Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Want to help the environment? Fish and hunt

Note: This was a feature written for a North Dakota newspaper. The point remains valid for the whole country. I didn't want to hit anyone over the head with it, but anyone can draw the obvious conclusions about anti-hunting sentiment, gun control and not allowing commercial hunting.

People concerned about food prices might be happy to know they can find good protein free for the taking and help the environment at the same time.

Or maybe not.

Common carp and snow geese are plentiful, good to eat and North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGF) officials would like hunters and fishers to take all they can.

Common carp is a delicacy in Europe, an ingredient in gefilte fish, and is traditionally served at Christmas in many countries.

In North America it's considered a nuisance species.

According to Lynn Schlueter, aquatic nuisance species coordinator for NDGF said, “Carp came from the Caspian Sea and the Romans took them all around. Some king thought they were great and brought them to England, and the earliest settlers brought them to America. Poles, Ukrainians and Germans stocked ponds with them and the U.S. government thought it was a good idea to spread them around in the 1800s.”

Schlueter said common carp root around in the mud of lakes and streams for plant food and invertebrates, muddying the water and destroying food sources of other fish and waterfowl.

And now they're in the Sheyenne River.

Ron Zitzow, manager of the Valley City National Fish Hatchery, said their progress has been stopped by the Baldhill Dam.

“Our problem in the hatchery is they get mixed up with other fish and spread. We don't try to eradicate them, we try to manage around them,” Zitzow said.

Snow geese are native to North America and not considered a nuisance species, but are considered “overabundant,” according to NDGF wildfowl biologist Mike Szymanski.

Szymanski said snow geese have adapted to agriculture and learned to forage in grain fields between the arctic tundra and the Gulf Coast on their migration.

“Now they can stop anywhere and fuel up, and it's dramatically increased their survival rates,” Szymanski said.

Unlike Canada geese, which are surface grazers, snow geese grub the soil and destroy the root systems of plants and increased numbers are overeating the tundra beyond its ability to recover. This increases evaporation and leads to soils becoming saline.

“This causes so much ecological damage that you wouldn't recognize it as the same habitat,” Szymanski said.

Carp are not considered a game fish, so fishermen can take as many as they like, but many anglers don't like them.

Perry Kapaun, president of the Barnes County Wildlife Federation said, “A big carp is vicious and good for a fight, but some think they're greasy. It's where you come from and what you're brought up on I guess,” Kapaun said.

Snow geese are also good to eat. In the fall the bag limit in North Dakota is 20 per day, in the spring, unlimited. But though you can freeze them or make jerky for your own use, you can't sell migratory birds.

Szymanski said hunting has stabilized the growth rate, but game and fish departments would like them reduced still further.

Kapaun said snow geese are getting harder to hunt.

“They're getting tougher and tougher to decoy, because they live forever. A snow goose can live for 30 years and the young follow the old. When I was young we decoyed them with rags and took them by the pickup load. Now when they'd like us to take them, it's not as easy. Migration routes have changed too; we used to be in the middle of the flight path,” Kapaun said.

Kapaun said snow geese are lingering in the grain fields of Canada as well, and tougher Canadian gun laws make it difficult to hunt there.

“It's complicated to get your gun across the border now. It's probably too late for the fall season already,” Kapaun said.

Sidebar: Recipes

Barbecue snow goose

Boil 20 goose legs and thighs, attached, in a large pot of water. Stir in 2 packages of dry onion soup mix.

Do not overdo, you don't want the meat falling off the bones.
When done, grill with lots of barbecue sauce.

Or for chili:

Chop up and sauté: 2 bell peppers, 2 large onions, 10 cloves of garlic
Add the veggies to the pot. Keep the pot topped up with water, beer or tomato juice.
Add: 2 jars spaghetti sauce, 1 can kidney beans, 1 can brown beans in sauce
Season with: chili powder, hot sauce, and seasoning salt to taste
Cook for two hours or until you can pull the meat off the bones.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Musings on courage and cowardice, part 2

"Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear."
- Irshad Manji

In the first part of these musings, I mentioned certain characteristics I noted about cowardice.

None of these are absolute guarantees of cowardice. There are rude, abrasive, and courageous men and women, for example.

I have even heard of individuals whose cynicism bordered on nihilism, who demonstrated great courage when the s**t hit the fan.

Apparently, while skeptical of any standard of morality philosophy or religion could come up with, when the chips were down they heeded the ethical call of biology - women and children first!

