Why do people expect history to be so simple?

The Post and Courier this week reports on the latest Winthrop Poll, which finds that South Carolinians “remain divided” over what Civil War monuments and Confederate symbols “even mean.”

“Even” as though knowing what they “mean” is a simple matter. That point is mentioned in the lede, but the story doesn’t get back to it until the last graf:

While half of all respondents said they view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride, a sharp racial divide still exists. The Winthrop poll found 55 percent of whites view it as Southern pride but 64 percent of African Americans view it as a symbol of racial conflict….

Well, I’ve got news for you: Everybody’s right. It is a symbol of “Southern pride.” It is also a symbol of racial conflict. The two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably linked. As I wrote in 2015, just before the flag came down from the State House grounds:

And what did the flag mean? We know. Oh, news reports will affect that priggish, pedantic neutrality peculiar to the trade: “Some people see the flag as meaning this; some see it as meaning that.” But we know, don’t we? It is a way white South Carolinians — some of us, anyway — have had of saying that, despite Appomattox and the civil rights movement: We can do this. We don’t care about you or how you feel about it.

It was a way of telling the world whose state this is

There you have it: both pride and racial conflict.

Oh, and was I saying there was no such thing as a different sort of pride, that in the martial manliness of one’s ancestors? No. That’s all mixed up in there, too. Not that that makes it innocent. Pride is, with good reason, listed as first and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins. So, you know, not necessarily something to puff your chest out about.

The fact that people do feel so proud of or validated by their ancestors puzzles me. I don’t feel better or worse about myself because I’m descended from Charlemagne (as is, statistically, every person of European ancestry on the planet). I do get a kick out of tracing how I’m descended from him (several ways, in fact, which is also unremarkable), generation by generation. It’s a puzzle, and fun to solve. But am I a better person for being directly descended from him, or from Henry II, or William the Conqueror? Of course not. In fact, while I may not be quite as hostile to monarchy as Mark Twain, I believe there is at least some historical basis for Huck Finn’s assertion that “all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.”

Queens, too, as I was reminded when I went to see “The Favourite” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend. (Or at least, it was true of those around the queen.) As Huck explained, “Take them all around, they’re a mighty ornery lot. It’s the way they’re raised.” Or perhaps more relevantly, as Hank Morgan said, “Yes, Guenever was beautiful, it is true, but take her all around she was pretty slack.” (One of my favorite Twain lines ever, a perfect example of his way of dragging down romantic pretension with modern matter-of-factness.)

Nor, of course, do I feel bad about myself to be distantly related to such people. I don’t feel responsible for who they were or what they did in the slightest.

Anyway, back to the Confederacy and how we remember it…

That these symbols are about black and white, in the skin color sense, is undeniable. But it’s an error to view them as black or white in the sense of being all this or all that. The world is a more complicated place.

And yet, even smart people are pulled toward trying to make everything all one way or the other.

General Stan McChrystal seems to think so. He thinks you’ve got to go all one way or all the other, as he wrote in The Washington Post recently. His column started this way:

Lee mugFrom my earliest days, Robert E. Lee felt close at hand. I attended Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., and began my soldier’s life at Lee’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy. Today, if Lee still lived in his childhood home in Alexandria, Va., we would be neighbors. So it felt appropriate, when I was a young Army lieutenant, that my wife bought me an inexpensive painting of the famed Southern warrior. And from the wall of the many quarters we occupied over 34 years, Lee’s portrait was literally watching over me. Through the lens of military history and our seemingly parallel lives, he was my hero — brilliant, valiant and loyal….

And then, two grafs later, he says:

In the summer of 2017, my wife, Annie, urged me to take down the picture. Disgusted by the images of hate and white supremacy that had descended on Charlottesville in the form of angry, torch-bearing men, she felt that Lee’s picture risked offending guests to our home by sending an unintended message of agreement with the protesters who had sought to preserve a statue of the Marble Man. Initially, I argued that Lee was an example of apolitical loyalty and stoic adherence to duty. But as days passed, I reflected on the way that Lee’s legacy looked to people who hadn’t grown up with my perspective or my privilege. So, on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday morning, I took the painting off the wall and sent it on its way to a local landfill for its final burial. Hardly a hero’s end….

