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Something Special in South-Central Kansas

President Donald Trump called our newfangled cellular telephone on Monday afternoon while Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz was speaking to us on a personal visit, which was also attended by reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times and a strikingly sultry young hipster woman representing Buzzfeed.com, and that came the day after Vice President Mike Pence called us, so at the moment we’re feeling rather special here in the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas. It’s all because of today’s special election to select a replacement for the locally well-regarded Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned his seat to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the surprisingly plausible possibility that an upset of national interest might be brewing.
Ordinarily the congressional elections here in our part of the very heart of flyover country are dull affairs, with the only suspense for the last couple of decades being whether the Republican would win by a two-to-one rout or some embarrassing low-double-digits margin, but this time around there’s an extraordinary collision of circumstances. The Republican National Committee is worried enough that it threw $92,000 into a last minute ad blitz, which will buy a big chunk of air time in this cut-rate media market, and they pestered both Trump and Pence to record the robocalls that have been reaching all the Republican phones around here, and convinced Cruz to fly into town for a rally at a local corporate aviation airport hangar. The Kansas Democratic Committee reportedly declined to spend a requested $20,000 for counter-advertising, probably because they don’t have it on hand, but the editors at The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com apparently sense enough Republican nervousness that they invested their meager travel budgets in a plane ticket and hotel and restaurant bill and other expenses in far-off Wichita. Knowing this corner of the prairie better than any of those Republican politicos or Democratic media bigwigs, there are a few reasons we think it at least slightly possible they might be on to something.
Just a few months ago Pompeo won yet another re-election with something close to that two-to-one score, but this time around the Republican candidate is Ron Estes, and Estes is no Pompeo. The current director of the CIA first won the Fourth Congressional seat back in ’10, when he replaced the reliably conservative but utterly forgettable Reublican Todd Tiahrt, who had resigned the seat to make an ill-fated run primary run for the Senate, and wiped the floor with a Harvard-educated Hindu that the Democrats had chosen just after President Barack Obama’s ’08 win convinced them that foreign names and Ivy League credentials were a winning combination even in Kansas. Pompeo had been first in his class at West Point and the commander of a tank unit on the Iron Curtain, an editor of the Harvard Law Review, the founder of a successful high-tech aviation business, could eloquently articulate the principles of conservatism to the formidable number of establishment Republicans around here and still connect with the more rough-hewn but also formidable Republican types, and he was too darned reasonable to scare even the most skittish liberal. Democrats were losing their entire House majority in all sorts of districts because of Obama at that point, and Pompeo thus easily won election over that smartypants Democrat. After that the Democrats ran a series of sacrificial lambs who revved up the base but didn’t have any potential political careers worth wasting, and suffice to say there weren’t any reporters from The Washington Post or New York Times at the three subsequent nearly two-to-one victory parties. Pompeo was a rising star in the Republican ranks before his elevation to the CIA post once held by President George H.W. Bush, and we dare say you haven’t heard the last of him.
Estes, on the other hand, is a recent State Treasurer of Kansas, which is not an enviable job in these years of annual budget shortfalls, and that’s pretty much all you’d know about him from his well-funded but utterly inept campaign, except that he’s a reliably conservative and otherwise entirely forgettable Republican. He’s declined to articulate his conservatism at any of the public debates that various groups tried to schedule, so Estes is mainly defined by the godawful ads that constantly run on the local talk radio and evening news broadcasts. One features him interacting in soft focus with stereotypical workaday Kansans while a pastel Kansas sunset sinks in the background, with his belly as prominently displayed as any of them, another shows him standing waist-deep in a sickly green swamp full of alligators and promising to drain it, and most of them are attack ads showing his Democratic opponent photo-shopped next to a very scary image of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The ridiculous and much-ridiculed image of Estes standing waste-deep in that sickly green water is presumably meant to link him to his robocalling friend Trump and his famous campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” but Trump finished in a distant third in the Kansas caucus and was roundly booed when he appeared here during the event, and he only won the state’s electoral votes because he was running against Hillary Clinton, and