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On the Wisdom of Leaving Bad Enough Alone

Up until he took that famous escalator ride down to the lobby of Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, we happily paid little attention to Donald Trump. Since then we’ve been forced to pay attention, though, and have noticed that he never backs down, always fights back, and never fails to leave bad enough alone. President Trump demonstrated those same qualities yet again on Tuesday, and as usual they didn’t serve him well.
The whole mess started last Friday when a few hundred armed-and-armored Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis and various other white supremacist types from around the country descended on the picturesque and impeccably liberal college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park and to more generally “Unite the Right.” Of course a larger crowd of counter-protestors turned out, there were predictably many street brawls between the more violent elements of both crowds, and it culminated with a muscle car driven by one of the white supremacists plowing into a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors and killing one while injuring 20 others. Several hours after the fatal incident the president addressed the nation, condemning the “hated, violence and bigotry, on many sides,” repeating “on many sides” for emphasis.
Except for the most loyal news outlets and their most steadfast callers and commenters, and the former Grand Wizard and the “alt-right” spokesman who co-hosted the rally and “tweeted” their thanks for the statement, the reviews were not kind. The entirety of the left, almost the entirety of the middle, and all the more respectable segments of the right were offended by the apparent moral equivalence between the KKK and neo-Nazis and the people who engaged in the fights they had clearly intended to provoke. Both the moderate and more traditionally conservative Republicans in Congress were more unequivocal in their denunciations of white supremacism, so were several administration officials, including the Vice President and that Attorney General the left considers a stone-cold racist, as well as the president’s favorite daughter, and by Monday Trump was reading a teleprompter-ed speech that actually named the KKK and neo-Nazism and racism in general while singling them out for specific presidential opprobrium.
The entirety of the left doubted that his heart was really in it, and most of the middle and those respectable quarters of the right were openly wondering what took him so long, but at least it gave his apologists in the administration and the most loyal news outlets something to work with. There were bound to deal with predictable some sidebar stories, which in this case involved a few Fortune 500 executives and organized labor honchos resigning from a presidential advisory board in protest of the president’s handling of the situation, but a careful moment of silence might have helped quiet the storm of negative coverage. Tuesday also brought news of the North Koreans doing their usual backing down from their usual bellicose rhetoric in the face’s of Trump’s more-bellicose-than-usual rhetoric, the latest leak about the “Russia” thing actually bolstered the president’s much-in-need-of-bolstering claim that he had nothing to do with it, and the stock markets were up and employment was still down and the weather was nice here in Wichita, but by now we’ve seen enough of the guy that we’re not the least bit surprised Trump chose to instead make the Charlottesville mess the top story for yet another day.
Instead, Trump started the day with a round of “tweets” insulting the business executives and labor leaders who had resigned from his manufacturing advisory panel.The first of them had been the head of the Merck pharmaceutical company, one of the few black CEOs to hold such a position, and Trump had already accused him “ripping off” his customers. The next two were the predictably white and male heads of a software giant and a prominent sports gear manufacturer, then the president of the labor-affiliated Alliance for American Manufacturing and the American-Federation of Labor-Congress of Interational Organizations. Trump tweeted back that there were plenty of good people willing to replace them and that they were “grandstanding,” apparently unaware of what a hoot that was to all but his most loyal supporters. In a later press conference he said the executives were leaving out of “embarrassment” about their companies’ reliance on foreign labor, which is also something of a hoot if you’ve been following the practices of his still-held businesses and those of his favorite daughter.
Facing the press, and its inevitable questions about that widely-panned first statement blaming the fatal violence that resulted from a KKK and neo-Nazi rally on “many sides, on many sides,” Trump again characteristically refused to back down, Monday’s teleprompter-ed back down notwithstanding. The Monday statement had included the presidential boilerplate about love and unity, but in the press conference he struck to the more unscripted hostility and divisiveness that has long characterized his interactions with the press. In between gratuitous insults of the press as an institution and certain reporters in particular, Trump defiantly defended his earlier moral equivalence between the KKK and the neo-Nazis and the people they wound up having street fights with, insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside those Confederate-and-Nazi-flag waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and worked in some recently rosy economic statistics.