Hardly, indeed.

What do I think? I think if one entertains frequently, one should not have a portrait of Lee hanging where guests would see it, because while a picture is worth a thousand words, they may be different words to different people, and your intent in displaying the image could be wildly misunderstood. And most of us prefer not to be misunderstood.

But consigning it to the trash seems a bit extreme. And I’m not sure what it accomplished. His guests wouldn’t know he had had a portrait of Lee but had thrown it away — unless he told them, which seems a rather priggish, preening, self-congratulatory thing to do. Otherwise, it’s a personal act, and personal statement. And one would think that the respect for Lee that McChrystal had harbored all his life up to that point would keep him from doing such a thing.

I actually have a similar anecdote to tell. Our editorial board room — at least, that’s what we called it back when there was an editorial board — was decorated with past leaders of The State, all from pre-Knight Ridder days, when it was a family owned paper. One of those gents from bygone days wore a small Confederate Flag pin on his lapel.

Occasionally, I would call guests’ attention to it. I wasn’t too worried about them thinking we were neo-Confederates ourselves, given our unmistakable position regarding that flag. I just appreciated the irony, and invited them to do so as well. Eventually, one of our publishers decided to remove it. And I thought that was fine, too. Whether it was there or not did not affect me or who I was or what I thought. But I’m fairly sure he didn’t throw it in the trash. I think it ended up in an unused office, leaning against a wall among unneeded furniture. I don’t know what happened to it since then.

Anyway, I don’t understand why McChrystal thought it had to be one way or the other: Lee all good or Lee all bad. Seems to me it would be more accurate, and more nourishing to the mind, to regard him as one of the most remarkable and fascinating people in our history.

But there it is, that compulsion to see things as all one way or the other.

Let me drag in one more thing — something of a digression — and then I’ll be done.

The same newspaper ran a different item that touched upon this same phenomenon.

It was headlined (at least, in the iPad version I read — other versions treated it more as a subhed) “The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?

It was a long-form magazine piece that involved the reporter following a committed neo-Confederate named Frank Earnest (a name that on its own had to make him an irresistible subject to the reporter and his editors) over the course of a year.

This sort of describes the relationship of the writer and his subject during that year:

As we got better acquainted that week, he explained to me why he thought the Civil War happened, beginning with his core belief that slavery wasn’t the main reason for the conflict. Instead, he argued, secession was a constitutionally permissible response to years of unfair tariffs and taxes imposed on the South by a tyrannical federal government.

Frank considers most journalists to be misguided liberals, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I harbored anti-Confederate sentiments. I told him, politely, that the narrative he believes in is an ancient load of bull — that it was promoted by the Confederacy’s adult offspring, the architects of Jim Crow, to burnish their fathers’ legacy and help foster the rebirth of legalized white supremacism in late-19th-century Dixie. Frank said nah, that’s not true. So I said I’d let him tell me his side of the story. I said, “You can explain to me why I’m wrong.”…

Frank tried, and of course failed. His problem is that the facts are not on his side. Just a quick glance through South Carolina’s official declaration of the causes for secession will tell anyone with an open mind that. You don’t have to read it all. Just count the number of times “slave” appears in the document. I’ll go ahead and tell you: 18 times. It was kind of, you know, on their minds.

You may find the piece interesting, particularly as it deals with some of our struggles here in SC over the flag.

But speaking of flags, there was one disturbing thing about the piece. The writer repeatedly referred to the “Stars and Bars” when he apparently meant what we commonly call the battle flag or naval jack, the one dominated by the St. Andrew’s Cross.

One of the most maddening things about debating with neo-Confederates is that they suppose we are ignorant about the “War of Northern Aggression.” In their view, we believe it was about slavery because we just don’t know the facts. They’re wrong, of course, but it would be nice if people who presume to write long pieces in major national publications about how wrong the poor benighted Southerners are would get basic facts right.

