Friday, January 29, 2016

Getting my Irish up

I can see my well-worn copy of "The Year of the French" from where I am sitting right now. It was published in 1979, nearly 200 years after the events it portrays. I was a college freshman. I bought it in hardcover, though I hardly had money for whiskey.



I read it that year and I read it again every year – I’m due to begin again mid-March. Flanagan's book is inextricably tied up in whatever precious sense of Irishness I have been able to reclaim from my fractured personal pedigree as an Irish/German half-breed bastard raised by Czechs. In that, and in the facility with which I can now finish its sentences, it is an old and important friend. Indeed, so a good a friend that in kindness, I now leave the first edition on the shelf and read it on my Kindle.

In briefest precis, the book is the story of the '98 Rising, fomented by United Irishmen and a host of other lovers of liberty, men and women of a diversity that will surprise those used to thinking of the more modern variety of Troubles in strictly sectarian terms. Framed by the story of a fictional poet and hedge school master -- a man with equal affections for the jug, comfortable women and Greek, but having no particular inclination toward revolution -- it is a towering work, a staggering literary accomplishment. It is huge and funny and tragic and just so fookin' good.

And that would be enough. Dayenu, to steal the perfect term from another people of words and woe. Except that while that would enough, that's not all. What boggles the mind to this day, what fills me with a mixture of powerful awe and no little writer’s envy, is that this was Flanagan's first novel. The utter gall of the man, to write such a work as a first thing. Dayenu. Except even that isn't all. Because I will read TYOTF with special attention this year, as I will be 56 – the age Flanagan was when he published it. His first novel – this novel  at 56!

With the exception of its protagonist, the TYOTF comes under the ambit of mostly true historical fiction. Nothing you will learn in it is false, even if there are those -- mostly British, I'd expect -- critics who might complain of what it leaves alone. But frankly, if you wish, you can leave the history alone altogether, if it bores or angers or discomfits you. [I spoil nothing to say this Rising ended more less as you will have come to expect, although with perhaps, thanks to French involvement, with even more treachery and disappointment than was strictly usual.] But you must read this book at last or again, as the case may be for you.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wherein the Suburban Sheepdog engages in wild speculation . . . *

One thing we simply don’t do here at the Suburban Sheepdog is engage in wild speculation. Well. . . . It's not completely prohibited, I suppose, but it is certainly discouraged. Yes . . .  discouraged. Frowned upon, one might say. Not the done thing. So maybe let's call this "Theater of the Mind" instead. 



For folks with even the slightest knowledge of how guys “in the boats” operate (and I claim only the slightest knowledge), the story has had the smell of a Qatari-fishmonger’s day-old wares right from the start. It goes like this:

Two modern Riverine Command Boats (carrying loads of sophisticated navigation equipment, communications gear, highly maintained engines, experienced sailors and – not for nothing – tow ropes), supposedly traveling within sight of the eastern shore of Arabian Peninsula while transiting down the western edge of the Persian Gulf got leagues** off course and both run aground/suffer simultaneous multiple engine failures/both run out of fuel (this bit of the tale changes with each telling), and thus wind up in notoriously unfriendly Iranian waters, where they are seized.***

I know, right . . . ?

But to understand a story, to test its smell, you have to know the context in which is told. So how about this for that . . ..

The US and Iran, perhaps as an adjunct to Let’s Make a Deal, perhaps as a prerequisite to it, perhaps as a result, agree that there will be a prisoner exchange. We will get back five folks, including a journalist, a student and a pastor. Iran gets back seven prisoners, most of whom were being held for illegally exporting military or nuclear program materiel, and we agree to take another Iranian 14 fugitives off of Interpol’s wanted list. From the US administration’s perspective, the exchange is cheap at twice the price, because our people come home.

But for Iran, not so much. The trouble for Iran is that, like any despotry, the most important propaganda isn’t the kind they broadcast to the rest of an unbelieving world. Instead, the propaganda that matters most is the kind that is disseminated to its own citizens. They must continually be reminded of – on the one hand – the threat posed by whomever is playing foil to the regime (for Iran, of course, that’s been US, in the role of “The Great Satan,” a performance running since at least the overthrow of Mossadegh and extended indefinitely) and – on the other hand – the power of the Supreme Leader (or El Jefe Maximo or The Grand Poobah or whatever he’s locally dubbed) to resist that existential outside threat. Only thus can the President for Life or the Revolutionary Counsel or the Mighty Morphin’ Magic Mullah justify all the torture, repression and bread lines, and keep his own people at least marginally at bay.

