higher cause, that this isn’t just about them, when you see the scowl. That neither Kawhi Leonard nor Tim Duncan, the only two black Americans in the Spurs starting lineup, sport the scowl when they slam a dunk in somebody’s face proves that they are selfishly and slavishly devoted only to winning a basketball championship. It’s enough to make you sick.

In fact, the selfishness of the Spurs might very well be traced to the international flavor of their roster. They’ve got guys from everywhere. Tony Parker is French; Manu Ginobili is Argentinian; Tiago Splitter is Brazilian; Marco Belinelli is Italian; Boris Diaw is French, and Patty Mills is Australian. For crying out loud, there’s hardly a good old American anywhere on the team. And there’s not one who does the Angry Black (American) Man’s Scowl for the injustices he and his people have suffered. These Spurs all just want one thing—another ring. And they’ve already got four. Or at least Tim Duncan already has four. The only other guys that were there for the previous championships were Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the Spurs’ version of the Big Three. How many rings do they think the Spurs deserve? The Heat have the best player in basketball, one who was late to starting his championship ring collection. Doesn’t LeBron deserve a few more rings than Duncan? His scowl has a very personal tenor to it. His scowl says that this international coalition that is the San Antonio Spurs are denying him what is his birthright as an American heir of enslaved Africans. LeBron James needs another ring, for reparative purposes if nothing else. Who are these bunch of foreigners to get in his way?

The Spurs are so selfish they refuse to perfect their acting skills so that they might better flop around like fishes on the beach whenever an opposing player breathes on them. It’s probably because they don’t want to pay the fines the NBA has threatened for players who pretend to have been fouled. Disgusting. What’s a few thousand dollars for the theatrics a good flop provides? The fans love it. Why must the Spurs be so greedy?

I don’t know if I can stomach watching the rest of this series. San Antonio is so slavishly focused on doing anything it takes to beat a bunch of guys who have more talent than them—of trying to beat a team of good Americans with a bunch of smelly foreigners (two of them French!), that it’s really taking all the fun out of it for me. I don’t want to see good team basketball. I want to see disjointed and disgruntled team basketball overcome by superior individual talent. Isn’t that what NBA basketball is all about? This is still the National Basketball Association, right? The San Antonio Spurs should have their franchise taken away.

Book Review: The First Word—the search for the origins of language, by Christine Kenneally (2007)

It’s not hard to imagine that when elephants finally become fully sentient beings, indelibly aware of their existence and of its inherent fragility, that they will turn their focus inward, like a human sophomore majoring in philosophy, and, wonder why, exactly, they are unique and special…and will conclude it is because of their trunks. Trunks are to elephants what language is to human beings. Language makes us different from all the other animals, as linguist Christine Kenneally repeatedly points out in her survey of the search for the origins of human language. But so too would an elephant trunkist repeatedly point out that the elephant’s trunk makes it different from all the other animals—which is perhaps exactly what the bull elephant in musk is saying through his rampages. There is no other animal possessing anything remotely approaching an elephant’s trunk in power and versatility. And the same can be said of human language. Elephants and humans each have appendages, one real and the other more abstract, that only they possess. Elephants would surely argue that their magnificent trunk makes them superior to all the other animals, just as humans, including everyone from linguists who should know better to evangelical preachers who are paid not to, say about their language. Species bigotry is necessarily a hard-wired perceptual bias for every living creature. But both the elephants and the humans, and particularly Ms. Kenneally, would be wrong. There is no such thing as a superior species, except in the biased mind of the species doing the ranking, which makes any sort of ranking that might be contrived meaningless.

Elephants have trunks and humans have language. “Big deal”, says the ant, or maybe would, if he wasn’t so handicapped as to have to get by without a trunk or Greek or even English. He might also point out that ants are the most successful of earth’s multi-celled creatures, in terms of the number of individuals and in the sheer mass they constitute. If numbers or mass and range constitute success, ants are many times over more successful than any lumbering mammal. And they do it all without trunks or Spanish, though they do have intricate means of communication and can powerfully lift objects many times their size and weight. “Top that” the ant instead might say, if he knew how to taunt in the manner that language makes so easy for humans, on his way to irremediably colonizing your backyard.

It would be nice if an objective perception were common among scientists. But it’s not generally. Scientists by and large suffer the same species bigotry as the rest of humanity, which is not remarkable, considering as they are humans first and scientists second, but the species bigotry they must lug with them wherever they go is a real handicap to understanding, and especially so among scientists who study human language. Noam Chomsky, the Einstein of linguistics, as Kenneally aptly points out, believes (and it could be nothing other than belief from which his views are derived as there is a paucity of evidence, and the evidence fails to accumulate more every day) that humans have been blessed with a Universal Grammar, like a heavenly manna, from which language arises. Chomsky thinks that all languages are more alike than they are different. And on some level, he is certainly correct. No animal but humans have language, but all normally-reared and fully functional humans have language. There is no instance, no remote tribe of hunter gatherers, who have yet to develop a full and functioning language, with words and the rules of grammar required to give the words coherence and meaning. But there are a multitude of ways human languages accomplish the task of communicating, and there are no grammar rules yet found that are common to every extant language.

Perhaps most important to debunking the Chomsky idea of some internal part he labels Universal Grammar for generating language, humans who are not exposed to language by a certain age (the rare but documented cases of feral children) never acquire it. The hardware of the human mind is surely somehow uniquely suited to acquiring human language (could things be any other way?), but can’t properly function without which it is programmed by the experience of exposure at a critical time in its development. Chomsky saw how marvelously inventive and unique is the facility of human language and concluded it must be tied to some quirk of human neural engineering from which it arose, perhaps the result of a fortuitously fortunate but radical genetic mutation. Elephants probably would think the same about their trunks, or perhaps already do, but we humans don’t speak elephant-ese sufficiently well to understand them. Kenneally quotes others in pointing out that Chomsky’s adamant defense of Universal Grammar effectively dismisses the notion that an eye, the iconic product of evolution by natural selection which biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have presented as exemplary of the process, and which is also a marvelous and unique facility, might develop simply by dint of gradual changes arising from random genetic variations interacting with environmental pressures. Chomsky’s is a curious view for a scientist to hold—almost a “God in the gaps” hypothesis (though as an avowed atheist, he would surely object to such characterization), that by some supernatural happenstance, the gift of language was bestowed on humans, after which people immediately started conjugating irregular verbs and employing prepositional phrases to sophistic advantage. We know languages evolved and continue to do so. What’s so hard about imagining that the capacity to develop and use them did so as well?