almost no one around here believes that Trumpism is the solution to official corruption. Cruz was the big winner of the Kansas caucus, but he only drew 250 or so to the airport rally on Monday, and his speech focused on Supreme Court nominees that the House doesn’t get to vote on and the much-hated Obamacare bill that Trump failed to repeal in his first attempt largely because of conservative hard-liners such as himself, and he threw in some jokes so old the audience was chanting along with the punchlines, and he got a bigger response by noting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer than he did during the single mention of Donald Trump, although Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch got a deservedly nice hand. The behind-schedule rally also included speeches by a black Republican and two clean-cut College Republicans and the heads of the Kansas For Life and the Kansas Rifle Association, as well as a forgettable few minutes by Estes himself, but it had the same desultory feel of the rest of the campaign. Those endlessly televised photos of Minority Leader Pelosi are still pretty terrifying, but unlikely to scare Republicans off the couch and off to the polling place the way she did when was she was swinging the gavel as Speaker of the House during a Democratic administration, and there so little connection between Pelosi and the Democratic opponent that it had to be photoshopped. The Democratic opponent has a pretty Kansas-sized belly and photogenic Kansas sunsets in the background, too, and he’s brought in enough small donations from an energized Democratic party to make them pop up on pretty much every internet site a Kansan might visit.
The Democratic opponent is attorney James Thompson, and although he’s a political neophyte he’s not one of those sacrificial lambs that the party has usually offered up. His carefully-crafted ads tell a heartrending story of his impoverished and briefly homeless youth, how he found his way in the world by volunteering for wartime military service, parlayed that into an education and a law degree and a legal career that hasn’t yet yielded any scandals, and feature footage of his burly and hirsute Kansas self shooting a semi-automatic rifle on a rural range and not saying anything at all about the likes of Nancy Pelosi. With help from a a lot of small donors he’s been been able to widely air those ads even on the conservative talk radio shows, and you can’t go anywhere on the internet in this district without them popping up at some site or another. We even got a text message on our newfangled cellular phone that was intended for someone named “Latisha” to remind her to vote for Thompson at polling place over on the northeast side, and we’re old and white male and Republican and familiar with Wichita enough to jump to the conclusion that “Latisha” is a young and black and Democratic woman, which suggests Thompson’s got some sophisticated if hardly fool-proof get-out-the-vote techniques going for him. He’s also done the door-to-door and greasy spoon meet-and-greets and and shown up at all the debates to argue with the Libertarian candidate who’s bound to siphon a few votes away from the Republicans, staked out positions that won’t diminish the enthusiasm of the revved-up minority of local Democrats but don’t unnecessarily provoke any Republicans, and so spooked the state and national Republicans that they’re spending relatively big bucks and getting Trump and Pence and Kansas Caucus winner Cruz involved.
There’s also the fact that Estes is so inextricably linked with Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that it doesn’t require photoshopping, and Brownback is currently the 50th most popular governor in America according to all the polls, having enraged all the Democrats with his tax-and-budget-slushing agenda, as well as the half of the Republican party he waged civil war on to make it happen, and that even such stingy Republicans as ourselves are miffed he’s managed to discredit our tax-and-budget-cutting principles. You can also throw in the fact that this is one of those April elections where turnout is bound to be low, and at this point the Democratic minority of Kansas is hell-bent for some sort of victory and and clearly winning the yard-sign war even outside our anomalously liberal neighborhood, the Republican majority is either complacent or dispirited or blissfully unaware that we’re holding an election in April of all months, and we can see why the likes of The Washington Post and New York Times and Buzzfeed.com are taking a bet on this election. Should the Republican prevail in this reliably Republican district it will be another dog-bites-man story relegated to a couple of inches on page B-3, with the plane tickets and hotel and restaurant expenses of a trip to Wichita written off, but if the upset does occur it can be spun into a rebuke of Republicans in general and Trump in particular right in the deep-red heart of the flyover country that’s worth space on the front page, so they might as well roll the dice.
The guys who write The Washington Post’s all-knowing “Plum Line” column and don’t have to fly to places like Wichita say that “it would take an earthquake” for the Democrat to prevail here, and we’re inclined to agree with that assessment, and after a lifetime of Fourth Congressional District politics we would advise that’s still  the way to bet, but they might not know that for the past few year we’ve been having earthquakes around here.

