The guy here is Stewart Brand, “a Stanford-trained biologist, ex-army paratrooper, turned Ken Kesey cohort and fellow Merry Prankster who was about to become the voice of one of the most potent forces for abundance the world had yet seen: the Do-It-Yourself…innovator”:
The story goes like this: a few months after [Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test] was published, in March 1968, Brand was reading a copy of Barbara Ward’s Spaceship Earth and trying to ask a pair of questions: How can I help all my friends who are currently moving back to the land? And, more importantly, how can I save the planet?
His solution was pretty straightforward. Brand would publish a catalog in the vein of L.L. Bean, blending liberal social values, ideas about appropriate technology, ecological notions of whole systems thinking, and---perhaps most importantly---a DYI work ethic. This ethic has a long history, dating back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” resurfacing again in the Arts and Crafts renaissance of the early twentieth century, then gaining even more steam with the hot-rodding and home improvement movements of the 1950s. But the late 1960s marked the largest communal uprising in American history, with conservative estimates putting the number at ten million Americans moving back to the land. All these transplants soon learned the same lesson: agrarian success depended on one’s DYI capabilities, and those capabilities, as Brand so clearly realized, depended on one’s access to tools---and here tools meant anything from information about windmills to ideas about how to start a small business. “I was in thrall to Buckminster Fuller,” Brand recalls. “Fuller had put out this idea that there’s no use trying to change human nature. It’s been the same for a very long time. Instead, go after the tools. New tools make new practices. Better tools make better practices.”
Out of all this was born the Whole Earth Catalog…
---from Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.
Come on, admit it. We just do.
We can’t help ourselves.
It’s because we spend so much time and energy arguing that things need to be better and that requires making the case that things are bad. Things are bad. But we can get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is that it’s bad we forget there’s anything else including that there’s a hopeful point to talking about what’s bad.
Trouble is few of us have the power or the resources do much on our own about what’s wrong, and talking about what’s wrong without doing anything to fix it is just complaining and constant complaining turns into whining and whining turns into a habit.
Two of our favorite whines go like this.
Why isn’t anybody listening to us?
Why aren’t politicians doing what we want them to do?
Conservatives whine too.
This is new for them. That’s why they’re doing so much of it. It’s a novelty. A new sensation that excites them. Like little kids who’ve figured out how to make themselves burp, they have to hear themselves do it over and over again. They used to grump and harumph. That’s when they were focused on making the case that things are just fine the way they are and liberals should quit their whining. They still do this. A current variant is the You call yourselves poor? You have a refrigerator what more do you want nonsense.
Doesn’t occur to them that the answer might be, Food to put in it, would be nice. A way to pay the electric bill, like a job, would also help.
No, as far as they care to know, things are fine, and if they’re not fine, they could be worse. In fact, they were worse and not all that long ago, so go away and leave me alone and stop asking me to care about your problems, I have enough of my own.
But lately or what seems lately to me, they’ve taken up whining. I blame Nixon. It probably started before him, but he made whining his political idiom and infected the entire Republican party. Reagan didn’t change that. He indulged it and the chuckled at the effect. People still mistake his geniality for good humor and a cheerful nature. It was the cheerfulness of a salesman who knew he had the suckers on the hook. But he’s long gone and even his supposed heirs whine worse than Nixon.
They whine between shouts, screams, growls, and moans, but they whine.
It’s somewhat the same for them as it’s been for liberals. They’re spending their time and energy making the case that things are bad---of course, they mean bad for them---and get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is it’s bad they forget there’s anything else.
They don’t have much else, as it turns out. Certainly not real solutions. God will provide or he will punish, that’s about it. Still, as it has with us liberals, constant complaining turns into whining and whining becomes a habit.
One of the things I really enjoy about the Clinton Global Initiative---and I’ve now been to four of the seven meetings in New York City since 2008---is that the discussions take place outside typical notions of liberal and conservative politics.
That is, there’s no whining.
Obviously, this isn’t because no one is making the case that things are bad or talking about what’s bad or how bad or why it’s bad or whose fault it is it’s bad. The news on ebola is getting scarier. In Sierra Leone, new cases are doubling every thirty to forty days. Every twenty seconds a child under five will die from a water-borne disease. More people on earth have access to a cell phone than to a clean glass of water. One point three billion people have no access to electricity. Throughout the world the situations for women and girls continues to be miserable, their rights denied, their opportunities for education and self-improvement non-existent, their health and lives under constant threat.
But the people doing most of the talking are problem-solvers actively at work solving problems or trying to solve them and naturally they prefer to talk about that work and talking about work they love tends to make people sound confident, grounded, practical-minded, grown up, and happy.
Doesn’t mean they get giddy.
The problem-solvers at CGI speak with urgency, concern, anxiety, anger, even fear, although usually on behalf of others. The get frustrated, exasperated, and discouraged. They try to be pragmatic and realistic and not let their hopes carry them away. But they’re all still hopeful and optimistic, some enthusiastically, excitedly, energetically, infectiously so. A few come across as professional optimists.
One of the most optimistic I heard speak at this year’s meeting was Peter Diamandis.
Diamandis is an MIT-trained engineer, a Harvard-trained MD. He’s the chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation which sponsors competitions for funding for the design and development of new technologies, software, systems, and methods to put to work solving problems “believed to be unsolvable, or that have no clear path toward a solution.” A current one of these competitions is called, with a direct and respectful nod to Star Trek, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, “a $10 million global competition to stimulate innovation and integration of precision diagnostic technologies, helping consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses anywhere, anytime.” He’s co-founded two schools of higher education. Singularity University and the International Space University. He’s started and helped start several business and research ventures inspired by his lifelong interest in space exploration. When he was in eighth grade he won a first prize in a design competition sponsored by Estes Model Rockets for his design for a multiple platform launcher. Kid after my own heart. Another venture not apparently directly related to space travel is Human Longevity, Inc.
Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) is a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company. Using advances in genomic sequencing, the human microbiome, proteomics, informatics, computing, and cell therapy technologies, HLI is building the world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes to tackle the diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline. HLI is also leading the development of cell-based therapeutics to address age-related decline in endogenous stem cell function. HLI is concentrating on cancer, diabetes and obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.
Probably should have mentioned Diamandis also has a degree from MIT in molecular genetics.
He’s working with a team of billionaires and movie director James Cameron on a plan to mine asteroids. He does not appear to be crazy.
He is a big dreamer. But he has a record of turning his dreams into realities and the realities into money and the money into financing for other dreamers trying to turn their dreams into realities.
Much of his big dreaming sounds like pie in the sky and building castles in the air. He calls it “moonshot thinking.” I’d sum it up as 3D Printing in the Cloud.
Apparently, this is a thing.
I don’t know how it works.
I don’t know how 3D printing anywhere works.
Diamandis does, and it’s one of the many things that make him such an optimist.
Diamandis is inclined to say things like “The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities” and “The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people.”
Referencing Stephen Pinker he’ll tell you we’re living during the most peaceful period in recorded human history.
The bottom line is you think we can handle nine billion people without burning up the planet, and you think we can feed children well-enough so that they can learn, and you believe that through technology widely disseminated we can not only educate people but empower them to create enough income generating activity themselves that we can essentially have a very low structural unemployment level in every country.
Diamandis agreed that that about sums it up.
New technologies succeed by taking what once was scarce and making it abundant, and he’s looking forward to the 21st Century as a time when that will happen on an astounding and unprecedented scale, increasing prosperity around the world.
The big questions are, he says, “How can we do that with literacy? How can we do that with health? How can we use technology to create a scale that allows every child to have the best possible education, the best possible health care, independent of where they live or where they were born?”
He’s co-written a book with Steven Kotler that not only makes the case that will happen but shows where and how it is already happening, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think and he and Clinton sat down together to talk about abundance and Abundance, the prospect and the book. Clinton had his copy with him. “I love flacking other people’s books,” he said, holding it up. He loves this book, which he’s clearly read and taken to heart. He read from it as he interviewed Diamandis, but I got the feeling the reading was for show and he could have recited from it from memory.
Clinton started off by asking, “Why are you so optimistic about the future? Don’t you read the papers.”
Diamandis’ offhand answer to the second question was that he tries not to, said in a tone that implied he recommends others try to not too. Too much negativity. Too much focusing on problems and not enough on problem-solving. Too much---he didn’t use the word but I suspect he’d nod knowingly if you did---whining.
The short version of his answer to the first question is: Information, education, technology.
The short version of the short version is: the internet.
A lot of the basis for Diamandis’ optimism is his faith in the increasing utility of the internet as a development tool and delivery system for new technologies, e.g. 3D printing in the cloud.
It’s more than taken for granted by now that the internet is a revolutionary system for delivering information. More people have access to more information than ever before. As Diamandis pointed out to Clinton, “A Maasai warrior in the middle of Kenya today on a smart phone has more access to knowledge and information than you when you were the President twenty years ago.” (Clinton’s self-deprecating response: “That’s a frigtening thought.”) We use it and rely on it, celebrate it and addict ourselves to it, chiefly as a very efficient medium for mass communication.
Well, that, and a convenient way to shop and pay bills without the dirty business of having to deal with real people.
It’s taken for granted that the delivering of information and the communication and virtual social contact that requires and creates are a good in and of themselves.
My own whine is that that’s pretty much all the internet does these days, deliver information that consumers of it can’t use except to entertain ourselves. That’s what makes time online so frustrating and, especially in the cloud banks I tend to hang out in, maddening. (And I mean maddening as in making angry and making crazy.) There’s no material world effect.
Diamandis sees the internet a little differently. Communication, information, and interconnectivity are important but they’re more like fuel. Hearing him talk about it, the birth of the internet sounds more like the invention of the steam engine, the ur-machine whose powering of other machines led to the invention and building of more machines. The internet is a knowledge and technology generator.
Diamandis went on to discuss some areas in which he is most optimistic. Food, energy, and education.
He’s looking forward to the day when, through aquaculture---hydroponics on a grand scale---and vertical farming, cities will be able to feed themselves, growing enough food for all the people living in them at a great savings in energy, manhours, waste, and money, much of that savings due to a marked decrease in transportation costs. As things are, when people in New York go out for a nice dinner, items on the menu travel an average of 1600 miles before landing on their plates. “Los Angeles would starve in I think it’s about three days,” he said, “if you shut down transportation.”
We’re talking about having an XPrize in vertical farming. The notion that we can in fact, in a downtown New York or downtown Dallas or L.A., have a building that is able to capture the sun, is able to finely tune the pH of the water, is able to grow twenty-four hours a day and provide the ideal growing economy.
Meanwhile, the earth is pulsating with abundant but so far untapped energy. He didn’t mean shale oil and wasn’t boosting fracking. He meant geo-thermal and solar. He’s particularly keen on solar.
The earth gets five thousand times more energy from the sun than we use as a species in a year. If you talk to folks like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, [they] believe we’ll reach fifty to a hundred percent energy from the sun in the United States in the [next] twenty years. And the poorest parts of the world are the sunniest parts of the world. So I think we’re headed towards a solar revolution. And if you have abundant energy, you also have abundant clean water. And as you know well, sir, half the disease burden on earth is due to unclean drinking water.