In the sense that Chomsky proffers mysticism in explaining the origin of language, comparing him to Einstein is especially appropriate. Einstein’s General Relativity has by now become so contorted by observations that don’t fit the theory until fully 96% of Einstein’s universe is invisible. Or, to put matters another way, Einstein’s theory explains the 4% of the universe that is detectable (i.e., you, me, the sun, moon tides and galaxies, etc.) by proposing that 96% of it is invisible (imagine that 96% of you is undetectable—and be happy that it is when you get on the bathroom scales in the morning). The invisible stuff could as well be called magic, or perhaps an aether, to which Einstein and his acolytes would undoubtedly cringe. Likewise, Chomsky posits an undetectable thing—a universal grammar–as the explanation for human language. Chomsky and Einstein are likewise similar in that their celebrity created something of a cult of followers who idolize and worship them, and consider their scientific musings as sacrosanct, no matter how self-contradictory or confused they might be proved (yes, Professor Einstein, God does play dice with the universe). Kenneally ably points out as much regarding Chomsky by poignantly quoting perhaps the most capable of today’s linguists, Steven Pinker, who observed that such dogmatic loyalty to a person dangerously abandons the skepticism needed for proper scientific inquiry. In his career, Pinker has by and large simply ignored Chomsky and the sometimes unhinged defenses he would offer of his ideas, though the two are professors in the same department at MIT. Good for Pinker. It is never a good thing when a scientist gains the status of demigod, but the best work around for when a demigod scientist is wrong is to simply research, discover and explain correctly whatever he has been wrong about.

Kenneally spends a significant portion of The First Word describing how much resistance she and other linguists have encountered in academia over their desire to research how language arose. There is some justification for the resistance. For presumably the vast majority of its existence, human language has constituted nothing more than wisps of air exhaled in a particular way to make particular sounds, and neither exhaled air nor sound makes fossils. Language only started to be written down around the time when a new economy of life arose that required some measure of record keeping (sedentary agriculture, around 10,000 or so years ago). And written language is only vaguely reflective of the spoken word, as legions of adult second language learners quickly realize. As a result, the origins of language will be always a matter of generous speculation. But there should be no objection to its investigation. While it’s quite clear that no such universal grammar organ has evolved as a part of the neural architecture, there have been discovered specific genetic expressions and neural pathways which are critical to a fully functioning linguistic ability. Kenneally (correctly, in my view) points out that research along these lines has the greatest chance of yielding fruit.

Human language, whatever its ultimate origins, simply has to be the product of evolution by natural selection. To imagine, as some do, that language arose as a spandrel* (one of the several explanations proffered by Chomsky), seems absurd. Some of the neural architecture employed for its development may have initially have been a by-product of selection favoring the hardware for other reasons, but once the first grunts turned to words and sentences, language had to have quickly become so advantageous to survival that whatever neural architecture enhanced the capacity for language would have immediately been subject to favorable selection.

Kenneally catalogues the efforts of scientists to understand how capable other species might be at human language (short answer…not very). Our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees, can sometimes, when all the stars are perfectly aligned, and after repeated drilling, learn the meanings of a couple hundred human words [in English, no doubt, which given how utterly nonsensical is the English language, perhaps the chimp handlers ought try another language (e.g., Spanish) which makes a bit better logical sense]. It’s my sense that the effort to find the capacity for human-type language among our close mammalian cousins is misdirected. Humans are alone among mammals in the complexity of their societies, and language is the principle tool humans employed to develop them. The only creatures with societies of similar complexity are the social insects. Figure out how ants, to make further use of their example, communicate their intricate messages, necessary in a colony of highly specialized workers not unlike a modern human economic system, and how the ability arose, and we might find a wealth of insights about the origins of human language. The social insects do with chemicals and physical gesturing what humans do with language and physical gesturing. The chemical messages have got to have an analogue in our words and sentences. How in the world did ants develop the complex suite of chemical signals critical to the functioning of their colonies? The answer, like the origins of human language, undoubtedly lies in the mother of all invention, necessity.

Kenneally does a capable job narrating the status of the search for the origins of human language, and the general state of academia in fields like linguistics and neuroscience and zoology that are implicated in the search. But the narrative suffers from her apparent need to tiptoe around the delicate egos, particularly among linguists, of the leading academicians. The book is a bit stilted in the reading, as if it was written with Chomsky glaring over one shoulder and Pinker over the next. This is a common problem with popular books of science written by practitioners in the field. Practitioners, as Kenneally is here, have a vested interest in advancing their career, and when they write about others in their field, their ability to honestly and objectively evaluate their ideas is necessarily suspect. Tribalism is as rampant among scientific communities as it is among troops of chimpanzees. To remain a member in good standing in the tribe requires acquiescence to its existing hierarchies, implying only the most deferential criticisms might be offered. Probably only a tribal outcast would have the requisite expertise and objectivity to offer unbiased expert opinion on the ideas and personalities that have gained unquestioned acceptance within the tribe. But if Kenneally were an outcast, she surely would not have been afforded the personal interviews and insights of the likes of Chomsky, Pinker, et al. It’s a catch-22. Only an insider could capably criticize the academy, but an insider, by definition, never would.

This much can be taken from the book without fear—that the origins of human language are murky and apt to stay so. But that human language, like elephant trunks and eyeballs and ant signaling, arose by evolution through natural selection. We just don’t know quite how.

*A spandrel is the triangular space created when a column meets a rafter, a space which was often used as a palette for elaborate decoration in medieval architecture. It use as a metaphor for biological features that arise as a beneficial evolutionary incident to the product of other selective pressures is attributable to the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

With a Commander-in-Chief like Barack Obama…the US doesn’t need any enemies

Have you ever played chess? You know…the game that computers and various Russian masters have been battling over for decades to see which reigns supreme? In a chess match, making a move that trades one’s queen for a pawn is utterly disastrous. Neither Russian nor computer would make such a mistake. But Barack Obama, the US Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and principal architect of US foreign policy, effectively did just that when he traded Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo since their capture in the early part of the last decade.

But in truth, Bowe Bergdahl is less than a pawn. He deserted his unit in Afghanistan. That much we know. Whether he was being held by the Taliban or simply given a home by the Taliban for expressing his anti-American sentiments is not yet clear. He wasn’t worth the trade. He wasn’t worth any trade. We shouldn’t have traded a Taliban grunt to get him back. And we certainly shouldn’t have shed a drop of American blood trying to rescue him after he decided he’d had enough as a cog in the US war machine and simply walked away.  Here’s what Bergdahl said, in an e-mail to his parents, before he deserted his comrades, from an expose written by Michael Hastings (now deceased) for Rolling Stone magazine in 2012:

“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP [mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle]. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks. . . . We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”

I understand Bergdahl’s sentiments. I felt in a similar way about the first Gulf War in which I served. But when I entered active duty, the Cold War was flaring hot all over the globe, particularly in Central America where I spent a good deal of my time. The Soviet Union was an existential threat to the US. It could have destroyed us. And so I gladly served on the vanguards of the American sphere of influence to prevent such a thing. I wanted for the US to continue to exist. But it was beyond my contemplation that the US would win the war in four short years after I entered service, and then turn all the big boy toys it had purchased for the hot war that never came to an internecine dispute among Arabs over who would own Kuwait’s oil riches. I do not believe in killing people who aren’t trying to kill me, or who are no threat to the country I am sworn to defend. So I was none too happy with the change in geopolitical circumstances that forced me to again take up arms. But I did my duty and when the war concluded, got out. I did not desert my post and become a member of the Iraqi Republican Guards. And if I had, I would certainly not have expected the US military to rescue me. But Bergdahl had to have known that fighting and killing Afghanis would be exactly what was expected of him when he enlisted. The war was already engaged by the time he signed up. He couldn’t have just arrived there thinking he was defending an existential threat to apple pie and baseball and ice cream. The US was there to flex its imperial might, ostensibly to prevent another 9-11 attack, but really just to show the Taliban and everyone else what happens to people who brazenly give aid and comfort to people who hate us.