There was enough truth to it to give Trump’s most loyal supporters something to work with, but they should resent that he’s once again made their job of persuading the rest of the country all the more difficult. The mostly placid and hippy-dippy counter-protesters did indeed include some of the violent “antifa” idiots who always show up itching for a fight, and indeed the left has all too often been reluctant and unequivocal in denunciations of their violence, but when they inevitably provoke the next round of unpleasantness their apologists will now be entitled to recall the last time around when the violent idiots on the right started it all and the right was slow and equivocal in its denunciations. We’re sympathetic to the arguments that the south is entitled to acknowledge its troubled history with a certain sort of ambiguous gratitude, and that there’s something unsettlingly Taliban-esque about the new one true faith wiping out any trace of any previous civilization, but we can’t imagine any sort of very fine people who might make these arguments while marching alongside torch-bearing and armed-and-armored Confederate-and-Nazi-flag-waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
Another thing we’ve noticed about Trump since his famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower is that he’s not much of a student of history, so of course he wondered aloud if the removal of a Gen. Robert E. Lee statue would ultimately lead to the removal of monuments to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who were similarly tainted by the sin of slave ownership. He touched on a true point well worth considering, that America’s all-too-human past should be judged by where it ultimately led and might yet lead rather than all the all-too-human stops it’s made along the way, but Tuesday was a particularly inopportune time in history and Robert E. Lee a particularly wrong example to make the case. Washington was the general who won the country’s independence and established a high example of leadership as its first president, Jefferson was a reluctant slave-holder who wrote the Declaration of Independence that President Abraham cited as his authority to quell the Confederate rebellion and abolish slavery, whereas Lee was the general who led a rebellion against the country that was explicitly explained by the rebels as a defense of chattel slavery, and despite Lee’s many martial and other virtues the aftermath of a deadly riot provoked by the KKK and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists is not a ripe moment to come to his defense.
During that typically disastrous press conference Trump also asserted that the matter of public monuments in such towns as Charlottesville are best left to the local citizenry, and we couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. He seems not to have noticed that the mayor and city council and the general consensus of the picturesque and impeccably liberal town of Charlottesville and its mayor and city council had decided not to have one of its most picturesque parks devoted to the memory of Lee, however, nor that the opposition were almost entirely a bunch of armed-and-armored Klansmen and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists from out of town.
Yes, Trump is quite right that the Washington and Jefferson memorials should forever stand, but when we eventually get around to that argument he won’t have helped the case.
Trump still isn’t backing down, continues to fight back, as ever refuses to leave bad enough alone, and so for now at least we have to admit that it’s worked out pretty well for him so far. He’s indisputably the President of the United States, as he often reminds everyone, and indisputably we are not.
We can’t help but wonder, though, how many fights this tough guy can start and still somehow come out on top. By now Trump is feuding not only with the entirety of the left and most of the middle and the more respectable quarters of the right, along with much of his own administration, but also the Boy Scouts of America and several of top law enforcement officials in America’s most populous cities and a loud segment of the Fortune 500 as well as all the late-night comics, so we’re not surprised the latest poll has Trump at a 34 percent approval rating. Other and older polls have him in the low 40s, but even the most favorable have a majority expressing disapproval, and we doubt that Trump’s never-back-down and always-fight insticts will serve him well. He’ll need those Fortune 500 executives to get his tax agenda passed, and could have used some help from the organized labor honchos and the votes of their hard-hat rank-and file on his infrastructure plans and immigration policies, and we can’t see any compensating votes he’s picked up in the last few days.
Better Trump had stuck to the teleprompter-ed script and left bad enough alone.