I thought about writing to the guy to point out his error, but I knew I’d come across as one of those obsessed neo-Confeds myself unless I did a lot of explaining, and I didn’t feel like it, so I didn’t. And I didn’t need to — someone, possibly Frank Earnest himself — set him straight, so the piece is now accompanied with this editor’s note:

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the term Stars and Bars was used to refer to the most commonly acknowledged Confederate flag. In fact, Stars and Bars refers to a different Confederate flag.

Duh. Meanwhile, Frank Earnest is more sure than ever that them libs who run down the Confederacy just don’t know the facts. Sheesh…

The flag commonly known as the "Stars and Bars."

The flag commonly known as the “Stars and Bars.”

Your Virtual Front Page for Monday, December 17, 2018

Lamar Alexander, back when we were all young.

Lamar Alexander, back when we were all young.

I’m thinking about changing the emphasis of this blog, at least for a time. As I’ve told you, I’m just not interested much in politics now that the  campaign is over. But I know that’s me, and the experiences I’ve recently been through, and I expect the effect will wear off.

So I’m going to be blogging more about nonpolitical stuff. As you can see from today’s posts so far. But y’all may still want a place to come and talk politics. So I’ll keep including such in my Virtual Front Pages and Open Threads, so that even if I have nothing to say about it, y’all can talk amongst yourselves. So here goes…

  1. Stocks Fall Sharply as Investors Fret Over Growth Outlook (WSJ) — See? I like y’all so much, I’ll even include some financial news, which interests me even less than politics. You can thank me later.
  2. Sen. Lamar Alexander announces he won’t seek another term in 2020 (WashPost) — This is very sad news. Lamar has always been one of the best. And I don’t just say that because he’s the first candidate for statewide office I ever covered (when he was running for governor, in 1978).
  3. Amazon faces boycott ahead of holidays as public discontent grows (The Guardian) — I have to wonder just how effective this can be, since this is the first I’ve heard of it — and it’s in a Brit publication, not anything in this country.
  4. Jesuit order names priests ‘credibly accused’ of sexually abusing children since the 1950s (WP) — The horrorshow continues. A similar report is due from our own diocese soon.
  5. Deer poacher sentenced to watch Bambi in prison (BBC) — Weird news out of America, via Britain.

Lamar-Hand-Shaking_Display

Nobody’s as hip as the Salvation Army

hip

Reece Williams, a client of ADCO, has been a board member of the local Salvation Army for more than 40 years.

Reece was in the news recently for a generous gift he gave the Army — there’s a great story behind it; you should check it out. When we met at Sylvan’s for the TV shoot, he brought along this ad to share with me.

Near as I can tell, it’s from a campaign to promote the New York Salvation Army, back in the late ’80s. Before the Web, so it’s hard to find. Here’s one image of it, and here’s a news story about the campaign.

I thought it was pretty cool. Thought y’all might like it, too…

Let’s go back to the moon, people

BuzzhHeader

I missed this piece in The Washington Post last week. It’s a good one, in which a couple of rocket scientists advocate that we go back to the moon to establish a base, something that is completely within our power and would imbue NASA, and the nation, with a sense of purpose they — we — have lacked for a long time.

An excerpt:

This plan, which we call Moon Direct, doesn’t take rocket scientists to comprehend (although we both hold that title). And we could accomplish it in just three discrete phases: First, we deliver cargo to the lunar surface and initiate robotic construction. Second, we land crews on the base, complete construction and develop local resources. And third, we establish long-term habitation and exploration.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster, which can launch 60 tons to Earth orbit and 10 tons to the moon, could easily handle the first phase. And NASA’s Space Launch System, still in development, might eventually be used along with heavy lift rockets such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan. (Blue Origin’s founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.) Rather than spend a fortune and take years to build a Gateway for obscure reasons, we could immediately go straight to the surface of the moon and set up shop.