If it is possible to be both cynical and naïve, Obama’s swap of Bergdahl is perhaps a perfect example. The highly publicized circumstances of Bergdahl’s “rescue” points to a cynical attempt to garner good publicity regarding the treatment of American soldiers, undoubtedly to counteract all the bad publicity the Administration has recently received over mismanagement of its healthcare obligations to its veterans (the Veteran’s Administration scandal). There was Obama, holding a press conference where he trotted out the deserter’s rather strange parents, particularly the dad, who was sporting a Duck Dynasty beard because he hadn’t cut it since his son became a member, er, was captured, by the Taliban. (Don’t Islamists prohibit the shaving of facial hair? Was this perhaps a show of political solidarity with his son?) The prisoner swap seemed to have been conducted solely for the purpose of domestic politics; a lame attempt to enhance Obama’s power and prestige at home that backfired miserably. Obama is cynical and manipulative when it comes to maintaining his power with the American public. There is no other way to explain Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and now this.

But he is either profoundly naïve, or stupid, or malevolently aloof about foreign affairs. What might our foreign adversaries be thinking about a leader who agrees to swap a queen for a pawn on the chess board of international relations? That he is a very bad player, no doubt. Vladimir Putin, for one, has surely taken notice. But chess is only a game. In the arena of foreign relations, real lives and real societies are at stake. The international arena is a Darwinian jungle. Nations, red in tooth and claw, battle constantly for survival and supremacy. Making a deal like the Bergdahl swap leaves our enemies licking their chops and our allies shuddering in fear.

The world is today a much more dangerous place because Barack Obama made an extraordinarily bad deal in swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders. That’s really all there is to it.

Why Savannah?

“We just love Savannah” oozed my mother-in-law when my wife (her daughter, in case legal relations cause the same confusion for you as they do for me) told her we might visit the city while on vacation in Hilton Head. The mother-in-law said it in that insincere way women in the South say they love something when they know it is status-enhancing, or at least protecting, to profess their love, adding about three counts to the ‘u’ sound in the middle of the word. She said it like she was a Southern hipster (is there such a thing?) talking about kale (or is it quinoa these days?) being served at a dinner party.

By “we” she mainly, I think, meant she and her husband. But she might have been including her host of septuagenarian friends, all female, all white, with whom she is in frenetic competition. (Yes, even at her age, friendship is an illusion…the best can be hoped is that your frenemies aren’t too openly venal). Because among a certain set (old white women who fancy they are something higher on the social hierarchy than poor white trash), “loving” Savannah is de rigueur. But proclaiming that “we” love Savannah with only her husband and not her frenemies in mind would have been a mistake, or perhaps a fraud.   There is no way in hell that her husband really loved Savannah, though she might have been duped by him into believing he did. (Incidentally, he’s not my wife’s father, but technically still my father-in-law, only it takes an extra degree of law—his marriage to my wife’s mother and my marriage to her daughter–to get there than is usually the case. A father-in-law once removed, perhaps? Fortuitously, we share the same last name, but are not related). He is a man who I’ve come to know well and somewhat admire, and so know that it would be doing grave injury to the truth to include him as part of a group denoted by the plural pronoun ‘we’ in any statement proclaiming love for Savannah. He’s a better man than that. There is no way he could ‘love’ Savannah. I know. I’ve now been to Savannah. Every bit of four hours or so, which was about three hours and forty-five minutes too long. No self-respecting heterosexual male could possibly love Savannah, or at least no man could love it for its value as a tourist mecca.  

From Hilton Head Island where we were staying, Savannah is about an hour away by land; it’s an hour and a half by boat. So we naturally took the boat. That was at least partially my fault. I didn’t really want to go to Savannah, but I figured the boat ride would be fun. It wasn’t. On board the boat were scads of hearty, hale and gregarious Midwesterners. One family of blue-jean-short clad Ohioans had a young child of maybe a year old, who decided that sitting next to us friendly Southerners would be just the thing to do, maybe because they figured we Southerners are so hospitable that we love to listen to a crying infant not of our issue for an hour and a half nonstop. The boat ride was only slightly less miserable than the time, on a flight to Chicago, when a baby sitting behind us upchucked into the wife’s hair.   The baby’s mother didn’t even bother to apologize, just figuring, I suppose, that my wife appreciated how it made her hair shimmer and glow and stink. Midwesterners, ugh. It almost makes me wish the South would secede again, and set up border guards who would shoot on sight any Midwesterner who tried to escape their miserably cold climes by coming South.

It’s not that Savannah is that far, even by boat. It was only thirty minutes or so into the boat ride that the Southern LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant’s terminal towers just south of Savannah came into hazy view. But oceanic navigation from Harbor Town in Hilton Head to Savannah’s waterfront requires navigating the intra-coastal waterway as it twists and winds from the island to the river. Most of the waterway in that stretch traverses salt marsh that would surely not be more than a couple of feet deep were it not for dredging. No boat could go very fast. And as this was a tourist boat, it intentionally took its time, particularly slowing down along the Daufuskie Island shoreline whenever passing by a potential point of interest on the island for tourists (the same charter boat we were on also ferries tourist to Daufuskie, which is a mostly uninhabited five by eight mile island west/northwest of Hilton Head). And the baby kept squalling, the whole intra-coastal waterway long.

The boat ride should have dispelled for the tourists any mythologized and romanticized notions of Savannah as a genteel town steeped in Southern culture and history.   The rusting hulk of an abandoned sand dredge lying in a lagoon off the starboard side of the boat (for you landlubbers, starboard is the right side of the boat, if on the boat and facing the bow, which is the front) greeted our entry into the port area, followed closely on the port (left) side by two Panamanian-flagged freighters taking on a cargo of what appeared to be wood chips. Savannah may have a past worth romanticizing, but its present appears as gritty and real and practical as its true past surely once was. The waterfront actually works as more than just a tourist trap, if not so much along the Old Savannah portion of it where our tourist boat docked to spill its hundred and fifty or so passengers into the steaming, blazing sauna, weather that is characteristic of pretty much any Southern river town around mid-morning on an early summer day sure to be crackling with thunderstorms by the afternoon, but that is no sort of weather to brag about back home.

