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A Not So Fond Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his farewell address on Tuesday night, so at least we’ve got that going for us.
President-elect Donald Trump once again grabbed all the attention, of course, with his indignantly “tweeted” denial of some juicy new allegations that were reportedly included in the intelligence community’s much-debated reports to Congress and other officials concerning Russia’s alleged meddling in the past election. A maybe true and maybe not true dossier of allegations was compiled by a reportedly respected ex-British intelligence official, and is now splashed all over the internet, and it mentions Russian prostitutes and some very kinky sex acts, as well as several presumably more hygienic but no less newsworthy contacts that Trump’s business and campaign officials had with Russian officials, and it’s undeniably more irresistible conversation fodder than another one of Obama’s orations.
All that cloak and dagger and kinky sex stuff will play out over the next several days or weeks or months, though, if not much longer than that, and in the meantime we feel obliged to take note of Obama’s speech.
For the past nine years or so we’ve been hearing about what a wonderfully eloquent orator Obama is, but we were once again unimpressed. The language is well-crafted enough by comparison to his successor’s schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but that’s damning by faint praise, and up against an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King or any other first rate rhetorician it’s not at all memorable. Even his most awe-struck admirers are hard-pressed to remember any line he ever uttered quite so iconic as Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address coinage of “military-industrial complex” or John Kennedy’s “bear any burden” shtick or even George W. Bush’s pithy “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and what they do come up with about “no red states or blues states” and “hope and change” and “yes we can” and that one about the sea levels falling now sounds faintly ridiculous after eight long years of his tiresome speeches.
Which left poor Obama, just 10 short days away from the seemingly inevitable inauguration of Trump, with the difficult job of making the case that all that hope had not been misplaced. He had a friendly audience in his adopted hometown of Chicago, all revved up by a soulful rendition of the the National Anthem, and he bounded on the stage with a rock star’s roar and a rock star’s rote greeting to a certain local neighborhood and a whole of thank you thank you very much, followed by some lame self-deprecating humor about being a lame duck, then he started waxing eloquent. He did so well enough that his still-ardent admirers who still feel that hope were probably tugging at their eyes, but any eyes that have been keeping a more unblinking watch on the past eight years were rolling.
There was some nostalgic talk about his young and idealistic days as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and how he learned that “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” That same south side of Chicago is presently so disorganized that it has a murder rate that would shock the denizens of your average third world hellhole, but so far the survivors haven’t gotten involved and engaged and demand change from Obama’s associates at City Hall, and somehow we got the sense that he wasn’t urging them to start now.
He followed that up with some rousing stuff about the wisdom of the founding fathers and their belief that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At any rate it would have been rousing if he hadn’t spent the past eight years giving speeches about the country’s racist and sexist and classist origins, and steadfastly defending abortion rights, and restricting the citizens’ liberty in numerous ways, and generally making life miserable for anyone who was just trying to live it. There was some more rousing-for-the-faithful stuff about onward and upward to the more perfect union, along with a list of liberal goals that have been achieved over the years.
Even Obama had to admit that “Yes, our progress has been uneven,” and sometimes even “contentious,” and there was no talk about ocean levels falling or a new era of hope and change or any of the other stuff so many people were swooning for starting back about nine years ago. Instead, Obama tried to argue that things had worked out even better than promised. He touted the end of a Great Recession and “reboot” of America’s automotive industry and eight straight years of job growth, the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and new relations with Cuba and of course the oft-cited death of Osama Bin Laden, along with a health care plan that insured another 20 million Americans, and boasted that “If I had told you that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
Even if that were all true it’s still setting the sights a little bit lower than during the messianic ’08 campaign, as far as we’re concerned, but without looking anything up and despite the florid language we were ready to dispute almost all of it. The Great Recession of ’08 did indeed come to an end, but recessions have always come to an end and usually with more robust employment gains than during the past below post-World War II averages, and who’s to say that whoever bought out General Motors would haven’t hired more workers? Iran’s nuclear weapons program is still on schedule and has a few billion dollar extra in its coffers thanks to Obama’s largesse, our new relations with Cuba are far too chummy with a communist regime for our tastes, and Obama saying he succeeded in killing Bin Laden where Bush had failed is like Nixon claiming credit for getting to the moon where Johnson and Kennedy had failed. That 20 million insured figure is by almost all other accounts vastly overstated, and includes a lot of people stuck on Medicaid and forced by buy overpriced insurance they don’t need, and it’s clearly one reason job growth has been so sluggish, and so many more people are stuck paying exorbitant rate increases and swelling budget deficits to pay for it that the guy who promised to repeal Obama’s signature piece of legislation wound up winning.
At that point Obama had to chide the crowd for booing the guy who did wind up winning, and we’ll give him credit for doing that, and he pledged a peaceful transfer of power and gave some props to George W. Bush for doing him the same solid. That was followed by a lot of talk exhorting Democrats to continuing be Democrats, and racism and climate change being very bad, and peace being better than war, along with some bragging about the oil boom he did everything he could to thwart, and a whole lot of blather that will be little noted and soon forgotten, to borrow a phrase from a more memorable orator. It didn’t convince us that we’d been wrong all along, and that Obama really was the Messiah we’d been told, but we suppose the true believers liked it, even if they can’t remember a single line of it today.
At this point we’re quite agnostic on the question of whether Trump really did pay those Russian prostitutes to perform those kinky sex acts while on a Moscow business trip, or whether any of those other dealings actually occurred, but we’re quite convinced he’s also no Messiah. All we can say at this point is that we can’t say we’re looking forward to four or eight more years of schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but at least the rest of Obama’s ponderous speeches will be more easily ignored as the forgettable asides of an ex-president.