As for education, well, hold on a second.
It was a nice change to be taking part, even if only vicariously, in some problem-solving instead of being a voice in the collective whine. But then Diamandis grew excited about the prospect of Artificially Intelligent “teachers” who would, over the internet, give “personalized” educations to students living far from any schools. Students will be able to attend classes in the cloud with teachers who “know” them and understand their needs and their individual learning styles as well as the best teachers in the best schools in here in the non-virtual world.
“I’m very proud,” Diamandis said, “It was this week, at the United Nations, at the Social Mid-Summit, we announced a fifteen million dollar prize called the Global Learning XPrize.”
We are challenging teams around the world to build a piece of software---not a hardware prize. The cost of hardware’s plummeting.---a piece of software that can take a child anywhere, who’s illiterate, to basic reading, writing, and numeracy in eighteen months. There’s nearly a billion [illiterate] people, two-thirds of those are women, a quarter of a billion are kids, and the notion is that technology is progressing at such a rate that we have the ability, the same way Google democratized access to information, to democratize access to the best teachers.
This sounds great. So does what he went on to say in a minute.
We expect to have hundreds or thousands of teams compete and take the the top five pieces of software and deploy it to five thousand kids throughout Africa and test and see what the best one is, and then open-source the software, with the vision that any Android tablet or phone made in the future will have this software will have this software on it from the start.
It was what he said in between I didn’t like the sound of. Brought out my inner Blade Runner.
Imagine an A.I., or imagine a piece of software that knows a child’s favorite color, sports, actors, presidents and can literally give them a personalized education.
More to the realistic point, I don’t think people want their most intimate relationships to be with software. We need the comfort and sense of companionship that can only come from physical contact with other human beings. We want the tricorder held by Dr McCoy who when he says, “Dammit, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer” is taking our pulse, feeling if we have a fever, and probing for our pain, with hands that can actually lay bricks and do the doctoring. We want Mrs McLean (my fourth grade teacher, the teacher who knew me and understood me best) hovering over our desk, smiling as we figure it out for ourselves that 10 x 12 – 7 = 113. And even more realistically, I doubt that if and when such software is developed it will be only used to staff virtual schoolrooms in the remotest villages in the more undeveloped nations of the developing world.
And here’s where I get skeptical.
New technologies have a history of putting human beings out of work.
The new jobs they employ many fewer people than the ones they replace.
Clinton asked Diamandis about this. He spoke with sincere concern about the continuing scourge of mass joblessness---unfortunately but tellingly using the dreaded phrase: “structural unemployment”---and noted how throughout most of history “except for farmers, most everybody who’s worked has worked for somebody else.” Diamandis believes that in the future the economy will grow and thrive in ways that will encourage and support and even depend on individual enterprise and entrepreneurship---There’s a chapter in Abundance Clinton summed up as being about “the Do It Yourself Economy”---and Clinton wondered how this was going to happen.
The internet, again. Thanks to it, according to Diamandis, by 2020, we will have around five billion people connected online---in 2010 it was 1.8 billion---all of them with access to the newest technologies that,with the help of crowd sourcing, they will be able to teach themselves how to use and put to work in building their own businesses, and then, again, through crowd sourcing, they will be able to find customers and clients they couldn’t imagine reaching before.
That’s three billion new minds entering the global economy, three billion new creators, contributors, trillions of dollars flowing into the economy no one’s speaking about, and these individuals, no matter where they are on the planet, now have access to Google, they have access to A.I., 3D printing on a cloud, they have access to extraordinary technologies. They also have access to crowd funding. There’ll be fifteen billion dollars in crowd funding by 2015, a hundred billion by 2020, so they have access to capital, crowd funding, and we’re now empowered to become entrepreneurs. And I teach this, that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities. The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people. This kind of beautiful parity exists right now. And a lot of young people in the developing world are entrepreneurs to exist. We’re giving them the tools to up their game.
Ok, never mind 3D printing in the cloud. This does sound like pie in the sky. It also sounds suspiciously like a global and virtual version of the entrepreneurial economy getter known as the service economy which a friend of mine prophetically defined back in the 1980s as a nation of minimum wage workers delivering pizzas to each other and which we Americans have been trying to sell to ourselves for three and a half decades.
Diamandis would almost certainly say that the reason it hasn’t taken off yet is the technology has only just begun to become available. But it is becoming available, more and more of it at a more and more rapid rate.
But I just don’t buy that we’re going to build a vital and expansive economy or a particularly civil or companionable society by having people delivering virtual pizzas to one another in the cloud.
That was a whine.
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, published by the Free Press, is available in paperback and hardcover at Amazon but you’ll probably want to read it on your kindle. Since, as Diamandis sees it, in the future we’re all going to be living in the cloud, we might as well start getting used to it.
Wore myself at this year’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. Lots to see and take in, and I may have overdone it. I’m full up with knowledge. Some of it trivia. But interesting and fun to know trivia, and trivia that illuminates substantial issues and ideas. I took copious notes, with a pen on paper and typed into many windows at Twitterville, and now I’m trying to work those up into full-fledged blog posts that I’ll be posting over the course of the next few days. It’s not going to be All CGI All the Time, but there’ll be a bunch. I hope you’ll enjoy them and keep checking in to see what’s new.
Covering events like this is something I always wish I could do more of. Time and money make that a challenge. Paying train fare and then cab fare out of pocket isn’t easy when there’s not much in the pocket to begin with. So please forgive me for asking once again:
If you like what goes on around here and enjoy my reports from the field and would like to see more along those lines and, of course, if you can swing it, please consider making a small donation to the travel fund.
Thank you very much. Thanks for reading the blog. And thanks to everyone who has donated in the past. By the way, I think I’ve sent out all the paper thank post cards I promised to send last time but if you didn’t get yours let me know and I’ll fire another one off ASAP.
Not going to be systematic about turning my notes from the Clinton Global Initiative into posts so they won’t be appearing chronologically. Blog might read like one of those novels full of flashbacks and flashforwards for the next few days. Probably when I’m done I’ll go back and rearrange things. Right now I’m starting out near the end of the day Tuesday with this from President Obama’s remarks closing the plenary session.
Here’s the set up. Chelsea Clinton’s baby is due soon. Very soon. Like any day now. And the the New York meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative always coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s High-level Meetings and General Debate and the two events together flood the streets with convoys of limos and armored Chevy Suburbans. Traffic lanes and whole streets get blocked for blocks. Makes getting around by car not fun. So…
President Obama walks onstage Tuesday afternoon, pauses on his way to the rostrum to have a few words with Bill Clinton, and when he steps up to the mic opens by letting us know what he said to Bill.
I was just discussing with President that if Chelsea goes into delivery while I’m speaking, she has my motorcade and will be able to navigate traffic. Cause actually it’s pretty smooth for me during the week. I don’t know what the problem is. Everybody hypes the traffic, but I haven’t noticed.
Maybe you had to be there. They say it’s all in the delivery. Cracked Matt Damon up anyway.
Photo by Paul Morse, courtesy Clinton Global Initiative.
Leo and his big beard aren’t here today. He’s been hanging out at the United Nations for the Climate Summit. But I’m here, if it’s any consolation. I’ll be here all day, tweeting over at Twitterville and blogging here. I’ll be back tomorrow too. So please check in from time to time. Matt Damon’s here, President Clinton’s here, Secretary Clinton’s here, and, I’m told, there’s somebody important going to be dropping in.
Posts from this year’s CGI are going to be filed in the archives along with my posts from CGI meetings I attended in 2008, 2009, and 2011 in the category called with brilliant simplicity Clinton Global Initiative.
Tuesday morning. on my way to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Driver of the cab I took from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers couldn’t pull up to the curb along the stretch of Sixth Avenue closest to the corner of 52nd where I asked him to drop me off because of the long line of other cabs parked bumper to bumper that reached halfway to 51st. He got as close as he could, essentially double-parking gunwale to gunwale with another cab. Left me about six inches in which to maneuver myself and my effects---briefcase, cane, a couple of books, a bottle of water---out the door.
I suppose I should have gotten out on the far side but traffic was heavy and I’m not as nimble as I once was. I didn’t think I could make it out before an onrushing car sheared off the open door, taking me with it.
I eased myself out as carefully as I could but I bumped the door as I hoisted myself to my feet and the door bumped the rear door of one of parked cabs.
Bumped is overstating it.
What’s between a bump and a kiss?
Whatever it was it didn’t leave a mark. I checked. Not a dent. Not a ding. Not a nick. Not a scratch. Not any damage at all I could see.
I’m not sure what I’d have done if there had been. Probably shrugged it off. It was a cab in New York City after all. A New York City taxi cab without dents or dings must be as rare as a pirate without an eye patch.
Apparently I found that pirate.
The driver jumped out.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted.
I didn’t point out it was more of a nudge.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted again. He was middle-aged. Neatly dressed in slacks and a zippered cardigan. Distinguished looking. Middle Eastern with closely trimmed snow white hair and a meticulously groomed silver and gray mustache.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I’d have thought a simple but sincere apology would have covered it. There was no damage, I hadn’t done it intentionally, it’s something that happens all the time to everybody. Everybody’s been a door bumpee or door bumper at some point. Multiple points. I elaborated on my apology. “I’m very sorry,” I said.
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” he said. “You bump my cab and that’s all you say? You’re sorry?”
I didn’t know what else to say. Of course it occurred to me that what he wanted me to say was something along the lines of “Here’s ten bucks? Is that sorry enough for you?” But there was something theatrical about his anger. It was like he was playing the part of an irate Middle Eastern cabbie in a movie, one who’d somehow gotten in the way of the hero during a chase. And I wondered if he wanted me to play a part in that movie in his head too, if he wanted me to argue with him, say something more like, “Yeah, I bumped your fucking cab, what about it?” and the drama would take off from there.
I wanted to just walk away. My cab had driven away and I was standing in the street unprotected from oncoming traffic. that might swerve. Drivers might spot a parked cab in time to swerve but might not notice a pedestrian until I rolled off their hood. But I couldn’t decide where to walk to. My driver had left me off a long, painful hobble from the corner and much longer hobble to the front end of the line of parked cabs. The cabs weren’t the only things blocking me from sidewalk. All along Sixth and up 52nd as far as I could see were metal barricades to keep the sidewalks clear around the Sheraton.
A former President was inside. A former Secretary of State too. And their daughter. And dozens of foreign heads of state and foreign and domestic dignitaries. Along with more than a handful of movie stars and other celebrities. The Secret Service was out in force and making their presence felt. In a few minutes, I’d be having a polite but all business encounter with a short,young, squarely built agent with a dark ponytail and SECRET SERVICE stenciled on her kevlar vest who, probably wondering how I’d gotten inside the barricades to begin with let me know with a glare and a wave as swift, strong, compact, and unmistakable in meaning as a karate chop that I was on what she regarded as the wrong side of her street and, cane or no cane, I’d better cross to the other side now.
She would be the second agent I’d have dealings with in a space of five minutes.
