Rants and Raves

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

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Happy 4th of July

It’s the Fourth of July again, the 232nd birthday of our country.

Many other countries have a holiday, which marks in some way the beginning of their history as a nation. In the older nations of Europe, it is often a saint’s day honoring the missionary credited with bringing Christianity to their country. Some celebrate a day honoring a king who conquered and unified a country.

Others, like ours, mark the day their country gained independence from another nation, either through revolution, like the US and Mexico, or through peaceful cession of power, such as Canada and Australia.

But the United States was the first nation that created a new society as an act of will, and explicitly stated the principles on which it would be governed in a founding document. For us it was the Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson.

It is the ratification of the Declaration “In Congress Assembled” that we commemorate on the Fourth of July.

We have largely forgotten how radical that document was viewed at the time – and how much it terrified the ancient autocracies of Europe.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These words were dynamite laid in the foundations of every tyranny on earth. They denied, destroyed, the legitimacy of any government not based on a general consensus of its citizens.

At the time it was widely ridiculed, by those who scorned the doctrine of equality of rights, but also by those who pointed to the hypocrisy of the Founders.

Samuel Johnson said, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Jefferson was well aware of the contradiction. In the original draft presented to the Continental Congress was this clause:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

It was struck from the final version of the Declaration at the insistence of Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a leader of the southern delegations.

Yet the crucial words remained, and as was foreseen, in time it could not be denied that they applied to all men and women.

Thomas Jefferson lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and saw the nation he helped found grow from 13 to 24 states.

He died on the Fourth of July, 1826, just hours before his old friend, bitter
opponent, and at the last, old friend again; John Adams.

Jefferson’s last words were, “Is it the Fourth yet?”

Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson lives.”

This appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record, July 4th issue.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Abortion, the issue that just won't go away

Musings on a divisive issue.

Abortion, is the issue that just won't go away, no matter how much we wish it would.

I remember saying in a class with a majority of young women once, "Why the hell are our politics captive to this issue? An alarming number of voters make their choice among candidate based solely on his/her position on abortion. I mean, how many of you are planning to have an abortion?"

There arose an indignant howl around the room, "But it's about the choice!"

This is one of those things I'm in the mushy middle about.

Interestingly, I read some time ago that the plaintiff in Roe v Wade now describes herself that way. (And who incidentally, didn't get that abortion - by the time the case was decided the baby was born and adopted out.)

By mushy middle I mean, I'm not too concerned about an early first-trimester abortion when the fetus has a central nervous system something akin to an earthworm's.

(And don't tell me about its "potential" for becoming a human being. Lot's of things have potential for becoming something else. The fact is - it isn't, at least not yet.)

In the second trimester I'm starting to get worried at the state of fetal development. (And please, keep in mind that this timeline is very vague, I'm not an embryologist.)

When my wife was pregnant with our first, we never considered abortion. We wanted the baby very much. But just because I have a morbid streak as wide as my back, I had to ask her, "When did the idea of abortion become impossible for you?"

She replied, "When I first heard the heartbeat."

By the third trimester I'm very nervous about the difference between a late-period abortion and a 6-7 month preemie saved by heroic medical efforts.

And as for "partial-birth abortions," if some skillful propagandist hadn't invented that term, we wouldn't even be having this debate. A "partial-birth" abortion is infanticide that just misses being legally murder because the "doctor" shoves the baby partway back in while killing it with an icepick to the brain.

("Doctor" is in scare quotes because I'm convinced that like surgery is said to be a profession that sometimes attracts sublimated sadists who realize on some level that they have to channel their fascination with gore into something useful - or wind up facing Jack Ketch on a scaffold some day, one who practices "partial-birth abortions" may be a sublimated serial killer. More on that later.)

(And don't bother writing in to accuse me of tarring all surgeons with that brush. I said "attracts," I didn't say "all" or even "many.")

