Rants and Raves

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

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sucks to be back

Note: I emailed this in last Thursday for the paper's weekend edition. Orgeon, Washington, and the northern coast of California are the states to be for those who have a taste for mountains, seacoasts and deserts. You can live on the slope of a mountain with forrest all around, and high desert at your back across the peaks.

I reminded myself of why the late Charles Kuralt had the best job ever.

On the road across America

By Steve Browne

Today I'm on the sixth day of a road trip across the north western states with my son, and preparing to return home tomorrow with the greatest reluctance.

We left Valley City on Saturday and headed west down I-94 to Billings, Montana and from there to Yellowstone National Park.

I last saw Yellowstone when I was about my son's age, so this was a real treat. He'd read about Old Faithful, so he had to see it. We were not disappointed.

Well, perhaps about one thing. We saw elk and buffalo close up, but no bears. When I was a boy bears were begging everywhere along the roads, fed by idiot tourists from their cars in spite of all the signs telling them not to. I was told that doesn't happen anymore. After a few tourists were killed, they really started enforcing regulations.

From there we took old U.S. 20 across the high desert country of Idaho to Boise, where we picked up I-84 to Portland, Oregon.

We've crossed the same territory it took the Lewis and Clark expedition a couple of years and tremendous effort. We've gone through different ecological zones, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and reset our clocks three times.

We've seen the truly breathtaking beauty of the high western mountains, the rugged volcanic landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument, high plains, deserts, the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.

When I think about it, I am astounded that we've done this in a matter of days. What a time to live in when such things are possible!

I find myself possessed of a longing for contradictory things. I want to keep on the road for... a lot longer. Maybe forever.

On the other hand, I've seen intriguing little communities I'd like to settle down for a while and get to know better.

There's a little town called Arco way out in the Idaho desert, population about 900. Yet it manages to have a thriving Main Street, and a nuclear submarine museum. Why does this little place seem to thrive when small towns are dying across the country? Could it have something to do with the top secret-looking energy laboratory in the desert.

Arco boasts it was the first town in America powered by nuclear energy.

Then there's Baker City, Oregon, population 9,000. A town of well-preserved historical buildings set between a steep mountain gorge and a fertile valley. We stayed in a motel there one night, because our tent needed fixing.

In the motel office the manager lady had turtles, a ferret, an iguana, and a bearded dragon lizard, literally running around loose.

"Are you a collector?" I asked.

"Not exactly," she replied. "I got the iguana from an animal rescue group. Then when word got around I had him, people started giving me other abandoned animals."

We saw people coping with the recession by starting small coffee and food kiosks. We encountered waitresses in diners who passed a word of encouragement to my son when I had him doing his homework on the table. We met Americans, a people of diverse origins scattered across an immense land, but all still recognizably my countrymen.

Travel writing is a thing of extremes. On the one hand you have John Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charlie,' and William Least Heat Moon's 'Blue Highways." But most is filler for tourist brochures.

It's difficult to describe what you see driving across America and the people you meet. But when you start to travel, it's difficult to stop. It's like a hunger, you want to eat the life of this country.

And that's when you have to remind yourself to slow down, stop and savor the place you're in before you move on.

Well, maybe next trip. We've got a lot to see yet.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The middle class on the march

Note: This is my weekend op-ed for the newspaper. I penned it early because this Saturday I'm headed out on the road again! My son and I are going car camping through the north western states, maybe all the way to the Pacific.

Maximilien François de Robespierre, a leader of the French Revolution and architect of The Reign of Terror, was sitting with a friend in a sidewalk cafe in Paris.
Suddenly a huge crowd rushed by. Robespierre jumped up and ran after them.
“Robespierre! Where are they going? What are they doing?” his friend calls.
“I don't know, but I have to be in front. I'm their leader!”

Last Saturday, September 12, a crowd of protesters descended on Washington, D.C., a big one.

They came to protest the massive expansion of government and the national debt.

How big a crowd is debated. News reports first said, “thousands,” quickly revised to “tens of thousands.” Eyewitnesses known to me say, “six figures minimum.”