So, knowing they are about to release some US “spies” and “operatives,” and not quite satisfied with a better than 4-to-1 exchange rate, one can imagine Iran demanding that a callow U.S. administration put a little sweetener into the pot. Our benighted leadership is all too eager to ante up. But  . . . what’s left? We’re already giving back all the money we seized and lifting the sanctions we imposed, all on unverifiable promises that Iran will behave itself in years to come, you know, nuclear bomb-wise. We already have demonstrated that a few unauthorized missile launches here and there aren’t going to be enough to queer the deal. Naked before a fully-clothed Iran, what’s left for the pot in this one-sided strip poker game? What to do? What to do?
And then I imagine**** someone speaking up from the back row of some conference room  – maybe an eager-beaver back-wall staffer who’s prized for thinking outside the box: “Say . . .  How about some American sailors on their knees? Now hear me out. . . .  There’s – I dunno – a ‘navigation failure.’ They – whadaya call it? – ‘stray into Iranian waters’? And you Iranians . . .ya know . . . seize the boats. Nobody gets hurt. You  guys take some photos and steal some telephone SIM cards. Maybe you shoot a little video that you can broadcast over encouraging chyrons describing the ‘cowardice’and ‘submission of the United States.’ Time it just right to coordinate with the prisoner exchange. . .  Then you give the sailors back and we get to say we ‘recovered’ them, which is easy 'cause we gave em over in the first place.  . . ."

"Ohhh! Ohhh!" pipes up a staffer on the political team, eager to think outside a box of her own. "Get this  . . . this is good: POTUS doesn't say a word about the seizure during the State of the Union. Team R howls. Then they look foolish when we announce it like the next day. Sort of like Operation Neptune Spear and the Correspondents' Dinner. The President is going to look so  -- what's the word? -- Presidential."

"Three or four news cycles at the most" says the first staffer, glaring at the young woman who has stolen some of his thunder, vowing his revenge. "Everybody gets well. We emphasize the prisoner exchange; you focus on the 'incursion.' Whadaya say?"

But that’s all wild speculation. . . .

. . .  And we don’t do that here.



* . . . and uses a lot of ellipses.

** “League” is just a salty way of saying 3 nautical miles. Nautical mile is just a salty way of saying 1.15 miles. To get the picture, try this exercise. Go to Google Maps and search up “Farsi Island.” (Keep zooming in; you will see it eventually.) Now draw a line from Kuwait to Bahrain. There you go. Actual distances involved are about 42 miles between Farsi Island and the nearest point on the Saudi coast. Yes, the Iranians claim waters around Farsi Island as their own. Even so . . .

*** I have no cavil with the “seized” part from that point. These boats are not designed to engage in combat on the open seas with bigger craft, nor was the mission here to do so, nor would the Rules of Engagement have allowed such a fight.

**** And of course, I only can imagine, since I wasn’t in the room where it happened.





 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Déjà vu

Well that didn’t take long. But as we have learned in the past, statists and aspiring tyrants like to feed on the bodies while they are still warm. And so, as predictable as the springtime return of short skirts to the Tuileries, as ubiquitous as the jambon buerre, as inevitable as an SNCF strike, Paris now brings us calls for restrictions (is it t0o soon to say “containment”?) of free peoples’ civil liberties as the only possible means to avert even more attacks. 



Everyone, it seems, wants a bloody mouthful. French President Hollande wants his 12-day "extraordinary powers"  – which include warrantless searches and detentions, and prohibitions of certain gatherings – extended for three months now and then written into the French constitution in a way that eliminates that onerous consultation with Parliament.