The cabbie seemed to take my hesitation as a sign I’d gone up in my lines and, determined to continue the drama and get our big scene restarted, prompted me with my cue again.
“You’re sorry? You go around bumping people’s cars and say you’re sorry. That makes it all right? You’re sorry?”
Suddenly I knew what my next line should be. I wasn’t intentionally playing along. It was just reflex.
“What, you’ve never done it yourself?”
He was ready.
“No! Never! I have never done that!”
“In all your years behind the wheel? Not once?”
“Not once! I know how to be careful.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “You’re amazing. You should write a manual. Tell people your secret.”
I thought that was pretty good. Worth a chuckle from the audience. If we had an audience. Which, it turned out, we did.
Three tall, square-shouldered, square-jawed guys with the names of their agencies on their body armor had ambled up to the barricades.
The third guy actually looked the most intimidating.
They were laughing.
I tried to think of a topper.
The cabbie was quiet but probably not because he was waiting for my comeback so he could top it. I suspect was thinking it might be a good time to cut the scene short. He wasn’t sure he wanted this type of an audience.
Didn’t matter. The guys had decided the show was over. The city cop lowered the curtain, so to speak, by swinging open a section of the barricades. That’s when I saw they hadn’t chosen any old spot from which to watch the comedy play out. They were standing where there was just enough space between the bumpers of two of the parked cabs for me to limp through. They’d come over to help me out.
I made my exit without bowing to take a bow and the cabbie did the same, getting back into his cab to wait for a fare or another, better opportunity to relieve his boredom with some impromptu street theater.
The three guys were grinning merrily as I made my way between the cabs and through the gateway they’d made for me.
“Welcome to New York,” I said and I hope they caught that I wasn’t being sarcastic.
I was grateful to them. I was grateful to the cabbie. They’d made my day by reminding me.
I love New York.
10 AM. New York City. Wish I could walk because I’d much rather have hiked the fifteen or so blocks from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers where the Clinton Global Initiative’s being held instead of cabbing it. Absolutely gorgeous day and even the little bit of it that slipped in through the cab’s open windows is delicious. What I really wish is that I could have walked to Bryant Park and spent the day at a table in the shade there and covered the whole shindig virtually from there. So I was surprised when the young volunteer checking me in at the Sheraton and handing me my press pass said cheerfully, “It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “You’re cold?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I wish we could have summer back!”
Everybody has their own tolerances, I guess.
Hyde Park on Hudson is worth seeing for Bill Murray’s understated but seductive performance as FDR. He doesn’t do an impersonation but he captures the spirit and character of Roosevelt. But the movie fails seriously in failing to give three of the most important women in his life, Daisy Suckley, Missy LeHand, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I wonder, though, if it’d feel like a better movie after having watched The Roosevelts and learned more about the real characters of the three and the actual complexities of their relationships with each other and FDR. Here’s my review from last year.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad." Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.
His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.
The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.
When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.
The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."
He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.
I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.
So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.
This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides, but who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.
You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.
But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.
Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.
“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”
His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.
Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.
And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.
“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.
Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!
That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.
The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"
In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.
The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.
This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.
Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is. Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.
In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.
We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.
It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.
I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.
Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.
But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.
Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.
Drama being a relative term.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.
Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them
It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.
But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all. It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character. It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.
The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.
Keep in mind that it is funny. And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.
So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.
West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.
But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.
The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.
Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.
Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people. She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.
Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness. But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?
As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.
This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.
It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.
I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.
In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:
First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.
I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”
In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.
In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.
Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.
During the second episode of The Roosevelts, one of the historians providing commentary extolled Theodore Roosevelt’s natural leadership abilities. The man could walk into any room and within minutes be running the show. But this wasn’t as inevitable nor was he as irresistible as it might sound. His talent and charm failed him regularly often because he let his vanity and self-importance take over. This happened when he was serving as police commissioner of New York City, a story well-old in Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks. I don’t have a favorite biography of TR but there are several small books about episodes in his life I like a lot. River of Doubt. The Big Fire. And Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Richard L. Di Silvestro.
My impression is that many viewers of the first episode were surprised by the young Roosevelt’s adventures on his ranches in the Badlands. And it was a wild and exciting life. But it was also a learning experience for him. He credited it with making him more of a democrat. It intensified his love for and knowledge of natural history. And it inspired his ambition to preserve great chunks of American wilderness for the people to enjoy in their wild beauty forever.
Here’s my review of Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands from the summer of 2011.
People in those parts, other ranchers, their cowhands, folks in what passed for towns, thought of him as something of a dude, and he was. His boots were made of alligator hide, his chaps of seal skin. His spurs were real silver. The six-shooters in his holsters were ivory-handled and etched with his initials, TR. His big hunting knife had been custom-made for him back in New York City at Tiffany’s. He favored fringed buckskin shirts and jackets that were impractical in wet weather but which he thought appropriate because they made him look like the frontiersmen heroes of the boys adventure stories he’d loved when he was a boy himself, which wasn’t that long ago---he was in his mid-twenties and still very boyish in looks and outlook and behavior.
Later in life he would grow a little stout and decidedly barrel-chested, but at the time he was slender and frail---“a slim, anemic-looking young fellow” is how one cowboy described him---not all that surprising considering he was asthmatic and suffered from chronic indigestion. He was near-sighted too and wore big round glasses that didn’t always help. Once out hunting, he sighted his rifle on what he thought was an antelope in the distance. It turned out to be a dead sunflower not all that far off.
He talked funny, too, in a high, squeaky rush, and when he was excited, riled, or thrilled, he would shout out things like, “By Godfrey!” and “By golly!” which were interchangeable as curses and whoops of delight.
It was hard to take the dude seriously, except that he was so good-natured, outgoing, hard-working, and rich---and he spread his money around.
Really, though, no one expected him to last a month as a rancher in the Badlands, never mind three and a half years!
Then one night:
He had been riding the range all day when he stopped in Mingusville, Montana, about thirty-five miles west of Medora. As he approached Nolan’s Hotel, where he hoped to find a bed for the night, he heard shots from the saloon on the hotel’s first floor. He was reluctant to enter, but he had nowhere else to go on a cold night.
Almost as soon as he stepped inside he was confronted by a bully with a six-gun in each hand who just put two or three bullet holes in the face of a wall clock. He called Roosevelt “Four Eyes” and ordered him to buy drinks for everyone in the bar. Roosevelt tried to laugh it off and found a seat behind the stove, hoping to avoid further notice.
The armed man followed and again ordered Roosevelt to buy drinks. “My assailant was neither a cowboy nor a bond fide ‘bad man,’ but a broad-hatted ruffian of cheap and commonplace type who had for the moment terrorized the other men in the bar-room, these being mostly sheep-herders and small grangers. The fact that I wore glasses, together with my evident desire to avoid a fight, apparently gave him the impression---a mistaken one---that I would not resent an injury.” Concluding that he had been pushed as far as he could reasonably allow, Roosevelt said, “Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got,” stood up, and delivered his fists right, left, right to the man’s jaw. The guns went off, and the man fell, hitting his head on the bar and sprawling senseless on the floor. Roosevelt collected the guns, and the other patrons dumped the unconscious man in a shed outside. The following morning, Roosevelt was pleased to hear that the bully had fled town on a freight train.
Word got around, and that was the end of anyone’s thinking of Theodore Roosevelt as just some funny little tenderfoot from the East.
In Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West a likeable, lively, often exciting and always informative account of the future Cowboy in the White House’s adventures as a real cowboy on and around his ranches in the still wild west of Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s, author Robert L. Di Silvestro tries to keep things reined in, which is a trick, considering that one of the things he has to keep reined in is his main character---Teddy Roosevelt was a prolific writer and the best source for the story of his life in the West, but his prose often shades purple and he had a tendency to idealize and romanticize, particularly when the subject was himself, and he never met an idea he didn’t feel needed his best efforts to sell---but the fact is that TR’s confrontation with the ruffian in the saloon was just one of many real life incidents that come across like scenes from those boys adventure novels Roosevelt loved.
Roosevelt set out to make his life one long hero’s journey and his time in the Badlands is a large and important and thrilling part of that story.
He chased down outlaws, squared off against wild Indians---well, he thought they were wild. They probably thought they’d encountered a wild white man---broke broncos, branded cattle, hunted grizzly bears, and prepared to fight a duel with a colorful transplanted Frenchman, a rival rancher named Antoine-Amedee-Marie-Vincent-Amat Manca de Vallobrosa, known better by his title, the Marquis de Mores. He endured long days in the saddle in the hellacious heat and murderous cold of the Badlands, a region of breathtaking but primitive beauty that offered humans and animals little in the way of shade, shelter, and, at times, water. The land itself regularly seemed to turn on him.
A rattlesnake nearly bit [his guide Joe Ferris’s] horse; a bluff along which they were riding crumbled under them and sent men and horses falling in a tangled mass; [Roosevelt’s horse] Nell somersaulted after plunging her front hooves into a hole, and Roosevelt catapulted a good ten feet beyond her; and then, when crossing an apparently dry creek, the ground gave way, and Nell was up to her withers in sticky mud, though Roosevelt was able to scramble free to the bank; with a lariat they dragged the mired horse to solid ground, nearly strangling her in the process.
He roped, rode, and shot with the best of them, although when it came to roping and shooting, not nearly as well as the best of them. He often got in the way of the cowboys and by his own admission he was not a crack-shot.
He wasn’t bad on a horse though.
Roosevelt was pulled from his blankets the night of Tuesday, June 2, near Chimney Butte to help control a herd in the storm. He rode out to find the animals stirring. “After a while there was a terrific peal of thunder, the lightning struck by the herd, and away all the beasts went, heads and horns and tails in the air. for a minute or two I could make out nothing except the dark forms of the beasts running on every side of me, and I should have been very sorry if my horse had stumbled, for those behind would have trodden me down.” At that moment the herd split into two, part of it veering to one side and the other going straight. Roosevelt stayed beside the latter, galloping at top sped to try to get ahead of the lead cattle and turn them, “when suddenly there was a tremendous splashing in front. I could dimly make out that the cattle immediately ahead and to the one side of me were disappearing, and the next moment the horse and I went off a cut bank into the Little Missouri.” The horse stayed upright despite its plunge into the river and made it to the other side. There Roosevelt met another cowboy, from whom he was immediately separated. Galloping hard, he stopped the part of the herd with which he was riding, but it stampeded again; he had to stop it two more times…
When Roosevelt reached camp he found that only about half the night herd had been recovered. He changed horses and set out again after a quick breakfast. He did not return for ten hours. He then changed horses and rode with the cattle until after dark before coming back to camp. He had spent nearly forty hours in the saddle---his longest stint on horseback---changing mounts five times. His clothes, soaked in the rain, had dried, and he rolled into his blankets and fell instantly asleep…
The Badlands lie in the northwestern corner of what is now North Dakota, not far from the Montana Border. The Maltese Cross operated along the eastern bank of the Little Missouri River, south of the town of Medora. Roosevelt’s second and larger spread, the Elkhorn, was to the north, on the western side of the river. He lived out there on and off for three and a half years, from the summer of 1884 until the spring of 1887. Starkly beautiful and infernally ugly, it’s a difficult country to love---
Sometimes they rattled along a valley a mile or more wide, and other times buttes rose abruptly from the riverbanks; surrounding hills were capped with tawny grass, ravines were dark with cedars, and the river bottoms were shadowed by cottonwoods. When the trail snaked over the buttes, they could see the Badlands spreading out in a maze of hills and ravines where seams of coal burned for years when struck by lightning, sending up clouds of smoke by day and glowing red in the night, overhung with the smell of sulfur. Left in the ground, the burning coal heated the stretches of earth into a red, brick-like substance called scoria. Roosevelt concluded that “when one is in the Bad Lands he feels as if they somehow look just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sound.” In one of his books he would the Badlands the “devil’s wilderness.”