The London newspaper Daily Mail, estimated at least a million, others as high as two million. To the cautious that sounds a bit over the top.

All of these figures come from eyeball estimates. Counting crowds is dicey at best. You define a square, get a rough count of the people inside it, then count how many squares cover the crowd. Then there's the question of how dense the crowd is. People tend to cluster near speakers, for example.

The National Park Service said they'd have an estimate later this week, based on analysis of aerial photos. The Park Service hasn't done crowd estimates for 14 years, since their 1995 estimate of the Million Man March sponsored by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam turned out so disappointingly low.

We'll see how long it is before they're allowed to do another crowd estimate after this. But from the pictures, no one can doubt this was huge.

From photos and interviews some facts are emerging.

This is not the Republican Party still sore about the election. This is a lot of Americans from all over the country who are really sore about both parties. A sentiment expressed on one T-shirt, “Impeach Everybody!”

There are Republicans trying to ride this movement's coat tails like Robespierre – and they're being told to sit down, shut up and listen. They should consider themselves lucky, Robespierre was guillotined.

Media call the crowd “conservative,” and it may be in the sense that 41 percent of the electorate label themselves. Which means something different from what conservatives in Washington (a.k.a. Big Government Republicans) mean by it. It might be Populist, if anyone could tell me what that means. There appears to be a strong libertarian “leave us the hell alone” streak in it.

These people are not happy about insults they've received, as expressed on one sign, “It doesn't matter what this sign says, they'll call it racist anyway.”

This is the real thing, in that overused phrase, a grass-roots movement. Not “astroturf.”

The pictures show a crowd generally well-dressed though not upscale, orderly, an average age surprisingly high, and contrary to critics not lily-white either. Minorities are represented though sparsely, as are a surprising number of immigrants.

This is the middle class on the march, and I've seen it before. In several countries where people got utterly fed up with their government.*

A people fed up with a recklessly spendthrift Republican administration turned them out of power. Democrats took that as permission to join the Republicans in running up debt to levels many say looks like national suicide. Someone's not listening.

After Sunday an anonymous commenter remarked, “When people with jobs demonstrate, you know something is happening.”

Folks, this is a game-changer. A lot of angry Americans have learned that when you're frustrated, insulted, and feel like nobody is listening, demonstrating is fun.

*In Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania I marched with people who had had enough of their government and turned out in numbers too big to ignore or shoot down; students, professionals, workingmen, little old babushkas and elegant ladies in fur wraps. In Yugoslavia it was a very near run thing. I may owe my life to a police chief who refused to give the kill order – and was killed for it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Preliminary impressions; the march on Washington

I've been trolling for news from Washington after the March.

First impression: I am semi-suicidally depressed I wasn't there.

First thing I found out (God bless the Internet!) from people who were there and are known to me, the numbers are not "thousands" of people, but tens or hundreds of thousands. Possibly topping a million.

(Counting crowds is dicey and notoriously subjective. You imagine a square, try and count the people inside it, then count how many squares cover the crowd. Some accounts say the crowd covered about half the area of Washington that were there for the inauguration. Which leaves the question of how dense the respective crowds were.)

First important point: This movement is not a Republican Party surrogate and it is national in scope. I attended a Tea Party in Jamestown, ND (pop. 12,000) a while ago and got the same quote heard there:

"Actually, I'm pretty disgusted with both parties."

Second: There is an attempt by the Republicans to co-opt it - and they are getting told in no uncertain terms to sit down and shut up.

Third: It is not a libertarian movement per se, though it has strong libertarian elements. It might be more on the conservative side. Populist? Dunno, first tell me what that means.

I think it's a "pissed-off movement."

How it'll translate into election results... dunno.

I'm wondering if a suggestion Paul Harvey made some years back could be the basis of a national election plan. What he suggested was that until spending is reined in and the budget ballanced, evey non-incumbent's election slogan should be, "Elect no incumbents!"