Here in the US, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the FBI director wants private use of encryption restricted. But you have to admire the bureaucratic ambitions of the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission – last I checked, not a law enforcement agency – calling for more wire taps. Fortunately for them, these members of the Executive Branch needn't worry overmuch about pesky checks and balances by the Legislative Branch. They'll have enthusiastic support from lawmakers like Diane Feinstein, who never met an exercise of state control she didn’t want to take home and take to bed -- including state control over the cooperative playing of Mario Cart.

But then, we are talking about a government – at least here in the United States – that seems more than a little fuzzy on notions like the free exchange of ideas. How else to understand Secretary of State John Kerry’s facile and frightening distinction between last week’s Paris attacks – which he considers thoroughly unjustified – and the January murders of journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which murders he described as “legitimate, er, rational, um, particularized.*

We’ve talked about this before, this tendency for hard facts to make bad – usually grandiosely named -- law. But the danger is that you might want understand this impulse only as the sort of paroxysm of desperate, ex post facto panic that leads even a liberal Montessori mom to spank her toddler after he’s run into the street. But this is not an emotional overreaction by an otherwise liberty-minded set of leaders. This is no aberration.**

Rather it is inherent in the nature of the state always to expand its power and always to seek to expand. At its core is an understanding that, to ever expand, rulers must “never let a crisis go to waste.”*** As soon as, and every time that, events make the people a little less vigilant of the state, the state will take advantage.**** So while you're keeping an eye out for Daesh, spare one for Washington.





* OK.  I admit it. That paraphrase isn’t precisely perfect. But the link will take you to what he actually said, which was, frankly, worse.

** For this, I like to quote Robespierre: "The principle of the republican government is virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is terror."

*** Rahm Emanuel said it recently, perhaps revealing more than he meant to about his particular team strategy. But the concept by no means belongs to progressives alone. The quote is originally attributed to Winston Churchill (aren't they all), no progressive he, but quite the fellow for expanding state power, as many a dead Irish patriot could tell you from his grave.

**** And here we mean "take advantage" in the precisely same way a father means it when he warns his daughter before prom "not to let that boy take advantage."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

EOW 11-10-75 (Redux)

On the fortieth anniversary, redux.You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind. Thirty-five Forty years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior , taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*



Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.

Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.

Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.

After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.

The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD  wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.

Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.

All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.

However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.

I was too busy making an acquaintance of hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.

Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day thirty-five forty years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth or black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.

But that’s another story.



*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

1,000 words

If there was any chance you still have not come to understand the simple, self-delusional, criminal idiocy that forms the foundation of the "gun free zone," then this image ought finally to convince you.



Except, of course, that it won't.

If you were ever capable of believing that a man already set on murder, as was, evidently, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, would be deterred by a sign, then I think we have to admit to ourselves that while you are capable of believing anything, you are capable of learning nothing.

If you ever endorsed the efficacy of the "gun free zone," that means you were possessed of the sort of spectacularly limber imagination that George Lucas or Walt Disney could only envy. Because you were able to picture, in your mind's eye, a disgruntled ex-employee or a seething jihadi or a garden variety madman -- heedless of the laws of God and man that have ever prohibited murder -- being pulled up short by silhouette of a gun and null sign. You could script an internal conversation that went something like this:

"Well. I had planned on annihilating everyone in the place, before sending myself to join them in hell or paradise. But whereas I don't care how many of my fellow men have to die to (satiate my rage) (satisfy my theology) (silence the voices in my head), I am certainly not going to stoop to taking a gun into a building that is quite clearly labeled to bar such conduct.
Why, that would be wrong.
I suppose I'll just go home."


A mind that can contain that depth of imagination has its merits, but it's not the sort place terribly hospitable to facts.

If you ever argued that "gun free zones" make anyone safer from anything or anyone, then you are either a hoplophobic fool or -- and this, I fear, is too widely the case -- the sort of heartless ideologue for whom truth is a mere speed bump on the way to the tyranny you desire, and for whom today's events in Chattanooga are nothing more nor less than another crisis not to be wasted.

As I have said and said and said - Robert's Rule holds that gun free zones aren't.