But Roosevelt loved it, at first sight for itself, later and forever afterwards, because it saved his life.
It’s a terrific story and a key chapter in Roosevelt’s legend, how, devastated by the deaths of his beautiful young wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, and his beloved mother Mamie on the same day in the same house, the up and coming young politician walked away from his rising career in New York State politics and went west to escape his grief and how out there riding the range and chasing after mountain lions and outlaws he restored himself to emotional and physical health. It’s not only a good story, it’s a true story, except that the double blow of his wife’s and mother’s deaths is the reason he went back and went back when he did.
Alice and Mamie Roosevelt died in February 1884, five months after he returned from his first trip to the Badlands in September of 1883, and the reason he’d gone out there that first time was to hunt buffalo. He fell in love with Dakota Territory and established his first ranch, the Maltese Cross, while he was out there, but he was out there to shoot a bison and bring back its head as a trophy before the buffalo were all gone.
Roosevelt knew they were on the brink of extinction but not only did that make him more determined to hunt them, he thought it would be a good thing to wipe them out. Ridding the west of bison would force the Plains Indians who depended on the buffalo to abandon their way of life and settle down and get themselves civilized. By killing a bison, he would be taking part in killing off a culture and he was happy to help in that.
“From the standpoint of humanity at large,” he wrote, “the extermination of the buffalo has been a blessing.”
And when he returned to the Badlands to live, he did far more hunting than he did cow-punching. He left the ranch regularly for days and weeks on end to go off to shoot whatever game took his fancy or had the bad luck to wander into rifle range. On one trip to the Bighorn Mountains to hunt grizzly bears, he and his companions shot dozens of animals of various other kinds---elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, jackrabbits, sharp-tailed grouse, and ducks---eating very little of what they killed. Roosevelt was out for sport and trophies and after he’d taken horns or head or hide to send back to adorn the hallways of his Long Island home, the rest of the animal was left where it lay to feed vultures, wolves, coyotes, and worms. His casual and callous attitude towards the waste, his out and out blood lust and the joy he took in killing---he amused or annoyed his companions, depending on their temperaments and moods, by doing little war dances, whooping and hollering, after each kill---are almost as appalling as his racism, which, along with his warmongering and imperialism, makes him a problematic figure for contemporary liberals for whom he would otherwise be a great hero.
His was a Take Up the White Man’s Burden form of racism. (Kipling probably didn’t write his poem with Roosevelt in mind as his audience, but TR read it and admired its sentiments, although to his credit as a judge of literature he did not think highly of its merits as poetry---Roosevelt loved to read, could recite from his favorite poems at length, and, among other books, he carried a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in his saddle bag.) He believed that it was the job of the white race to improve the lot of the lesser orders who, conveniently, were a long way from being improved to the point of being ready to share power, status, and liberty with their white superiors.
As was the case with a lot of what he said and wrote on every subject, many of Roosevelt’s pronouncements on race have the sound of a man yelling at himself to shout down his own doubts and conscience. He thought and felt things deeply, and by Godfrey, he believed those things to be right and true, but at the same time, he seemed, at some level, to suspect he was wrong. But that’s probably just wishful thinking. Roosevelt was a racist and his racism can’t be excused on the grounds that he was a product of his times. Other whites of his time and place did know better. Friends of his in the Badlands knew better. He had the education and the experience to know better. Roosevelt understood that injustices were being done to the Indians but he had little sympathy. He thought the Indians needed to be forced to live like the white settlers or get out of their way and whatever happened to them if they didn’t they brought on themselves. “I don’t go so far as to think the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
His stand-off with a party of “hostiles” may have been a figment of his imagination colored by his prejudices. Roosevelt thought the Indians were up to no good. His friend, neighbor, and fellow rancher Lincoln Lang thought Roosevelt had mistaken the intentions of a peaceful hunting party.
The Lang range bordered the west side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, so Lang though, “we must have found out something about [Indian depredations] from our twenty-odd years of residence there.” What the Langs found was that “from ‘85 on, we saw a good deal of them at the ranch. And they were always hungry. Hungry because they had no food with them, that we ever saw; because game was steadily growing scarcer, and because such rifles as they were permitted to carry were more or less antiquated and inadequate. When Indians showed up at the Lang ranch waving travel permits […] the Langs fed them and made friends with them. Lang called the permits “a passport of the invading White Man---symbol of Reservation slavery---beneficently entitling them to hunt for a couple of weeks in their own country. In their beloved Bad Lands---their stolen hunting grounds---where for aeons the race had hunted before he came; title to that which they held from God Almighty Himself.”
Di Silvestro notes that Roosevelt’s views and his heart softened over time and that as on most subjects his thinking was complex and self-contradictory, but he isn’t interested in writing either an apology or an indictment. He doesn’t ignore Roosevelt’s politics, which at that point in his life were both elitist and reformist. Roosevelt’s attitudes towards most white Americans weren’t much more egalitarian than his attitudes towards people of other colors, although his time out west opened his eyes about a lot of things. He was able to make several trips back east and kept his hand in enough that when he finally returned home to stay he was able to jump right back into the thick of things and pick up practically where he left off, only this time as something of a folk hero, the cowboy from New York by way of the Dakota badlands. It wasn’t his reason for going west, but being out there gave him an excuse not to take an active part in the 1884 Presidential campaign. The Republicans had nominated James G. Blaine of Maine, a man Roosevelt regarded with good reason as utterly corrupt. Roosevelt was a good government man but he was also a good and loyal Republican. From his ranch he could “support” Blaine but there was no way he could be expected to lend much of a hand to help get the man elected. And he wasn’t around for anyone to point fingers at when when Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland and party regulars and sachems were looking to place the blame.
But Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands isn’t a political biography. It’s a depiction of life in the Dakota territory in the 1880s as seen through the eyes of a particular young man who happened to have an amazing career in politics ahead of him. Di Silvestro observes qualities of Roosevelt’s character and details about his politics and prejudices with the same clear-eyed journalistic detachment as he observes the features of the landscape of the territory and the living arrangements and natural history of its inhabitants, two and four-footed. He’s wise to keep things low key, because his primary source is Theodore Roosevelt himself, and TR was as excitable in print as he was in person.
Roosevelt wasn’t the best writer ever to be President. That would be Lincoln, with Thomas Jefferson a close second, then John Adams. Grant gets an honorable mention. But Roosevelt is the only President who could claim to be a professional author when he got to the White House. (Of all the things Jimmy Carter listed on his resume when he was running for President, author wasn’t one of them. He started his writing career after he left office.) Roosevelt wrote and co-authored over forty books, twenty or so---it depends on how you count the multiple volumes of The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West---by the time he became President, at the ripe old age of 42, three of them about his time in the Badlands. Di Silvestro knows a gift when he’s been given one and he quotes extensively from TR’s writing. But he doesn’t let Roosevelt hog the page.
Di Silvestro’s own more even-tempered but still elegant and descriptive prose complements Roosevelt’s, lowering the pitch, slowing the tempo, underscoring Roosevelt’s general accuracy and reliability, toning things down when Roosevelt gets carried away, providing doses of naturalism where TR grows fanciful.
And Di Silvestro is good at filling in, adding facts and background and bits of history that Roosevelt couldn’t have known at the time, providing details that Roosevelt was too busy to notice or that he saw only peripherally as he galloped along hell-bent for leather on whatever enthusiasm had taken hold of him at the moment. Since Di Silvestro is a nature writer, a senior editor for National Wildlife and the author of several award-winning nature books, much of what he adds is descriptive, of the landscape, the weather, and the flora and fauna of the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands includes a a barely hidden field guide to that area of North Dakota, then and now.
The valley flats and the slopes of the surrounding hills were grassy, but the domed faces of the bordering buttes were rutted and torn by wind and water, pale in color, bleaching almost to white when the sun stood high, warming almost to gold when the sun lay low, and marked with with horizontal bands of black, blue, and red earth.
The sun shone brightly as the duo rode up the river valley, flanked by sheer bluffs. The greening grass was dappled with spring blossoms, the river valley thick with fodder, the air scented with the fragrance of silvery sage brush. Cattle fed peacefully, stopping to watch the riders pass by. Birds called from all directions. Overhead, western kingbirds, about the size of robins, with gray backs and yellow breasts, dive-bombed hawks that ducked and swooped to avoid the attacks.
They soon came to a gulch that allowed them to ride out of the river valley and on to the broken plains above, where travel was easier. There they began to see pronghorn antelope---tan and white animals with black markings that are not really antelope; their closest living relatives are goats, and they themselves are the lone species in a family all their own. They are unique among horned animals in that their forked horns, usually found only on the males, or bucks, shed the black outer layer each year. Pronghorn are the fastest mammals on the continent and one of the fastest in the world, capable of hitting sixty miles per hour. Prior to European settlement in the West, pronghorn mingled with bison and elk on western grasslands and may have numbered forty million as late as the 1870s. By 1908, the U.S. Biological Survey estimated that only about seventeen thousand remained after years of uncontrolled hunting. At the time Roosevelt came to the Badlands, pronghorn had become wary; on that first morning he decided not to stalk them , because the wind was to his back, making it easier for the animals to scent him.
Lang noticed that hunters had killed off most of the beaver native to the Badlands, the largest rodent in North America and builder of dams on streams. These dams created pools of water that lasted year-round. As beaver vanished, so did their dams, and by 1886 streams were beginning to run dry part of the year. The myriad cattle crowding the Badlands had to search farther for water, cutting a spiderweb of trails across the fragile prairie, trails that eroded in the heavy rains and evolved into washouts…
As useful and informative as it is this way, Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands is still an adventure story. The book is packed with so many exciting incidents and encounters with colorful characters that by the time we reach the chapter about the outlaws who stole a boat from his ranch and we read how Roosevelt set out in pursuit and captured them, we think, “Well, of course he did. That’s what heroes of Westerns do.”
And where would the hero of an adventure yarn be without a romance?
Alice Roosevelt died of kidney failure, probably from an undiagnosed case of Bright’s Disease, shortly after giving birth to the couple’s only child, a daughter also known as Alice, soon to be notorious as the roller-skater in the halls of the White House and then as the doyenne and terror of the Washington social scene, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. As soon as he could arrange it, Roosevelt packed up and went west, leaving baby Alice in the care of his sister. Strangely, almost perversely, it was a long time before Roosevelt mentioned his daughter or asked about her in his letters home. Convinced that without Alice his life was over, he seemed determined to act as if he’d had no life with her as well, and his infant child was about to pay for that through his indifference and benign neglect.
