Sunday, May 26, 2013


Down on the shop floor that Monday lunchtime, most of the company, including Dad’s three best friends, listened to the speech on the radio on the foreman’s desk. At 21, with a two-year business degree, Dad was the most junior of junior executives. So he and a dozen others upstairs listened in boss’s office. Later that same afternoon, Dad and his buddies were together in that office. They told the boss they’d be back again when it was over. 

The boss pulled a bottle from a drawer, shared glasses all around, and promised them their jobs would be waiting. Dad was grateful for the drink. Grateful, too, he told me once, that the boss – a crusty old Marine –  skipped his oft-told stories about the Marne and Belleau Wood. “If I had to listen to those stories that day,” Dad  said, “I’m not sure I’d have kept my nerve.”

By midday Wednesday the four friends were at the recruiting station. By early in the new year they were on a train headed south for basic. Dad had never been outside of Ohio, and rarely far from Cleveland. Biloxi seemed a world away, but it was warm, and Dad always liked the heat. Before long, though, he was headed a real world away. When we think of the war in the Pacific – those of us who think of it at all anymore – we mostly think of the Marines.  But the Army Air Force was there in numbers, too, and if they were spared abattoirs like Peleliu and Iwo Jima, where the Marines traded so many lives for coral rock and glory, that’s not to say the the Army Air Force was spared.

Dad’s troop ship stopped at Colon, Panama. He was one of hundreds of seasick young men in holds converted to barracks, waiting their turn to lock up through the Canal on the way to the South Pacific. Word came that a headquarters clerk at the major Canal Zone air base was down with appendicitis. (In fact it killed him.) Well, even the most junior of junior executives had a skill crucial to a mid-Twentieth Century army – he could type. Dad was pulled off the ship, and sent to France Field, where he would spend the war.

Calm, organized, steady, determined and unafraid of the menial or the unpleasant, by the end Dad was a First Sergeant and the post sergeant major – the highest ranking non-com. Forty years later, when I was a newsman covering the Air Force, I asked Dad how it was possible for a guy to go from boot to Top Kick in less than four years. “Robbie,” he explained, “the only thing we never ran out of was rank.”

The mission at France Field was simplicity itself: keep the Canal open; keep the ships moving. Planes from the field would hunt down and kill the German U-boat wolf packs and the lesser known, but larger, fleet of Italian subs that operated in the region throughout the war.  (Just because you've never heard of the Battle of the Caribbean, doesn't mean they didn't fight it.)

Dad would say that he spent the war filing paper, fighting off yellow fever, placating officers, disciplining drunken airmen, and playing a lot of softball. A quiet, contented man, Dad often said he had had an “easy war.” He meant that especially when compared to his three friends, who fought the war from inside B-17s over Europe. One of those guys spent years confined in, then escaping from, a series of increasingly brutal German POW camps. One of them rode his plane into a smoking hole in the Dutch countryside and never made it back to claim the job waiting for him, as promised, at W.S. Tyler Company.* If not for some poor guy’s infected appendix, Dad’s war would have been anything but easy. And who can say if three and half years in the Solomons and New Guinea and the Philippines would have sent home the man I was blessed to know as my father or, instead, someone less whole, less gentle.

Dad never regretted the way things happened, never felt deprived of some sort of martial adventure.** He knew he’d been blessed. “I did what I was called on to do,” is how he would put it. “That's war. I did my job; other guys were just called to give more.”

I didn't argue the point with him; never would have, never could have. But as I've grown, and especially in the 15 years since he’s been gone, I've come to understand that he was wrong.

I think of that skinny Cleveland kid, just a few years out of service as an altar boy, standing around the boss’s desk with a drink in his hand, silently praying the old Marine would forego his war stories, lest will and determination fail. I think of a kid for whom the Gulf Coast was far country, signing up to go wherever they sent him. I think of a kid who, as smart as he was with the accounts, could never have figured the value of the note he was signing, but who signed it anyway – and stood ready to pay whatever the tally man demanded.

And I think, Dad, that you couldn't have given more than that.

* Which isn't to suggest Dad was entirely immune to pride. “The bastards never shut us down, Robbie. They never did.”