— Bud Norman

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What To Read on a Dreary Winter Night

These are the times that try men’s souls, what with the cold winter nights and the over-heated days of politics and economics and culture and the rest of the bad news blowing by, so our first instinct is to curl up in bed with a good book. Lately our preference has been for P.G. Wodehouse and S.J. Perelman and Evelyn Waugh and similarly fatalistic humorists of the even drearier past, but we always advise the young folks that there’s also something to be said for more sober fare.
In our meanderings around the internet we happened upon the reading lists that students at the supposedly top colleges in the United States are now dutifully poring through, and all in all we were happily surprised. Based on the reports we’re reading from academia and the impression we’ve gleaned from conversations with its more recent graduates, we’d assumed that all that was required for a degree these days was a smidgen of politicized science and some multi-cultural mathematics along with a passing familiarity with such commie agitprop as “A People’s History of America” and “Wretched of the Earth,” along with a representative sampling of fiction from the ever-expanding universe of racial and sexual identities. The reading list does confirm these suspicions in some cases, but the young-uns are also getting some sterner stuff.
Apparently the most-taught work of fiction at America’s colleges is Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” coming in a close second, which is somewhat worrisome. Not that they’re bad books — we thought “Frankenstein” a fun-to-read and better-than-the-movie horror story with a few interesting philosophical implications when we picked it up the summer vacation after sixth grade, and we found all the flatulence and fornication in “Canterbury Tales” most amusing when it was assigned to us in junior high, so we won’t deny them their rightful place in the Canon — but we suspect they’re on the list for the wrong reasons. It’s not just that a college student should have already surpassed our sorry-assed inner-city junior high’s requirements well before entering a “top university,” but also a nagging suspicion that Wollstonecraft-Shelley is mostly there because she’s a woman, albeit a white woman from a certain high class and ornate literary tradition,  and because she’s offering a cautionary tale about science and all the rest of that worrisome western civilization stuff, and that Chaucer is still there despite being not only dead and white but also male only as a reminder that white men were always telling smutty jokes.
We also note, with a Wollstonecraft-Shelley sense of horror, the complete absence of William Shakespeare from the most-taught lists of any of the “top colleges” in the United States. Although we grant that The Bard is about as dead and white and male as an author can get, well, c’mon, he’s still The Bard. If even he can’t crash the glass quota ceiling, what chance we do we still-living yet mere mortal white males stand of getting a future reading? And that’s not to mention academia’s apparent complete lack of familiarity with The Holy Bible and its even more formidable author.
We have not read the most-assigned history text, “America: A Narrative History,” by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, but we’re going to tentatively assume it’s commie agitprop, and nor have we read the second-most assigned, Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which is described as “a memoir of life by an African-American woman in Jim Crow America,” but while we don’t doubt that it’s a worthy book neither do we doubt why it supersedes other worthy books about the broader American history. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most-taught history book, and top title in sociology departments, which made sense when we read it way back in the Cold War days to familiarize ourselves with the enemy’s wicked ideology and wily ways, but in these days of Bernie-mania it’s probably offered as a how-to manual.
