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Just Another Manic Wednesday, and Probably Manic Thursday

Our Wednesday here in Wichita was largely spent complying with the city’s housing codes regarding weedy lawns and broken brick work and similarly embarrassing mtters, along with other desultory chores, but somewhere in between we garnered enough national and international news from the car radio and the internet to be apprised that things are tough all over.
Our only important appointment today is to tape an appearance on a local low-rated but ultra high frequency television station’s libertarian talk show, and the host is an old friend of ours from the punk rock days who has asked us comment on the Kansas gubernatorial race, so we also had the desultory chore of catching up on that. So far as we can tell Kansas’ politics is what the World War II GIs used to call “SNAFU,” if not so dreadful that we couldn’t come up with some light-hearted comic material about it, but we’ll save that for those lucky few who tune into the ultra-high frequencies in this relatively blessed part of the world.
As for the rest of it, we’re just too plum tuckered — as we old folks still say here in Kansas — to offer any in-depth analysis. We’ll get around to some of what we’ve noticed soon enough, but on this busy Thursday it’s probably best that we all mind our more pressing business.

— Bud Norman

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Trump and the NFL Go into Overtime

Major League baseball has some intriguing pennant races heating up, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League both have their championship series underway, and of course the big sports story on Tuesday was about the National Football League and President Donald Trump.
Even in the off-season, the rivalry between the NFL and Trump is almost as riveting as the Boston Red Sox’ and New York Yankee’s classic brawl in the American League East. On Tuesday Trump put it back at the top of the sports and politics pages by rescinding at the last moment an invitation for a traditional visit by the winners of the last Super Bowl. It’s not really all that big a deal, but it does illustrate something about Trump and his times that is more worrisome.
If you somehow haven’t been following this bizarre subplot of the bigger Trump reality show, it all started when a few NFL players knelt on one knee during the national anthem to draw attention to their beliefs about several recent cases of police killing black suspects. Many fans understandably regarded the protests as disrespectful to the flag and national anthem and the nation itself, and Trump eagerly championed their views, getting huge cheers at his ongoing campaign rallies by calling on owners to “fire that son-of-a-bitch” who took a knee. The die-hard fans loved it so much that Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence back to Indiana just to walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game where some player took a knee, all the right-wing talk radio hosts agreed that Trump obviously loved America and that his critics did not, and eventually the NFL owners passed a policy that mandated respectful standing and hands over hearts by all its employees during the national anthem.
Trump could have spiked the ball and done his end zone dance at that point and moved on to the next bizarre subplot, but he milked it just a little bit more by calling off the traditional visit by the NFL champs. This year’s champions are the plucky underdog Philadelphia Eagles, none of whom ever took a knee during the national anthem, except for a guy who got cut in the pre-season, which should have made a hell of a photo-op for Trump, but less than a dozen of the players wanted to pose for a picture with the president, so Trump called it off. He blamed the team for various dubious reasons, none of which included the vast majority of the players’ reluctance to be photographed with him, but no one’s buying that, and Fox News tried to help out by showing some photos of a few Eagles kneeling in the end zone but later had to admit it showed a pre-game and pre-anthem prayer ritual for good health, and the die-hard fans don’t care.
Trump filled the scheduled time by having what was once John Phillip Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band play the national anthem and “God Bless America” on the White House lawn, with Trump standing at attention with a reverent gaze at the flag and his hand on his heart and his lips mouthing some approximation of the the lyrics, and he clearly implied that this is what true patriotism looks like. The die-hard fans probably loved it, even the Eagles fans among them, but we’ve read enough Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis that it looked like political kitsch to to us, the sort of tear-jerking but all-too-easy sort of patriotism that draft-dodging demagogues always appeal to.
At every Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ basketball game and Wichita Wingnuts game we always stand and doff our hat and hold it over heart during the national anthem, and we join in the “Pledge of Allegiance” whenever it comes up at commencement ceremonies or public meetings, and we do our best at the harder chores true patriotism entails.
We’d prefer that those football players find some way to protest police shootings other than kneeling during the national anthem, and acknowledge that in many if not all cases those police shootings were justifiable acts of self-defense, and more thoughtfully confront the complicated matter of the crucial role police play in the far bigger problem of black-on-black civilian shootings, but we acknowledge their right to disagree. Most of the Philadelphia Eagles also stood at respectful attention during the national anthem but didn’t want to be photographed with a president who wanted to impose that decision on them, and we don’t disagree at all.
Trump also had to cancel a traditional visit from last season’s NBA championships due to their reluctance, and this year the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time superstar LeBron James has said that neither team in the finals, even if his plucky underdog squad could pull off a miracle comeback against the Golden State Warriors, would accept a White House invitation. NBA championship players are all multi-millionaires but usually black, and remain friends with black guys who have legitimate concerns about getting shot by the police, and however complicated the arguments are we can see why don’t care to pose with Trump. Whoever prevails in that red-hot race in the American League East is our pick for World Series champion, and all the contenders are diverse enough that we’re sure a a decisive few will decline Trump’s invitation for a White House visit and photo-op. The NHL finalists are both United States franchises, not the few remaining founding franchises from those damned Canadians we’re lately waging trade war with, and they’re almost entirely white, but they’re mostly manned by damned foreigners taking jobs from hard-working Americans.
Although Trump likes to tout himself as a winner, for now he’ll have to forgo a lot of photo-ops with the winners of America’s professional sport championships. Even the players who stand respectfully with hand over heart during the national anthem don’t seem to like Trump’s attempts to bully them into doing so, and in the highly unlikely event we ever found ourselves on a championship team we’d surely feel the same.
If standing for the national anthem ever comes to mean standing for Trump, we’ll ruefully take a knee ourselves. That would be a big deal.