There is one thing though, that I think infallibly demonstrates cowardice at the core: denigrating courage.

John Masters* was an English army officer who became an American writer. He started his career as an officer of Gurkhas - itself no mean accomplishment. During WWII he served with Ord Wingate's Chindits in Burma.

After participating in one of the most hard-fought campaigns in the war, he described his foe as, "The bravest fighting man in the world, the Japanese soldier."

In a previous post http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/12/meditations-on-graves.html
I mentioned that the Poles have dismantled the monuments to the army that first combined with the Nazis to invade, then occupied their country for two generations - but would not desecrate the graves of the soldiers of the Red army who died there. Indeed, they have maintained them and assisted Russian families to identify the graves of their dead.

Or consider the 16th century Samurai warlord Uesugi Kenshin, who wept bitterly when he heard of the death of his life-long enemy Takeda Shingen.

Now consider:

- An acquaintance, on hearing that my views on foreign policy had changed after living abroad for more than a decade, emailed to gratuitously insult me, and included sneers at "the gallant Poles."

"Gallant Poles" was a description earned by the Polish airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain. Poland is the only continental European country to send combat troops to Iraq - and doing a pretty good job by all accounts. They also have a contingent in Afghanistan.

Face to face of course, he was polite and conciliatory. Via email he continued to insult me, until I replied in kind. At which point he signed off, with an air of wounded innocence and I haven't heard from him since.

The price of telling people they're being rude - is to be rude.

- Col. Kuklinski was an officer of the Polish general staff, who passed information to the CIA for ten years, after he found that the Soviet plans for the invasion of Western Europe wrote off Poland as expendable if the war went nuclear.

I have heard Kuklinski dismissed with, "He did it for money."

My wife (daughter of a Polish officer herself) said, "If so, then whatever they paid him, it wasn't enough."

Kuklinski's two sons were killed in the U.S. in separate, and highly suspicious "accidents." And if you don't think they were KGB hits, you've got to be naive enough to need a legal guardian, you shouldn't be running around loose or you'll surely harm yourself.

- I once directed a European acquaintance to the examples of Muslim women, who are speaking out against terrorism, intolerance, and oppression of women that includes genital mutilation, "honor" killings and chattel slavery. Women who put themselves at terrible risk to do so.

Women such as:

- Irshad Manji http://www.irshadmanji.com/

- Wafa Sultan

here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/11/international/middleeast/11sultan.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

and here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Negt6IzxPTo

- Ayaan Hirsi Ali http://ayaanhirsiali.org/

His response?

He called them "coconuts."

(Brown on the outside, white on the inside. I love it when white guys appoint themselves arbiters of who is an "authentic" member of their own race.)

I have to ask, with the example of women like these (and lets not forget the immortal Orianna Fallaci!) - where are the men in public life who can measure up to them?

And why is it that men have to take our inspiration for courage in this day and age, from women?

* Author of a series of novels on the history of British India, told as a generation saga, including: The Deceivers, Nightrunners of Bengal, Far Far the Mountain Peak and his non-fiction memoirs Bugles and a Tiger, and The Road Past Mandalay.

Friday, July 25, 2008


My friend Robert Bidinotto has an interesting piece with many interesting links on the Obamenon here: http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/?entryid=742

My wife and I were talking last night about Obama and his speech which wasn't at the Brandenburg Gate after all.

Evidently Angela Merkel thought better of giving the Obamessiah the venue of Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner speech (and never mind his pronnunciation was hideous and he may have said, "I am a large jelly doughnut"), and Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!"

I mentioned to her that conservative pundits had been saying, "He hasn't earned the Brandenburg Gate."

Monika said, "That's not the point, Brandenburg is the past."

I was nonplussed.

She continued, "The Soviet Union is gone, the danger is over. He should have given the speech at the site of the Madrid train bombings, or the London subway tunnels."

Double nonplussed.

See why I love her?

P.S. What Robert is too modest to point out (it happens from time to time) is that he's the guy who broke the "Willie Horton" story in Reader's Digest during the Bush/Dukakis race, lo these many years ago. And BTW he never referred to him as "Willie" but always as William Horton.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Musings on courage and cowardice, part 1

Response to my article on my experience at a journalism seminar (published below, and on The Atlasphere) has been heartening. Most letters to the editor urged me not to beat myself up over a momentary deer-in-the-headlights moment, and for that I thank all of you who responded.