People see what they want to see, so it’s no surprise that the workaday Port of Savannah, bristling with activity all around us, was mostly overlooked by the tourists as they debarked for the tacky shops and restaurants arisen in Old Savannah specifically for serving the tourist trade. More than a few of the tourists shunned walking—perhaps the only thing Old Savannah is good for as it is flat and shaded and boasts pocket parks every few blocks—and purchased a ticket to ride the trolley around town so they might be sure to see all that culture and all those historical artifacts that they had been convinced they were supposed to see.

Paula Deen,, the famous, or infamous, television chef who foolishly replied honestly in a deposition when asked if she had ever used the word “nigger”, has a restaurant in Savannah, called The Lady and Sons. The buffet was visible through the window while walking by. It was loaded with staples of Southern cooking. Given the cafeteria-style buffet, it appears Paula Deen has essentially opened a Luby’s (if you hail from Texas) or Picadilly’s (if from the heart of the Old Confederacy). But it is in historic Old Savannah. And it is Paula Deen’s restaurant. So you just have to go. In Paula Deen’s defense, Southern cooking is quite amenable to cafeteria -style dispensation. The recipes are always easy to double, triple or more, while the taste stays the same. And dear heavens, the poor woman should not have been excoriated for having admitted to occasionally saying “nigger”.   Every person in the South, white or black (and probably, truth be known, in the North, too) has said it at one time or another. And in a racially disparaging way, if usually only under one’s breath. Paula Deen was just the only prominent Southerner to lately have admitted as much. Trust me. I can practically guarantee that even Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has said it.  It’s just part of the vernacular. The myth that thoughts and feelings and words can be stamped out by dint of public disfavor is as risible as the myth that Savannah is a town worth visiting for its history or culture or food.   Paula Deen was honest. It is everyone else criticizing her that are the frauds.

The allure of Savannah can’t be understood without which Southern Gothic is understood, and honestly, I don’t get it.   There is a dark forebodingly Southern essence supposedly expressed in the genre, a sense that the world teeters on the magical edge between darkness and light, and all that its deeply flawed, eccentric or disturbing characters can see are the shadows of grey at its edges–something of how Savannah was described in the blockbuster NYT bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which may have singlehandedly added Savannah to the list of must-see Southern cities with an antebellum past for the curious class of women who read Southern Living magazine and dream of sipping mint juleps on the porch in a petticoat during a thunderstorm, fawning for their brave and chivalrous squires away doing battle against those damned Yankees.

Women in the South seem nigh well obsessed with antebellum Southern culture. Even women who aren’t from the South but who move here later in life sop up the Southern cultural myths like so many biscuits dipped in red-eye gravy. My neighbor from Missouri, a state which I recall was part of some great antebellum compromise regarding slavery but never really experienced much in the way of plantation agriculture, was positively bubbly when her daughter was invited to become a member of the Southern Belles, a rather strange local (Birmingham) group that pretends to emulate Southern culture and tradition by having its girls (high school juniors and seniors) represent Old South ways by attending functions dressed in outlandish hoop skirt petticoats. My daughter was also invited. Their presentation ceremony, something like a debutante ball, was held at a local country club, and could not have been more ridiculous, not least because Birmingham hasn’t any antebellum past to speak of. It was only founded in 1872, well after the South’s plantation culture had been vanquished and Reconstruction was under way. The city was founded mainly by Northerners (carpetbaggers) intent on turning a profit on the wealth of iron and coal contained in its mountainous, rocky terrain, which was otherwise mostly useless for large scale agricultural operations. There was not a single black woman among the belles. My daughter wondered, jokingly, whether each girl might be issued a slave after the ball for having been accepted as a Belle. It was only funny because of how close it cut to the truth.

It must be a fairly common thing among women to dream of being petted and pampered and put on a pedestal, living the fairy-tale ideal of a princess, or in the American iteration, of an antebellum plantation owner’s wife. Else, explain the female fascination with the antebellum South, and places like Savannah and Charleston that are perceived to have traces of its culture that survive. Of course the myth is far from reality. The antebellum wife was a possession. She might have been pampered and put on a pedestal, but it was a life more comparable to that of a parakeet in a cage than that of a fully-formed, psychically-human adult. And nothing of the way of life survives, except in the wistful hearts of overly romantic women.

But it is easy to see why women love Savannah. It is hot, and women are more like reptiles than mammals in their inability to regulate their internal body temperature. Women crave heat and Savannah has plenty of it. Its old town is full of gigantic live oaks draped in Spanish moss, giving it an aura of well-preserved tradition that women so adore and in the manner that only century-old trees can afford. It has countless knick knack stores, enough to succor any woman’s need to while away the hours shopping. And the city is suffused with the supernatural; angels and demons and other ghostly spirits waft about in the evanescent mists floating in off the river. Ghosts are apparently so plentiful that companies offer tours to see their haunts, in repurposed hearses no less.

Even just the title of the celebrated book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, conjures visceral images of things the female heart holds dear (even as the actual book is so-called ‘faction’ about a homosexual murder in the late ‘80s). Midnight is the witching hour. Important things happen at midnight. Things can go either way until midnight rolls around and then the course is set. Every woman loves a garden, a perfect metaphor for the sensuality of her own body. And women far more than men see life as a morality play, an incessant battle between the good from which their sensuality arises and the evil that would suppress it. Savannah is a lustful, sensual paradise for women.

But my mother-in-law could only have been referring to her and her friends when she said that ‘we’ love Savannah. Or she may have been referring to no one, and was just saying it because she thought that’s what she should say. But if she was including her husband in the ‘we’, she was surely mistaken. He might have pretended to love Savannah for her sake (they had been a couple of times), because that’s what guys do, but he didn’t really love Savannah. No self-respecting man could possibly love the Savannah of mythology and lore—the Savannah as it is presented to tourists. The guys working the docks probably love Savannah, but for the more practical reason that it affords them a decent living. The rest of us guys who get dragged there by their wives, not so much.

 

 

The non-mammalian nature of women

I’m spending the week with four women; my wife and seventeen year-old daughter, and two of her friends, in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Obviously, they are not my harem or any such thing. Instead, the relationship I have with them is more akin to that of court eunuch to their royal majesties. I have little relevance to them except as their chauffeur, cook, cleaner, muscle man (weakly, but still), and all-around problem solver and blame sink for any challenges or problems they face. While I haven’t actually had my testicles removed so that I might be physically configured in the manner of a traditional eunuch, I am a married man living in these United States of America in the 21st century, which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

To a woman, they all love the beach. And by “love the beach”, I mean they love laying around on it, basking in the glow of the warm sun, not unlike the many local alligators on the island bask in the sun between meals, moving nothing except their thoughts in contemplation of their next meal.   But the alligators have the good sense to stay off the beach. Not because anyone would bother them—everybody here has pretty much figured out that the gators aren’t a problem if left alone, with maybe a stray yappy dog occasionally sacrificed to the cause–but because there’s nothing there to interest them on the beach. In fact, there’s not much of anything, ever, on the beach except sand. Not even in Hilton Head, which is much more densely populated with wildlife than, say, the Panhandle area of Florida, where the pristine white beaches and clear blue waters are populated by people and not much else. Pretty much all the rest of God’s creation has figured out that the beach just isn’t such a good place to be. But not women.