Then, something changed. He began to show an interest in Alice and on trips back home he doted on her. It was the first real sign he was getting over his grief and was readying himself to move on.
Before he met and married Alice, family and friends had expected him to marry his best friend from childhood and eventually his sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, and in fact Roosevelt proposed to her several times. But they had a falling out, over what neither ever said. They drifted apart and after he married Alice, they avoided each other as much as was possible within their narrow social set. But on his visits home from the Badlands, they kept bumping into each other. Slowly, then swiftly, one thing led to another and…well, you can guess the rest.
So Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands is an exciting adventure yarn and a lyrical and lively natural and social history of that part of the still wild West. But it’s also the story of a young man’s journey towards maturity and wisdom.
Theodore Roosevelt was a natural leader, intensely charismatic, charming and seductive without hardly trying or noticing. People just liked him. More than that, they trusted him. He couldn’t enter a room without people in it wanting him to put him in charge of something. If he said, Let’s go this way, they went, if he said, let’s do it like this, they did it, even when they felt they were acting against their own better judgment. Much of his appeal was due to the delight he took in the company of others. He liked people, he enjoyed being around them, and he was interested in them. As prone as he was to letting his mouth run away with him, he also knew how to listen. The story of Theodore Roosevelt out west is a story of healing. But it’s also a story about learning.
In later years Roosevelt would write of the Badlands, “I owe more than I can ever express to the West, which of course means to the men and women I met in the west. There were a few people of bad type in my neighborhood---that would be true of every group of men, even in a theological seminary---but I could not speak with too great affection and respect of the great majority of my friends, the hard-working men and women who dwelt for a space of a hundred and fifty miles along the Little Missouri.”
Di Silvestro doesn’t moralize or do much in the way of political analysis, but he has a theme that has political implications. He sees Roosevelt’s sojourn in the Badlands as a democratizing experience. It brought him into contact with and forced him to rely on people of all classes, backgrounds, social standing, race, and gender. It’s easy to infer how later the President known as the Trust Buster, comparing the rich men and their political flunkeys in Congress to the men and women he’d known out west, the hard-working, practical, and self-reliant ranchers and cowboys and farmers and sheepherders and trappers and small businessmen and women, would have had little patience and less sympathy for their self-interested ideas of what government is for, the aggrandizement of the already rich, how he’d have seen the self-satisfied and self-congratulatory inheritors of great wealth and self-made millionaires who were essentially skimmers wringing their fortunes out of the sweat and idea of others for the parasites and thieves they were.
As I said, Di Silvestro doesn’t moralize. That lesson’s there if you want to draw it. More explicit, however, is the theme of Roosevelt’s habit of treating life as an infinite series of lessons to be learned. He appears never to have met a man or woman he didn’t expect to teach him something.
One of his most famous teachers was the photographer, muckraking journalist, and social reformer Jacob Riis, who when Roosevelt was New York City’s commissioner of police, guided the future President on a long explore of the city’s slums and underworld, an exploration that helped shift TR’s views on crime, poverty, immigration, labor, and the role of government farther to what we would now call the left.
But another teacher who ought to loom as large in the legend of Theodore Roosevelt as Jacob Riis is someone he met as a consequence of his time in the Badlands.
Of course it’s ironic that our most ardent conservationist President, the founder of our National Parks system, was such a relentless, reckless, and indiscriminate slaughterer of animals with an especial interest in hunting down species on the brink of extinction. When he heard that elk were all but gone from the Badlands, he set out to shoot the last one. And he was proud to think he had done it.
But as it happened the first book he wrote about his life out west, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, was given a critical review by the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, George Bird Grinnell.
A snippet of Grinnell’s resume:
In summer 1870 he accompanied paleontologist O.C. Marsh on a six-month fossil-hunting expedition across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah. He made annual trips west after that one---more time in the West than Roosevelt ever spent---and in 1874 served as naturalist on a Black Hills expedition led by George Armstrong Custer. Also in the mid-1870s, Grinnell explored the area then recently set aside as Yellowstone National Park and hunted bison when the herds were still vast. Custer invited him to join a military foray in pursuit of Indians in Montana Territory in 1876, but Grinnell’s work as the assistant in osteology at Yale’s Peabody Museum kept him from going; he might otherwise have sown the earth of the Little Bighorn with his own bones. In 1880 he received a doctorate in osteology and vertebrate paleontology.
Grinnell took a leading role in a movement then in its infancy---wildlife conservation. In the mid-1880s he founded the National Audubon Society…
Roosevelt was on a trip back east when the review came out, and he went to see Grinnell in his office at Field and Stream.
Not to complain.
To learn something.
He wanted Grinnell to give him a more detailed criticism of the book so that he’d know where he went wrong and where he went right so and be able to make his next book better. Something else, something grander came out of that meeting.
While discussing the book, the two wildlife enthusiasts segued into talk of hunting in the West. Grinnell: “I told him something about game destruction in Montana for the hides, which, so far as small game was concerned had begun in the west only a few years before that, though the slaughter of the buffalo for their skins was going on much longer and by this time their extermination had been substantially completed.” Grinnell did not record Roosevelt’s response. They continued their discussion when Roosevelt made repeat visits to see Grinnell, giving Roosevelt “his first direct and detailed information about this slaughter of elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. No doubt it had some influence in making him the ardent game protector he later became.”
No doubt. Still:
However much conservation loomed in Theodore Roosevelt’s mind, that issue alone would not have ushered him into the White House. A complex of factors saw him through that door, but Roosevelt rated his Badlands experiences high among them. His friend John Burroughs, the naturalist, recalled that when the two traveled together in the West in 1903, Roosevelt---then in his first term as president---said that “his ranch life had been the making of him. It had built him up and hardened him physically, and it had opened his eyes to the wealth of manly character among the plainsmen and cattlemen. Had he not gone West, he said, he never would have raised the Rough Riders regiment; and had he not raised that regiment and gone to the Cuban War, he would not have been made governor of New York; and had not this happened, the politicians would not have unwittingly made his rise to the Presidency so inevitable.”
One minor note of disappointment for me: Di Silvestro makes no mention of Roosevelt’s friend, the real life version of Deadwood’s Seth Bullock. Di Silvestro lists letters TR wrote to Bullock among his sources, but he doesn’t bring him into the narrative proper.
I still wish the TV show had lasted long enough for Roosevelt to become a character, as I wrote in my post All trails lead to Deadwood.
Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro, published by Walker Books, is available from Amazon. For those of you who like to ride fast and light, there’s a kindle edition.
Excerpt. TR accepts a challenge to a duel that was never given.
Two days later Roosevelt chaired the Badlands livestock association meeting. the members set the date and place for the fall roundup and unanimously reelected Roosevelt chairman, over his objection that they should install someone who lived locally year-round. The real drama occurred behind the scenes. Either the evening of September or the following morning, Roosevelt received a terse letter from [the Marquis] de Mores, then [under indictment for murder and] cooling his heels in a Bismarck jail after a change in venue from Mandan. Dated September 3 and written on the Marquis’ Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company letterhead, the note read:
My Dear Roosevelt
My principle is to take the bull by the horns. Joe Ferris is very active against me and has been instrumental in getting me indicted by furnishing money to witnesses and hunting them up. The papers also publish very stupid accounts of our quarrelling---I set you the paper to N.Y. Is this done by your orders? I thought you my friend. If you are my enemy I want to know it I am always on hand,as you know, and between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of that sort directly.
Yours very truly,
I hear the pople want organize the county. I am opposed to it for one year more at least.
Apparently de Mores had misinterpreted, or been misinformed about, certain activities in Medora. Sixteen witnesses had been subpoenaed for his trial, probably all Medora men. They had needed money for train fare and other expenses, and they got the money from Joe Ferris, who acted as an unofficial banker among cowboys who trusted him. Two key prosecution witnesses, Dutch Wannegan himself and “Dynamite Jimmie” McShane, were among those who withdrew money from Ferris before the trial. The Marquis had concluded that Ferris was paying these men to testify against him, perhaps on behalf of Theodore Roosevelt, who had invested in Ferris’ store and had a room on the store’s second floor.
With his penchant for melodrama, Roosevelt concluded that the Marquis was challenging him to a duel---the de Mores’ postscript hardly seems the kind of amendment a duelist would add to a challenge. Roosevelt told Sewll that he was opposed to dueling, but if challenged he would accept. As the challenged party, he would have the choice of weapons, and, in deference to his poor shooting ability, he thought he would choose Winchester rifles at twelve paces---near enough that he might be able to hit a Frenchman renowned for shooting birds on the wing with a rifle. They would fire and advance until one of them was satisfied. He asked Sewell to be his second, and Sewall agreed skeptically, saying that a man who would lay in ambush and shoot at unsuspecting men [the trumped up charge against the Marquis] would not fight such a duel as that. Sewell apparently did not know that the Marquis had already killed at least two men in duels in France.
Roosevelt drafted a response to the Marquis on the back of the note de Mores had sent him:
Most emphatically I am not your enemy; if I were you would know it, for I would be an open one, and would not have asked you to my house nor gone to yours. As your final words, however, seem to imply a threat is due to myself to say that the statement is not made through any fear of possible consequences to me; I, too, as you know, am always on hand, and ever ready to hold myself accountable in any way for anything I have said or done.
Yours very truly,
---from Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands by Roger L. Di Silvestro.
You never know when having information like this may come in handy:
Not all alligator hunting is against the law: The legal way to hunt an alligator is to hook it via the "fishing method" during hunting season, which is about one month out of the year. You can sneak up on it with a harpoon, and once you harpoon it, a bow-and-arrow or a bang-stick may be used to kill the alligator. The rules of alligator hunting are: no shotguns, you can only hunt during the daytime, and a permit is required. Hunting isn't the only way to get a dead alligator. Alligator farming is legal in Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida.
This nugget and the photograph above by Adam Krause come from a post over at Inc. that features twelve terrific photos of some alligator farmers and hunters and their livestock and prey. The photos are as interesting for the portraits of the people as for the illustrations of the crocodilian circle of life, although YMMV. Some people find baby gators cute.
Check them out for yourselves here: Inside the Dangerous (and Lucrative) Business of Alligator Farming: A Photo Gallery.
In my Digital Commoners class, we’ve been working on hammering out a definition of public intellectual, since as bloggers now the students have entered the virtual jungle where public intellectuals are said to roam wild and fierce and ready to pounce and devour ideas raw and bloody. My students need to be prepared to pounce back.
We’ve been using this at a starting point: A public intellectual is someone who thinks out loud in public.
I would add “whether the public wants to hear it or not.”
And I guess by that sketchy definition all bloggers are public intellectuals, and that makes me one.
I think, though, that going by what I’ve been up to here for the past ten years, a public intellectual is someone who thinks out loud in public and gets to be regularly and often spectacularly wrong and yet can still expect smart people who have better things to do than read my blog to read my blog!