But perhaps I overstated. I did not mean to accuse myself of being a coward, I was bemoaning what I felt was a momentary lapse of courage.

The nature of courage is such that a brave man is always aware that his courage could desert him at any moment.

I have been called comrade, by men whose courage has been tested in the fire. They honor me beyond my capacity to say. If I am capable of courage, it is due in large part to the desire to be worthy of the honor.

As the Arab proverb has it, "The courage of your friends gives you strength."

In my article Steven Vincent: A Profile in Courage http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/070920-browne-steven-vincent.php I mentioned that I have known many heroes.

This is hard to say, but I know a fair number of cowards as well, and I fear they are growing more common.

Perhaps I am being too harsh - and then again, perhaps I have been too charitable for too long. It is a terrible thing to accuse any man of cowardice. It wasn't that long ago that society considered it perfectly justified to invite the accuser to accompany one to a place from which only one would return.

I would much rather call it something like, "excessive fearfulness." It does seem to occur on a continuum from chronic anxiety to full-blown cowardice.

But then again, perhaps I'm just indulging in a euphemism to avoid thinking about an uncomfortable subject. Which would be a prime example of what I'm talking about!

What's odd and alarming is, these days I see the phenomenon largely among young men. That's not natural, the natural state of young men is idiot recklessness, not cowardice.

The conclusion I am forced into, is that their cowardice is learned not inborn.

Why this might be so, I'll deal with later. For now, I'll talk about what I think cowardice is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.

- Cowardice is not fear of death.

Fear of death is normal, natural and healthy response to danger that evolution equipped us with to help us avoid it.

Cowardice is fear of death more than anything else.

Philsopher Ayn Rand was once asked (in the Playboy interview), if there was anything or anyone she'd die for.

The question was a good one. Why would someone espousing a philosophy of egoism, who denied the existence of an afterlife, be willing to give up the only life she believed there is?

Rand didn't much care to deal with the question, and only addressed it twice in her works (that I'm aware of), but she did say that a man might die for people he loved, if the prospect of living with the knowledge he failed to act to save them, would make the rest of his life not worth living.

This is why armies strive to forge groups of men into bands of brothers. This is the truth behind the old adage, "The brave taste of death but once."

- Cowardice is not necessarily running from danger.

Recognizing danger and running from it in time, can be a sign of clear-eyed intellectual courage.

Who is the coward, the one who recognizes danger and runs? Or the one who denies there is any danger, until it is too late to run?

A professional military man will tell you, the highest command skill is to lead a retreat in good order. Without courage and a clear head, a retreat too easily becomes a rout.

What are some signs and symptoms of cowardice?

- Dogmatic certainty.

What do Marxism and religious fundamentalism have in common? I am scarsely the first to notice that Marxism and any brand of odious religious dogmatism you care to name, are all T.O.E.s - Theory of Everything. A single model that explains literally everything and leaves no room for uncertainty or ambiguity.

And here is the paradox, a coward might very well fear the shattering of his world-model more than death.

Though what usually happens in the rare instance a dogmatist is forced to give up his model, is he frantically grasps after another which he holds to with equal or greater certainty.

Every known scientific theory notes phenomena not explained by it. The difference between science and pseudo-science may be, pseudo science is an organized system of answers. Science is a method of generating meaningful questions.

- Moral relativism.

Having to make difficult ethical judgements exposes one to the possibility of being wrong, of having to deal with moral ambiguities, and worse - of having to choose a side and be prepared to fight for it.

- Rudeness.

Eric Hoffer noted, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."
Reflexive rudeness towards people who disagree with their cherished illusions about how the world works. Because the reality of how the world works - or mere uncertainty about how is works, is terrifying.

In an earlier time, men were conscious that rude behavior could earn them a challenge to a duel with weapons. Even in more civilized times, men continued to fight with their fists over slights and insults.

Now the internet gives anonymity and enough distance between people - and the capability of insulting anyone with impunity. The law has also grown far more harsh in its treatment of men who engage in "mutual combat." Which in practice means punishing the winner.

We see, and experience the results daily.

- Idealizing or excusing brutality.

Hoffer also noted the weak like to hint at their capacity for evil. I think it's the weakling's version of hairy-chested macho.

What are the Che and Castro lovers saying? Could it be, "I approve of this, fear me"?

- Victim blaming and identification with the aggressor.