— Bud Norman

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Modernity

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that a Colorado man named Jack Phillips does not have to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seven-to-two majority decision is so carefully and narrowly worded that it’s not entirely clear if everyone else is similarly at liberty, but we’ll chalk it up as a win for religious freedom and freedom in general.
Although Phillips’ does not routinely refuse the services of his Masterpiece Cakeshop to homosexual customers, he did politely decline a homosexual couple’s request for a wedding cake because of his Christian belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. Until recently that definition of marriage had been largely unquestioned in western civilization for more than two millennia, and until a relative blink of an eye ago even the likes of President Barack Obama had the same opinion, even now there are still a very large number of people who hold that view, and a fair-minded observer would admit that the social consequences of such changes being so hard to predict there’s still a chance it will ultimately prove wise.
Even if Phillips is wrong, we figure that’s his right. If the Colorado Human Rights Commission can compel him to bake a cake in violation of his religious beliefs, we shudder to think what else an American citizen might be compelled to do. In his decision Kennedy rightly noted that the CHRC seemed to regard the past two millennia of mainstream Christian belief as rank bigotry akin to the Ku Klux Klan’s racist terrorism, and rightly regarded that as an obvious assault on religious freedom, but in doing so he left open the possibility that other human rights commissions could persecute other traditionalists if they do so more politely. Modernity’s assault on the Judeo-Christian foundations of western civilization will surely continue, but for now only two members of the Supreme Court are on record saying that a Christian baker has to bake a gay wedding cake.
That homosexual couple has a right to get married, according to a Supreme Court decision penned by the same Kennedy, and it naturally follows they have a right to buy a cake to celebrate the occasion, but we don’t see why they have any right to force Phillips to bake it. They live in a populous part of Colorado that surely has plenty of bakeries happy to accept their business, and they seem to have turned Phillips into the CHRC in order to punish him for his beliefs and lifestyle, and the CHRC sure did seem to intent on criminalizing those still widely-held beliefs and that common lifestyle. We wish that homosexual couple a happy marriage, but we expect that in the long run they’ll be better off if the government doesn’t get back in the messy business of punishing unfashionable beliefs and alternative lifestyles.
There’s a nutcase cult up in Topeka’s that’s notorious for anti-homosexual protests at funerals and other private occasions, and if they ask some homosexual baker in that town full of desperate-for-business bakers to decorate a cake with their infamous “God Hates Fags” slogan we think that baker has every right to decline the offer. For now the culture wouldn’t tolerate it, and the forces of modernity have even dragged a Christian baker before the Supreme Court and found two Justices who would compel the poor fellow to a bake a cake, but not so long ago in our lifetimes even the New York City cops were raiding gay bars and the consensus of the American Psychiatric Association was that homosexuality was a mental illness. These things can change in the relative blink of an eye, we’ve noticed, and at this point we think it best that tolerance prevails.
We have a lot of Christian and quite a few homosexual friends here in Wichita, and naturally there’s some overlapping on the Venn diagram of our social circle, and of course they all have their own particular opinions about all of this. Happily, they all somehow coexist. Most of our Christians friends have jobs that don’t involve same-sex marriages, and if they did many of them probably decline the work, but none of them are waving any “God Hates Fags” signs at the few same-sex weddings around here and they try their best to be unfailingly polite to everyone they meet in the course of their jobs. Some of our homosexual friends are pretty outspoken about it, but even the most political of them have been bullied and wised-up and worn out enough they would much rather find another bakery rather than drag some pre-modern Christian neighbor all the way to the Supreme Court.
At this point we’re all living an alternative lifestyle,from somebody’s perspective,  and none of our beliefs can possibly keep up with the ever-sharpening blade of the cutting edge of bien pensant opinion, so we figure we’ll just go about business and hope that as usual most people do the same. We hope that Phillips fellow returns to a thriving business at his Masterpiece Bakeshop, and that the homosexual couple has a happy marriage and realizes how lucky they are everyone involved was able to go about their business.