— Bud Norman

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The Future of Bill Clinton’s Past

When we finally achieve our goal of a benign dictatorship, one of our first edicts will make required reading of the great historian C. Vann Woodward’s essay on “The Future of the Past,” which usefully explains how the past is always changing to meet the political needs of the present. He wrote mostly how the isolationists will seize on one explanation for the fall of Rome while the internationalists will prefer another, with the environmentalists preferring something about lead vases the social conservatives noting all those orgies and such, and how various ethnic groups will have differing opinions on the discovery of America, but we’re sure he would have also mentioned the recent revisions of the history of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
As we lived through it the era seemed the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow a phrase, with the Reagan boom echoing with audio enhancement by some financial legerdemain, and the right-wing Congress that got elected half-way through his first term forcing a more or less balanced budget and further financial deregulations and serious welfare reform and a few tough-on-crime measures and some big trade deals as well, but there were also all the tawdry sex scandals and a worrisome sense that some of those sneaky policies about affordable housing and such would sooner or later explode the economy. The first draft of history called it a rousing success, though, and for some time the consensus was that he’d been not half-bad, and at least had spared the country the “Hand-Maiden’s Tale” theocracy that surely would have resulted from another Republican.
This reading of history proved useful until recently, when Clinton’s long-suffering wife, former Senator and Secretary of State as well as First Lady Hillary Clinton, found herself in a presidential race with self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is more righteously liberal. Now no less a liberal pundit as Thomas Franks is lamenting “Bill Clinton’s odious presidency” in his telling of “the real history of the ’90s,” and it’s something to see. The author of the national best-selling book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” which explained that Kansans tend to vote Republican because they’re too crazed by Christianity to embrace the truth faith of socialism, and which was the worst book we ever read on Kansas politics, has a new title out that explains how Clinton’s tenure was a disaster for a liberals. He grudgingly concedes that Clinton achieved modest increases in the minimum wage and top tax tax brackets, and made a failed attempt at health care reform, but notes that the rest of what he’s remembered for was mostly the doing of the hated House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow right-wingers and that even the economic good times were largely a matter of accounting tricks and Enron-schemes and dot-com bubbles.
As much as we’re delighted to hear such a left-winger as Franks at long last acknowledge these points, it is of course in service of the liberal agenda. Those tawdry sex scandals are now conceded, but that’s only because the religious right is now reduced to fighting for the right not to participate or same-sex weddings and saving nuns the cost of contraceptive coverage, and the woman who defended her husband’s serial abuses is not out on the campaign trail saying that any woman who alleges a sexual assault should be believed. Those tough-on-crime measures saved thousands of black lives, but now there’s a Black Lives Matter movement that that is more concerned about the mass incarceration of murderers of black men and women. Don’t mention trade deals on a Democratic campaign trail, either, or even a Republican one, because those are now out of fashion, no matter what economic benefits they’ve brought. That welfare reform bill that proved so popular and effective prior to its repeal-by-executive-action under President Barack Obama is now described as “the repeal of welfare,” and the distaff Clinton is to be tarred with that as well. There’s no mention of the awful affordable housing policies that drove a housing bubble whose popping popped the entire economy, which of course is all blamed on those de-regulations, or how the lack of concern with Middle Eastern terrorism might have manifested itself a few months into Clinton’s successor’s first term, so it’s not an altogether satisfying revisionism.
Still, we’re pleased to see some long overdue Clinton-bashing going on over on the left. It’s only fair, what with the current Republican front-runner is telling dubious tales about Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s pig-blood soaked bullets and rehashing pure hogwash about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting along and spouting the “Bush lied, people died” mantra and embracing the kind of protectionism and Wall Street-bashing that even Bill Clinton was too smart to embrace. Perhaps some future date will revise that ridiculous history, if it serves someone’s political needs.