Women are ostensibly the female version of Homo sapiens. As Aristotle might have pointed out, all Homo sapiens are mammals; women are members of the species Homo sapiens; therefore women are mammals. And Aristotle, who was silly enough to believe that logical premises applied equally forcefully to men and women alike, would have been wrong. Female H. sapiens are not warm-blooded, a prerequisite to belonging to the mammalian club. Females therefore must be either amphibians or reptiles or fish.

If you don’t buy that women are some sort of cold-blooded creature, consider that yesterday when I returned to the beach after having been sent on an errand by the four women with whom I am spending the week in a townhouse (which is substantially nicer than my real house back home) on the Sea Pines Plantation at Hilton Head, all four were wrapped in their beach towels, laying on their rented beach chairs, as if they were suffering through a particularly harsh winter. What had happened? When I’d left them to return to the townhouse to fetch their lunch (a two-mile bike ride both ways, but I love riding the island bike, much more so than sitting around on hot beach sand, so the joke’s on them), they had been positively glistening in the sun. Now, I get back with their still-warm turkey melts (I am a full-service chef in my role as palace eunuch, from short order cook to gourmet) and they’re wrapped up like it’s closer to President’s Day than the Fourth of July.

What had happened? Why, the sun had gone behind a cloud! The temperature was still in the low eighties, and the air, warm-wet-blanket muggy. There was a stiff breeze, as is so often the case at the beach, except of course when it’s really needed to provide some relief from the heat, so the breeze was a pleasant surprise. But not along any stretch of the human imagination could it have been considered cold.   No mammal, human or otherwise, would have been shivering or growing a winter coat or wrapping themselves in beach towels for the weather that early afternoon. Pretty much every mammal in God’s creation or contemplation would have been quite happy with the cool interlude after a hot, muggy morning. But not these women.   Nor, for that matter, a great many other of them scattered around the beach (to whom I ordinarily pay little attention, as I am not their eunuch, and owe them no services). There were women everywhere bundled up like skinny, leathery-skinned Inuit (do any of the old women know how awful they look after about thirty years of beach worshipping?)

Because women almost never enter the water, I’m guessing that of the three cold-blooded animal types, women must be reptiles, not amphibians or fish. Maybe women are chameleons, as their powers of deception are quite as profound as their inability to generate their own heat. But whatever they are, they aren’t mammals. They are cold-blooded.

Putting female humans into the reptilian category, while they yet have breasts (more than a few of which were prominently on display that day at the beach, at least until the shivery cold lack of sunshine covered them up) and don’t lay eggs, presents something of a problem to the Linnaeus classification system. But Nature’s truth cares not a whit about human classification systems. Ask a duck-billed platypus. Create a new genus or species if the behavior of human females so confounds the classification system. But don’t put them in with mammals. They aren’t mammals.

This should be obvious to any male of the species who has suffered through a winter wearing shorts and t-shirts indoors because the heat is set so high they would otherwise be sweating, or alternatively, to anyone who has sweated through a Southern summer (as your author has many times), wishing to allow the air conditioner to do what God intended it to do, while the women are still so cold when indoors that they wrap themselves in blankets. Women are cold-blooded. They love the beach as only a cold-blooded reptile could love the beach.

As much as men know and understand why most of Nature shuns the beach, they can still be found there, usually standing around with a forlorn countenance, wondering what else there might be to do in light of the conditions, than uncomfortably sitting in the sand and sweating and acquiring a fine layer of grit to chafe their whole bodies. Sometimes, they’ll throw a ball or Frisbee back and forth between themselves, marking the time to which they’ve been sentenced as pleasantly as the conditions allow.

Males of the human species go to the beach almost as much as the females. But only because the females go there, and the males happen to be either seeking a mate for reproduction, or have already been selected by a female for the purpose of reproduction who demands their attendance in such venues. The females dress as provocatively as possible to entice the males to want to join them in their lizard paradise. They would mostly prefer that the men want to do what they are being made to do. But it rarely works to get a rise from them. Men at the beach are like Panda bears in captivity, unable to muster much lust for anything in their imprisoned condition. Men go to the beach because they have to, to keep their cold-blooded masters happy. They don’t go because they want to, and no amount of scantily clad female flesh can mask the reality of their captivity.

Alas, I risk hell in stealing away time from my palace eunuch duties to set out these observations. Aside from their cold-blooded bodies that are unable to generate their own heat, female brains are quite reptilian as well, attuned to danger at all times, and there is nothing more dangerous to the female mind than a man who thinks for himself. I must go before I am caught and severely punished. Probably with a turn-around beach trip.

The value of a compelling victimization narrative

The NBA finds itself on the horns of a dilemma in the controversy surrounding Don Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers whose racially bigoted remarks were recorded and sold to a webloid by someone (V. Stiviano) who may or may not be his girlfriend.

The Clippers are playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs. The dilemma for the NBA is whether to promote the Clippers as having overcome the terrible adversity of working for a racist owner, or to promote the Thunder as the city having had to overcome the terrible adversity of domestic terrorism. In the race to have the most poignant victimization story, is it better to have suffered the emotional insult of working for a company owned by a guy who has expressed racial bigotry against blacks, or to have suffered the deaths of over a hundred residents because of the madness of a disgruntled citizen? It’s all about the narrative.

Oklahoma City would obviously have the better case for sympathy, except Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the city’s federal building was over two decades ago. So maybe the Clippers should win the series. The only time anyone ever talks about the Oklahoma City bombing anymore is when the Thunder find themselves on a superlative playoff run and the NBA does its obligatory story on how the city suffered so much and how the move of the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City was so instrumental in its healing. There is a statue memorializing the bombing right outside the arena in which the Thunder play. Which the NBA inevitably pans to with its cameras at some point during a playoff series with a Thunder home game.

The NFL does much the same anytime the New Orleans Saints have a good season. During their 2009 Super Bowl run, all you ever heard was how the team’s success, after several decades of football ineptitude, helped the city heal from the devastation of Hurrican Katrina. But I’m pretty sure none of the residents of the 9th Ward made it to the Super Bowl that year.

It must be a reflection of the times that America celebrates and memorializes its tragedies and ignores its victories. There are memorials for 9/11 and the OKC bombing, but nothing for killing bin Laden, or for the Iraq war or the Afghanistan occupation. Perhaps had bin Laden been a more attractive victim, we’d have lionized him instead of killing him. But he was the son (one of hundreds, but still) of a rich Saudi businessman. So we killed him, but nobody takes much pride in it. And given what the end game has been for Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s probably best that the US doesn’t memorialize those two operations as victories. Count the lack of memorialization as rare glimpses of truth in an otherwise almost wholly Orwellian state.