** He did have at least one adventure he liked to describe: There was a fire at a remote observation post and Dad was sent to investigate. The Jeep could only go so far before he had to travel by small boat, then hike a day up a jungle mountain. (Faulty generator  not sabotage, as it turned out.) Typical of my Dad was his perspective on that story: “I got back in about three days. Got a shower and hot chow. I thought a lot about those guys in the Pacific who had to stay out in that jungle all the time.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Holding out for a hero

Let’s start with this: I love me some Charles Ramsey. The fellow is a master of the language, equally skilled in long- and short-form story-telling. In a media landscape where every sinkhole victim, scandal participant and “other woman” manages to secure a publicist and the legal services of the loathsome Gloria Allred by the time the evening news is aired, Ramsey – instantly and all by himself – oozes concentrated authenticity. I can only hope that McDonalds Corporation has noted Ramsey’s frequent and earnest product placements on its behalf and has dispatched a multi-million-dollar endorsement contract via corporate jet.

Not just that. I trust that Jimmy and David and Jay will put Ramsey up in the finest hotels when they fly him first class to come and speak to them. I pray the auto-tune guys are kind in their treatment. Ramsey has already “trended” and will soon deservedly become a “meme.” Indeed, there’s every likelihood that Ramsey is about to become, however briefly, a cultural icon. To all of this I say, “Good on you, Charles Ramsey.” As is demonstrated every time the Kardashians steal another hour of airtime, this nation could do a lot worse.

What may keep him in the limelight for more than the standard number of news cycles is the fact that this guy seems to have nearly perfect comedic timing, an unflinching regard for the truth, a perceptive understanding of the impact of race in American society, and a moral compass capable of finding North.* But for all that Charles Ramsey is, for all that the star-maker machinery of popular culture is about to make him, there’s one thing Charles Ramsey is not, one thing that neither the glittering Chryons under his image, nor the nattering news anchors** can make him.

Charles Ramsey is not a hero.

I trouble to point this out not because I oppose Ramsey’s fleeting or superficial glory, or merely out of general cussedness. No. I think the matter is far graver than that.

I’ve written before about narratives, about how no event is reported or discussed in its own context anymore. Instead, it is seized upon by commentators and politicians and other scoundrels to support whatever narrative that serves their ends. Any fact or event not capable of such manipulation – and few are the facts composed of sturdy enough stuff to hold their shape under such a hammering – is ignored. Any proponent of such information is similarly dismissed or, more usually, demonized.

So a fellow who did what Ramsey did is unrelentingly called a hero in service to a narrative that I have labeled the Unified Field Theory of Dependency. It is the notion that the average man or woman lacks the wherewithal to defend himself, or to save herself in an emergency, or to help those around them in similar circumstances. It is the insidious, statist contention that defense of life or the deterrence of evil are skills so esoteric and so generally unattainable that they belong only to an elite praetorian class. And – conveniently for would-be rulers of other men – since no one can manage these daunting tasks on his own, no one has need of the tools or liberty or autonomy with which to accomplish them.

Only in that narrative, only in the reductionist world of the lord and the peasant is the act of answering the door to a screaming woman and then dialing 911 heroic.

The UFToD is the narrative of a world view in which the state is entitled to a monopoly on violence and where a federal officer is the only one in the room “professional enough” to handle a simple firearm – even if he does manage to shoot himself in the process.*** That narrative is the tool of tyrants, because a people convinced of its truth need not be made to submit to oppression. They will willingly, even happily submit, since they have been made to believe not just that they are trading liberty for security, but that they haven't any other choice.

COOPER:  Has the FBI said anything about a reward or anything?  Because there was that - there was a reward for finding her.
RAMSEY:  I tell you what you do, give it to them.  Because if folks been following this case since last night, you been following me since last night, you know I got a job anyway.  Just went picked it up, paycheck.  What that address say?  That say?
COOPER:  I don't have my glasses.  I'm blind as a bat.
RAMSEY:  2203 Seymour [Ramsey’s address]. Where are them girls living?  Right next door to this paycheck.  So yes, take that reward and give it to - that little girl came out the house and she was crying.  
** Besides not being able to afford spectacle for Cooper, has CNN lost the lease on its studios? I have to ask, because its anchors seem to spend every minute of airtime standing outside these days. I get it – evidently having an a talking head stand on a street in the same city as, but five blocks away from, the police line demarcating the crime scene is supposed to convey to us the overwhelming sense verisimilitude and urgency. I just hope these poor “news” people are being supplied with comfy shoes, or maybe those cushy rubber mats restaurants have for their line chefs.