— Bud Norman

The Progressives’ Assault on Progressivism

The latest outbreak of the nationwide academic craziness epidemic is occurring at prestigious Princeton University, and seems to mainly be about expunging the institution’s past association with President Woodrow Wilson, so we have very mixed feelings about the matter. As stuffy old prairie Republican autodidacts we have no patience for the campus hijinks of pampered Ivy Leaguers, and any attempts to expunge the past are an affront to our Burkean sensibilities, but of course we can’t resist some satisfaction in seeing Wilson’s reputation at long last under assault from the left.
Way back in the days of our public education Wilson was still regarded by our approved textbooks’ opinion as the exemplar of progressivism. There was some embarrassed acknowledgement that he led the country into World War I, and that his populist rival William Jennings Bryan had quit his post as Secretary of State in protest of the still-debated decision, and that certain provisions of the Constitution were effectively repealed by the Sedition Act for the duration of the war, but otherwise Wilson always seemed to come in a close second to President Franklin Roosevelt as one of the Democratic Party’s great presidents. Back then Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were duly acknowledged as Republican rivals, even if Lincoln’s unabashed capitalism and constitutionalism were always unmentioned while T.R.’s more free-wheeling progressivism was always stressed, but Wilson was very much a member of that same presidential pantheon. Wilson was acknowledged as the father of a newfound philosophy that would bring war-time coordination of industrial efficiencies to peacetime economies through the latest scientific power over human nature, and bring eternal peace through a League of Nations if only the Treaty of Versailles weren’t too harsh on those poor Germans and Ottomans, and of course you know he was once President of prestigious Princeton University, in contrast to that hayseed prairie populist Bryan who didn’t even go to college and lost three elections for the Democrats and wound up as the anti-evolutionist villain in “Inherit the Wind.”.
Even at that young age, and with the usual youthful yearning for heroes and all the addling effects of a public school education, it all seemed rather suspicious. Being seditious sorts we read beyond the approved textbooks to learn that Wilson’s war-time restrictions on the Constitution were seemingly intended to last well into peace-time, that the post-war economy never really recovered until the the hated Coolidge’s “return to normalcy,” that the whole government-economy idea never has worked out, and that the League of Nations didn’t prevent a World War II, and probably not because the Treaty of Versailles was too mean to the Germans. We were also unsurprised to learn that Wilson was an unapologetic racist who praised the Ku Klux Klan and re-segregrated the federal government after policies that had been imposed by Republicans from Roosevelt all the way back to such supposed Republican retrogrades as Ulysses S Grant. By that point we were even cynical of that Princeton pedigree, which still loomed large in the Wilson myth.
All of which further mixes our feelings regarding the current controversy at Princeton University. The students demanding his name be banished from the university’s history don’t seem concerned with all those dead doughboys of World War I, who were no doubt war-monger Republicans, and they aren’t the least offended by his disregard of the right of free expression, which is currently all the rage on America’s campuses, and certainly not by his cocksureness that such Ivy League educated gentlemen as himself could more efficiently run an economy than a society of free men and women, which is taken as a given, but rather all that racism. So far as we can tell all the World War I stuff that so troubled our textbook-writers is long forgotten, but that infamous White House screening of “A Birth of Nation” and the re-segregation of the federal government and all the rest of the old-school stone-cold racist stuff can no longer be overlooked. Our reading of the history that most of the current Princetonians have probably never read suggests that America’s game-changing entry into World War I was about the only saving grave of Wilson’s presidency, given the Lusitania and all the other sunken American ships and the German campaign of sabotage on American soil and intercepted Zimmerman memo that outlined a plot by Germany to revanche the southwest quadrant of the United States to Mexico and the possibility of longtime allies France and England falling to a world order dictated by Prussian militarism, and that even Wilson’s idealistic and utterly naive post-war diplomatic blunders do not deny him some credit for sending in those doughboys.
Even the most Orwellian efforts cannot change the fact that Wilson was once the President of Princeton University, too, and that it was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career. A presidential trivia question that always stumps our liberal friends is what two United States Presidents previously served as presidents of Ivy League universities, and they’re never able to recall that one was Dwight Eisenhower, who briefly served as president of Columbia University after a more noteworthy career in the military and before a more noteworthy two terms as President of the United States, they all know that Woodrow Wilson was once President of Princeton University, although they never remember he also served as Governor of New Jersey. That famous connection once added a certain sheen to Wilson’s reputation, and in turn his formerly textbook-approved standing once added to Princeton’s prestige, so we wonder if the protesters demanding his repudiation understand how their actions might diminish the economic value of the Princeton degrees they’ll probably wind up with. The whole effort reminds us of the ancient and recent Islamist conquerers who immediately set about destroying all the artifacts of the civilizations that preceded them, or the Khmer Rouge that proclaimed a Day One of history after its slaughter, or the villains in every dystopian novel or movie who set out to re-write the past and all its good examples and dire warnings. or even those more benign and seemingly well-intention efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the top of the Gen. Robert E. Lee muscle car in the old “Dukes of Hazard” television show, although in one of these cases was anyone so bold as to throw away the prestige of an Ivy League degree.
Although we revile the anti-constitutional authoritarianism and economic control and credentialed elitism and outright racism of Woodrow Wilson, we can’t help thinking he’d be pleased with his legacy in both international affairs and academia. His greatest hope of the post-war era was that American subordination to some sort of international tribunal would yield international peace, an an ephemera still chased after by his bi-racial and supposedly post-racial successor, and during his tenure as President of Princeton his pedagogical philosophy was that “The purpose of a university should be to make a man as unlike his father as possible.” All of Wilson’s dreams seem to have to been finally achieved, and nobody on either the left or right seems at all happy about it. Our feelings, certainly, are mixed.