Still, we found some solace in the broader reading list. Plato’s “Republic” is somehow the overall most-assigned text at the supposed “top ten” colleges, despite his deadness and whiteness and maleness, and although his ancient Greekness might earn him some some sympathy from the homosexual lobby we’d like to think he’s there as a starting point for the best of Hellenic thought. Number two is Thomas Hobbes’ “The Leviathan,” which is most surprising and especially pleasing to us. Most surprising because Hobbes is just as dead and white and male as Shakespeare as ever was, and especially delightful because we recall arguing with some adjunct teaching assistant and annoying Rousseau-ian fellow who hangs out at Kirby’s Beer Store haranguing about peak oil and how humanity’s gone downhill ever since agriculture and how we all need to get to back to the caves, and when we quoted “The Leviathan’s” old line about life in a state of nature being “nasty, brutish, and short,” which we usually use only when telling mother-in-law jokes, he sneered at us and scoffed that “Nobody reads Hobbes any more.”
Coming in at number three is Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which seems so timely we’re not altogether surprised. Although he’s also dead and white and male, Machiavelli was the first to explain the “Chicago Way” that has defined the past seven years of the Obama administration, as well as the methodology of the front-running Republican candidate who hopes to succeed it, and we expect it will be useful to students in all majors from business administration to community organizing. Downright stunning is the fourth-place finisher, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” an extraordinary work of scholarship that frankly describes western civilization’s unavoidable conflicts with other cultures, including the ones that are usually politely left unmentioned in most of academia, and doesn’t recommend capitulation. If even one righteous man could have redeemed Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps such a righteous book as “Clash of Civilization” will spare even modern academia from God’s wrath.
Our well-worn copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” still occupying a place of honor on our reference book shelf, right there next to the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” and “The Complete Hoyle,” also takes its place as the fifth-most assigned book in academia. We have mixed feelings about that, as we think that the venerable pair’s rules of plain English represent a vast improvement over the current academic jargon and jibber-jab, but we also think they’re sometimes plain to the point of Amishness. Aristotle’s “Ethics” comes in sixth, continuing the lessons of that dead white male Hellenic thing, and we’re glad to see that. Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” comes in seventh, and we freely concede that we have not read that yet, although the title sounds intriguing and we eagerly await the movie showing up on Netflix.
Another happy sight on the top ten is Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which describes a ruggedly individualistic and rapidly expanding nation of free association and town hall government and a European-galling whisky-swigging and church-going capitalism, a happy time before the Chicago Way took over. The ninth and tenth spots went to “The Communist Manifesto” and Aristotle’s “The Politics,” respectively, and we’d like to think that at least evens out.
They’re still teaching Max Weber’s thesis on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” at Princeton, along with Thucydides and Henry Kissinger, and Harvard top pick is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” with all its dangerous talk of God and natural law and resisting unjust laws of government but not undermining the very notion of law, and we’re guessing it’s good news that Harvard also has “Principles of Corporate Finance” on its own top ten books. Over at Yale the Federal Reserve Bank’s “Quarterly Review” comes in just ahead of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” proving that black lives matter to proper Elis but do so those portfolios, and all the other swank colleges have some good reads on their students’ lists. There’s the usual commie agitprop, of course, but we expect the good stuff will make a stronger impression.
We do hope those hard-working students will find some time, in between their studies and protests and “culture of rape” social lives to enjoy some Wodehouse or Perelman or Waugh or other humorous fatalist. We recommend “The Things that are Caesar’s” and “This Town Is Nowhere” or anything by that Mark Twain guy, and we expect that you’re going to get an education one way or another.