Interestingly, in one of my classes in Bulgaria, composed of eighteen intelligent young women, I quoted a woman on this issue who told me, "A woman has a right to an abortion five minutes before she goes into the delivery room."

"Yeah, that's right!" they all said.

(Never mind that an abortion that late is technically called "a Caesarian section.")

So I started to describe the partial-birth abortion process. Within one minute they were begging me to stop.

Like a lot of things, my opinions on this issue have changed as I got older and my circumstances changed.

When I was a young man who, as young men will do, spent a lot of time chasing tail - and mostly not getting any, I kept company with a fair number of women who the idea of marrying gave me cold shivers. If you've ever been a young man, you know what they'll put up with to get laid.

Of course, back then I was foursquare in favor of abortion under any circumstances. To put it bluntly, I wanted an out if I ever got that bad news.

Now that I have children of my own... the idea of abortion doesn't look so good to me.

Of course, if I ever become fabulously wealthy and keep mistresses, it might start to look good again.

Abortion is one of the issues that deeply divides libertarians. I remember at one of our English camps in Lithuania the subject came up. My son's godmother told us that she'd had an abortion forty years before.

She hadn't wanted one, but had lost fifty pounds during the pregnancy and the doctors told her it was either the baby - or her and the baby.

She said, "It may sometimes be a necessary choice, but don't ever let anyone tell you it's an easy or trivial one."

A young lady standing nearby said, "Thank you."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Take a L.E.A.P at this

Where do Noam Chomsky, William F. Buckley, Barbara Ehrenreich, Milton Friedman, Howard Zinn and George P. Schultz find common ground?

On what controversial issue do they all agree?

And what does it say that these public intellectuals, coming from such widely varying points of view, have all examined the weight of evidence and reached the same conclusion?

See here: http://www.leap.cc/cms/index.php

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Adventures with language

In 1991, just before I left Oklahoma to go to Poland to teach English in a new "non-public" high school (only in the post-communist world does that term make sense), a friend of mine said, "Why do I get the feeling that a hundred years from now, linguists are going to discover a village in Poland where everybody quotes Kipling?"

That may yet come to pass, but I do sometimes wonder how many corruptions of the Polish language I am personally responsible for.

My students in high school were fascinated with English slang, and there was a bit of a fashion in parts of Eastern Europe (may still be for all I know) for writing grafitti in English. (I saw "Skateboarding is not a crime" on a wall in a town called Milanovek once.)

I remember teaching them "talking to the toilet" - (Aussie slang for "vomit") and how they howled with laughter.

Later I saw it on a wall, one town down the train line from mine.

Another one that made them laugh uncontrolably: I looked out the window and saw it was snowing. In Polish, snow is "snieg" (shh/nee-egg) "It's snowing" is "snieg pada" (literally "snow falls".) So I said, "Look, it's sniegging."

That one brought down the house.

Another that some of my friends liked was, "What are you doing today?"

"Just veging."

And then there was the time I almost caused a Polish girl to expire with exhausted laughter in Prague.

We were walking through one of that most marvelous of city's parks one night, and I saw a bat.

I asked, "Co to jest po Polsku?" ("What's that in Polish?")

I heard something I thought sounded like "topesh," so I tried to confirm, "Topesh?"

She replied, with emphasis, "Nietopesz."

Two things I must explain: one is that the negative prefix in Polish is "nie," meaning "no," but also as a prefix non-, un-, a-, ab- etc. It's one of two or three areas in which Polish grammar is actually simpler than English.

(Polish also has one negative suffix: -bez, meaning "without" or "-less.")

The other thing is that Polish has about 50% more basic speech sounds than English, including a number of subtly different sounds that sound to us like "sh," and represented by "sz" and "s" with a few different diacritical marks that I don't have the type for on this program.

So (back to the park), I thought the young lady was saying, "Not topesh" and kept trying various combinations like "TOE-pesh," "toe-PESH," "toe-pezh" while she kept saying "NIETOPESZ" while choking with laughter and holding her stomach.