–Bud Norman

Perfect Weather in a Time of Storms

We had to return a borrowed chainsaw to an old friend and nearby neighbor on Sunday afternoon, and because we were delinquent in doing so we also brought along an apologetic six pack of Coors’ “Banquet Beer.” The weather was as close to perfect as Kansas ever gets, some very pretty women were walking their dogs along the sidewalks of the picturesque Riverside neighborhood, and an excellent front porch conversation naturally ensued.
Our friend is even older than ourselves, so of course there was some mutual old man grousing about the current sporting scene, mostly about how all those three-pointers the pro basketball players launch these days have taken the game out of the paint where giants of our childhood imaginations used to roam, but also about whatever the hell became of boxing. We reminisced about several mutual friends who are now dead, and shared a couple of dirty jokes. Eventually the talk got around to the news of the day, and there was some delightfully cathartic grousing about that.
Our friend is a lifelong liberal and Democrat, and for much of his interesting life he was even a bartender living a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, but he admitted to us that he didn’t vote for President Barack Obama in the the second go-round and only voted for the admittedly horrible Hillary Clinton because she was running against now-Presisdent Donald Trump, and that he no longer has a rooting interest in politics. He’s never minded that we’re old-fashioned Kansas Republicans from the William Allen White and Dwight D. Eisenhower mold, and he respects that we didn’t vote for Trump and quite understands why we didn’t vote for Clinton, and well understands why we feel similarly disaffected from any party or movement at the moment.
A few blocks away our internet thingamajig was filled with bad news about America’s brewing trade war with our closest allies and our tenuous negotiations with a nutcase nuclear-armed dictator and the president’s lawyer going on the Sunday show to say the president can legally end the “Russia thing” any time he wants but probably won’t do so because it would be political suicide. Our friend and we agreed that it’s a sorry state of affairs, no matter which way you look at it, but we also agreed that it was a lovely day, and a very lovely woman who was walking her dog on the sidewalk across the street from hi front porch, and we admitted that it is amazing how the kids these days can hit those three pointers like even Larry Bird never could.
The forecast for today predicts more nearly perfect weather around here, and most of Wichita will be on its way to work by early morning, and the River Festival has started with a parade and fireworks and traffic jams, and although our New York Yankees might lose and the afternoon’s political news will surely be infuriating we’ll try to keep a proper perspective here in the picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas.