— Bud Norman

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Seismic Shifts in Paris, Wichita, and Elsewhere

Last night’s earthquake was the longest and strongest we’ve felt so far. There were no reports of injuries or property damage or anything that would impress a longtime Los Angeleno, but it rattled our old house with an unprecedented violence for an eternal 30 seconds or so, and as we are still relatively new to this sort of thing it rattled our nerves something awful. Although our prairie town has responded mostly with nervous humor, one can’t help noticing a widespread worry that the next one might prove worse. Alas, earthquakes aren’t the only thing in this unstable world giving us such an unsettling feeling.
The head-chopping, crucifying, gang-raping nut cases calling themselves the Islamic State continue to rule an Indiana-sized caliphate in the heart of the Middle East and have recently downed a Russian airliner over Egypt, launched deadly bomb attacks against formidable Muslim rivals in Beirut and Ankara, killed more than 130 infidels in six coordinated attacks on Paris, and threatened to do worse yet somewhere in America. Our leaders assure us they’re on the job of protecting the homeland, but they also assure us that the Islamic State is in no way Islamic and that they’re a “jayvee team” that has been “contained” and will “eventually” be eliminated, and that there’s no need to worry that a small but deadly number of its operatives might be among the many thousands of refugees seeking asylum from a Middle East and a North Africa that are on fire and being rapidly abandoned by millions of refugees despite our unquestionably successful foreign policy, and that the majority of Americans who harbor doubts about it are racist and xenophobic and religiously bigoted and downright un-American. Such arguments are somehow not reassuring, however, no matter how much petulant and un-presidential sarcasm they come with.
We’ve been reading up on basic seismology lately, just as we started reading up on basic Islam during the Iranian hostage crisis and then delved even further into the subject after the 2001 terror attacks on America, and both studies have reminded us how very unstable the world has always been. So far as we can tell from the seismology stuff, the world is riddled with fault lines where two great tectonic forces are in constant tension against one another, and although a stasis usually prevails there are occasional eruptions that shift the world into new shapes and sometimes do great damage to what had been built on the old shape. Along some of the fault lines one side has such a significant advantage in strength that it can push the other one in ways that do devastating things to the people who happen to be living there, but Tokyo and San Francisco and Los Angeles and some other modern metropolises located in such inconvenient places have largely coped with it through modern science and engineering, while such unfortunate locales as Iran and Haiti have not, and despite our post-earthquake nerves we still hold out hope that the Sears & Roebuck Company’s famously well-built Craftsman homes of the 1920s will survive the relatively mild rumblings we’ve been having here on the south-central plains.
This recent spate of terrorism by the Islamic State and other “on the run” terror organizations, on the other hand, seems indicative of a more significant seismic shift. Even the most peace-loving and clock-building Muslims of the politically correct imagination will acknowledge that the Koran specifically describes a world divided between Dar al-Islam, the “House of Submission” where Muslims are the ruling majority, and Dar al-Harb, the “House of War” where people go about their days according to their own more westernized and individual notions, and even the most politically correction imagination is forced to concede that over the past 1,400 years or so this fault line has occasionally shifted in ways that did great damage to the people who happened to be living there. Our leaders assure us that it’s all a misunderstanding about that awful George W. bush and the still-pesky-after-5,000-years presence of Jews in the Middle East, but Islam had conquered a large of chunk of Christiandom by the time the first crusades were launched, Europe’s white folks were entirely unaware of the North American continent until shortly after the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim occupiers, the west’s survival wasn’t assured until hard-won victory at the Gates of Vienna in 1683, America was newly born and blameless when it launched its first war against an Islamic country that had been enslaving its sailors for the plainly stated reason that its religion demanded it, there was that British disaster in Khartoum when the natives went wildly religious, the Ottoman Empire’s role on the wrong side of the First World War, the Arab world’s similarly problematic involvement in a Second World War, all before there was an Israel or a cartoon drawing of The Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him! — or even a George W. Bush. France’s difficulties with Algiers and everybody’s problem with Pan-National Arabism during the Cold War, or the slaughter at the ’72 Olympics and the bombings at so many long-forgotten nightclubs and cafes and South American Jewish centers, or the countless internecine wars with countless millions of fatalities, that long-forgotten hostage crisis and fare more recently but just as easily forgotten Boston Marathon massacre, none of which seem to have anything to do with Israel or George W. Bush or even the Koch brothers, all suggest that it’s a fault line that persists no matter how genuinely outreaching our foreign policy might be. One side has Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and busy-body bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving cars and showing full facial nudity, while the other has very different ideas about such things, and it’s hard to how see they’ll ever comfortably settle up against one another no matter how soothingly blind to the facts of the matter our the leadership of our fissiparous side of the fault line might be.
So far as we can tell from all this seismology stuff the the seismologists still don’t have any reliably predictive understanding of when these fault lines wind up doing significant damage to the people living on them, and we expect it will take another couple of generations of historians to explain why things went so very wrong between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, so for now we’re left with that unsettling feeling. All our liberal Facebook friends are insisting the the local earthquakes have been been man-made by the lubricating waste-water disposal of the hydraulic fracturing method of petroleum extraction going on down in Oklahoma, which might even be true, although gasoline is currently selling for $1.88 cents at the nearest convenience store and we’d hate to be paying $4 for Iranian supplies and still suffering the occasional house-rattling earthquake, but at least there’s no denying the human agency in the Dar al-Islm versus Dar al-Harb fault line. To explain the sudden rift, we figure it’s a weakness on one side. The west still has the decided advantage in economic and scientific and military terms, but the strength of its belief in Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving cars and showing full facial nudity is invitingly weak to a more culturally confident enemy.
As nerve-rattling at the latest earthquake was, and in a state that’s also been tormented by the usual number of autumn tornadoes, we expect the next big event will be along that Dar al-Isam and Dar al-Harb fault line. The chances of mankind screwing that up seem far greater than it’s influence on nature. There’s also the fault line that’s looming on the public debt, too, and the looming realization that the $20 trillion of debt and zero interest rates that have kept America’s economy can’t continue forever, and that the rest of the west’s finances are similarly beset, and how that might affect all those poor refugees, and our nerves are rattled something awful. We hold out hope that our old Craftsman bungalow will preserve, and that the western world of Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving around showing full facial nudity will as well, but it’s hard to shake that nagging doubt. We don’t mean to go all Book of Revelation on you, but we can’t shake that unsettling feeling about this unstable world.