The other day, in my post Smarter than the President?… I said that one of the things it took me a long time to admit to myself that I’m not smarter than the President. My point wasn’t that the President is too smart to be criticized but that I’m not smart enough to do a good job of criticizing him.
I went on to say that once this fact sank in, I began to ask myself what else I wasn’t smart enough about and came to the conclusion: Just about everything.
After taking a long, critical look at the blog, I decide there were in fact only three subjects on which I was smart enough to write with confidence that I wasn’t just blowing smoke.
Shakespeare, Discworld, and movies.
Here, sympathetic readers might object.
Television, Lance! What about television?
Think of all the shows you’ve written about with authority, persuasiveness, and insight! Dexter! Weeds! MASH! Stargate SG:1! Law and Order! Deadwood! Mad Men!
I hear you. And I appreciate the thought. But here’s what I have to say about that.
I'm afraid, though, that Smallville has jumped the shark…
Wrote that on September 30, 2004.
My point was that by bringing in Lois Lane, Smallville’s producers had prematurely brought the show to its logical conclusion. The show was about how Clark Kent was learning to become to Superman and so the fun was in watching all the things that would make him the Man of Steel falling into place one by one until he was ready to go to Metropolis and start his career as a superhero. Once Lois showed up, I thought, we were suddenly at the moment when he became Superman. It wasn’t the case that Clark went to Metropolis but that Metropolis had come to Smallville and I felt the effect was the same. The story Smallville was telling was done and the show had nowhere to go.
Smallville lasted for seven more seasons and got better and better with just about every new year.
The arrival of Lois Lane in the person of Erica Durance didn’t signal Smallville’s end. It was the point at which the real fun got started.
Durance was terrific. She brought the show comic energy and gave it sex appeal. Before her Lois charged onto the scene, it was all sexual longing, teenage angst, hurt feelings, and Lex Luthor. Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang wanted to be loved. Durance’s Lois took love as the given. She wanted to jump Clark’s bones. And that was the big turning point and one of the things Smallville added to the Superman myth. Lois fell in love with Clark first, not Superman. She saw Clark as heroic. She loved that he was always ready to help other people. Lana was frustrated and hurt by Clark’s constantly turning his attention away from her to go to someone else’s rescue. Lois didn’t need that kind of constant focus on her. And when she found out he had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, she was happy for him! It meant that he could do the good he wanted to do, that he was born to do, on a superheroic scale.
Lois, unlike Lana, was thrilled to share her love with the world.
And it wasn’t just that she was willing to step back and let him be Superman. She never stepped back. (Note to Zack Snyder: Lois Lane doesn’t step back or step aside for anyone.) She was often steps ahead of him and reaching back to grab his hand and pull him along. She helped make him Superman.
That became a big part of the story.
I should also note that Durance brought out qualities in star Tom Welling’s acting that he hadn’t showed before, so in addition Lois helping to make Clark Superman, Durance helped make Welling a better Clark.
Smallville became a true romance. A love story and an adventure tale. And it now had a heroine. A comic heroine.
In short, boy, did I get that one wrong!
So, yeah. Shakespeare, Discworld, and movies. But now I’m thinking I may need to re-evaluate further. If I got it so wrong on Smallville, imagine how much wronger I could be about Shakespeare.
I did get one thing right in that post, though.
With that as its premise, the show's natural end is when Clark has learned enough that he can become Superman. The last episode's last scene will be when he pulls open his shirt to show the big red and yellow S.
Didn’t need powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal bloggers to predict that one.
How else could it have ended?
This is all I need.
For diabetics and the calorie conscious who steer clear of sugary foods, artificial sweeteners are a blessing. These undigestable synthetic compounds, like aspartame or saccharin, give foods a sweet taste but don't mess with a delicate blood glucose balance or add unwanted girth. Or, that's how they're supposed to work. Scientists are finding, though, that artificial sweeteners may mess with the body in curious ways—maybe even contributing to the problems they were meant to avoid.
In a new study, researchers found that both in mice and in people artificial sweeteners seem to contribute to glucose intolerance—a blanket term for metabolic problems that lead to high blood sugar, such as pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.
And I’ve been thinking I’ve been being so good. Two cups of coffee a day, one Splenda per cup. I treat myself to the rare Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi, but mostly it’s water and unsweetened ice tea with lemon and Splenda instead and it turns out all I’m doing is messing with my microbes and making the diabetes worse?
This is why I shouldn’t read stories about medicine.
You should though, at least the whole story that prompted this post, Artificial Sweeteners May Be Screwing Up How Your Body Handles Sugar, by Colin Schultz at Smithsonian.
One of the ways I’ve counted myself one of the blogosphere’s luckiest bloggers over the past ten years is that I’ve always had terrific commenters---smart, thoughtful, articulate, witty, knowledgeable, opinionated but even-tempered, fair-minded, and considerate.
Last two days I’ve been even luckier, because, thanks to a link from Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the comment thread on my post Smarter than the President? has been filling up with the thoughts of folks trooping over from LG&M, whose commenters are almost a match for my regulars. An interesting discussion on what if anything to do about ISIS has developed and I urge you to check it out, starting with one of our cherished own, Falstaff, who wrote:
I'm kind of in the same boat as you here, Lance. I'm faintly reminded of the scene in Christopher Stasheff's Her Majesty's Wizard where the title character realizes that while he might know a fair amount about a diverse range of subjects, all that means is that he's not an expert in any of them, and so that knowledge doesn't count for a lot. (Of course, unlike him, I haven't been transported to a plane of reality where all my apparently-useless knowledge makes me into a skillful magician who can defeat bad guys, fight armies, and rescue princesses. Ah, well.)
To answer the question you pose, I don't know. My inclination is that we ought to do something, although exactly what we ought to do I have no idea; I don't think we should move in ground forces, and I don't think we should continue bombing. Times like this, I struggle with my Quaker belief system -- I'm committed to peace in all things, but good God, someone must do something to help the innocent people being oppressed and killed over there. I wish I was wiser and knew what that was.
I happen to have been right about Iraq (this is no great claim to fame; plenty of people smarter than me were right for better reasons), and I do feel that President Clinton failed morally (I don't know enough about geopolitics to really say otherwise) on Rwanda. But if I'd been there, and if by some strange chance he'd taken leave of his senses and asked a kid just out of high school (I've forgotten just what year that went down, but I think that's about right) what exactly he should be doing, I wouldn't have had the first idea how to advise him.
It's actually kind of infuriating. On the other hand, I'm just a former mailman and once-again student; all my training's either been in, you know, sorting, transporting, and delivering mail or esoteric stuff like comparative religion, history, American politics, and obscure sports trivia. On the other, isn't this the sort of situation where we have presidents, senators, congresscritters, and their advisers for?
To answer the rest of your questions for the record, even though I do take it that the point you're trying to make is in the asking, not in whatever answer we might give:
Kuwait was a mistake, I've always thought -- not because of the end result, which I have no problem with (anything that increases the power of men like Saddam Hussein is at best morally questionable), but because I didn't like our motives and our mucking around for the umpity-umpth time in Mesopotamia. The Kurds have been comprehensively screwed for the last few centuries, and we should have kept our promises to them; likewise, I think that it was both just and right to intervene in Kosovo, because good God, if we stand by and watch genocide happening and do nothing, what good are we as a people?
The Tora Bora campaign I felt was a useless dumb show, more about President Bush and his administration looking like they were tough warriors than actually accomplishing any of the stated goals. I have a suspicion that I'm one of very, very few Americans who was and is angry about the death of Osama bin Laden -- not because I carry any water for that miserable, evil man, but because I don't believe that the state (even when "the state" is the United States, the country I believe in and love most) should ever go around murdering people. I would have been very pleased had he been arrested and put on trial in a civilian criminal court, and then, presumably, locked away where he could do no harm ever again. (I feel that way very strongly about all terrorists, actually.) And Libya... hell, I don't know. I suppose it was handled as best as one could expect, but still, what a mess.
Follow the whole thread.
Again. And for now. And off the California coast.
Blue whales are the largest, heaviest animals ever known to exist on this planet. Growing to nearly 100 feet and weighing more than 160 tons, they're more than twice as large as even the biggest land dinosaurs that have been discovered to date.
So it's stunning to think that humans nearly eradicated these whales entirely in the 20th century…
Prior to the late 19th century, blue whales were simply too big and powerful to pursue. But the advent of steamboats and advanced harpoon guns made it easier to go after much larger whales for oil and meat — and catches soon began surging, first in Iceland and Norway, then around the world.
By the time the International Whaling Commission banned blue-whale hunting in 1966 — and after illicit Soviet whaling finally tapered off in the 1970s — most of the damage was done. Roughly 380,000 blue whales had been killed in all, and the species was at 0.2 percent of its initial numbers.
Now there are signs that the whales are starting to recover. The latest paper, by Cole Monnahan, Trevor Branch and André Punt of the University of Washington, estimates that there are currently some 2,200 California blue whales in the eastern North Pacific — more or less the number that existed in the region before the advent of whaling.
What's more, they conclude that the blue whale population has now plateaued because it's nearly reached the maximum size that this region of the ocean will support — and not because too many whales are being killed by ship strikes, as some researchers had previously thought.
Head over to Vox to read all of Brad Plumer’s explanation---that’s what they do at Vox, explain things.---California blue whales, once nearly extinct, are back at historic levels.
So, Monday was the Tenth Anniversary of the Grand Opening of The Mannionville Feed and Grain Emporium, Psychic Readings, and Famous Actors Acting Studio.
Or yesterday was.
Thing is, I don’t remember the exact date when I told the apprentices to take down the shutters and hang the Open for Business sign in the window. I’d always had it my head that it was September 14, 2004, but it turns out I published my first two posts the day before. But those were tests to see how the blog would look and not only do I not count them, I didn’t even remember them until I checked the archives today. The post I’d remembered as my first post posted on the 15th! The post that went up on the 14th, the first of many rants against George W. Bush, I’d remembered as having been my third or fourth post. It was a full-fledged post not a test, but I don’t like it! It was a typical piece of Bush Bashing of the time, psychoanalyzing W’s character and trying to prove he was a bad, bad man, instead of focusing on his mistakes and screw-ups and just showing how he was a bad, bad President.
I don’t want to commemorate that one.
But then the question is: Do I celebrate the day I built the blog, the 13th, the day I published my first real post, the 14th, or the day I posted the first post I liked well-enough to think I might be onto something with this blogging business, the 15th?
And then there’s this.
After I built the blog, having finally given in to the urgings of old pal and ur-blogger Nancy Nall (Nance was already a popular presence on what was still called with awe and affection the World Wide Web back when blogs were called, well, a lot of things except blogs), I didn’t want to let anyone know I’d started the darn thing until I had at least a week’s worth of posts ready to go. Checking the archives, I found that either I got impatient and told Nance the front doors were open or Nance decided I was shilly-shallying and linked to me, sending her readers my way, without waiting for the all clear on September 17th or 18th. Either way, either date, the 18th’s when I got my first comment. Which I suppose would make this my first sale…er…post, A World of Gods and Monsters.