— Bud Norman

The “Tweets” of Crazed Celebrities

If America had a more cerebral and less celebrity-addled popular culture few people would much care what the likes of Roseanne Barr “tweets,” and that guy from “The Apprentice” wouldn’t be President of the United States. As things stand now, though, attention must be paid to both.
For those of you spent Tuesday in a coma, the American Broadcasting Company abruptly cancelled the highly-rated “Roseanne” sitcom after its eponymous star unleashed a series of stunningly stupid “tweets.” One claimed that former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton had married into the family of controversial left-wing billionaire George Soros. Another alleged Soros had collaborated with the Nazis when they occupied his native Hungary. In the one that got her fired just a few hours later, she joked that Valerie Jarrett, a black woman and former top advisor to President Barack Obama, was the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
We’ve never cared much for Clinton or either of her parents, but she clearly got the better of the exchange when she classily and correctly “tweeted” back that in fact her husband has no relation to Soros. Although we don’t think much of Soros, either, we’ve seen no proof that as a 14-year-old Jew in an occupied country he was ever friendly to the Nazis. Over the Obama years we had our complaints about Jarrett, too, but we always took care to state them without resort to such flat-out and stone-cold racist tropes as comparing her to a monkey. As far as we’re concerned, ABC made the right call.
The “tweets” were somehow shocking to bien pensant sensibilities even though they were not at all surprising. Barr has always been an obnoxious crazy-pants conspiracy theorist, going back to the days when the original “Roseanne” was a critically-acclaimed hit in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when only the people on the right seemed to notice.
The first run of her sitcom depicted a white working class family struggling to make ends meet during the supposedly horrible Reagan-Bush era, ostentatiously featured several homosexual characters, and delivered even the funny lines with an unmistakably feminist smugness, so the left largely adored her. When she delivered a deliberately screeching rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at a major league baseball game and followed it with a crotch-grab and a spit it was lauded as daring satire. When she embraced the “truther” conspiracy theory that President George W. Bush was responsible for the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon she was defended on free speech principles. When she posed for a magazine as Hitler making “Jew cookies” some tried to explain it as satire.
By the time Barr tried to win the far-left Green Party’s presidential nomination and wound up running as the nominee of something called the Peace and Freedom Party we largely ignored by almost everyone. Her sitcom had concluded with a low-rated final season that was widely panned by the critics and hated by the fans, her limited acting range had yielded only a couple of roles in flop movies, a reality show on an obscure cable network yielded minuscule ratings, and at first no one seemed to notice what a strange turn her craziness had taken. She embraced the “birther” theory that Obama had been born in Kenya and was constitutionally ineligible to be president, insisted that all the hotter stars in Hollywood were manipulated agents of the Central Intelligence Agency through its “MK-Ultra Mind Control” projects, appeared frequently on the Russian dictatorship’s “Russia Today” propaganda network on your cable dial, and wound up as one of the few Hollywood celebrities who endorsed the presidential campaign of that guy from “The Apprentice.”
After the inauguration of President Donald Trump, however, the programming executives at ABC were suddenly receptive to the pitch that a re-boot of “Roseanne” catching up with that same wisecracking struggling-to-make-ends-meet white working class family in this glorious Trumpian new day might have some appeal to the popular minority but electoral majority of Americans who ushered it in. The re-boot featured the entire original cast, including including the critically-acclaimed and generically Hollywood thespians who played the husband and daughter and sister of the title character, as well as the former child actor who had to take time off from an even bigger hit sit-com, but the advance publicity made clear that Barr’s titular and obviously autobiographical character was decidedly pro-Trump, and the premiere episode drew 18 million viewers and even some grudgingly positive reviews by critics who noted that the husband and daughter and sister got in a few jabs of their own. Shortly after that, he show was renewed for a second season.
Back in the three-network days of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Fugitive” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” a mere 18 million viewers would have cancelled a show before its second episode, much less the 10 million viewers that the season finale drew, but in these days of a billion or so cable channels and the gazillion or so options on the internet those are both pretty impressive numbers for any old American broadcasting company. Trump gloated about it at one of his still ongoing campaign rallies, telling his die-hard fans that “the show is about us” and predicting that Hollywood’s greed would force it to adhere once again to their all-American values. After that, it was the post-Trump right that overlooked Barr’s craziness.
Trump was an even more prominent “birther,” so that craziness was easily forgivable. Although Trump never was a “truther,” be did win the Republican party’s presidential nomination parroting the left’s “Bush lied, people died” lie about the intelligence reports of intelligence about the Iraq War. Even Trump has never mentioned the “MK-Ultra Mind Control Project” during his conspiracy theorizing, but he and his die-hard fans and even ourselves have to admit there’s something pretty darned suspicious about who’s hot in Hollywood these days. As for the appearances on “Russia Today,” the Trump campaign’s foreign policy and the Trump administration’s first National Security Advisor was paid to sit next next to the Russian dictator at a dinner in honor of the propaganda network, so that’s no big deal. At this point, all the die-hard fans who hate those pro football players for kneeling during the national anthem have long-forgotten bar’s screeching and crotch-grabbing and spitting rendition of their beloved song. Trump didn’t mention Barr at his latest campaign rally, but he did recall some rapper at a Hillary Clinton campaign two years ago using the same foul language he had used at his events, and his apologists on talk radio and other conservative media rightly recalled all the leftist entertainers’ outrageous statements and outright craziness.
At this point pretty much everyone’s a hypocrite, except for those of us on the left and right who always spotted Barr as the pure product of a stupid and celebrity-addled popular culture. From our current vantage point on the sidelines of America’s cultural and political wars we feel free to make the calls against either side, and we say good riddance to both Barr and all the fashionable causes and crazy-pants conspiracy theories and reality show candidates se ever championed.