— Bud Norman

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Another earthquake rattled our old house today, and we still haven’t quite become accustomed to it. It only lasted a few seconds, and doesn’t seem to have done any noticeable damage around here, and residents of Los Angeles and Tokyo and Teheran and other earthquake-prone places probably wouldn’t have thought it worth mentioning, but during our first half-century here on the once-solid plains this sort of thing was unheard of, and even after the last few years of earthquakes becoming a rather regular occurrence it’s still a topic of local conversation.
Before the local old media could provide official confirmation that an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale had emanated toward us from the not far away small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, we were happily assured that weren’t going crazy by all the alarmed posts on our Facebook page. Folks of various degrees of familiarity spread across the entire city were describing the same unsettling phenomena we experienced, with most of them sounding even more rattled that we had been, and of course more than a few them were assuming that all the “fracking” going on down in Oklahoma was to blame.
We remain agnostic about the theory, as we have to admit that the earthquakes didn’t start around here until the “fracking” did, while at the same time we can’t help noticing that earthquakes are happening in all sorts of unlikely places where no “fracking” is going on and that “fracking” is going on in places that aren’t experiencing earthquakes. Most of the scientists who presumably know more than us about these sorts of things are admirably frank that they don’t know what’s going on either, and we rather like having the local convenience stores selling gasoline for $2.41 a gallon, and would be quite annoyed by paying $4 a gallon for Iranian oil and still experiencing an occasional earthquake if the theory is wrong, so we aren’t jumping to any conclusions. Still, we can understand the temptation to believe that there’s something we can do.
One of those Facebook friends from the local university was angrily demanding that these earthquakes be immediately stopped, just as his preferred presidential candidate vowed to stop the rise of the oceans, and if it were truly that simple we’d probably go along as well. Few things in life are so simple, however, and if more of them were we’d also be demanding an end to the tornados and hail storms and droughts and floods and miserably cold winter nights and swelteringly hot summer days that are the more traditional banes of Kansas life. The tornados and hail storms have lately been unusually and quite pleasantly uncommon around here, despite the dire predictions of our university-affiliated friend’s preferred presidential candidate, and last winter was no colder than usual and this summer has been only as hot as our lifetime’s average, with no recent floods but enough rain to bring an unmistakable end to the most recent drought, and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and the bumper wheat crops have helped with the state’s budgetary woes. A lifetime on the prairie has left us in awe of nature’s power and skeptical of mankind’s, so we can’t quell a certain suspicion that the former has more to do with these occasional rumblings of the earth than the latter, and we’ll patiently await the conclusions of those scientists who supposedly know more about this stuff than we do. In the meantime we’ll be checking the basement for cracks and perusing the news for about the more consequential earthquakes that seem to keep happing elsewhere, and hope that our brother in southern California doesn’t fall into the Pacific Ocean as has long been predicted, and continue to worry about the national debt and the nuclear bomb that the Iranians are building with their oil revenues and the rise of Donald Trump and the greater possibility of a Hillary Clinton and all of the other disasters that can only be blamed on mankind.