America loves the histrionics of victims overcoming circumstances to achieve their dreams. Especially so when it comes to deciding upon whether or not a kid gets to achieve that ultimate of American dreams, admission to an elite university. Witness the New York Times article on what it believes were four exemplary essays submitted in support of applications to college. One kid was homeless, and told of having to steal wifi by driving around in the family home (i.e., the car) looking for hot spots in order to complete homework assignments. Another kid was the son of a dad who had lost his job and his indifference to his father’s depression that ensued (but they weren’t yet homeless, so his narrative was less compelling). Another was the child of a single mom (of course) who worked cleaning houses to provide a middle class upbringing, even if it included shopping at thrift stores way before they became cool with the hipsters. And another simply extolled the virtues of working at a fast food restaurant.   My guess is that the acclaim bestowed upon these essays had more to do with the artfulness with which they were composed than with any real circumstances their authors had to overcome. Let’s get real. Nobody in this republic is a victim of much of anything except the good fortune of having been born American and thereby being too rich to have suffered any real deprivation that would make for a compelling life narrative.   But writing well, in this age of wealth allowing for its consumption, is almost always handsomely rewarded.   As these essays illustrate. The homeless girl was accepted to the 2018 class of Yale University. No doubt she will one day preside over the republic as a justice of the Supreme Court or some other such indicia of success and power and privilege that a Yale degree bestows. Where she can enthrall (bore?) the world with her tale of overcoming adversity. Sort of like Sonya Sotomayer does now.

More often than not, the circumstances to be overcome are self-inflicted, as another story line, provided compliments of the New York Times, illustrates. In Addict. Informant. Mother. by Susan Domimis, we are introduced to Ann, a woman who is all three of the nouns in the title. But guess what—the addict in her overwhelms everything else. She’s addicted to heroin. Her husband, Tom, introduced her to the drug shortly after he began his downward spiral into addiction that ultimately landed him in jail, where he is now, riding out a sentence for possession. Heroin addiction is not psychosomatic. It is physiological, and almost impossible to overcome without the aid of circumstance or intervention (Tom broke his through incarceration, where he couldn’t get the drug even had it been available, as he had no way to get money to buy it). If Ann only knew what a compelling narrative overcoming her heroin addiction would make. She doesn’t understand how close within her grasp is the lionization of her status as a victim who successfully endured and overcame her circumstances. If she got herself cleaned up and blamed the whole thing on Tom after divorcing him so she could raise their children as a single mom, she could maybe even get into Yale; and who knows, could maybe even run for governor of the state of Texas one day. Though her victimization is mainly self-inflicted, if she fobbed it off on her husband she could make her struggles work for her. Somebody just needs to explain to her that she has a plausible chance at the American dream of admission to an elite university awaiting her sobriety.

The victimization narrative cuts internationally. Want to know how to get Western women riled and ready to act to end atrocities against women, at least through a hashtag campaign? Show that an Islamist group is kidnapping Nigerian girls and selling them into slavery and claim that the whole cult of Islam is likewise focused on enslaving and oppressing women, as Ayaan Hersi Ali, the controversial Dutch politician of Muslim African origin, recently did in the Wall Street Journal:

It is also time for Western liberals to wake up. If they choose to regard Boko Haram as an aberration, they do so at their peril. The kidnapping of these schoolgirls is not an isolated tragedy; their fate reflects a new wave of jihadism that extends far beyond Nigeria and poses a mortal threat to the rights of women and girls. If my pointing this out offends some people more than the odious acts of Boko Haram, then so be it.

 It’s all bunk. Of course, Boko Haram is an aberration that doesn’t remotely represent mainstream Islam, not in Nigeria or in any other place where vast populations of Muslims live. The compelling narrative is that the cult’s nihilistic ideology is widespread.

Yet it is impossible for the ideology of a nihilistic cult to become widespread for very long. A nihilistic cult would at best reject and refuse any attempted enhancement of its group members’ prospects for survival and propagation. At worst it would seek to impair them. Islam grew from the tiny seed of a Bedouin tribe over fifteen hundred years ago to become the religion of over a billion. Islam is not a nihilistic cult. Some who practice Islam might be nihilistic and there might arise nihilistic cults within Islam, just as has happened within Christianity and Judaism. But Islamic theology is a life-affirming one, just like its sister Abrahamic religions. People like Hersi Ali who wish to equate Islam with its most outrageous adherents seek to demonize those they view as enemies, and demonization of an enemy is the first step required of successfully coaxing men into killing their fellows.

She would like Western women to believe that Boko Haram’s kidnapping of young girls is equable with mainstream Muslims’ requirement of modesty in the dress and manners of its women. Nothing could be further from the truth. And the requirement of modesty in dress and manners is seen as oppressive only by the likes of Western women grown accustomed to flaunting their sexuality, not so much by the Muslim mainstream who can see how well such decadence has worked out for them. What the Western women don’t realize is that without males to enforce a female code of modesty, they are the ones oppressed, required to race their sisters to the bottom in sexual suggestiveness and provocations in order to gain attention.

Even Obama is in the story telling mode, speaking last week at the USC Shoah Foundation, he extolled the virtues of victimization stories:

I have this remarkable title right now — President of the United States — and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria — when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids — and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, “drop by drop by drop,” that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story.

And because of your work, their stories, years and decades from now, will still be wearing down bigotry, and eroding apathy, and opening hearts, drop by drop by drop. And as those hearts open, that empowers those of us in positions of power — because even the President can’t do these things alone. Drop by drop by drop. That’s the power of stories. And as a consequence, the world will be a better place and the souls will be bound up in the bonds of eternal life. Their memories will be a blessing and they will help us make real our solemn vow: Never Forget. Never Again.”

Did you catch that? It was subtle, but Obama slipped his own victimization narrative into the compelling victimization narrative of the Jewish Holocaust, and the Nigerian kidnapped girls, and the Syrian children, by having to suffer for not being able to do more.   Obama’s heart wouldn’t bleed so desperately had he the power to save these souls from suffering but his remarkable title isn’t enough. Oh, the tragedy. He undoubtedly believes that his remarkable title makes his victimization narrative the most compelling of all.