— Bud Norman

Left Field, Right Field, and the Center of America

The best part of our gloriously warm and sunny Memorial Day evening was spent at the venerable Lawrence-Dumont Stadium just across the Arkansas River from downtown, where our beloved Wichita Wingnuts used some solid pitching and even better fielding to eke out an entertaining 1-0 win over the visiting Cleburne Railroaders. We relished every pitch and play wistfully, though, as this is likely the last season for the venerable ballpark and its beloved independent double-A team.
This is mostly a matter of local interest, of course, but it should also be noted by readers far from our humble prairie hometown. The city government and the handful of big-time local building contractors they always contract with are proposing to demolish an important piece of America’s baseball history to lure a Major League-affiliated team and perhaps get an upgrade to the city’s past triple-A status, and it also has national political implications that we discussed at length with our cigar-chomping old hippie friends in the smoking section along the first base line.
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is the seventh oldest professional ballpark in the country, for now, and to our eyes is a beautiful example of classical American baseball architecture. Last season they took down the old manual scoreboard with a cut-out wooden goose that slid along the box score and dropped an egg in the opponent’s slot after a shut-out inning, and replaced it with a big video screen that has the current batters statistics and lots of ads and presumably more entertaining music videos, but otherwise the old ballpark imbues a visitor with a comforting frisson of a better era of baseball. If you’re the sentimental sort of fan that baseball seems to attract you’ll even get a slight sense of all the great play that has happened there over the past 84 years.
Lawrence-Dumont is so named in honor of the otherwise long-forgotten mayor of the city on opening day, and a still well-remembered cigar-chomping and fedora-wearing promotional genius and unabashed hustler named “Hap” Dumont. A brand new baseball park was a risky venture in the dustiest days of the Great Depression, but Dumont was able to lure a sufficient number of fans by concocting the National Baseball Congress championship of America’s semi-pro teams. To kick it off Dumont rounded up a few thousand bucks to get Satchel Paige, who was relegated to the Negro Leagues by segregationist tradition but was widely regarded as the best pitcher of his day, to desert his regular team for a couple of weeks and participate in his semi-pro championship, which set still-standing records and established a still-ongoing tradition. One of the best parts of the NBC is the “round-the-clock baseball” portion, which always draws a number of hard-core fans who want to brag about watching 24 hours of baseball and many more who seem to show up in a raucous mood just after the bars close, and who once memorably booed a 12-year-kid who was up way past his bedtime and dropped a foul ball hit his way.
Nobody knew their names at the time, but the NBC wound up drawing such future Major League stars as Ron Guidry and and Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro and Pete Incaviglia and Bob Eucker, and the various minor league teams yielded such future Major League stars as Lee Smith and Andy Benes, and according to local legend during one of the occasional college games Wichita State University Wheatshocker great Joe Carter hit a homer into the Arkansas River that was even more impressive than the walk-off homer he hit in the 1993 World Series to win the Toronto Bluejays their only title. There were countless others who play in the ballpark and made it to the bigs, even they weren’t as notable, and on Memorial Day the Railroaders’ line-up included the aforementioned and 53-years-old Palmeiro, who was still playing partly in faint hopes of a Major League comeback but mostly for the fun of playing with his son, a promising third baseman who’s batting average is currently a full hundred points better than the old man’s.
Even on a gloriously warm and sunny Memorial Day such an intriguing subplot didn’t fill a fourth of the venerable 6,400 seat ballpark, though, and one of the arguments the city and its big-time contractors are making for a new one is that a Major League-affiliated and maybe even triple-A team would draw more fans. We have our doubts, though. The people who do show up at Wingnuts games mostly have the tattoos and wife-beater t-shirts and tough look of the surrounding Delano neighborhood, which has a wild west history of its own, but they also have the cutest kids that they carefully watch over and explain the game to, and despite their affection for cowbells that disturb our political conversations with our cigar-chomping friends after every opposing out they’re a very charming lot of real deal baseball fans. Wingnut fans seem to like the outlaw status of unaffiliated baseball, which allows it to welcome the banned-from-Major-League-baseball great Pete Rose and hire his son as the manager, and doesn’t mind that Palmeiro’s remarkable Major League career was cut short by his proved steroid use and the fact that he lied to a congressional committee about using performance enhancing drugs, even though at the time he was a paid spokesman for Viagra.
Some number of more respectable east-siders and west-siders and suburbanites and their overly-watched kids might be lured to a Major League-affiliated team with a less goofy name in some fancy new ballpark, and the city government and its handful of big-time local building contractors are all making the same promise from the corny Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams” that if “If you build it, they will come.” If you’re the kind of minor league baseball fan who follows a player’s progress to the big leagues, though, you’d probably be showing at Lawrence-Dumont. Whatever features the sort of fancy new structure the city and its big-time builders might construct, it won’t be able to claim that Satchel Paige and Ron Guidry and Andy Benes once pitched there and the likes of Bonds and Palmeiro and Incvagilia and Carter once roamed the outfield and batted there.
Another argument for tearing the venerable old ballpark and piece of American baseball history down is that it has aging pipes and wiring and whatnot, and although we don’t doubt that’s true we’re suspicious of claims that the remedies would be less expensive than a whole new ballpark. The city and its handful of contractors are admittedly more expert on these matters than we are, but they also have their own self-interested ways of reckoning things, and we cast a suspicious eye on their stats.
These public and private partnerships pop up almost everywhere at the local and state and federal level, and we’ve noticed that somehow it’s always the poor folks and liberals who want to conserve that physical remnants of the best of our culture, and that lately it’s the conservatives who are chanting “burn it down.” One of our cigar-chomping aging hippie friends in the smoking section along the blinding first base line is a predictably liberal professor at the local university, the other is a semi-retired systems analyst and reluctant Trump supporter, but we all agreed it’s a damned odd thing.
Around here the far-right and the far-left always align to oppose whatever the city government and its big-time building contractors concoct, the former being offended by government involvement in private business and the latter offended by private business’ influence on government matters, and for now that’s the only hope for venerable Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The folks on the far fancier east side and west side and the suburbs seem more comfortable with these arrangements than those of us on the old side of town, and don’t seem to give much of a damn about the better era of baseball and the way some things used to be. Which made for a bittersweet Memorial Day, no matter how warm and sunny.