After long and careful thought, I’ve come to a conclusion.
The exact date doesn’t matter.
Sometime this week I started or will be starting my 11th year of this, and I’ve got a few things to say about that in posts that’ll go up over the next couple of days, including a great big long list of thank yous to the many bloggers who gave me a boost at the start and have kept me going ever since. But I’m starting with this, a thank you to all of who read the blog!
Folks who know me offline can tell you that what I’m about to type is one of the highest praises I can give. They’ll also tell you I really talk this way.
You’re all swell!
I’m posting the post I would like to remember as my first post below.
And, yep, the little boy in the third photo with his fingers in his ears is the now six-foot-three college man Ken Mannion.
Ten years. Ten years.
Well, technically, this was my fourth post. But it's the one I like to remember as my first. September 15, 2004.
Couple weeks ago we were up at Lake George and took a tour of Fort William Henry, site of some terrific scenes in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and of a real life massacre during the French and Indian War.
The guides at Fort William Henry wear uniforms from the 18th Century but fortunately the fort is not a "living history" museum. The guides may be dressed like British soldiers in 1757, but they don't pretend to be soldiers from 1757. It's not like that annoying place, Plimouth Plantation, where the folks working there go about as if they just got off the Mayflower and the tourists are a bunch of dimwitted time travellers who deliberately get everything wrong about life at the edge of the Massachusetts wilderness in the 1620s. They speak in horrible academically approved approximations of 17th Century accents---which is to say they all sound like they're trying to imitate Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean but don't get the Keith Richards joke. They won't engage with you unless you play along, and when you ask them a question, any question, they become exasperated with your ignorance about their way of life----"First Thanksgiving? I never heard of any festivity called a Thanksgiving? Perhaps you are referring to the Harvest Festival we celebrated with our Indian neighbors?"---and go all Puritan on you, scolding instead of teaching. Which reminds you that it's today's Liberals who are the true decendents of the Puritans not the right wing Christians. Right wing Christian puritans only want you to feel bad about having sex. Liberal puritans seem to want you to feel bad about everything else.
"Tell me that after all this time you still don't know that second hand smoke is dangerous."
"I can't believe you drive an SUV!"
"You actually enjoy The Gilmore Girls?"
"I don't follow sports, to tell you the truth, I have better things to do with my time."
"I'm sorry, but my children aren't allowed to have any sugar."
"We don't use the word 'Indian.' They refer to themselves as the Wampanoag."
The guides at Fort William Henry will sometimes talk as if they were at the fort back in the days of Hawkeye and Chingachgook, but without adopting any specific persona. For instance, while showing how soldiers had to cast their own bullets, our guide said, off handedly, his eye on his mold and the molten metal he was pouring into it, "All the lead for musket balls had to be shipped over from England. That's because the only two working lead mines in North America at the time were up in Canada, and for some reason the French didn't want to sell us bullets. Go figure. We'd give 'em right back to them."
They only get into character with each other, and then only to actually demonstrate something, like how to load and fire a musket or how to skewer an enemy with a bayonet, or, as you'll see below, what not to do with a cannon. They take the teaching part of their jobs seriously, but their acts are comedy routines, and apparently you can't get hired there unless you've got a talent for telling a good story and excellent comic timing. Like this guy. (Thumbnails ahead. Click on 'em to enlarge.)
"If you saw the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, you saw Mel go through this process of making his own bullets several times. So, now, besides being roguishly handsome, Mel and I have something else in common."
Besides not embarrassing the tourists, this easy going approach to their jobs makes it possible for them to talk about the Fort as it exists around you and help you understand it as a museum. If you ask one of the snooty phony Pilgrims at Plimouth how they built one of the houses there, he'll launch into a long explanation of 17th century carpentry techniques. If you ask a guide at the fort where a cannon came from, he won't bother you with any pretense that he knows about 18th Century ironmongery first hand. He'll tell you, "We scooped it up at auction from a pirate museum in North Carolina the went bankrupt and it's not really the kind of cannons they would have had here." Plus they can talk about the history of the place beyond the date they're pretending to be living in. Ask one of those Pilgrims when the village moved down to the harbor and he'll feign surprise that you'd even think Plymouth might exist as a real fishing village and tourist trap in the 21st century. "Move? Why we've just finished putting the roof on our meeting house!"
If the guides at the Fort had to stay in character they couldn't talk about the most important event that happened there, because they'd be talking about the day most of them died.
And if they had to stay in character they couldn't tell stories about working there, like this one.
Part of the tour is a demonstration of the cannon. There are a few working field pieces up on the battlements, aimed out at the lake and they like to fire one off for your edification and enjoyment.
It makes a bit of a noise.
The floor of the parapet shakes under your feet and car alarms are set off in the parking lot below.
And that's just one cannon loaded with a couple ounces of gunpowder. Back in the day, they used several pounds! And they had thirteen cannons at the fort. Artillerymen got concussions from the noise. They went deaf. They also died a lot from their own cannons blowing up on them.
One evening, some years ago, one of the guides, a college kid at the time, got curious about what that must have been like. So, after the gates had closed and all the tourists had left for the day, he snuck up onto the parapet and loaded one of the cannons with a whole pound of gunpowder.
The shot flipped the cannon over, blew out six windows at a bar up the street and a whole string of streetlights, and was heard by the woman who was manager of the fort at the time and who was eating dinner in Bolton Landing---10 miles up the Lake!
The guide went on, "First thing she thought was, Please God, don't let that be coming from my fort! So she jumped in her car, raced back down here, fired the moron, and I imagine spent most of the night on the phone talking to the good folks at Aflac."
There's a kicker.
That night our 8 year old told this story to his grandparents. And they'd heard it already. Recently. From the moron himself.
Turns out my parents had just met the guy a few nights before, at a party. His experiment occurred 10 years ago. He's in graduate school now, working towards his Ph.d. in American history, and teaching history at a local college.
He's writing his dissertation on British Military techniques during the American Revolution.
If you’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts on PBS, you now know, if you didn’t already, and I didn’t, that Edward Arlington Robinson was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite poet. Since TR loved to memorize and recite poetry, he must have had Robinson’s poems ready to to roar at the drop of a straw hat. I would love it if a recording of him reciting “Miniver Cheevy” turned up. Even better, this one:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Of course, in heaven we’ll get to hear him sing the Simon and Garfunkel version.
I’ve said it before, it was a lot easier to be smarter than the President when the President was George W. Bush.
A major change in the tone, tenor, direction, and focus of this blog occurred sometime in the late summer of 2011 when it dawned on me that this President is smarter than me.
Of course I knew this already. I’d known it since 2004 when he made the speech at the Democratic convention. It’s one of the reasons I was happy to vote for him in 2008. But there’s knowing a thing and then there’s knowing a thing. Vanity is a powerful mind-altering drug. Even though I knew he was way smarter I hadn’t adjusted my thinking about my own thinking accordingly. I’d blogged merrily along as if although I might not be smarter than him on every issue there were plenty on which I could still teach him a thing or two (because of course he read my blog and asked himself every day, What does Lance think about this?). I’m not sure what exactly caused it, but once it finally sank in that compared to him I’m dumber than a box of rocks, it became nearly impossible for me to criticize him or his policies anymore.
This didn’t mean I decided he couldn’t or shouldn’t be criticized. I certainly didn’t start thinking he was never wrong.
What happened was that I realized that in order to criticize him I had to make myself smarter by making myself more knowledgeable. Once I set out to do that, though, I was in trouble. The more I learned, the more I learned I had to learn. Worse than that---worse as in a bigger blow to my pride---the more I learned the more I learned that I wasn’t smart enough to learn a lot of things I needed to learn. It’s as Richard Feynman was fond of saying in various iterations: The more I know, the stupider I get.
I found myself having to admit that for seven years I’d been pretty much blogging off the top of my head (If you do the math here, you’ll see I just told you I’ve been at this for ten years. In fact, today is the blog’s Tenth Anniversary.) and that had to stop.
It was ok to bullshit my way through some arguments. I do know stuff, lots of stuff, and am not really dumber than a box of rocks.
There were times when I still felt smart enough to write about politics: when the targets of my criticism were the Political Press Corps, just about every Democratic politician who is not Barack Obama and every Congressional Republican, and priests, preachers, and their yahoo congregations.
I can be fairly confident I’m smarter than almost every single member of the Press Corps but that’s not saying much, and it’s only because the conventions and practices of their reflexively group-thinking profession make them stupid. Plenty of individual journalists and pundits are way smart but they only get to show it now and then while they’re in DC and it only comes to the fore when they get the hell out of town and stop spending their time among other insider journalists and pundits.
Plenty of politicians, left and right, are smart too, but they’re all too often pressured by political realities into not doing the smart thing because the smart thing hits pocketbooks, upsets apple carts, gores oxen, and hides cheese or, to put it in actual English, getting the smart thing done usually costs money and requires people to change their minds, change their expectations, and give up things they like, trust, and rely on to try to do what usually hasn’t been tried before because it was the smart thing to do.
When it comes to the priests and the preachers it’s practically a no-brainer. I mean that almost literally. Their object is to keep people from using the brains God gave them.
Still, the truth was I wasn’t as expert on the political and economic issues I blogged about as I’d taken for granted I was and as I felt I had a responsibility to be.
And once I faced up to that I had to ask myself, “What other subjects have I been blogging about as if I’m such a smart guy but where I’m actually showing myself up as a pettifogging, derp-acious, logorrheaic horse’s patoot?”
After serious self-reflection and review, I concluded there were only three subjects on which I had done the required homework that I could rely on my stored knowledge enough to be reasonably sure I knew what I was talking about and ask readers to trust I wasn’t just making it up as I went along.
Shakespeare, Discworld, and movies. Superhero movies, in particular, although not a few readers will tell you I’m not all I’m cracked up to be on that one either. Hello, Gary.
Of course I didn’t give up writing about everything else. But I wrote less and less often and with, I think, less certainty---except when the target was Right Wing Republicans, the priests and preachers, and their yahoo congregations. I’m still certain I’m smarter than all of them. Smarter enough, at any rate.
But since then there’ve been all numbers and kinds of issues, events, and topics du jour I’ve shied away from that once upon a time I would have “nailed” with easy confidence.
Which brings me back to the President and on to ISIS.
I have no idea.
I think we really need to do something to stop ISIS.
ISIS is an army of mass murderers led by a genocidal maniac. Whether or not that maniac can lead his mass murderers into an attack on the United States (he probably can’t and probably doesn’t want to) is a separate question from whether or not we should do something to stop them in Iraq. What blood-thirsty warmongers like Dick Cheney, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and their stooges in the political press corps say we should do is beside the point, too. They always think the answer is killing more brown people. Everything they say is noise and posturing and has no real bearing on the question of whether we should set our sights on destroying or at least driving back ISIS. The fact that John McCain is always wrong shouldn’t figure into our trying to decide what’s right.
What we should do and how that would work are the next questions.