The key to crew operations, the second phase of building our moon base, is a spacecraft we call the Lunar Excursion Vehicle, which would operate outside our atmosphere and therefore need no heavy heat shields or Earth landing systems. The LEV would fly from Earth’s orbit to the lunar surface and back again. New York to Paris, Paris to New York. Nothing could be simpler. All we would need to do is get to the airport — in this case, low Earth orbit — where the LEV would be “parked” for refueling and used again and again, just like a passenger airplane….

I’m all for it. Ground Control to Major Tom — let’s go!

Yikes! Help her! She’s stranded in a snake-infested swamp!

swamp

There are outdoors people, and then there are normal, sane people. I won’t take sides in the matter — must preserve my journalistic detachment. But the existence of the two groups is undeniable, and may explain much of the strife in this world.

This photo from Congaree National Park was posted on Facebook by Discover South Carolina with the caption, “Name a cooler way to spend a weekend. We’ll wait.”

Really?!!?!

I look at it, and I’m all like, Damsel in distress! How did she get there? Where’s her boat? How will she ever get out of this hopeless predicament? How did she get in it to begin with? Was someone standing up in a canoe while affixing the hammock to those trees? Look at her foot! It’s dangling inches from the snake- and alligator-infested water! Help her! Help her now!

Which is, I’m guessing, not the reaction they were looking for.

And yet, there are probably people on this planet who look at that picture and see an idyll. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. As a father and grandfather of a total of seven young women and girls, I want to deliver this young woman from her plight (at least, I’m assuming that’s a young woman; she’s so far away — out of reach of help, alas! — to be sure). And to the extent that I can identify with her rather than seeing her as an object of paternal concern, I want to panic.

You realize, of course, that were this a still from a film, within a few frames something would emerge from that dark water and take her leg off at the knee, or pull her under.

Sheesh. I don’t need this stress on a Monday…

Hey, guys! A frozen moment from the campaign…

cropped-backstage-florence

Don’t know if you’ve seen the above image, one of the headers I recently added to the randomized rotation.

It wouldn’t mean a thing to you, but it made me smile when I saw it pop up just now.

There you have four of the main political operatives of the Smith/Norrell campaign, at a tense moment: They’re watching the first debate, in Florence on Oct. 17. We’re in our green room backstage. There’s nothing they can do at this point but watch and listen intently. There they are:

  • Phil Chambers, the bright young guy we had stolen away from the state party about halfway through my time on the campaign — he had set up all the logistics for the debate, to the smallest detail. (He’s the guy who, a week after the election, was out west working toward 2020.)
  • Kendall Corley, our political director. He and I shared an office at headquarters, but he wasn’t there all that much — mainly out in the field — and when he was in the office he spent all his time making phone calls or poring over maps, talking about how to deploy resources. But right now, he could do nothing.
  • Scott Harriford, deputy political director and James’ “body man” — the driver, the guy who experienced everything James did, going everywhere he went, taking care of details, shooting photos and video and texting them back to me. The first campaign staffer hired, he’d been doing all that since June 2017. But right now he could only watch.
  • Scott Hogan, the campaign manager, a guy I learned a lot from. He joined the campaign almost a month after I did. He was the pro from Dover, and I didn’t know how he’d react to a nonprofessional like me, but we ended up having a great working relationship. Don’t know what he’s worrying about there, maybe one of my Tweets.

I’m at the center of the room, between them and the TV monitor. I’m the one guy with something to do at this moment, with far too much to do, cranking out dozens of Tweets and making adjustments to the press release that I’ll put out within a minute or two of the debate’s end, working simultaneously with laptop, iPad and phone. I’m as busy as Butch and Sundance in that last scene where they’re shooting it out with the Bolivian Army.

But still, I take a moment to stand up in front of my table (you can see it in the uncropped version below) and look back at my comrades arrayed behind me, and feeling the need to record the moment, snap a quick exposure before sitting back down to my work and resuming the furious typing.

And the picture makes me smile now. Don’t know why. Maybe because things are going so well at that moment. James is clearly winning the debate, but there’s still that tension because there are 13 minutes left in the debate (photo taken at 7:47), and Something Can Always Go Wrong.