— Bud Norman

Another Memorial Day

Today’s a good day for burgers and beer and goofing off and other great American things, but one should also aside a few moments of gratitude for the brave soldiers and sailors and airmen who make them possible. In hopes of helping, we’ll observe our tradition of re-posting an essay we first published back in ’12. It’s still all too true.

On a long walk through old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass diving a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rife and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that tarnished a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American War and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and the the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war last for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before on to the more exciting tales of the ’60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial preeminence on the world state, and permanently altered, for better and worse, the the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and the giant Keeper of the Plains statue at the confluence of the rivers, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another monument lists the names of the many local men who died serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a more elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of the conflicted had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some Americans veterans of the war have publicly complained about the include of a non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt, not just by the world but by individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the Wichita boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city were are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markets to honor the men and women who have fought for this country, and of course a good many graves for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq War, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor those for fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive all of us, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishments of even tenuous democracies in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the defeats of Al-Qade and the Islamic State might yet prove a boon to humanity, and that faint hope is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the wars have been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for American in even the most controversial wars, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and be grateful.

— Bud Norman

Modern Telephones and Ancient Arts

One of the unexpected habits we’ve acquired over the last couple of years is watching Youtube’s full-length videos of the Public Broadcasting System’s nightly “Newshour.” The program still has that ostentatiously high-brow and oh-so-soft-spoken public broadcasting tone that used to annoy us, but in these assertively low-brow days of splenetic talk radio show shrieking we now find it rather soothing, and we’ve also noticed that it has a high batting average for accuracy and does a pretty good job of giving all sides of whatever top story of the day they’re covering some unedited soundbites.
PBS also finds a few precious minutes in its daily “Newshour” for interesting and important stories that aren’t the hot topic of the day, which at long last brings us around to the subject of our daily missive. On Tuesday “Newshour” had a segment about the growing number of performing artists — from stand-up comedians to classical musicians — who are trying to keep their  audiences from using their telephones during performances. Despite all that’s going on in the top stories of the day, we feel obliged to take a few minutes of our time to share their outrage.
Those newfangled telephones most people own these days have video cameras and digital audio recorders and “viral” videos and the latest baseball scores and answers to any questions that might pop into your head and pictures of some scant acquaintance’s private parts, and we’ve previously groused about how damned distracting and dumbing-down they can be. It’s a problem we’ve long noticed during dates and family gatherings and all sorts of civic events, so we can well sympathize with any old nightclub comic or concert hall virtuoso who looks out at an audience and sees people more engrossed by some glowing electronic rectangle and its “tweet” about a friend’s taco dinner than their carefully-crafted performances.
We’ve even noticed it here in Wichita, Kansas, and we’re sure the problem is worse is in America’s many bigger cities. Around here most of the performing arts we take in are either at the lowest dives in the roughest parts of the north and south ends, where the kids all seem to have those newfangled telephones but are more intent on drinking and digging the the sounds and perhaps getting lucky than whatever boring message some homebound friend had “texted” or “tweeted” them, or in the high-culture auditoria of downtown’s Century II, where the mostly genteel and graying audiences have their own old-fashioned reasons for savoring the performances they’ve paid for at a rather steep price for rather than looking at their glowing telephones.
Before every performance of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra or the Wichita Musical Theater — both of which are far better than you might expect, by the way — they always play a recording urging the audience to shut down those damnable newfangled telephone machines. The message was recorded by Samuel Ramey, an operatic bass singer from the small town of Colby, Kansas, who attended Wichita State University’s better-than-you’d-expect music and went on to a career that included bravura performances as La Scala and all the world’s great opera houses before returning to join his alma mater’s better-than-you’d-expect musical faculty, and although he’s best known for playing Lucifer in the great operas featuring that character his speaking voice sounds so much like what you’d you imagine God sounds like that you’d surely turn off your newfangled telephone.
Still, even here in our delightfully old-fashioned hometown we notice too many people more intent on documenting the moment rather than savoring it, everywhere from the lowest depths of Kirby’s Beer Store to the dizzying heights of Century II. There’s something timeless to be said for an idiosyncratic bar band in a north end dive or capable stand-up comic in a sleazy night club or a virtuoso musician in a concert hall, and there’s something to be listened to without the distractions of thpse damnable telephonic devices most people own nowadays.
While we’re at it, we’d also prefer that more people stop paying attention to the top stories of the day what’ else is on their newfangled telephones machines and start paying more attention to the wonderful and horrible things that are going on all around them.