 *** I confess it: I will never get tired of watching that.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Obstructing justice

Democracy makes for a fearsome tyrant. This should come as no surprise, since we each of us bear a tyrant inside ourselves and democracy – colloquially known as mob rule – is nothing more or less than the imposition of the will of a group of collective selves over a slightly smaller group. From schoolyard to sorority house to workplace to the Place de la Révolution, we see the human impulse to rule other humans played out in every petty and terrible way. 

Happily for us, even before they had witnessed French monarchical tyranny deposed by French democratic tyranny in a bloody paroxysm of retributive horror, our Founders knew that democracy was a dangerous and unreliable guardian of liberty. This was precisely why they rejected any such regime for their new nation, and settled instead on a Constitutional Republic, a system not only different from a democracy but, blessedly, antithetical to it.*
Of course, the blessings of liberty which the Founders sought to secure for themselves andtheir posterity were never meant to include the unfettered right to do anything one pleased, at any time, in any place, to any effect. Liberty does not equal lawlessness. If your college buddy turns out to be an amateur terrorist, and you decide after the fact to give him a hand by getting rid of some of that pesky incriminating evidence, then -- even in the freest society on Earth -- you ought to expect to be arrested for obstruction of justice.
But in truth it’s not the lawbreakers nor the bombers – nor even the terrorists   whom we ought really to fear. Their potential for tyranny is limited to the blast radius of whatever device they can assemble once Williams and Sonoma lifts the pressure cooker ban. Instead, the existential threat to liberty comes from those unreconstructed statist thugs who never learned to “work and play well others” in kindergarten, those “great men” whom Bastiat says desire to rule over others.**
By way of sterling example, New York Mayor and anti-Mountain Dew® activist Michael Bloomberg recently suggested that while:
. . .the people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry,   . . .  we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.
Bloomberg’s chief enforcer, police commissioner Ray Kelly, on the other hand, is not about to follow his Bloomberg's lead and go all squishy in the middle where terrorists are concerned. Officer Stop and Frisk, without actually invoking the Latin legal aphorism of privacy schmivacy, Kelley made it clear that he thinks his boss needs to stiffen his spine:
The privacy issue has really been taken off the table. I don’t think people are concerned about it. I think people accept it in a post-9/11 world.  . . . The people who complain about it, I would say, are a relatively small number of folks, because the genie is out of the bottle.
Give that a moment to sink in. The contention is that the bombs detonated in Boston were so powerful as to shake the very foundations upon which the Republic has rested lo these two and a third centuries. Usually it takes a civil war*** or a world war**** for statists so comfortably and brazenly to reveal themselves. Now all that's needed to drag them into the light and before a bank of microphones is weaponized kitchen utensils.

Most of the time, most of what these sorts of villains do to advance their tyranny is done as subtlety and deceptively as they are able, and as quietly as they can. Every now and then, though, we get the chance to hear what’s really on their minds. When that happens, we really do need to pay attention. Thomas Jefferson, when he observed that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” had in mind an entirely different sort of vigilance than do Bloomberg and Kelly and their ilk.
Jefferson understood, as we should, that men like these are not meant to be the practitioners of that vigilance, but its objects. *****

* Because I hold my few and gentle readers in such high esteem, I can only presume that the broad distinctions between the two systems are known full well to you. If, however, you are called on to explain the concepts to others, less-well-informed than you – as anyone must be if not among my few and gentle readers – I recommend this essay, “An Important Distinction: Democracy versus Republic,” which thoroughly and succinctly explains the issue.
This must be said: There are too many "great" men in the world — legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it. . . .My attitude toward [such] persons is well illustrated by this story from a celebrated traveler: He arrived one day in the midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born. A crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks — armed with rings, hooks, and cords — surrounded it. One said: "This child will never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe unless I stretch his nostrils." Another said: "He will never be able to hear unless I draw his ear-lobes down to his shoulders." A third said: "He will never see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes." Another said: "He will never stand upright unless I bend his legs." A fifth said: "He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull.""Stop," cried the traveler. "What God does is well done. Do not claim to know more than He. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience, and liberty."
Frédéric Bastiat, The Law
*** President Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and wholesale sedition arrests mean he is hardly regarded in unalloyed reverence.
 **** Executive action to intern Japanese-American citizens evidently being insufficiently shameful, the Supreme Court got in on the act in Korematsu.
***** The provenance of this quote is well-documented and fascinating and some of it can be found here. So when I suggest what Jefferson meant by it, and what he’d mean if had the chance to say it today, I do so with good reason.