I personally feel a bit envious that all these people can conjure compelling victimization stories about their lives while I look at my own life and can’t (though I don’t envy the real stories of victimization, like those of the Holocaust victims, and the Nigerian kidnapped girls, and the Syrian children). I mean, I was born to a single mom. I never knew my dad. I am red-headed and was adopted at age five, to later suffer beatings just like the red-headed step child cliché provides. I was poor enough in college that I sold my blood to pay the rent, finally joining the Army in a bid to better my station in life. Which ultimately forced me to fight in a war for a cause (cheap oil for soccer mom SUV’s) I didn’t believe in. When I got married and had kids, the first child was stricken with leukemia, twice, and endured two bone marrow transplants. I had to give up a very successful career as a lawyer to care for him during his second transplant. At the moment I am fighting a low-intensity guerrilla conflict with a teenage daughter cum domestic terrorist. What more must I suffer until I qualify in my own heart as a victim? I just can’t get there. I see my life as just a life. There is no compelling victimization narrative here. I’m just an ordinary guy trying to make the best of the circumstances in which I find myself. Neither Mother Nature nor mankind has been unduly or unexpectedly harsh to me.

But maybe there is an angle from which to view my life that can make it out to be a compelling victimization narrative. Is it not the worst thing in contemporary society to not have a compelling victimization narrative? I am a victim of not having a compelling victimization narrative. That might be enough to get me in Harvard if I were younger.   Maybe I could sell it to reach the heights of political office—feel sorry for me because I’ve never felt sorry for myself! It would be hard to fit such a thing on a political placard, but that would just be another obstacle, along with not feeling victimized by life or society or culture, that I would have to overcome.

Unless you make your living at it, sport is not a metaphor for life

Basketball isn’t a metaphor for life; life is a metaphor for basketball

That’s what Phil Jackson, the coach of the two best players in the game during the nineties and aughts, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, which may somewhat explain his eleven NBA championships, is supposed to have said. But great players make great coaches. Life is a metaphor for basketball when your make your fortune at coaching a couple of the greatest ever in basketball. For the rest of us, not so much.

And that’s why I hate sports metaphors.   Sports are entertainment.   They are not life. Life is grungy and hard and bitter and random. In sports, when you combine effort and talent you can expect good results. In life, effort and talent won’t matter a bit if, for example, a tornado levels your house to its foundation, and it won’t make a difference if some biochemical anomaly in your genome yields an incurable disease. Sports are not a metaphor for life. There is no metaphor for life. There is only life.

So, when Maureen Dowd of the New York Times labeled her column, Is Barry Whiffing, lamenting the performance of her “Barry”, the president, I cringed. Whiffing is what you do at the plate at a baseball game. You swing and you miss. Specifically, she was talking about Barry’s inept foreign policy:

An American president should never say, as you did Monday in Manila when you got frustrated in a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run.”

Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.

Dear heavens, someone please describe to me what a home run in the foreign diplomacy with the Russians might look like. Neville Chamberlain hit what felt like a home run with Hitler. It may have cleared the bases from the British perspective, but that didn’t really matter to Hitler.   He changed the rules of the game rather quickly. Barry is a naïve imbecile when it comes to understanding power relationships internationally. But this ain’t a baseball game and Barry ain’t at bat. International relations are more like a marathon, but an endless one where the baton is passed from one generation to the next, which is sort of how Barry described things, from Dowd’s article:

But that being said, you are the American president. And the American president should not perpetually use the word “eventually.” And he should not set a tone of resignation with references to this being a relay race and say he’s willing to take “a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf,” and muse that things may not come “to full fruition on your timetable.”

An American president should never say, as you did to the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, about presidents through history: “We’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

Yeah, Maureen, but the President is essentially right here. He is, if he is humble enough to understand things properly, just trying to get his paragraph right. Maybe he understands, better than Dowd and his acolytes, that he is no messiah; he is just number 44. Even in the short history of the American republic, there have been multitudes before him and there will be multitudes to follow. It must be hard for someone like Ms. Dowd when they see their demigod fall to earth, particularly when the demigod does it by his own hand. The Progressive assumption is that Barry should be forcefully leading the US to the utopian Progressive ideal. But that is not really what leading the nation is about. The nation is not going anywhere. It needs, particularly at this juncture in history, a manager more than a leader, unless you are one of those Progressive cultists who get orgasmic from the chance to impose on others what you believe is best for them.

But if you absolutely must use a baseball metaphor for foreign relations it would be this—pitching, i.e., defense wins championships. You can hit singles all day long and win, if you don’t let the other team hit anything at all. The first job of President is providing for the common defense, and Russia is only a threat to the republic if we allow it to be. Keep hitting singles, Barry—that’s fine, but don’t let them get on base, and neither Ukraine nor Iran nor Syria represent base hits for the Russians.

Another New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan, believes that sport is the most Progressive force in American society, dishing on the Los Angeles Clippers/Don Sterling controversy:

In issuing the sports equivalent of the death penalty — lifetime ban, probable forced sale of his franchise — to the basketball owner Donald Sterling, the N.B.A. showed every other institution that courage is more commendable than dithering.

What courage was required of Silver in delivering the head of Sterling on an eponymous platter to a seething crowd whipped into frenzy by social media run amok over some intemperate remarks? The courageous thing would have been to say that nothing of what Sterling said had anything to do with his ownership of the Clippers; that he made the remarks in confidence to someone who apparently had an axe to grind with him (hell hath no fury like a woman scorned), and that the NBA commissioner hasn’t the right to strip Sterling of his property in a summary dispensation. He may be the judge and jury in the court of public opinion, but that’s not where legal rights and obligations are resolved.

No, there was absolutely nothing courageous about Silver’s proclamation that Sterling was “banned from the NBA for life” as if such a thing had any practical meaning.

The whole Sterling affair is rather suspicious, and not just because of the protagonist who released Sterling’s taped conversation. It comes during the NBA’s playoffs, gift wrapped for generating publicity for the NBA’s most crucial money-making endeavor. Is it just an accident that it came when the LA Clippers were having their best run in franchise history, especially relative to their iconic neighbors , the Los Angeles Lakers? Who benefits from the scandal? The NBA, certainly.   People who never paid the NBA any attention all of the sudden now know the history of one of its heretofore marginal franchises. The LA Clippers certainly benefit from the publicity. And so too do Sterling and his ex-girlfriend; the ex-girlfriend benefits because everyone now knows her name (though I refuse to help her along in her bid for publicity). She was even interviewed by Barbara Walters (who I honestly thought was either retired or dead—didn’t she just complete a farewell tour?). Sterling benefits because when he pretends to be forced to sell his Clippers, the notoriety of the scandal will have precipitated a feeding frenzy that yields immensely greater value for him. Being the one to buy the Clippers from under that uber-racist Sterling has become the coolest thing a capitalist or entertainment mogul could do, way better than saving the rainforest.

I find the NBA playoffs, especially in this first round, almost as suspicious as the Sterling controversy. Five of the eight first-round series went to seven games. Given that the pairings are best against worst according to regular season record, how probable is such a thing? It would make sense that at least four of them would be decided in less than seven games. How is Dallas pushing the San Antonio Spurs to seven games? The Mavs barely got in to the playoffs while the Spurs had the best record in the NBA. How did Atlanta push first-seed Indiana to seven? Atlanta qualified for the playoffs with a losing record while Indiana was the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

I love watching the best athletes in the world perform on the NBA stage, but the NBA is first and foremost an entertainment venue, and a seven-game playoff series is more entertaining, and exquisitely more profitable, than a series that lasts only four or five games. The only team that played like expected was the two-time reigning champion Miami Heat, who swept the woeful Charlotte Bobcats in their opening round series. But Miami, with the NBA’s best player in LeBron James, is by now almost bigger than the league. They must have figured they could ignore the memo to stretch things to seven games.