— Bud Norman

An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry,  especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

Tom Wolfe, RIP

Tom Wolfe was our favorite living writer in the world  until he died Monday at the age of 88. From now on, we’ll have to regard him as merely one of the four or five greatest writers in the history of American literature.
Although we’re far too old and wised up for hero worship, that’s a fair description of how greatly we have always esteemed Wolfe’s inventive and elegant prose style, observant eye for the details of daily and keen insights about what they mean, and his bold willingness to defy the ridiculous fashions of his ridiculous times. He rescued American literature from the quicksand of solipsistic post-modernism, as far as we’re concerned, and he exerted an even more profound influence on our lives of letters.
Way back in our junior high school days we checked out from the Wichita Public Library a collection of the best of “new journalism” that Wolfe had edited, and after reading and then re-reading it we had made our mind up about what we wanted to do for a living. The book featured pieces by such notable writers as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, and with characteristic immodesty Wolfe also included a few pieces of his own, which were by far the best of an impressive lot. The book demonstrated how true stories can most truthfully be told with the narrative brilliance of the best fiction, and it made an indelible impression on our literary sensibilities.
After that we eagerly consumed every book and magazine article that Wolfe ever wrote, and we loved every word of it.
Wolfe was born into an educated and well-to-do and very old-fashioned southern family in Richmond, Virginia, and was a star student at Washington and Lee University and earned a doctoral degree in American studies from Yale University, but he preferred the rough-and-tumble worlds of baseball and newspapers to academia. At a hard-earned tryout with the New York Giants he realized that his fastball would never be good enough to take him far beyond the semi-pro leagues he’d played in, so he took a job at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts, soon rose to a reporting gig at The Washington Post, then moved to The New York Herald Tribune for the chance to write feature stories, which every newspaperman knows offers the chance to add a little literary flair to the copy. During one of the intermittent New York City newspaper strikes of the era, Wolfe convinced the editors at Esquire Magazine to commission an article about the custom car craze that currently sweeping California, and after that was published he was a literary sensation.
The article celebrated the supposedly low-brow car customizers as modern artists of the highest rank, and did so with a prose style just as revved-up and ostentatious outrageously brilliant as his subject. He used alliteration and onomatopoeia and hyperactive punctuations and obscure words and complex sentence structures that still drive your typical dullard newspaper editor crazy — trust us — but to the average reader he compellingly explained the quintessentially American beauty of those crazy customized cars. It was included in a hard-cover collection of Wolfe’s other “new journalism” magazine pieces called “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and after that he was not only a literary sensation but also a best-selling author.
He followed that up with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first hand account of justly famed novelist and hard-core hippie Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic drug-fueled bus trips through California with his band of “merry pranksters,” and that was another still-in-print best-seller. Another collection of “new journalism” called “The Pump House Gang” was released in the same crazed year of 1968 to less enthusiastic reviews and a slightly lower position on the best-seller charts, but is still in print and is still well worth reading. Two years later “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was published, and Wolfe could have quit there and still made our top four or five list of America’s greatest writers.
The first half of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was a previously published magazine piece called “Radical Chic,” an exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first-hand account of famed maestro and notorious bleeding-heart liberal Leonard Bernstein’s fund-raising soiree with New York City’s cultural elite for murderous Black Panther Party. With the observant eye of a ink-stained newspaper wretch and son of the well-to-do south Wolfe noticed all the servants-of-color who were handing out the drinks and hors d’oeurve, and how very strained were the conversations between the well-attired elite northeastern white folk and the leather clad and black-beret-wearing ghetto black folks who were seeking their contributions to their openly proclaimed cause of overthrowing white supremacy and killing whitey.
The second half was “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a previously published first-hand magazine account of the middle class white bureaucrats running the government’s anti-poverty programs who had to deal face-to-face in less genteel circumstances with black clients who had lately realized, after years of being cowed by white supremacy, that most white people had a deep-seated fear of black people. Wolfe’s written-down-in-his-notebook observations about the ridiculousness of it all rang true then, as it still does now, and at this point in time we’re all the more impressed by Wolfe’s daring in writing it down and having it published.