Why are Israel condemned and Palestinian suicide-murderers idealized in some circles? Why was the U.S. condemned and the Soviet Union idealized? Multiply examples as you will.

Because one side believes in the right to say whatever you like about them - and the other would kill you for it.

Why do smart prosecutors try to keep women off juries in rape cases?

Because a significant number of women want to blame the victim, to distance themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them.

- Hostility towards self-defense.

Anyone who has ever had to defend themselves with physical force has probably experienced this. There are certain people who consider you to be a bad person, and condemn what you did, no matter what the circumstances.

I think the example of a man defending himself is a reproach to them.

- Love.

A coward can not love unreservadly, with a whole heart. Love is granting another the power to hurt you terribly, and a surrender of "hostages to fortune."

Steven Pressfield put the words in the mouth of the Spartan Dienikes, in his novel 'Gates of Fire.'

At the pass of Thermopylae, Dienikes found the answer to the question which had obsessed him all his life. What is the opposite of fear?

He knew it was not vainglory, and that courage was the result of something else.

Before he died at the Hot Gates, the answer was shown to him, "The opposite of fear, is love."

G.K. Chesterton put it, "The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is before him, but because he loves what is behind him."

P.S. See here: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/writing-what-i-should-have-written-so-many-years-ago-1437779.html

for the story of an Irish journalist's mea culpa for his time of cowardice decades ago - and the courage he is showing now.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sixteen months sounds about right

Two things happened regarding Iraq recently, one the media ignored, the other they zeroed in on like a laser.

I won't insult your intelligence by pointing out which is which.

Last night we saw on the news that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki endorsed Barack Obama, and thinks his plan (if that's still his plan) to withdraw American forces over 16 months from the date of his taking office is a great one.

When we saw that, my wife remarked, "That does it. Obama wins."

The gentelmen of the press must have been out for a coffee though, because they missed the last story, that provinces nine and 10 of Iraq's 18 had just been handed over to Iraqi forces.

The conclusion seems inescapable, Al Maliki would like the U.S. to leave because he doesn't need us anymore. Or at least, he doesn't figure he'll need us by 16 months after the election.

This confirms what independent correspondent Michael Yon has cautiously said, that all indications show the war is about won - and the mopping up can be handled by the Iraqis themselves.

Being an optimist by nature, I always try to temper it with the Pessimistic Postulate: It's easier for things to get worse than to get better. (A specific application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

So what's the case for optimism?

Because I don't believe Al Maliki wants to die for one.

If he didn't think his side would handle the rest of the job, he'd be signing his own death warrant by kicking the U.S. out.

For another, he has to make the kill on Al Queda in Iraq himself, to settle Arab conceptions of honor.

Arab hell, it's the same reason Charles Du Gaulle demanded the Allies let the miniscule Free French forces be first into Paris.

Al Maliki can dismiss American forces with a "Thanks for the help, we'll take it from here," and be the only Arab leader who can address the mighty American state as an equal, rather than a resentful supplicant or petroleum blackmailer.

And, when the only legitimately elected government in the Arab world (I know Egypt and Lebanon have elections, but come on...) says, "Please leave now" - and we do, what does that say to the Arab street?

Don't misunderstand me, I still think it could go horribly wrong. But if we hand it over to them, and it does, then it'll be their screwup not ours.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Adventures with editing

Note: A version of this appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record

Writers are supposed to hate editors – almost as much as publishers.

“Don't you dare touch a word of my deathless prose!” goes the writers' battle cry.

“You can't take that out, it's the whole story!” is the anguished howl.

“Why don't you just sign your own name to it? It's not mine anymore!” is the age-old question.

Well, call me a traitor to my profession, but I get along pretty well with editors. A good editor is a pearl beyond price for a couple of reasons.

One is that a writer simply cannot proof his or her own work, unless you put it aside and wait long enough until you've forgotten what was going on in your head when you wrote it. That works OK, but if you're on deadline...

Your eye sees what you meant to write, not always what you wrote. Same reason athletes need coaches.

Another reason is, if you're too close to your work, especially if you're writing something long, you know how everything is supposed to hang together - but your reader may not. The reader is not inside your head, and your editor is your first reader.

I have a friend who's a professional manuscript copy editor. Once he was given a mystery novel to proof, and wrote to tell the author the whole book was pointing to one character being the guilty party, when the ending had another as the culprit. The author wrote back to thank him, and rewrote the ending.