— Bud Norman

Thug Life

The eyewitness testimony and physical evidence presented to a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, indicate that 18-year-old Michael Brown led a thug’s life and died a thug’s death. This unhappy conclusion hasn’t prevened numerous other thugs from rioting and looting and burning buildings and firing random gunshots in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who fired the fatal shots when Brown attacked him and struggled for his gun, nor did it prevent some presumably less thuggish pundits and politicians from attempting to justify the mayhem, but it is worth noting nonetheless.
Such sad facts of the matter, alas, are easily lost in the inevitable racial acrimony. Initial reports about last summer’s shooting accurately stated that a white police officer had fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, and in the absence of any other relevant information much of the media went with the story that in front of numerous witnesses the cop had for no plausible reason other than racial animus gunned down a soon-to-be college student who was kneeling in the street with his hands up. Despite its apparent implausibility the story was believed widely enough to fuel several days of rioting and looting and burning of buildings and firing of gunshots, and for the President of the United States to send an emissary to Brown’s funeral, and for much of the press to stick to its story.
By this point the story of the blameless black victim of white America’s murderous racism is simply too tempting not to run with. As far back as the ’80s Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” was satirizing the modern racial controversy rituals with the sharp-eyed detail of a cynical reporter characterizing the victim as an “honor” because one of his teacher’s had said that anyone at his high school who didn’t stab a teacher deserved the designation, and the same technique has since become a staple of modern journalism. The previous celebrity victim of America’s lethal racism was a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin, portrayed by much of the media as Skittles-loving, tea-drinking and baby-faced 12-year-old even as a jury heard evidence that the hulking and haggard 17-year-old had phoned a friend about the “creepy ass cracker” who was watching him and was pounding the aforementioned creepy ass cracker’s head against the pavement when the fatal shots were fired. The even more formidable Brown was often described as a “gentle giant,” even after the release of a surveillance camera’s videotape of him and a colleague strong-arm robbing a convenience shortly before his fatal encounter with the police officer, and the image persists even after the release of the convincing eyewitness testimony and physical evidence that Brown had struggled for the officer’s gun and was lunging at him “like a football player” as the fatal shots were fired.
Even in the face of such unsettling facts the broader story about America’s irredeemable racism has irresistible appeal to some people. For the thugs it provides a convenient rationale for rioting and looting and burning buildings and firing random gunshots and other enjoyable activities. For politicians who rely on the racial grievances of impoverished ethnic minorities to bolster their coalitions with super-rich white folks it’s an obvious argument. For the professional race hustlers it’s all in a day’s work. Harder to explain are the comfortably cocooned apologists for rioting and looting and arson and gunfire who proudly consider themselves “progressive.”
Over at the once-venerable Time Magazine they’re running a piece “In Defense of Rioting,” which will probably prove unpersuasive to the mostly-minority businessmen who’ve recently seen their hard work burned to the ground on behalf of a thug who tried to kill a cop. They also have a story on the humber of police who have lately committed “justifiable homicide,” with the term framed with sarcastic quote marks as if it had recently been invented by some cabal of racists who are somehow still in charge of the language, and strain hard to make it seem significant. The story goes so far as to note that “black teenagers were 21 more times likely to be shot dead by an officer than white teenagers,” which only suggests that it is extraordinarily unusual for a white teenager to fatally shoot a black teenager, and leaves the more skeptical reader to wonder if a black teenager might be more likely yet to shot to death by another black teenager. The political class is obliged to at least express disapproval of rioting, but it will speak of “justifiable anger.”
Such willful blindness to the racial realities that most Americans understand all too well is largely a result of nostalgia. Once upon a time in America there were ample blameless black victims of white America’s murderous racism, with such exceptional men as Medgar Evers and James Chaney and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among the martyrs, and those who championed their cause of civil rights did so with an exhilarating sense of righteousness. Their efforts succeeded in making segregation illegal and changing public attitudes about race and establishing vast government programs of more questionable value, and although matters of race have since become less black-and-white in any sense of the term there’s still a longing for that exhilarating sense of righteousness that shouts of racism once provided.
All those years of America’s tragic racial history might explain why Michael Brown led a thug’s life and died a thug’s death, but that made no difference to the police officer who had a hulking young man going for his gun and taunting that he was too cowardly to protect himself. Nor does it make any difference to the mostly minority businessmen whose hard work has been burned to the ground by other thugs, or to that majority black men and women who are trying to make their way in the broader society and hoping that its racial attitudes won’t revert to its old suspicions, or to any of the people of all races in all parts of this country who are routinely menaced by thugs emboldened by the rationalizations offered by people who pride themselves on being “progressive.”