There should perhaps be a short list of exception: Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) (yes, I'm aware he's a little nutty on some issues, mostly foreign policy) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK.)

A website could be set up to list who's an incumbent, and the election slogans could be the same for everyone:

(blank) is an incumbent!

Vote for (blank)
He couldn't be worse.

And BTW, go here: http://www.reason.com/blog/show/136042.html

for an account by eyewitnesses.

And scroll down to this perceptive observation:

"When people with jobs are out protesting, then you know the government is really screwing up."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dangerous numbers

Lately I've been thinking about numbers, specifically demographic numbers.

I've written previously about the potential for chaos caused by sex-ratio imbalance in Asia, and commented on Mark Steyn's wonderfully witty analysis of the demographic decline of Europe in 'America Alone.'

But what I'm thinking about now is something I noticed about the civil war in Ulster (Northern Ireland) some years ago.

The various IRA factions (there isn't just one) were backed by the Catholic Irish, the Unionists by the Scots-Irish Protestants.

In Eire, Catholics amount to around 97 percent of the population, the rest being mostly descendants of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who actually supplied quite a few Irish revolutionaries during centuries of English rule. (Weird? No, just Irish.)

Northern Ireland was kept by the UK because the population was roughly two-thirds Unionist Protestants and one-third Catholic. Actual percentage numbers varied over a couple of generations, and Catholics have a higher birth rate. Higher enough to scare the Protestants.

Without going into specifics of why the decades-long troubles started, it occurred to me years ago this ratio was really dangerous.

In America the largest minority is black people, at about 11 percent. (Now swiftly being overtaken by Hispanics.) That's why Black Nationalism, in either its secular or Islamist version was a fantasy.

Any revolutionary movement based on a population group of only 11 percent is a fantasy. The most they could aspire to (on the light side and dark side of democracy) is power through organized crime or as a swing voting block. And that assumes unanimity of purpose, something almost never achieved within any group on more than a single issue.

To put it very, very, bluntly, the question that dominates majority/minority relations in any time and place, the one we're all to polite to talk about is, "If they grow too troublesome, can we kill them all?" (And I'm putting that in its most extreme form. "All of them" is not necessary, just enough to terrorize the rest.)

Eleven percent? You know the answer.

But one-third? A one-third minority can realistically dream of winning.

Look throughout military history and you'll find plenty of examples of armies who defeated other armies twice as large.

Point: total victory is not necessary.

Mark Steyn, referring to Europe’s growing Islamic population, “(I)t’s not about hitting 50 percent. It’s about the point at which mediating between the Muslim population and the broader population becomes a central and then the dominant feature of the culture.”

And it's not just the numbers that matter, but the age distribution. Steyn pointed out the median age of the Muslim population of Europe is considerably less than the native European population. Crime rates in America are sent soaring by a smallish demographic within the minority population, males between 15 and 35 years of age.

Hint: What demographic do your street fighters come from?

So what does that have to do with us?

Newt Gincrich told a breakfast group I attended a few years back, that all surveys show the committed Hard Left in America is no more than 14 to 16 percent in this country.

Frankly I was surprised it's that high.

So 16 percent max is still only at the nuisance level. And quite frankly, they strongly tend to be wimp academics and intellectuals. Not exactly street fighter material.

(Their birth rate isn't all that high either. That's why they want control of education. They can't breed enough of their own so they want our children. And that's why they want to change the demographic makeup of America by importing illegal immigrants.)

But... what happens when they're reinforced by dissatisfied masses who are basically non-ideological, but whose sense of grievance, real or imaginary, can be organized and focused?

I've said before, any ambitious program to socialize America cannot be done through the electoral system alone. They're going to need a thug corps.

Notice that today, September 12, Americans who resist the idea of turning our country into a fascist state are the ones taking to the streets of the capitol.

A lawyer with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) once pointed out to me that control of the streets is very important to fascists.

So what kind of reply can we expect from them?

Interesting times we live in, what?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Funny thing happened on the way to an article...

I got a request from my editor a few days ago.

Reasonably simple, please get short opinions from doctors on what they think about health care.