I learned from one of the best-selling authors of the 20th century not to be a prima donna about my work. In an essay on writing, Robert Heinlein, who set a record for an advance on a book that hadn't been written yet, advised would-be writers to think of themselves as competing against a six-pack.

A paperback book costs about as much as a six-pack of beer. The writer has to convince a customer in a convenience store that book will bring him or her more enjoyment than the six-pack would. It's a humbling realization.

However, I have had my beefs with editors, as every writer has.

When I was freelancing in Warsaw, I attended a 10-day training camp on the Baltic coast, held by the International Police Defense Tactics Association, a law-enforcement training organization based in Sweden.

It was grueling. We practiced restraint and control techniques, exercised to exhaustion, and experimented with the effects of Involuntary Body Response, or IBR.

That simply means how you hurt, flinch, and lose control of your bodily functions when you're whacked hard in strategic areas of the body. Which they demonstrated to us, and on us.

So I wrote the article and submitted it to the Warsaw Insider, a local English-language monthly.

The editor, for reasons best known to himself, wrote an article of his own and put my name on it. As in, he wrote an article from my information, he didn't even paraphrase me.

That was OK, I still got paid and I was able to give my article to the IPDTA for their own use.

Another editor of a prominent libertarian publication I dealt with, cut an article I wrote about my experiences in Serbia, to make room for other articles on the same subject by writers who'd never been there!

He also cut it in such a way as to make it seem I was supporting his editorial line - which I was not. I still don't know if this was on purpose, or just rotten editing.

I try not to be petty about small changes, but there was once that really got me.

I wrote an article for the Airport Magazine about the ubiquitous memorial plaques that are all around Warsaw. Most of them are a common form, fill-in-the-blanks plaque, informing passers-by that an execution of hostages took place on the spot during the Second World War. Forty-four people were shot under my apartment window in 1944 for example. They average about one every three blocks in the center of the city.

As you might imagine, this was a pretty depressing article to write and desperately needed an upbeat ending.

So I wrote about “Winnie the Pooh Street” in Warsaw, with its carved plaque, on which “you can see the Bear of very little brain and his pal Piglet, walking hand-in-hand as long as Warsaw endures.

It's sentimental swill, but it's good sentimental swill.

So my Austrian editor changed it to “the simple bear.”

“You can't do that! Pooh is the Bear-of-very-little-brain!”
“What's the difference? Who cares?”

“Anyone who loves Winnie the Pooh,that's who!”

I'm still mad about that one.

But most of the editors I've dealt with have been very considerate, and consulted me about suggested changes. Like a magazine editor I dealt with a while back.

We discussed changes in my article and afterwards I e-mailed him to thank him for his consideration.

He reponded that he was a writer too, and his philosophy was to edit as he'd like to be edited.

I responded that it seemed like a curiously archaic philosophy, which I wish others would follow, “But alas, we cannot have archaic and edit too.”

Then I sat at the computer and waited for the “GROAN!”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sodbuster Days

This Saturday we went down to Ft. Ransom, North Dakota, population 70 for the annual Sodbuster Days.

That population figure is a bit deceptive. The town boasts a very nice cafe, a tavern across the street, and a guest house with what they claim is North Dakota's only guest yurt - and who would contradict them?

It's a tourist town of course. There is a ski run and a nearby state park with very nice camping and fishing facilities.

It's in part of the Sheyenne River Valley where the valley floor is quite deep below the plain, and has a lovely view all around the town.

Sodbuster Days is held in a part of the park that used to be the Sunne family farm, founded in 1886 I believe. There is a charming little farm house I think I could live in very comfortably (I'd like a bathroom installed though) and which my wife felt immediately at home in.

The farmhouse looks not very different from the one near Wroclaw her grandmother lives in, down to the wood-and-coal burning stove.

There are also a couple of huge barns full of vintage farm machinery and two blacksmith shops.

I did have to explain to her what a "sodbuster" is.

We had a marvelous time. There were demonstrations of spinning, cooking and horse drawn reaping, plowing and haying.

There was a horse wagon taxi service from the parking area which the kids loved. When we hopped off, the two-year-old wailed her protest.

We had a wonderful time. Yet, we also came away with an appreciation of what they must have gone through to establish this spread.

Monika just finished "Giants in the Earth' by Ole Edvart Rølvaag, a Norwegan immigrant who wrote about his people in North Dakota - in Norwegan.