— Bud Norman

The Future of History

God once offered to spare the city of Sodom from destruction if He could find but fifty righteous men there, a figure that Lot shrewdly but to no avail negotiated down to ten, so there’s hope yet that modern America academia might also avoid His wrath. A full 55 well-credentialed scholars have signed a letter protesting the College Board’s cockamamie Advance Placement U.S. History framework, and even such less merciful sorts as ourselves can hope they’ll redeem all the rest of their profession.
There’s already a grassroots resistance to the framework, which dictates what will be on one of the two most important college admission tests and the most common advance placement examinations, and thereby effectively dictates what will be taught about American history to America’s most promising high school students, and dictates that it will be the anti-American Howard Zinn version that already predominates in public education, while a few of the Republican presidential contenders are already making an issue of the similar Common Core curriculum that the same dictators are hoping to impose on America’s schools, but it’s good to have some allies with elite academic resumes on board. Grassroots groups of concerned moms and dads and Republican presidential candidates are easily caricatured as jingoist know-nothing yahoos trying to “organize an educational system around what can’t be taught to children,” just like those Bible-thumping hillbillies in the Scopes Monkey Trial, so we’re happy to be able to appeal to the sorts of authority that usually are immune to such libel. It’s still 33 less than the “Gang of 88” faculty members at Duke University who signed on to that Ox-Bow incident involving the university’s lacrosse team, but it’s a start.
Among the signatories on that letter of protest from the National Association of Scholars are Charles Kessler of Claremont McKenna College, Jean Yarbrough of Bowdoin College, Ronald Radish of the City University of New York, Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard University, and Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a particular favorite of ours, along a couple of National Endowment for the Arts chairpersons and others familiar to right-wing nut-cases such as ourselves as the last bastion of common sense in American academia. There are also the likes of historian Robert Merry, a fierce critic of Bush-era foreign policy, the University of Oklahoma’s Wilfred McCLay, known for questioning the traditional individualist ethos of American society, and Harvey Mansfield, whose distinguished career has been accommodating enough to remain a fixture of Harvard’s Faculty since 1962, along with many others who can’t easily be accused of being know-nothing jingoist rubes. They’re an infinitesimal slice of academia, to be sure, but collectively they come out far more diverse and markedly superior to the academic average, and it can only help in the coming fight.
Someone or another –probably Winston Churchill or one of those smart English fellows — once famously remarked that academic disputes are so fiercely fought because they are so very petty, but the fight those 55 academics have joined is of the greatest consequence even here in the real world. The framework that the College Board hopes to dictate to America’s schools is a history devoid of heroes, any mitigating explanations for America’s actions over its long history, or any acknowledgement that this desultory tale has somehow culminated in the richest and freest and most powerful nation in that broader world history the College Board’s curricula purports to teach. Our own high school education culminated way back in the mid-to-late’-7s, but even then we were intellectually marinated in the academic skepticism of that post-Vietnam era. the inevitable result has been an American president who likens America’s exceptionality to that of Greece or Britain and who later insists that we are only exceptional to the degree that we comply with international restraints, and a world from China to Russia to the Middle East that suddenly realized that a post-American age has at long last dawned, and a moribund economy that no longer entices that risk-taking entrepreneur who is now told he didn’t actually build his life’s work.
Reversing course will require a generation or two of differently educated men and women, especially the most promising high-schoolers among them, and we’re grateful that a grassroots movement and a few Republican candidates and an infinitesimal slice of academia are among those manning the barricades.