A vague questions to be sure. Refine it a little. What do you think should be done about health care? About six opinions in a short paragraph each.

So... I got one from a clinic administrator. Another from the county public health director, an RN. One more from an Osteopath who doesn't practice now. (He's busy building attended care homes and such.)

I stopped off at the local Innovis clinic.

"Well, some of the doctors would like to talk to you, but we have to check with HQ in Fargo to see if they'll let us. We'll get back to you."

I'm still waiting.

Doctors in another clinic attached, but not part of the local hospital, were all too busy at the times I called. Messages asking them to get back to me, have gone unanswered.

The short article is on hold. Probably scrapped.

Now, organizations understandably don't want newspaper readers to get the idea that a doc giving an opinion is not speaking for the org. I understand that.

And yet, am I paranoid or does it seem like docs seem a tad timid about expressing an opinion on this issues these days?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The road to utopia

Note: This appeared as the weekend editorial in the Times-Record.

The utopian ideal, the belief that something close to heaven can be created on earth, has been part of the fabric of the American national character since the beginning of our country.

The colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were founded in the 17th century on differing visions of what a Christian utopia should look like. In the 19th century the Mormons established their own utopia in the west, later brought into the union, not entirely voluntarily as the state of Utah.

Pamphleteer of the American Revolution Tom Paine, expressed that part of our makeup in 'Common Sense,' “We have it in our power, to begin the world anew.”

From the founding of our nation, utopian idealists started to take off into the wide open spaces of the west with groups of like-minded individuals to build models of what the good society would look like. They expected their success would convince the world to follow their lead into utopia.

Their efforts were opposed by Karl Marx, who despised “utopian socialists” and preached the only road to utopia was through world revolution.

There were literally hundreds of attempts to found intentional communities throughout the 19th century. Most failed in short order.

Businessman Robert Owen bought a town from the Rappite religious community in Harmony Indiana and founded the secular socialist community of New Harmony in 1825. It folded in less than three years. The Rappites themselves lasted as a communal sect until 1906 though.

In 1843 Bronson Alcott, father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, founded Fruitlands, whose members ate only fruit that fell naturally from trees and wouldn't bathe in heated water. It lasted until winter set in.

Brook Farm was founded in 1841 on vaguely socialist ideals of combining a life of manual labor with artistic and intellectual pursuits. The community, which included famous members such as Nathanial Hawthorne, was by most accounts a pleasant enough place, remembered fondly by people who lived there. But it fell heavily into debt and closed in 1847.

There were longer-lasting attempts. Some survived for a few generations, some blended into the mainstream of American society, others still thrive as subcultures among America's “peculiar peoples.”

The Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amana community, offshoots of the 16th century German pietistic movement, transplanted to America to escape persecution.

The Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites survive as religious communities. The Amana communities reorganized as a joint-stock company in the 1930s, manufacturing household goods.

The Oneida free-love community founded in 1848 in New York became the Oneida silverware company, whose stockholders and board of directors seem rather embarrassed by their wild ancestors.

Their polar opposites, the celibate Shakers, survive though greatly diminished as one might expect.

The Individualist Anarchist community of Modern Times on Long Island eventually became a more-or-less normal community with a strong tolerance for eccentricity, now known as Brentwood.

It's easy to laugh at these people now. How naive and impractical the intellectuals of Fruitlands and Brook Farm now seem, to dive headlong into farm life without a clue about how to run a successful farm!

Yet, to me there is something appealing about them. Today those who would build the world anew disdain the idea of say, allowing the states to try different reforms of health care, welfare, etc to see which ideas prove workable. They have no patience with local, piecemeal, step-by-step approaches to reform.

Unlike our modern utopians who insist we overhaul our national institutions RIGHT NOW, the 19th century utopians took a more humble approach. They tried to demonstrate on a small scale how their ideals would work first. Most failed, but then that's the nature of experiments.

But the next time you use a flat broom, circular saw, or clothespin – thank the Shakers who invented them. And maybe we should remember that utopia means “no place.”