She says the thing the early settler diaries remark on was, how silent the prarie was - except for the sound of the wind.

It seems strange, but they say that until large parts of the prarie had been tilled for a few years, there was no bird or insect noise. Only the eerie howling wind.

In the first years of settlement, the lunatic asylums filled with people who went mad from the loneliness and strangeness of their new environment.

North Dakota still remains a state with a very low population density. The biggest city is Fargo, about as large as Norman, Oklahoma, our last home.

In our present town of about 7,000 people, the hospital just announced they're shutting down their obstetrics unit. That doesn't bode well for the place.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

It's not "gut instinct," I know precisely why

Recently Barack Obama spoke of:

1) his "gut instinct that so many of us have, that America is the greatest country on Earth."

2) "the joys of American life and culture - its vitality, its variety, its freedom" that have "always outweighed its imperfections."

3) (What) "makes America great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better."

Now of course, Barack Obama is preemptively reacting to charges of lack of patriotism, but I'll grant the sincerity of his feelings. My "gut instinct" tells me Barack really does love America, in his own tepid liberal internationalist citizen-of-the-world sort of way.

I'm not at all sure that Michelle feels the same way though. She strikes me as a fairly typical example of the native American who loathes this country and the freedom and opportunity it provides, because the flip side of that opportunity is the possibility of insignificance.

Point 2) I think is spot-on. And though the "multi-culturalist" crowd never sees it, America is the real multi-culti deal. They don't see it because they are pig-ignorant phonies.

Point 3) deserves a lengthy treatment. What defines the American national character more than any other point, is that we are the ultimate meliorists. An American assumes, on a level so deep it is seldom questioned, that all problems have solutions and all situations can be improved. It is so ingrained in us that we just don't see that's it's not a univerally held assumption.

This is a highly ambiguous heritage. I have to point out that there is no evidence that this is always true, and a great deal to suggest it isn't.

We've achieved great things by refusing to believe they are impossible - and we've screwed the pooch a few times too.

One of the dangers of this kind of world-view is, when frustrated in attempts to achive perfection, the reformer tends to become the nihilist, concluding that the imperfect is unworthy to survive.

The ambiguity in our national character may yet destroy us as a nation and a people.

About point 1)- I agree. But it's not a "gut instinct," I know why America is the greatest country on earth.

I could write a book on the subject. Others have and perhaps someday I will too, but I'll list a few points for now, and try to come up with some less commonly discussed examples.

1) The balance between idealism and pragmatism.

The Founders knew very well that they were creating a new society by an act of will. But, they based it on local institutions that had been in place and functioning for almost two centuries - not to mention the English Common Law tradition well over a thousand years old at the time.

James Madison spent a lot of time studying the history of leagues of smaller states, mostly Greek, and the more recent European examples. What he was looking for was why they failed.

2) The balance of modern and archaic.

Where else in the world at the time did they have the notion of optional citizenship? That is, you can choose to become American - and in the eyes of the law, just as good as any native-born citizen. That's rare in the world, even today.

Among the Indians, that's where. (Or the Zulus or any number of other pre-modern societies, but that's the example they had in front of them.)

3) The balance of power and restraint.

As Pierre Treudeau said, living with America is like sleeping with an elephant, The elephant is unaware of you - but you know it every time it turns over in its sleep.

Yes, we've got the juice and we've used it on any number of occasions, some justified, some un-. Some to good effect, some not, and quite a few ambiguous.

Consider the liberation of Europe, resulting in half of the continent delivered to a regime which murdered ten times as many people as the Nazis,albeit over a longer term, and the other half freed to become ruled by whining, snivelling ingrates.

Or take the piratical annexation of Hawaii. But then, it really looks like that was going to be done by somebody - and who would you rather have?

Now compare what the U.S. has done with what it could do, and if you have trouble, just Google "Hiroshima" and look at the pictures.

Then consider that as nukes go, that was a light field-piece.

Power will be used - period. That's the pragmatic reality.

The notion that power should be used for the good, with restraint, oversight and much soul-searching beforehand. That's the idealism.

4) The balance of rights with duties and responsibilities.

Those aforementioned Indians, or the ancient barbarian tribes of Europe, had freedom unknown to more civilized peoples. A citizen/member answered to no one but his chief, and only so long as he freely acknowleged him as chief.

"For in those days there were no kings in Israel, but each man did what was right in his own sight." (II Samuel.)