But then you knew that, didn't you?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Our Knees*

UPDATED

It’s one of Robert’s Rules, and one of the saddest, that Facts Pursue Narratives - Narratives Flee From Facts. Perhaps it has always been this way, but we see the Rule writ especially large in an era of 24-hour, multi-channel blather, where every agenda has its ardent proponents, all of whom are far more quick and ready to push their party line than the reporters in the field are quick and able to dig up and disseminate actual information. So literally before the bodies in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had begun to cool, you could find commentators, politicians and shills of every stripe using those murdered believers as a fulcrum to raise this or that particular agenda just that bit higher.




The coming hours and days will doubtless produce more facts, and they’ll doubtless be slipped into and hammered onto and wedged under the narratives we all have come to expect -- however fast those narratives flee from facts that don't suit. But instead of speculating on what those facts may prove to be, I want to talk about what we knew before that first shot was fired yesterday, what is true in the harsh light of morning, and what will be true no matter what facts we learn in days to come.

+ + +

Before the first shot we knew that Emanuel AME was some variety of persistent miracle. To begin, the church was founded in 1816. Let that date sit with you a moment, because that’s 47 years before a presidential order that finally said that black human beings like those who founded that church could no longer be owned by other human beings. In the two tempestuous centuries since its founding, Emanuel AME has survived upheaval, violence, persecution, prejudice and even –  in South Carolina? –  an earthquake. A man named Denmark Vesey, was – just six years after helping to found the church – tried in secret by a kangaroo court and hanged for his role in a planned revolt of human beings who wished no longer to be owned by other human beings.

Thus we knew Wednesday that the believers of Emanuel AME had survived great horrors before and had prospered and grown and loved their church to the glory of God even so. After the last echo of the last shot has passed, I think we know that they will do the same. We know that with the prayers and love and shared tears of believers and people of good will, Emanuel AME will persevere as it has persevered. We know that if this killer thought to strike down this church –  let alone the Church – he has already failed, as even worse men have failed, as even the Gates of Hell must fail.

I knew Wednesday, and I know today, and nothing to come will make me doubt that God does not abandon His people. I knew Wednesday, and I know today, that only He can lift and comfort those who mourn. I knew Wednesday, and I know today, that people of Emanuel AME are my brothers and sisters in Christ and that He hears my prayers for them.

+ + +

But there's something else I knew Wednesday, and still know today.

Before the first shot, I knew that the black folks I talk to were feeling more insecure than at any time since we all became adults. And let’s be clear, the black folks I talk to are mostly people of means and position – even of power. They own and run businesses and law firms; they direct the doings of governments; they carry badges and stethoscopes and resumes filled with degrees. But I knew Wednesday that despite all these friends have accomplished; despite all the influence, recognition and prosperity they have earned; despite – not for nothing – the presence of a black man in the White House, they are troubled and angry and, yes, afraid, like I have not seen before. I know that today those doubts and fears can only be worse.

What I did not know Wednesday and do not know today is how definitively to fix that. But I refuse to be paralyzed by that, to let the absence of the perfect be the death of the good.  I did and do know that, at the very least, we have to talk to each other. We have to talk in frankest possible terms, about the most difficult things, in fearlessness and love. We have to be robust. We have to be slow to take offense and quick to forgive the inadvertent slight. We have to examine ourselves and let our hearts of hearts be examined. 

Two hundred years after those brave believers founded Emanuel AME, human beings are dying in America because of the color of their skin. I don't know if the nine at Emanuel AME were among them –  that seems likely, but we don't know yet. [# Update below] (Perhaps they died because they were Christians. Thousands do nowadays, despite the echoing media silence about that.) But even if, by some chance, these nine didn't die because of their color, too many of our countrymen, of our fellow human beings, do. And –  God forgive us –  200 years from now, unless we now take on that fact with brutal honesty and powerful love, that will still be so.

+ + +

And, despite the thundering din of the Narratives fleeing the facts as fast as they can, there's something else we knew on Wednesday, that hasn't changed this morning –   however efficiently America’s great cynical hoplophobic industrial complex churns out its lies, slickly tailored to capitalize on the deaths of people about whom it cares not one jot.