— Bud Norman

A Terrorist’s Reading List

We’re the snoopy sorts who will always seize the opportunity of a party to look over the nearest bookshelf, assuming there is one, and glean whatever insights it offers into the host’s mind. The fine folks at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence apparently share the same fascination with other people’s reading habits, and have helpfully compiled a list of the books that our brave fighting men seized during their raid on the home of the late Osama bin-Laden.
It’s a fascinating collection, although much of it is surprisingly familiar to anyone who has lately been invited to the home of an up-to-date American liberal. The list includes “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies” and “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” by Noam Chomsky, the esteemed linguist and far-left political analyst, “The Best Democracy that Money Can Buy” by far-left journalist Greg Palast, “Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower” and “Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II” by far-left historian William Blum, as well as several other similarly fashionable far-left titles. We couldn’t find Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” or anything by Maya Angelou or the “magical realists” of South America on the list, but otherwise bin-Laden seemed to share the same literary tastes as President Barack Obama or any other impeccable liberal. We’ve long marveled at the way pro-homosexual, pro-abortion, anti-God leftists have found so much common ground with Islamists who execute homosexuals and subjugate women in an attempt to impose totalitarian theocratic control, but their overlapping reading lists suggest they at least share the same dissatisfaction with western civilization.
When asked about his terrorist reader, Palast told Politico that he was embarrassed only because “It’s clear that Osama was more well-read than our president (though, in George W. Bush’s defense, there’s much to be learned from ‘My Pet Goat.’)” Never mind that Bush’s staff and the press corps that covered his presidency were astounded by his voracious reading habits, or that he routinely read more substantial fare than Palast will ever produce, the liberal urge to feel intellectually superior to that much-ridiculed president is apparently all the more urgent when the topic at hand is a mass-murdering terrorist such as bin-Laden. Palast also complained that investigative reporting is “a profession banned in the U.S.A. after September 11, 2001 — when journalists were replaced by Brian Williams and others wearing his hairdo,” but we recall plenty of journalistic investigations into Bush’s alleged perfidy that lasted a full seven years after that date, and it wasn’t until the Obama administration that the Department of Justice pressed criminal conspiracy charges against a reporter and the likes of Sharyl Atkisson found themselves stymied in their investigations at such media outlets as CBS News and the Brian Williamses and similarly coiffed anchors everywhere stopped questioning authority. We can sympathize with Palast’s disappointment that Bush never bought his books, since as far as we know Bush never bought one of ours, but it hardly seems a sufficient reason to prefer bin-Laden, even if the hit squad had found an old copy of “The Things That Are Caesar’s” in his house.
Evil mass-murdering terrorist that he was, we have to give bin-Laden credit for delving into a wider range of books than most of our left-wing friends. He also had such weightier fare as “The Oxford History of Modern War” by Charles Townsend, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy, and “The U.S. and Vietnam 1787-1941” by Robert Hopkins Miller, which goes back at least 175 years further than seems necessary. A practical man, bin-Laden also had such drier tomes as “Guerrilla Air Defense: Antiaircraft Weapons and Techniques for Guerrilla Forces” by James Crabtree, “Handbook of International Law” by Anthony Aust, and “Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions” by Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson. We’ve not read any of these books, and therefor cannot comment on their merits, but we are eagerly awaiting the movies. “A Brief Guide to Understanding Islam” by I.A. Ibrahim was also found on bin-Laden’s bookshelf, so we also have to credit him with more interest than the usual left-winger in that subject.
Like so many of the left-wingers we know, bin-Laden also had an avid interest in conspiracy theories, as shown by his ownership of such books as “Black Box Voting, Ballot Tampering in the 20th Century” by Bev Harris, “Bloodlines of the Illuminati” by Fritz Springmeier, and “Conspirators’ Hierarchy: The Committee of 300” by John Coleman, and “Secrets of the Federal Reserve” by Eustace Mullins. We’re awaiting the movies on these books, too, but on the basis of the titles alone we will assume they’re the sort of thing that only a left-winger or someone off the Arab Street would take seriously. More intriguing is bin-Laden’s interest in the various “truther” conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack, as evidenced by such books as “New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11” by David Griffin, and we’d like think it irked hit that some people were trying to deny him credit.
Most striking, though, is the lack of anything entertaining on bin-Laden’s shelf. When we’re inevitably forced to go into hiding from the American government we intend to stockpile plenty of P.G. Wodehouse’s elegant comedies and Scott Phillips’ lurid thrillers and something of a more titillating nature as well, along with the usual how-to books and canned food and ammunition, and it makes us think all the less of bin-Laden that he couldn’t appreciate such fine writing. It’s nice to think that his final days were spent holed up in some desolate hiding place in a third-world hellhole without anything to fun to read, though, and we hope that if he had the internet he never stopped by here.