— Bud Norman

Bitterly Clinging to the Last Remaining Certainties

During the past week our usually quiet and placid block of this prairie city was rocked by an earthquake and a home invasion. Both are almost unheard of around here, and therefore unlikely to reoccur, but that’s only contributed to what was already an unsettling sense of uncertainty about the state of the world.
The earthquake was minor and momentary and caused no reported damage, but it was sufficient to rattle our rolling chair and then our nerves. It wasn’t so bad as the one that happened late last year, which was several seconds longer and so much stronger it shook the lamp fixtures, but it was all the more unnerving because it was happening a second time. We had lived more than a half century on the plains before experiencing an earthquake, and our childhood education included annually rehearsed instructions on what to do in case of tornadoes but no one had ever bothered to tell us how to respond an earthquake, so the idea that this might now be a regular event seemed yet another irksome thing to worry about. All the local lefties are blaming it on the hydraulic fracking for oil and natural gas that’s been going on down in Oklahoma, which we cannot disprove, but we are reassured to note that on that same day fracking was going on in places where there weren’t earthquakes and earthquakes were happening where there wasn’t any fracking, Some sort of end times scenario from the Book of Revelation seems at least as a likely, and if human agency isn’t involved we will be glad.
The home invasion that happened just across the street and a couple of doors down cannot be blamed on anything other than humans, which makes it all the more threatening. We first heard about it on the local talk radio station, with the mention of our neighborhood and our street and our block piquing our attention, and then got the rest of the details from a couple of alarmed neighbors. It seems the 60-year-old woman at the home was chatting with a 50-year-old woman friend when two men burst through the door wielding handguns, forced the women into a bathroom while ransacking the house for a small amount of cash and booty, then sped away into the night. A few years back the “Riverside Rapist” terrorized women in the neighborhood for several months until he was apprehended, and since then the occasional bike has been swiped from a back porch and the police have been infrequently dispatched to adjudicate the domestic disputes that happen in even the best neighborhoods, but otherwise the violent crime seemed anomalous. Our fashionably old-fashioned neighborhood isn’t so swank that a criminal would expect to find an especially risk-worthy reward here, and it’s the sort of well kept and seemingly solid area that the Broken Windows Theory predicts will deter crime, but it’s still not possible to believe that it can’t happen here.
The neighborhood is so fashionably old-fashioned that it’s become a liberal enclave in this otherwise conservative city, with a conspicuous number of hipsters and homosexual and other childless households, and the vast majority of yard signs that pop up every election season advertising that the homes probably aren’t protected by a firearm, and we suspect the crime is even more discomforting to our neighbors. The two we spoke with about the crime are both single women, who rightly suspect that such cowardly criminals are more likely to target a home without a male, but they still seemed embarrassed to divulge the pertinent information that the men who invaded their neighbor’s home were black. Another man who also happened to be black was recently spotted on another neighbor’s porch late at night, both women told us, and they apologetically advised that that we be lookout for similar activity. We noted that the recent spate of ideal weather had drawn large numbers of homeless people to the picturesque riverbanks that border the neighborhood, and that their number had lately spilled into the streets, and both women acknowledged the same concern with an apparent sense of guilt. Riverside doesn’t like to believe that race and homelessness can ever be predictive of criminal behavior, and being forced to do so upsets the certainties that people rely on.
As wised-up right-wing bastards we have no compunction about regarding the saggy-pantsed black men or the old men carrying their belongings in a shopping cart with some suspicion when they appear on our lily-white and middle-class street, and we have a white male’s privilege in knowing that knowing that invading our home carries a slightly higher and probably effective risk of anyone on the street invading our home, but there’s no shaking a sense that everything is a little less certain. Deadly diseases that we once thought were confined only to the most third world regions of Africa are now in a Dallas hospital. The people of Moore, Oklahoma, once thought that of all the many things they had to worry about beheadings by radical Islamists were not of concern. It was once unthinkable that the Internal Revenue Service would be used to harass an administration’s political enemies, or that people who millennia-old definition of marriage would be denied employment opportunities because of their opinions, or that our country would be at war while the politicians refused to call it that, or that a Republican Senator in Kansas would would find himself in danger of not being re-elected. Each days’s perusal of the Drudge Report reveals another story we never thought would have happened, and the comments sections at each story has responses we never thought we’d hear, and it’s getting harder to think of anything we can be certain about.
The door is locked and weapons are ready in the unlikely case of a home invasion, and we’re boned on what to do in the even more unlikely case of the earth shaking until the buildings collapse, and the rest of it we’ll just have to get used to. God and guns and our own abilities are still certainties in life, and we’ll bitterly cling to them.

— Bud Norman