The President, smart as he is, isn’t much help on this. He doesn’t seem to know the answers. Of course one of the signs he’s smart is that he generally admits, tacitly but sometimes explicitly, he’s not certain what to do or whether or not what he’s planning to do will work or if it’s even the right thing to do. Another sign is that he takes his time making up his mind. Anyone who criticizes him for being indecisive has to explain what good it did when we had a Decider in the White House.
But the liberal blogosphere hasn’t been any help either. Seems a great deal of the discussion on the left side of the bandwidth is based on naturally fading memories of the run up to the invasion of Iraq and the smug certainty that Since we got it right then, we must be right now.
Republicans would like to forget George W. Bush was ever president. I think a lot of liberals have forgotten exactly what he did that makes them want to forget.
Bush and Cheney and company weren’t wrong generally about Iraq. Just as with everything else they put their dirty and bloody hands to, they were wrong specifically every step of the way, starting with their decision to let bin Laden and al Qaida get away in order to clear the decks for them to indulge Bush’s personal vendetta against Saddam and Cheney’s ambition to own all the oil.
That Iraq and with it the rest of the Muslim world was a democracy waiting to be declared was a lie they told themselves to justify their other lies but they believed it and based their military strategy on it.
“We’ll be welcomed as liberators!”
This seems a little different place to begin than where the President is beginning now.
He may be working from wrong assumptions, but he’s not working from the same assumptions.
Here is where a lot of internet doves lose me. Their arguments seem to me to be based on the assumption that we should get ourselves out of the Middle East no matter what because there’s basically nothing we can do to make things better and just by being in there we make them worse by stirring up suspicions and hatreds. Those are the smart ones. But I would think that since I’m inclined to agree.
I’m inclined to agree. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree.
There are others, though, who’ve based their case on the bumper sticker-profound idea that War is Never the Answer and plenty of others whose arguments are based on a vague and circular logic: “This reminds me of what George Bush did in some way I can’t put my finger on but it must be wrong because of that or else I wouldn’t be reminded of George Bush.”
I’m not bothering with any arguments that are based on the assumption that whatever we do is wrong because we’re the ones doing it.
So I’m asking for help.
Should we do nothing? Why or why not? What should we do and how would that work? And what I want to know, more than that you were right about Iraq in 2002, is if you think Bill Clinton failed morally and geo-politically when he did nothing about Rwanda.
Also what are your thoughts on Kuwait, the Kurds, Kosovo, Tora Bora, killing bin Laden, and Libya?
Yep. Ten years. How about that?
In the student center at Ken’s school, Thursday afternoon, September 11, 2014. Tall, shambling, heavy gutted maintenance worker with shaggy white hair in navy blue workshirt and pants, on his way towards the stairs, stops in his tracks to answer a question from a secretary calling out to him from the doorway of the career services office.
“He’s not here today. Took today off. For 9/11. He’s not telling anybody that. Well, he told his boss. He tells his bosses that’s how he lost his voice. Screaming at the other firefighters at Ground Zero. He wasn’t there. He didn’t go down. He was here when all that crap happened. He was right here.”
Overheard at the diner. Thursday afternoon. September 11, 2014:
Old woman in a booth behind mine on her cell. "Ron? This is Arlene. We met this morning at Sam's Club. Are you avail--- Were you serious about what we talked about? Wait. I'm in public. I'll call you back."
Other day, up at Ken’s college, waiting for him to finish class, I was sitting in the student center taking advantage of the Wifi and a comfortable chair to do some work online, because you can do this if you aren’t failing at life working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant, when an advisor from the financial aid office sat down around the corner with a student who was failing at life working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant and began to quiz her about all the ways she was failing at life.
The references to fast food jobs, the one I don’t have and the one the student does, aren’t gratuitous or mean-spirited---at least, the mean-spiritedness isn’t mine; I’m channeling---and my use of the phrase failing at life is ironic, as I’ll explain in a bit.
I couldn’t see them but they were close by and I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. The student’s a soon-to-be single mother---the divorce is in the final stages, just a matter of signatures now---working at Burger King and trying to figure out how to pay for school and child care while putting aside money for a car she has her eye on. The current owner’s willing to sell it to her for 800 bucks in four installments. The on his way out the door father of her little girl has no money to kick in for the car or child support.
This was one of those moments when you wish you were an eccentric millionaire and could just walk around the corner and write a check. All I could do, of course, was sit there and let my liberal heart bleed for that student, think There but for the grace of God, and shake my head in both pity and admiration. The fact was this student wasn’t failing at life. She was struggling mightily not to fail, working her minimum wage fast food job, putting herself through school, and raising her child. If there’s a failure here, it’s that of a society that leaves people to struggle like this on their own and then sneers at them when the struggle overwhelms them.
Right Wing hack pundit Erick Erickson has been doing some of the sneering.
Filling in has host for Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Thursday, the RedState editor wasn't exactly sympathetic to the fast-food workers who have gone on strike to demand a $15 hourly wage.
“The minimum wage is mostly people who failed at life and high school kids,” Erickson said.
“Seriously, look. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people. What? So my producer from my show is in here and he's just staring at me, can't believe I said this. If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage you've probably failed at life.”
It’s always hard to gauge how much of their own bullshit nihilistic cynics like Erickson buy into. Surely he can’t mean all middle-aged minimum wage workers have failed at life. That nice waitress at his favorite diner, the one who looks like his Aunt Ruth, calls him “Honey,” and knows exactly how he takes his coffee, she’s failed at life? The retiree who mixed paint for him at Home Depot, he’s failed? The fortysomething housewife earning a little extra to pay for her kid’s braces he flirted with over the jewelry counter at Macy’s, she’s failed?
So I’d guess it’s only thirty year old minimum wage workers at fast-food restaurants he’s sneering at? Why them?
Well, possibly because he doesn’t see them as people.
But more probably because they have the nerve!
They’re demanding a raise? How dare they? Don’t they know their place? They’ve failed at life! They should shut up and accept it. They should be glad somebody’s willing to pay them anything, let alone an exorbitant (gross, before taxes, after working full-time taking no days off) $31,200 a year! Thirty-one grand? Why, that’s not the income of failures! It’s a whole eight-thousand more than the federal poverty level for a family of four! It’s only nineteen thousand short of the lower end of the middle class!
Of course, the question is, who does Erickson think he is that he gets to decide other people have failed at life?
Leaving aside the fact that the strikers aren’t asking for their employers to make up for their failing at life, they’re asking for a living wage that will give them a chance in their ongoing struggles not to fail, and leaving aside that part of what’s at work behind what I’ll too generously call Erickson’s “thinking” is the usual Glibertarian Republican habit of judging all of life as a matter of making money and their soulless belief that the only success in life that counts is economic, this is Rush’s audience he’s talking to. How successful at life does he think they are?
People who are busy being successful at life don’t have time to waste during their work days to listen to Rush and his friends. A large cohort of that audience is retirees and I’m sure many of them had been successes at life at a level Erickson approves of, but now? They’re failing at life by failing to remain young and healthy. The rest, well, maybe they’re not working minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants, maybe they have good, solid, well-paying jobs they can be proud of in Erickson’s company, but they’re still human beings and that means among them are a great many failures of different kinds. Failed fathers, failed sons, failed husbands, failed friends, failed neighbors, failed citizens, failed co-workers, failed employees.
Holding a job and holding onto it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re successful at it.
The working world is crowded with incompetents who keep their well-paying jobs despite their constant failures because someone feels sorry for them, someone is covering for them, someone is afraid to fire them, or someone is profiting from their incompetence in some way. I’d list mendacious, cynical, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt Right Wing pundits as beneficiaries of that last set of someones.
We all fail at life, in large and small ways, daily, constantly, continually. We’re human. We mess up. We’re fallible, we’re flawed, we’re weak, we’re stupid or at least we don’t often use our heads.
We did this, we didn’t do that. We should have done this, we shouldn’t have done that. We weren’t ready. We didn’t prepare. We didn’t know. We weren’t thinking. We forgot.
We were too quick to judge. We were too slow to decide. We couldn’t make up our minds either way.
We guessed wrong.
We arrived too early. We left too late. We were in a hurry. We waited too long.
We misheard. We misspoke.
We let go too soon. We held on too tight. We weren’t strong enough. We weren’t soft enough.
We got tired. We got busy.
We lost our temper, lost our head, lost our nerve.
We doubted what we should have believed. We trusted what we should have doubted. We put our faith in the wrong person. We promised what we couldn’t deliver. We gave what we should have withheld. We said no. We said yes.
We fail to do what we need to do and fail not to do what we should know better than to do all the time!
Sometimes the largest of our failures have only minor and temporary consequences. Sometimes the smallest can ruin our day, our week, a year, our lives.
Sometimes the failure is our own fault. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s. Most often it’s just life.
Life is failure. And trouble, and sorrow, and struggle, and pain.
This is why people with souls don’t sneer at others’ failures. This is why people who have hearts don’t blame others for their failures. Instead, they try to help in whatever way they can, which can be keeping their mouth shut, not pointing fingers, minding their own business, and keeping in mind that they could easily be next, that they very likely will be next.
Life isn’t an Olympic try-out. There’s no point at which we get to tell people who are struggling, Sorry, you didn’t qualify. Now, please go away, and leave us alone to have fun reveling in our (almost certainly temporary) success and sneering at you for not having made the team.
That student’s fortunate in that she’s attending a community college in New York State and the tuition’s still relatively low. She’ll probably qualify for a Pell Grant. Some of the money from her federally subsidized student loans can be used to buy that car. But at the end of two years, if it takes her only two years, she’ll still leave school carrying a heavy load of debt that, presuming her associate degree lands her a job that isn’t at Burger King and she doesn’t need to go on to get a bachelor’s (and acquire more debt), will be a struggle for her to repay while making ends meet for her and her daughter for years to come. A decent society wouldn’t burden someone like her like this. A decent society would provide her with good child care. Her employer would have to give her paid sick days and family leave. She’d earn enough an hour that she could buy an 800 dollar car without worrying that next month she’ll have to choose between paying the installment, buying groceries, and paying the rent.
A decent society wouldn’t let a sneering mediocrity make in a week what she makes in a year off his sneering at her “failures”, troubles, struggles, and pain.
Leaving aside that any self-professed liberal who says he’d vote for Rand Paul over any Democrat is being an idiot:
Bill Maher and fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld sparred on Friday when their panel discussion on Real Time touched on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects.
“Are you upset that she’s not saying she’s running?” Seinfeld asked Maher.
“Oh, I’m not upset at all,” Maher drily replied. Maher said in an interview earlier this week that he would sooner vote for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) for president than Clinton.
“Okay, so what do you care?” Seinfeld countered. “They gotta go through the dance. You know the dance. They gotta do the dance.”
“I think at this point, the American public should be a little more sophisticated about it,” Maher told Seinfeld. “You should just either say you’re doing it or not.”
“People should be more sophisticated?” Seinfeld said, pushing back. “How are you gonna get that done?”
Read the whole story by Arturo Garcia and watch the video clip at Raw Story: Jerry Seinfeld questions Bill Maher: ‘What do you care’ if Hillary Clinton’s running or not?