Before the first shot, we knew – if we were honest with ourselves – that there exists no piece of gun legislation we can craft that would matter to or deter a man who is otherwise willing to take the lives of nine or dozen a other human beings. Before the first shot, we knew that when men so inclined decide to match action to inclination, they almost always seek a place where they know their intended victims will be unarmed.** I knew Wednesday – as did many of my co-coreligionists – that if the flock is going to be protected on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday evening, then some of the shepherds, and some sheepdogs, have to stand ready to put down the wolves. 



  
* Note that you get on your knees only to pray – or possibly for gardening. Roberts Rules for Armed Robbery and Hostage Taking are explicit:
  • Never let them put you on your knees.
  • Never let them put you in another room.
  • Never let them put you in a car.

Long and bitter experience has proven that each of these is a prelude to murder. At that point, whatever the odds, fight like one already dead.

** Among other things, the shootings in Aurora, Fort Hood and Sandy Hook all had this in common.

# UPDATED: Given the reported words of the killer -- whose name will gain no fame here -- and given what has been learned about him in the past 24 hours, there now seems to be no doubt that he was acting out of racial hatred.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sommes-nous Charlie?

In the wake of global jihad’s sudden realization that there are safer places to take up the cause than a Texas art show, there has been a wave of hand wringing, sympathizing and second guessing all around the notion that Pam Geller and those in attendance at her event – while not exactly “asking for it” – were imprudently courting the sort of violent response the two erstwhile terrorists hoped to mete out. If you suspect someone may react violently to your speech, the "reasoning" goes, then the onus is on your to refrain from such speech so as to prevent the violence.

This call has come from some surprising places.* For example, in the view of two Charlie Hebdo editors, while the slaughter of their coworkers for drawing cartoons of Mohammed were appalling, it turns out threats of violence to others who draw cartoons are very different, however much the same they appear to those of us in the non-cartooning hoi polloi. It’s not clear if the distinction rests on the quality of the cartoons.** But the upshot was: For-profit French cartoons of the Prophet are OK; non-profit American cartoons of the Prophet, are not OK.

And here I naively thought je suis Charlie.

Mind you, those folks at Charlie Hebdo had better be careful not to get too comfy in the saddle of their high horse. Yet another cartoonist, who has made a living for 45 years by giving offense, seemed to think the fellows at Charlie Hebdo – while not exactly “asking for it” – were out of line, too, and should well have expected what they got.

Now, I have written before about how nuanced the world is, how much is grey, how little absolute. But I've also always maintained my Whitman Contradiction License.  So let me go ahead and lay down an absolute Robert's Rule: Speech is speech. Violence is violence. 

Even the most offensive speech you can imagine -- that Westboro gang's hateful three word signs at soldiers' funerals, dunking crucifixes in urinals, 90% of all the anonymous comments everywhere on the internet -- does not justify even the least violence you can imagine. The only acceptable response to speech, presuming you don't simply ignore it, is more speech. Orations, blogs, stage plays, anthems, epic poems, sky writing, sculpture, tracts, pamphlets, bumper stickers -- all are good to go. You can employ condemnation, vilification, expressions of loathing, mockery, satire, sneering contempt and the thumbing of your own nose. Have at it.***

But you do not get to raise a finger against the speaker, and an inquiry into his motives -- which are damned tricky to divine, even if Juan Williams seems to believe he can -- cannot amend the Rule.

Here's a diagnostic you can run on yourself. If you think a speaker is "provoking violence" by speaking, then you utterly fail to understand the difference between speech and violence. Violence can often justifiably provoke violence -- assault someone and he has the right to defend himself; assault him with deadly force and he has the right to end your life. But speech cannot justifiably provoke even a slap in the face. This is the law. But more than that, it is a founding principle of this nation. 

The wonderful thing about speech, even of the vilest sort, is that it leaves everyone free to engage in more speech. Violence, on the other hand, leaves only the winners free to engage in more violence. And as a recent pair of would be jihadis learned the hard way, that violence thing doesn't always work out quite like you're expecting it to.


* I'm not being sarcastic here. I was honestly surprised, although I know I shouldn't be.

** The Geller event was no Armory Show, but I sure hope that's not the key criterion. I drew the picture above on MS Paint and it is not a very good drawing at all.

*** Certainly lots of folks have done just that with the tirelessly self-promoting Ms. Geller,