— Bud Norman

Fifty Years After a Dream

Much has changed since Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, and the 50th anniversary observance held on Wednesday demonstrates how very much.
The original “March on Washington” drew an estimated million people to the city, with more than 100,000 of them packed into the National Mall to hear King and a distinguished roster of other speakers and performers, but despite the best efforts of the racial grievance industry only 20,000 or so showed up for a commemoration featuring the likes of the buffoonish Rev. Al Sharpton and the crackpot socialist priest Rev. Michael Fleger, who bravely suggested that young black men refrain from shooting one another for a day. Such glaring disparities reflect the difference between 1963, when racism was widely accepted by American society, codified in its laws, and enforced with frequent brutality, and today.
Although it would be an overstatement to say that King’s dream of a country where men and women are judged by the content of their characters rather than the color of their skin, even the most aggrieved speakers were forced to concede that things have gotten better. Indeed, even the injustices they cited with an old-fashioned fervor proved the point. In 1963 an exceptional young scholar named Medger Evers was assassinated for attempting to enroll in such an unexceptional institution as the University of Mississippi, and fifty years later the only civil rights “martyr” they could cite was Trayvon Martin, a young thug who was shot while slamming a neighborhood watch volunteer’s head against the pavement. In 1963 blacks were routinely denied the right to vote by a variety of rules enforced throughout the southern states, and fifty years later the oft-repeated complaint was that many states throughout the country now require the same sorts of photo identification that are needed to cash a check, buy a beer, or get into the Justice Department to see the black Attorney General. In 1963 a hard-working and underpaid black woman was barred entry to American many stores, and fifty years later the speakers included a billionaire television celebrity who has recently groused that a store clerk was suspiciously reluctant to show her a $38,000 handbag during her recent trip to Sweden.
Fifty years after King’s dream is arguably the best of times and the worst of times in black America, as the brightest and most industrious of race have availed themselves of the opportunities created by the civil rights revolution to move into positions of power and affluent neighborhoods while leaving behind an underclass trapped in slums more brutal and dilapidated and hopeless than any of the segregated black s of the early ‘60s, but what’s left of the civil rights revolution is ill-positioned to comment on either. Any acknowledgement of the progress that has been made weakens the movement’s claim to victimhood, which is the source of its power, and any acknowledgement of the real problems that remain calls into question the most revered assumptions about the government’s role in setting things right.
President Barack Obama, a black man who has moved into the world’s most powerful position and most affluent neighborhood, cited the sobering statistics about black unemployment and family income as if he had been a hapless observer rather than the nation’s chief executive for the past five years. He didn’t mention the gap in educational achievement between blacks and whites, or the former group’s much higher rate of illegitimacy, even though both are the reasons for the disparities in employment and income, but the peculiar politics of race make those topics unmentionable. Fixing the public school that has spectacularly failed black America would require confronting the teachers and embracing such radical notions as the voucher programs that Obama has dutifully opposed, decrying out-of-wedlock births would lead to charges of racial insensitivity and theocratic moralizing, either would entail a criticism of the hip-hop culture that has been such a stalwart Democratic Party constituency, and starting such a discussion might lead people to realize that government policies he has long championed are largely responsible for both problems.
The world will little note nor long remember anything that was said at Wednesday’s rally, a nostalgic celebration of a time when liberalism occupied the moral high ground and didn’t have to confront the complex problems of today, but at least King’s speech still resonates.

— Bud Norman