I think she had literally collapsed to the ground when I finally realized that "bat" in Polish, is "nietopesz."

Always happy to be a source of such innocent merriment to my friends.

Some day I'll tell how I tried to put together a term for "yankee" in Polish, and came up with a construction that means "half a chamber pot."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Father's Day, lessons for an older dad

About seven years back I found myself an expectant father, much to my surprise. It happened right about the time in my life I had given up hoping that it would ever happen for me, a time when many of my friends were starting to think about becoming grandparents.

I did all the enlightened modern father things, I went to birthing classes (in a language not my own) and trained to be a “birth coach.”

Thankfully when the time came, the (female) staff made me step aside, hold my wife's hand and let the pros handle it.

For the next few years I would have these “fatherhood moments,” when it would just hit me right between the eyes, “Omigod, I'm a FATHER!”

Then about the time I'd adjusted to the idea, my wife informed me we were going to be parents again.

This time my son and I were both there, holding hands while he offered helpful advice like, “Don't worry Mommy, it's only a baby.”

So it started all over again. From time to time, out of the blue, it would just hit me, “Omigod I'm the father of TWO children!”

I wonder if fathers of big families ever get over that?

So there I was, an old dog trying to learn new tricks, the same way a dog learns – by getting my nose rubbed in it. So what did I learn?

Same things every other dad does I guess.

To begin with, dads and moms are not interchangeable.

Since both of us were English teachers when our son was born in Warsaw, my wife and I decided to structure our schedules so I'd teach my business classes in the morning and she'd put the baby down for a nap and go teach her pre-schoolers in the afternoon. Very modern, very enlightened.

Except that when a six-month-old baby wakes up early from a nap, daddy is NOT good enough. I'd hold the baby while he cried inconsolably – until my mother-in-law came by after work and the baby would turn off the faucet and gurgle and coo at the sight of grandma.

Second thing I learned was, no matter how much an enlightened male helps out with housework, diaper changes and child minding, fatherhood is not and never will be, as physically exhausting as motherhood.

After the birth of our second, I had another horrified realization. I was always pretty sure I had a handle on raising a boy, based on the (subsequently confirmed) theory that he'd be a lot like me, personality-wise. That is, he'd be a bright, healthy, active, smart-mouthed little hellion – and I'd have to keep a close rein on my temper when I got the backtalk. Simple.

When our daughter was born, it hit me that I had absolutely no idea how to go about raising a daughter. Zero, zip, nada. Worse still, I've begun to suspect it doesn't gets any better.

And what surprised me most, I found I'd become dreadfully afraid of the effects of our culture on our kids. I mean trashy TV shows, video games, and idiot foul-mouthed celebrities with too much money, too little sense, and entirely too much attention paid to them.

I discovered I'd gone from being a hipster to a square. You know, four corners, L – seven.

A while back I had a conversation with a friend with more experience at this fatherhood thing. He's got three kids, all older than mine.

I told him, “Man, sometimes I think all I can do is to give my kids parents who love each other and love them.”

He replied, “Sometimes it's all you can do. But sometimes it's enough.”

Note: This appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Register. In 2009 it won First Place for Personal Column - Serious, in the North Dakota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest, in the category of 12,000 or less circulation.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A great debate shaping up here: VDH and Pat Buchannan

Victor Davis Hanson reviews - unfavorably, Pat Buchannan's book Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War': How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World here: http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson060908.html

Buchanan responds here: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/PatrickJBuchanan/2008/06/13/the_good_war_and_the_terrible_peace?page=2

I haven't read Buchannan's book, however you can find his summary of the thesis here: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/PatrickJBuchanan/2008/05/27/how_the_west_lost_the_world

My take on the argument is, Buchanan has some interesting notions - but he's doing allohistory, Hanson is doing history.

Allohistory is the history of the "parallel universe" where X happened instead of Y.

Allohistory is a useful exercise sometimes and a lot of fun, but you cannot prove anything with it. Or rather, you can prove anything you like with it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


*Oh Canada!

"Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.” —Canadian “Human Rights” Investigator Dean Steacy, responding to the question “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?”

*Dear Abby

There was a letter in Dear Abby the other day, from a new mother who was thinking about "taking a break" from motherhood - maybe just for a while. Like long enough to go to college or something.

It was spooky to read this woman matter-of-factly trying to talk herself into abandoning her infant.

Dear Abby (actually the daughter of the Dear Abby I grew up reading) discouraged the idea, but was gentle about it. I found myself wishing it were Dr. Laura ripping her a new one.


Battlestar Galactica is back, and I still have no idea how the series is going to play out, but this is the last season.

Please God, if you're listening, don't let them blow it with a cheesy ending.

* The election.

Actually, when I say "the election" these days, I mean the local elections for city and county offices hereabouts on June 10.

I was covering a local candidate forum this past week, and realized that I was actually paying more attention to the ideas being discussed there than I have been for the longest presidential election in history. Possibly because the discussion is more down-to-earth.

And speaking of which, Intrade prediction market says Obama is going to be president.

Jimmy Carter redux, but this time the Iranian crazies will have nukes.

And speaking of Obama, I don't know who Whoopi Goldberg is supporting in this election (though it's surely a Democrat), but years ago when Jessie Jackson was making noises about running, she said something that went right to the point.

"They say I should support Jessie Jackson because he's black and I'm black. White folks have been voting for white folks because they're white for a long time - it don't f**king work!"

* Something every journalist should consider from time to time

Recently I was reminded of something Hungarian-born academic Paul Hollander said (he may have been quoting someone.)

Consider back in the 1930s, probably the last time anyone in the West could be a communist with any pretensions of innocence.

Consider highbrows and lowbrows.

Highbrows get their impressions of the Soviet Union from academic sources, the writings of public intellectuals, and of course The New York Times.

Lowbrows get their impression from pulp magazines containing stories like, "I was a prisoner of the Red terror!"

Question: Who would have had a more accurate impression of the Soviet Union?

Monday, June 02, 2008

I got a new computer for my birthday

I got a new computer for my birthday. Trouble is, it's the same computer I've owned for the past three years.

But it is new in all essential respects. Computers don't have many mechanical parts to wear out, so it doesn't look worn. What's new is the operating system and files – the mind and nervous system of the machine.

That's because the OS became corrupted (for no particular reason that anyone could tell me, it just happens) and I had to contact a service representative (in India I believe) who walked me through the process of un-installing and reinstalling the OS and programs.

In the process I lost years worth of collected documents, all correspondence stored on the computer and several programs I use for my work.

But hey, I got a brand new computer and it works great!

OK, I realize I should continuously back up all my files and documents. I really do remember to do this once in a while. But this time I couldn't do it before scrubbing the machine's memory because Windows wouldn't boot up to let me do it.

The service rep had to coach me to do esoteric things like, “Push the Start button while holding the control button down and repeatedly tapping the F11 key as fast as you can.”

How stupid of me not to have known that!

This sort of thing is so common that computer users don't realize that other industries have a name for the phenomenon.

They call it, “defective products.”

A few years back Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, crowed in public, "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon".

In response General Motors issued a press release stating: “If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to
buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull over to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Apple would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only five percent of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single "This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation" warning light.

7.The airbag system would ask "Are you sure?" before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the "Start" button to turn the engine off.”

Remember years ago when pundits warned us that computers were going to be Frankenstein monsters that would dehumanize us and turn us into robots?

Didn't happen – instead what happened was that computers became humanized, and I don't like it one bit!

Back in the Mechanical Age, you flipped a switch, pulled a lever or turned a dial, and something either happened or it didn't. If it didn't, the machine was broken and you fixed it or got rid of it.

Now, if you want your computer to do something you can't rely on the same procedure producing the same result twice. Sometimes you just have to say, “Oh please, please, pretty please do this.”

I want my soulless machines back!