March 14, 2017: In Defense of Ben

I consider myself a liberal about some things and a moderate about others, but although I’ve been conservative in my time I doubt that anybody would mistake me for one now.Still, I like to think that I can appreciate any proposition across the spectrum so long as it’s supported by logic, reason, and historical examples. Thus I have to admit to being in a quandary about Dr. Ben Carson right now. He’s a talented neurosurgeon, but about as qualified to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development as Grizzly Bear Betsy DeVos is equipped to run the Department of Education. That, in itself, is no slur on the man personally. Just because you’re good at one or two things doesn’t mean you can be master of all trades. Sir Isaac Newton’s work revolutionized the study of physics, but he wrote theological works so off-the-wall that neither Churchmen nor freethinkers could approve of them. Similarly Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest philosophical writers this continent has ever produced, penned the horrible sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and harbored ideas about Bible prophecy that were as bat-dropping crazy as anything you hear from television evangelists right now. Edwards hypothesized that the world would end in 1866, which probably seemed like good sense during the worst days of the Civil War.

Oh, well. Back to the present. Ben Carson has indeed mouthed some egregious nonsense, but I can’t help thinking that his latest controversial comment—allegedly equating slaves brought to America in chains during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to voluntary immigrants—has been completely misconstrued by those with axes to grind and looking for any chance to find fault with him. True, Carson’s choice of words was extremely poor. But I’ve listened to his speech and read the transcript of it too, and to me the passage in question comes off as a bitterly ironic remark that he spoke tongue-in-cheek, nothing more. I’d tell him he should have chosen his words more carefully, and move on. But no: now he’s being vilified by both black and liberal white pundits not only as a poor speaker, but as some sort of traitor to his own people. I think this is such a personal issue with me because I’ve had my own words twisted so many, many times in my growing-up years, with the absolute worst possible construct applied to them. Few things seem to me to be more unfair, even for politicians.

Now, having your words played with isn’t always unpleasant, or even wrong. One of my more vivid youthful memories is of hoeing the garden with Dad, whom I’d outdistanced in a race to the ends of our respective rows, and commenting, “I guess this shows that I’m a good hoer.” No one who knew my father would expect him to ignore a thoughtless remark like that—and he didn’t. I turned beet-red at his reply, but I simply had to take his laughter in stride: open mouth, insert foot.

Not so with another relative, whose identity I won’t divulge. With a bone-deep victim mentality I didn’t even realize existed until years later, this individual could and did twist the most innocent, innocuous remarks into personal attacks worthy of furious responses that lasted anywhere from hours to weeks—a tendency that the relative seldom if ever revealed to anyone outside the family. The mood simply and abruptly changed with the arrival of visitors and then returned like a summer thunderhead when they left, often with criticisms of the visitors added to the original complaint. Talk about putting the “func” in “dysfunctional!” But that’s the reason I bristle when I hear somebody’s words being twisted purposefully and disproportionately, even if I completely disagree with the individual being quoted. I’ve been there, had that done, and still quill up like a porcupine and back into a corner if I sense it’s happening to me again.

But I’m a survivor, not a victim, and so I try to focus on the more lighthearted things I’ve seen, like the old preacher so aggrieved about women keeping wigs at home in their bureau drawers that he proclaimed during a sermon that “women these days got more hair in their drawers than they do on their heads!” (True story.) If you thought about what he said you could discern what he meant, but that didn’t stop the entire congregation that Sunday from completely breaking up laughing. All too seldom, though, is a misconstruction funny. My advice: ease up on Carson and save your outrage for the genuine dangers we have going right now.

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March 17, 2017: Bitter Twitter and Cruel Duels

I miss Chuck Q. Farley this week. He comprehends this sort of thing quicker than I do, but he’s still spooked from that mail last week, and afraid to participate so soon in another column. So I guess I’ve just got to wing it. Trouble is, when I start looking for sense in things sometimes I have a lot of difficulty finding it—particularly all the contemporary hubbub about the President’s messages on Twitter. For at least the first half of our country’s history, back when Americans were all properly religious and things were supposed generally to be better all around, no self-respecting politician would have considered the equivalent of a modern-day Tweet to be the end of a dispute—rather, merely the beginning. You see, in those days the so-called code duello was still legal in Southern states.

The historic equivalent of an aggressive Tweet—which back then could only have been publicized as a paid newspaper ad or on a handbill—would have been considered merely as a “posting” to provoke an adversary to a duel, also known as an affair of honor,with swords or smooth-bore single-shot pistols. A man thus denounced was expected to issue a challenge to the “poster” in order to avenge his impugned honor, or else be labeled a coward. Then the posting offender was given the choice of weapons, both parties chose “seconds” or assistants, the duel was set up, and unless the seconds could talk the principals out of the whole business or either or both parties missed or fired into the air, the conclusion of the entire mess was somebody’s wounding or death. Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice President, Aaron Burr, settled things this way with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton over, among other issues, Burr’s suspicious relationship with a foreign government (Holland back then, not Russia, but Spain later in Burr’s life). Andrew Jackson fought in more than a hundred duels and was said to have kept thirty-seven smooth-bore pistols at the ready in case he should need them.His varied contests ranged from the actual killing of one man, Charles Dickenson, in 1806, to his serving as second to a fellow duelist who shot some poor guy right in the seat of the pants a few years later. And a good many of Kentucky’s best-known statesmen, including Henry Clay, Richard Menefee, and William Goebel, were no strangers to the field of honor, if thus it can truly be called, either.