In these societies there was no concept of "rights" because there was no notion of the lack of them.

They lost. All of them. Their lands, their cultures, their rights.

The heritage of the West, which was carried further in America than any nation had hitherto dared go, was how to be both free and united. And history offers no guarantees that's going to last either.

What I notice about this list is, that it's all about ambiguity and the balancing of contradictories.

The ability to deal with ambiguity is pretty much a definition of intelligence. And that's where we come to the point that'll make some folks howl.

America is a great country because it's a smart country.

How and why smart, and why it's dumbing down, I'll deal with later.

I'm not feeling very good about myself right now

A few weeks ago, I learned that I can be a coward.

One day some weeks ago, I had what was started out as a delightful experience. I went to a writing seminar with a well-known, highly-experienced journalist from Fargo for a writing seminar.

It was great. I learned a lot, and not just stuff about good composition. That's something you can find in any number of sources. We learned some of the myriad little hints and tricks that make the difference between the product of a journalistic education and a real pro.

The presenter was great. He was an older man who spoke movingly about the toll taken on his spirit by covering some horrendous multiple homicides in Minnesota, and some horrific accidents. And he told us about the delight of his little grand-daughter that her beloved grampa was moving just a block away from her when he returned to North Dakota.

He talked about journalistic ideals, with entertaining and inspiring examples from life, and from movies such as Humphrey Bogart's Deadline USA.

He was not only generous with his advice, but with his time. Since not all of the writing samples we had previously submitted for critique had been delivered, he offered to have us submit samples by email for his evaluation.

Then at the end, he mentioned in passing that he admired Che Guevara.

Think of that for a minute.

He admires a man who:

-Shot a heavily pregnant woman in the belly to make a political point.

-Wrote his father early in his career, "Papa, today I killed a man, and I think I like it!"

-Set up his office with a window above the execution grounds so he could watch the hundreds, or thousands, he sent to their deaths, murdered by his loyal thugs.

-A man whom the goddam KGB thought was too extreme for their purposes!

But perhaps all you need to know about Che, was that unlike his many victims who faced the firing squands shouting, "Viva el Christo Rey! Viva Cuba libre!" or sometimes on a less exalted note, "Shoot you maricones!" Che was captured after dropping a fully loaded automatic weapon, shouting, "I am Che Guevara and I'm worth more alive than dead!"

This man is not alone. Jean-Paul Sartre, Ted Turner, Jack Nicholson, Naomi Campbell, Steven Spielberg are among the luminaries who have made the pilgrimage to the shrine of Che and Fidel.

And still I want to ask, for God's sake why?

Motive is one thing you can't know for sure, but I've got a couple of ideas.

Perhaps some men who achieve affluence and influence in a free society will never have enough, because they can only have the power and deference of their fellow men that money and fame buy - not the abject fear that the power to kill gives.

And why would they want that?

Though I say it who am one, intellectuals tend to be more than a bit on the wimpy side. They admire strength, they want to be strong, but they don't know what strength is and too damned often they think strength is brutality.

I despise people like this. I despise them in academia, entertainment, journalism and all areas of public life. I think all decent people should scorn them openly, and their families should be made to feel ashamed of them.

And yet I said nothing - and I despise myself for it.

I could have said, "Oh, you admire a man who... (pick one of the above)?"

Instead I went along to get along. Perhaps, in some small manner of exculpation, I was too shocked by the cognitive dissonance of this kindly, humane and sensitive man worshipping at the shrine of brutality.

And then again, perhaps at the back of my mind was the thought, I am working at the entry level of a profession he is a master of and wields influence in. And I've got a family too.

I suppose the Fargo Forum has good reason to think Mr. Haga is a first-class reporter, a great writer, acts according to the high standards we like to think the profession stands for, and his personal opinions are his own business.

So do you think that a man who admires murdering thugs and justifies mass murderer will scruple to lie if he thinks the cause he admires justifies it?

Do you think anyone would have a job in journalism or academica, no matter what his qualifications were, if he told a class, "I really admire that Ted Bundy, he really knew how to treat those %^&*s."

And as for the state journalism association which sponsors these delightful seminars, to paraphrase Kipling:

If print is print or words are words, the learned Court perpends: --
We are not schoolled by murderers, but only -- by their friends.

Note: This also appeared in The Atlasphere http://www.theatlasphere.com/myaccount/login.php?path=/members/index.php