Considering that the NBA is, just like the NFL, in the business of entertainment, it only provides a metaphor, if at all, for analogous entertainment businesses. The NBA is perhaps a metaphor for Broadway?   The show must go on. The Clippers kept playing. And that’s about as good as it gets so far as metaphorical life lessons provided by the NBA go.

But how about sports, particularly the NBA, as a Progressive force, as Egan claims?  The NBA has no female players. Thus the NBA is not Progressive as regards gender equity, which Progressives presuppose should always mean equal outcomes for males and females. The black population of the US is heavily overrepresented in the NBA. Progressives see disparate racial outcomes as prima facie evidence of racial discrimination. The NBA, to be Progressive, should be comprised of roughly 52% females and 48% males; of whom 13% should be black, 65% white, about 13% Hispanic, with a smattering of Asians (not just Jeremy Lin). Then the NBA would be a Progressive cultural force. As it stands, the NBA is a meritocracy, and merit is the utterly last criteria which today’s Progressives believe should be used for determining outcomes.

Sports aren’t a Progressive force, not at least according to the Progressive catechism in real life. Which provides compelling evidence that sports are no metaphor for life. Life is its own metaphor. Sports are a happy, somewhat fantastical, diversion from it.

The Orwellian National Basketball Association

Adam Silver, the National Basketball Association’s new commissioner, has conjured a hysterical response to the alleged comments of Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise. He has banned Mr. Sterling for life, and fined him $2.5 million, which for a billionaire is, well, do the math.

Mr. Sterling’s ex-girlfriend released a recording she made of a confidential conversation the two of them had in which Mr. Sterling urged her not to show up at Clipper’s basketball games with black guys, specifically naming Magic Johnson, and not to post pictures of herself with black guys on Instagram.

Oh, the horror.

He didn’t even do a Paula Dean, and refer to the people he didn’t want his ex-girlfriend to be seen in public with by the word that must not be spoken. It is a word that is not even allowable in a Mark Twain novel striving for accurately depicting the vernacular of the time in which it was set. The word may only be used by those whom it once described. “Niggar” or “niggah” is nothing but a slightly altered Spanish “negra”, meaning black. But it can’t be spoken. And probably can’t be written.   At least not by white people, and certainly not by Jewish people, the racial heritage of Mr. Sterling, if Jewishness denotes a race. And there is no evidence or allegation that Mr. Sterling used it. He just expressed the sentiment that the word had been used to express about blacks, particularly during the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when it became a pejorative, where it had at one time simply been a descriptive name, and before victory in the struggle meant blacks had to be called African American or any other damned thing they wanted to be called by people of pallor, because only they could call themselves niggahs or niggars or whatever the rappers decided. It was a black thang, see?

Blacks take pride in this thang that is unique to them. They intentionally set themselves apart with it. But they don’t allow anyone who is not part of their thang to offer an opinion of it. Anyone who does is immediately branded a racist, which is, in polite society these days, roughly tantamount to being branded a heretic during the Spanish Inquisition, or a witch in Salem in the eighteenth century.  

But what does it mean for Mr. Sterling to be ‘banned for life’ from the NBA? It sounds like a particularly dreadful excommunication of the sort, perhaps, that Baruch Spinoza suffered from his Jewish community in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. The letter directing Spinoza’s excommunication required his fellow Jews to cross the other side of the street when they saw him coming. But an excommunication from the NBA, as if the league were some sort of religion? And of one of its owners? I wonder, will the NBA allow Mr. Sterling to keep signing the Clipper’s paychecks? Will they allow him to communicate with his new coach and general manager, Doc Rivers, who, by the way, is black. Will they allow him to continue to hire and fire staff as he sees fit? What exactly can they ban him from doing? Would banning Mr. Sterling be tantamount to banning the Clippers’ franchise? It seems that must be the case if the ban is going to have any real effect, which would mean that the NBA’s attempt to punish a racist in its ranks of owners would put a bunch of black people out of work.

No, the ban is all for show.   It is my understanding that the NBA bylaws allow the owners to force the sale of a franchise on a three-quarters vote, so that might eventually happen. And Mr. Sterling can be nice and agree to not show his face at his team’s games. But in the meantime, the NBA can’t ban him from interacting with his team as the team’s owner or from doing things that owners ordinarily do, like pay players and coaches, and negotiate arena contracts, and have promotions, and a litany of other stuff that no one sees.

What does this episode tell us?

First, that policing thoughts is an exercise in futility. Mr. Sterling is not accused of doing anything to anyone in the employ of the Clippers to express his racial bigotry. He expressed some racially bigoted thoughts, in confidence, to an ex-girlfriend. The NBA’s attempt to punish the racist thoughts of one of its owners is necessarily wildly disproportionate to the crime, mainly because no crime has been committed. Thus, the NBA decrees a lifetime ban, which sounds extreme but is really just an attempt to look extreme and upset and hysterical, just like the fans and players are pretending to be.   There is no legally actionable injury here. Not financial, emotional, physical—nothing. People may be outraged but whining about hurt feelings is part of the luxury of living in a society so rich that it pays young men many millions of dollars each year to engage in playground sport. The law has yet to institute public floggings or scarlet letters for revealed racists because thinking racist thoughts is still not illegal. Even expressing racist thoughts isn’t illegal, so long as doing so doesn’t cause a riot.

Anytime an organization is faced with preventing the unpreventable, it will want to look as if it is doing all it can to do so anyway, which is to say, it will want to look it is acting as outrageously as the thing being prevented is perceived.   This explains the NBA’s response to Sterling just like it explains the US’s response to terrorism.   The US shredded its Constitution so that it might look like it was preventing terrorism from ever happening again. The NBA pretended it could ban one of its owners, as if the NBA isn’t an organization in the employ of the owners.

But the better life lesson to draw from this episode antedates by centuries the present prohibition against expressing racist sentiments.   That is that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Sterling’s ex-girlfriend taped their private conversation, undoubtedly for the purpose of baiting him into his racist slurs. And then sold the tape to TMZ, a sleazy webloid.

Fellas, listen up. Never ever say anything to a woman who is your ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, or who may become your ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, that you don’t want the whole world to hear. Because she will tell the whole world, and may even tape the conversation to provide proof, if she believes doing so will give her an upper hand in the relationship.

Other than those few tidbits, there’s nothing to learn here except that the fact so much outrage has been expressed over something as benign as Sterling’s remarks, which were not intended for public consumption, proves that we live in a fantastically wealthy, and commensurately silly, age.

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