Perhaps the most famous Kentuckian ever challenged to a duel, however, was ashamed of the episode ever afterward. A youthful prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln initiated the quarrel through a series of juvenile, sophomoric editorial letters (not unlike modern-day Tweets, just more than 140 characters long) that he composed along with a young Lexington-born lady then known as Mary Todd against Whig politician James Shields. When challenged by Shields and asked his choice of weapon, Lincoln picked the biggest cavalry sabers he could find, figuring perhaps correctly that Shields could outshoot him and knowing that his height gave him the advantage in a swordfight with his smaller adversary. But the two duelists allowed themselves to be talked out of the contest by their seconds and other bystanders, ostensibly salvaging the honor of both, and during his term as President, when Lincoln was asked by an Army officer if it were true that he had once participated in a duel he replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship you will never mention it again.” Oh, well. What must one expect from these big-Federal-Government liberal types, after all, who tyrannically managed to ram the outlawing of dueling, and so many other practices equally time- and tradition-honored and pleasant, through the legislatures of every state that had once approved of them?…

But if the Courts would only reconsider the matter, dueling just might once again prove useful in both State and Federal politics. It certainly has the potential. For one thing, the code duello’s revival would definitely improve folks’ manners on Twitter, and maybe Facebook too. It couldn’t hurt to hope that politeness might return to political discourse as well, though the renewed courtesies would be pretty much like those of Huck Finn’s father, reformable only by a shotgun. The firearms industry, robbed by the change in Presidential administrations of its chief advertising gimmick, the threat of Government confiscation of firearms, could prosper once again by crafting elegant dueling pistols. And best of all, the practice could prove to be a GREAT solution to the problem of term limits. Petition your Congressman today! Or challenge him…

February 28, 2017: Fan Mail

Sorry I’m a bit off my game today, but I spent late last night and early this morning trying to calm down Chuck Q. Farley. He rushed to my house past midnight in a panic because… well, just listen in on our conversation.

“Drackler!” he shouted as he banged on my door, “the President’s done found out what I said about him back at New Year’s and he’s mad at me! I got a letter back from him! He hates me!”

I let him in as soon as I recognized his voice, and I tried to comfort him as I scanned the note. “Aw, Chuck Q., there’s no need to worry,” I said. “You seen any Secret Service people around?”

“If they air, they’re hid good,” he responded, glancing around nervously.

“Well, the return address on this is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, sure enough, but the postmark’s local to here. I don’t think the President writes with any pen name like ‘Buck Q. Fuddy’ the way this person does. He’d rather Tweet. Besides, the letter and envelope are written in pencil! I’m jealous, though. I’ve not gotten one letter of fan mail yet, and here’s your first.” I clapped his shoulder and grinned at him.

He blinked. “FAN mail? Can’t you see how bad he’s a-tryin’ to make me feel?”

“How can you tell it’s a he? Somebody, male or female, just made up this name as a play on yours to hide his—or her—own. This isn’t from the President. Likely it’s just somebody around here that’s been encouraged to be rude by his way of talking on Tweets and in speeches and who’s trying to mimic him for some reason.”

Chuck Q. shook his head. “Ever’ word he can think up to try and make me feel about two inches tall,” he sighed. “Castin’ all them aspirations on me! All them stupid names! Just because he thinks I don’t agree with what he believes. Or she, I know. But you coulda warned me about the risk of such as this,” he added with a reproachful look at me.

“Well, Chuck Q., newspapers feel like no publicity is bad publicity. They’ll let almost anything go in an opinion piece as long as it doesn’t violate State and Federal law. And personally, I think your ideas about the makeup and undertakers weren’t half bad. Maybe it’s just the way you—and I—stated ‘em. But this,” I continued, re-scanning the letter, “the most charitable way I can look at it is the writer could be tryin’ to sound like a drill instructor. A drill instructor always worries that his recruits might go to battle after basic training and get killed because he didn’t teach them how to do something right. So these harsh words, even in the best light they could have been spoken, are based on fear and insecurity, drill instructor or not.”

“How you figure?” he asked.

“Unless two people completely lose their tempers and start calling each other names out of rage, any time an adult uses this kind of demeaning talk to another adult it means that the first adult is trying to cover up a mighty powerful insecurity. I think that’s why so many people around here put such hope in the President. Times are changing and they’re insecure and scared. They’re religious, but their faith seems to have gotten just like that song about the Vietnam vet: ‘One minute I’d kneel down and pray and the next I’d stand and curse.’ Anyhow, hearing the President talk smack like that makes them feel good about themselves somehow, and so they ape him.”

“Well, I like the way the President talks, myself!”

“Sure, till this letter came and you got talked to that way yourself. When the shoe’s on the other foot it’s different.Try to forget this stupid thing, but if you can’t help thinking about all the mean names the writer called you, just keep in mind how many nights a week he—or she—maybe lying awake till dawn dreading something. Or maybe dreading nothing, which is actually scarier.”

Chuck Q. looked at me. “Awful preacherly talk for somebody that ain’t preachin’ no more,” he grumbled. “You sure you shouldn’t go back at it?”

“Chuck Q., I think the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is hogwash, and I’ve seen too much out of too many people ever to believe ‘Name It and Claim It’ again. No way for me to succeed, feeling like that. But don’t worry. We’ll just try to survive whatever comes, I guess like cockroaches and Keith Richards always manage to do.”