— Bud Norman

Don’t Know Much About History

The most unsurprising news of the day was a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that America’s schools are doing a poor job of teaching history and civics. They’ve quantified the problem with some truly appalling numbers on the students who are even considered proficient in these subjects by today’s lax standards, and we thank them for the service, but they’re not telling us anything we haven’t already noticed from our daily encounters with our fellow citizens.
Most Americans rarely talk about the issues of the day, in our experience, but when the talk does stray beyond sports and gossip and other reality shows we are routinely struck by how very impassioned the opinions are, how little information seems to be backing them up, and how quickly even the most adamantly opinionated will retreat from the basic sorts of questions that a well-educated citizen would ask before reaching even tentative conclusions. Here in Kansas you’ll a lot of grousing about the state budget these days, for instance, but we’ve yet to hear any of it from someone who can make a remotely close guess about how much is being spent or where it’s going or how it compares to other states, and they seem strangely proud of their ignorance about the economic arguments advanced by their opponents, or about economics at all. When the conversation occasionally veers into some historical perspective, we are invariably flabbergasted to find how very little people about even the recent past, and how much of what they think they know is provably wrong.
We’d like to attribute this to our unfortunate luck in our conversational encounters, but we find the same lack of information understanding throughout the broader public debate. Journalists report that a massive influx of unskilled labor won’t depress wages for unskilled laborers, as if the law of supply and demand has somehow been repealed, the president can’t reproach Christians for the Crusades, as if they hadn’t been preceded by hundreds of years of steadily enriching Islamic imperialism, academics ascribe to the conventional wisdom that the financial crisis of ’08 was caused by deregulation and the financial industry’s greed, as if regulations hadn’t required banks to make risky loans that an enlightened self-interest would have otherwise declined, and almost everyone seems willing to ascribe the most dastardly motives for anyone who disagrees with those conclusions they’ve reached without any information. It’s a sorry state of discourse in America, which likely has much to do with the sorry state of affairs.
The narcissism of the the age is probably partly responsible, as so many of the people we talk seem to have acquired such healthy self-esteem from their public schooling that they have little use for anything that happened before their blessed arrival or might happen after their tragic departure, but we mostly blame the schools. According to a woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis “the curriculum rarely engages students,” which seems obvious, but she cites a study by the University of Central Florida which found “74 percent of middle school students report that they dislike social studies class due to the emphasis on reading from the textbook, rote-memorization, and note-taking,” which is not so convincing. We wouldn’t expect a bunch of ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school students to understand that reading from textbooks and committing essential facts to memory and taking notes are all unavoidable tasks when acquiring an education, although we had hoped that people working for places with highfalutin names like the National Center for Policy Analysis and the University of Central Florida would know that, but we can hardly blame the youngsters for thinking that what’s in their textbooks and the facts they’re expected to memorize and the notes they taking down from the current generation of civics and history teachers are not worth the effort.
So far as we can glean from the tirades about social justice that we overhear in the local hipster dives and the jokes on the Daily Show and the lines on the president’s teleprompter, what history is being taught in the schools these days is a relentlessly depressing tale of oppression and exploitation and environmental rapine by some nebulous white capitalist Christian patriarchal power structure. We’re all for a warts-and-all telling of America’s and western civilization’s history, but this warts-only approach is conspicuously lacking in the sort of heroism that made us want to read on and remember the main points and take notes, and even an ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school student will intuitively understand that it does little to explain the world of opportunities that they’ll eventually inhabit, and even those inclined to believe in their eternal status as victims of cruel world they never made will note that this version of history offers them no viable solutions. The civics classes similarly dispiriting, and so lacking in the vigorous competition of our society’s great ideas that those who graduate on to college are given “trigger warnings” about the potentially upsetting notions that once fueled the great advances of America and the West and offered “safe spaces” full of stuffed dolls and puppy videos to escape from the trauma of confronting a truly diverse and complex world.
The woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis recommends getting more students involved in competitive debate, and at an earlier age, and that helpful suggestion is admirably backed by the group’s financial support for such programs, but even that once-stubborn redoubt of genuinely rigorous education has lately succumbed to all that race-class-gender nonsense. Our only advice is to get more children into private schools like the one a young friend of ours attends, where they teach hard math, and classical history with the warts as well as the parts about freedom and the rule of law and the accumulation of knowledge, and how to think through a problem by beginning with all the relevant knowable information, and plenty of reading from textbooks and memorizing key facts and taking notes and all the rest of those unavoidable tasks of acquiring an education. They’re telling an engaging story at that school, and our young friend seems to think it’s well worth the effort to learn it, and we can’t see why that sort of thing wouldn’t work at any other school.