Wolfe’s collection of “The New Journalism” came next, which led to us reading all that had come before, and in ’75 he published “The Painted Word,” a brief but sufficiently long critique of modern art that confirmed our faith in the heartfelt realism of the Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins Mary Cassatt paintings at the Wichita Art Museum. After that was “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine,” another collection of magazines pieces that included a tribute to the great Russian anti-communist novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, and although it was also a best-seller Wolfe was suddenly controversial as a conservative. Rolling Stone Magazine had published most of his best known work, and there was something deceptively hip about his prose, and his enthusiasm for car customizers and moonshine-running stock car racers and the time he spent with drug-addled hippies had given him a certain counter-cultural cachet, but at that point he was outed as a cultural conservative.
He followed that up with “The Right Stuff,” a lengthy and meticulously detailed account of America’s space program that became his best-selling book and was eventually made into a star-studded hit Hollywood movie. In addition to its insightful historical accuracy, it’s also celebration of the quintessentially cutting-edge engineering feats and old-fashioned machismo that landed America on the moon and beyond. That masterpiece was followed by the still-in-print and still-worth-reading collection of magazine pieces called “In Our Time,” and a delightful screed against modern architecture called “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and another fine collection of magazine pieces titled “The Purple Decades.”
Wolfe had long championed the “new journalism” as superior to all those self-indulgent novels about academic sexual affairs that all the creative writing program graduates were churning out, and he was right to do so, but in another magazine piece he conceded your can’t really “sit at the grown-up’s table” of literature without writing a novel, so he took a few years off from freelance work and penned a bona fide classic American novel titled “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Just as Wolfe’s journalism had long been enhanced by novelistic techniques, his first novel was enhanced by his journalistic understanding of the peculiar New York City scene he depicted. It included all of the racial and class conflicts that defined the the time and place, the same derring-do to confront them honestly no matter what races or classes might be offended, and an even more refined crazy-ass prose style, and it was his biggest selling book to date and was made into a lousy movie.
He followed that with “A Man In Full,” another epic novel about an egomaniacal and deep-in-debt real estate mogul embroiled in racial controversies, and although it’s set in Atlanta rather than New York City or Washington, D.C., it’s still a masterpiece and as relevant as ever. There was another excellent compilation of magazine pieces called “Hooking Up” in 2000, with some excellent essays on the high-tech revolution that was taking place in California during the car-customizing craze and the concurrent sexual revolution’s effect on modern day college life, and after that another essential novel called “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The book was about a poor but brilliant daughter of the south who wound in modern academia, and the depression she suffered when confronted with longstanding class differences and the newfangled rules of sexual morality, and it might be our favorite Wolfe book of them all.
The high-brow critics of the time hated it, of course, and accused Wolfe of being a prurient old southern cultural conservative, but since then the cutting-edge left has taken to decrying the “culture of rape” in higher education and setting up kangaroo courts to expel the sort of drunken frat boys Wolfe so effectively lampooned. Wolfe always seemed to win these arguments in the long run.
By that point Wolfe was getting old, and although the books came slower his final works are likely to be in print for a long while and are still worth reading. His final novel “Back to Blood” is an honest account of race and class in the Latino-dominated town of Miami, with the prose as revved-up as ever. His last work was “The Kingdom of Speech,” an extended essay about the sciences of the brain and linguistics that seems to argue against free will and for pre-determinism, and although it’s our least favorite of his works we highly recommend it.
Wolfe was more of a cultural conservative than a political one, and we weren’t much surprised to learn from the many obituaries in the big newspapers that he often voted for Democrats in presidential elections, but we’ll always appreciate how he so eloquently celebrated the car customizers and stock car racers and semi-pro ball players and the crazy-ass fighter pilots who sat atop the dubious rockets that America launched into space, and that crazy-ass American spirit in general. We’ll also always appreciate the way he so perfectly skewered all those elite white folks who made cocktail party contributions to the ghetto thugs who openly wanted to kill them, and with such exquisite objectivity and notebook accuracy that it was downright hilarious.
Like Emile Zola and Charles Dickens and the rest of the best of western literature’s greatest writers, the notoriously ostentatious and self-promoting Wolfe realized that all the great novels and non-fiction aren’t about the author but rather about his life and times. Like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Sinclair Lewis and the other greatest American writers who also started in the newspaper racket, he captured the best and the worst of the great and awful time and place he lived such a rich life in. His own quintessentially American yet entire unique personality was part of every tale, of course, and we’ll hold out faint hopes the country will see the likes of it again.

— Bud Norman

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