— Bud Norman

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 206th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, one those of providential events in America history, and it should be noted. The nation once celebrated the date with a national holiday, but the Great Emancipator was eventually downgraded to sharing a day with George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with the imprecise name of Presidents’ Day suggesting they might also share the honor with some of the lesser figures who have occupied the office, and the lack of attention paid is not only a show of national ingratitude but also indicative a dangerous lack of historical perspective.
Lincoln got some favorable publicity a couple of years ago when Steven Spielberg released a sympathetic bio-pic, which received mostly favorable reviews from conservative critics despite a screenplay by the liberal writer Tony Kushner, and a semi-scholarly history of his administration became a best-seller back when Barack Obama was first running for office and being touted as the new and improved version of Lincoln, but even all the hype attendant to a Spielberg release or an Obama campaign cannot elevate Lincoln to his deserved prominence. A friend swore to us that he had spoken with some young people at the local university about the Lincoln movie when it came out and was told that they liked most of us but were unpleasantly surprised at the end when the titular character was assassinated. Despite the daily reminders of his face on five dollar bills and pennies, and despite his name on cars and tunnels and logs and countless road signs, we suspect that by now most Americans are only slightly more familiar with the story of Lincoln.
There was another recent movie about Lincoln as a zombie hunter, but that probably didn’t fill in many gaps in the public knowledge, and the schools don’t seem to be doing much better. We suspect they’re probably too busy telling their empty-headed charges about Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Christine Jorgensen, and similarly significant historical figures who are more useful to the narrative of an America exceptional only for its racism and sexism and homophobia muddling along toward the liberal future only because of protest movements and higher taxes and bureaucratic control. To the extent that Lincoln is taught, the lessons are likely to come from Richard Hofstadter’s widely published essay “Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” which found the Emancipation Proclamation insignificant and preferred to focus on the speeches Lincoln made to deal with the racist realities he confronted in mid-19th Century America and how they fell short of the standards of late-20th Century liberalism. Such Lincoln-bashing has become something of an academic cottage industry, and is also common in the entertainment industry. When not axing zombies Lincoln can also be found in a trendy art-house flick from a few years back called “Confederate States of America,” which imagines an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and takes the boringly uncontroversial view that things would have gone badly, but with an unmistakable sense of moral superiority it portrays Lincoln, whose visionary leadership was singularly responsible for preventing that historical calamity, as a racist, a rube, a tyrant, and a coward. To our dismay, we have found this is a fashionable opinion.
One must somehow dismiss Lincoln, of course, to sustain that broader narrative about America being unexceptional except in its sinfulness. That narrative must be sustained, of course, to justify America’s retreat from the world and its apologetic unwillingness to bring any of its values to bear on the rest of the world. When the current occupant of the White House tells a prayer breakfast gathering that America should not “get on a high horse” when Islamist terrorists behead or crucify or burn alive their captives because a Christian America once had slavery, it is inconvenient to recall the far more eloquent and explicitly theological words that Lincoln used in his Second Inaugural address to explain a bloody war that ultimately abolished slavery. Because Lincoln cannot be denied credit for preserving the Union of these States, those who decry that outcome because it has failed to meet early 21st Century standards of liberalism must denigrate the accomplishment.
None of these critics are nearly so wise as Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet, nor did they have the experience of the full horror of Lincoln’s war that Whitman endured as an ambulance driver in the bloodiest battles of that conflict, and neither do they have Whitman’s true vision of America’s once and perhaps future greatness. We’ll let Walt have the final words on this anniversary of Lincoln’s birth:
“This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”

— Bud Norman

Bush Reconsidered

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will open today with much fanfare, including the presence of every living president, and it seems to coincide with a strange new respect for the much-maligned leader.
All the late night talk shows will make the predictable jokes about coloring books, and the still-seething critics will make their snarky comments across the internet, but red-hot Bush-hatred now seems as embarrassingly out of date as a five-year-old pop hit or commercial catch phrase. The coverage of the library opening has thus far been polite and occasionally even complimentary, with former Associated Press honcho Ron Fournier going so far as to write in The National Journal that Bush was a nice enough guy to hang out with, and even the usual critics in the mainstream media have been far more restrained in their histrionics than when Bush was in office. Blaming Bush for everything remains a favorite policy of the current administration, but they rarely mention the name these days, and even Obama himself felt obliged to accept an invitation to the big opening.
When Obama and Bush meet today they will have about the same standing in recent opinion polls, which will not provide either of them with much to brag about. The rough parity in the polls represents a dramatic turn of fortune for both men, though, as Obama came into office as a sort of messiah just as Bush exited as history’s greatest villain. Elite opinion still favors Obama, and still holds some sway over the great unwashed masses, so it’s all the more remarkable that public opinion is now about evenly split.
One explanation is that all presidents become more popular over time, but Bill Clinton was one of several exceptions to this rule. Another theory grudgingly concedes that Bush has done an exemplary job of leading a dignified private life and not meddling in public affairs in his retirement, which could also explain Bill Clinton’s declining poll numbers. Our pet theory is that the relentless demonization in both the news and entertainment gradually tapered off after Bush’s departure, some hard realities were exposed by the light of Obama’s glow, and the country moved on from Bush hatred.
We were supposed to hate Bush because of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay and the toppling of Middle Eastern dictatorships and drone strikes and of course those half-trillion dollar deficits, which Obama denounced as “irresponsible” and “unpatriotic,” but it’s hard to hold those grudges while maintaining a proper respect for the successive administration. The Iraq War will also remain controversial, although the “blood for oil” shtick and many other arguments against it have been definitely disproved and the notion that everything would be hunky-dory if only Saddam Hussein was still in power is also losing luster. There’s still the economic collapse of ’08 to hang on to, but much of the public has gotten word that that happened not as a result of mythical de-regulation but rather a sub-prime mortgage boondoggle that Bush tried to avert, and the recovery that has since been affected has not been impressive.
The perspective on the Bush presidency will continue to change with the events of time, and with comparison to subsequent presidencies, then yet get another look if another Bush seeks the presidency. We have our criticisms of Bush as well as our praises, but we expect them to change and over time and we hope he enjoys his big event today.

— Bud Norman