Maybe it makes me feel like Faulkner’s 14-year-old Southern boy, and we’re in the moments before Pickett’s Charge, and It’s Still Possible to Win, despite the odds.

And maybe I miss the intensity, the exhaustion tempered by the sense of mission, the excitement of this one-time experience, the feeling of doing all we can and leaving it on the field.

I don’t know. But while it’s no great masterpiece of photographic composition, it made me smile…

uncropped Florence green room

No, seriously, Nikki: I’ve been tuning it out, too

My response this morning to a headline about Nikki Haley may have come across as mocking, or at least facetious:

But the truth is, I HAVE been tuning it out. Or at least, not tuning it in.

Last night, I dropped in as usual to check on my parents, and they were doing something I never do — watching network TV news — and my mother said something about Cohen being sentenced to prison, while none of the others in all this mess had to do time… and I said I didn’t think that was right. I thought I’d heard the other day on the radio that someone had just finished serving a brief sentence and was getting out…

But I couldn’t name the guy. And I really wasn’t sure about it. It was something I had half-heard, without actively listening… although I tend to have good retention of stuff I heard without paying attention — it’s the secret to how I got through school.

When I hear the name of the guy who just got out of jail, I picture this guy. So don't go by me on this...

When I hear the name of the guy who just got out of jail, I picture this guy. So don’t go by me…

(For the purposes of this post, I did a little Googling. Apparently, four people have been sentenced to time behind bars. This was the guy who just got out, after a ridiculously short sentence — 12 days. I can’t tell you anything else about him. Whenever I hear his name, I picture this guy, so don’t go by me.)

Here’s the thing: The whole enterprise seems kind of pointless to me. I mean, I think the Mueller investigation needs to continue, for very serious reasons: We need to know all we can about the Russian effort to disrupt our elections — the 2016 one and especially future ones. We need to get a LOT more savvy about that stuff, and stop being so absurdly gullible as a people.

But I’m not terribly optimistic that that’s going to happen in a post-truth America.

And anyway, I sense that the reason other people pay so much attention to this investigation and its resultant prosecutions is that they think it has bearing on Donald Trump’s fate.

It doesn’t, near as I can can see. If you’re counting on, say, impeachment, dream on. Impeachment is a political act, and the Senate is in thrall to Trump. And even if the Dems had succeeded in capturing the Senate, impeachment would not have been a viable option. It probably would have exacerbated the sickness in our body politic that produced Trump.

The political significance of the Cohen prosecution has nothing to do with violation of campaign finance laws. It has to do with him paying off a porn star at Trump’s behest. That’s something we knew before the election, and it had zero effect on the people who voted for him. As it continues to do.

That’s how low we have sunk as a country. And you might say my dropping of names of Watergate figures was an act of nostalgia on my part, a longing for a time when facts mattered, and the nation had standards.

I watched “All the President’s Men” again the other night. Such a wonderful film, on so many levels. The wistfulness I feel watching it goes far beyond remembering the days when newspapers were healthy and vital. It goes to a time when, if the public learned that people in and around high public office did bad things, that was it.

Once it reached the Oval Office, and the non-denial denials weren’t working any more, Nixon was toast. And being the master politician he was, he knew that. So he resigned. And in retrospect we can see that maybe he did so in part because of something missing today — a sense of honor, a wish to avoid putting the country through the trauma of impeachment.

We didn’t lose that all at once. It took time. And Democrats who congratulate themselves on still having standards should remember that 20 years ago one of their own did NOT resign, despite having been caught in impeachable acts, including brazenly lying to the American people.

Things are worse now, of course. Facts at least still mattered a bit in 1998. They don’t now, with a shockingly large portion of the electorate.

I appreciate what Mueller is trying to do, and I appreciate him, as sort of the last Boy Scout, a guy who still believes in the importance of facts.

But I just can’t get interested enough to follow the details. So I’m like Nikki there…

 

 

OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

I subscribe to an app for The New Yorker on my iPad, and it is through that that I read the magazine.

Through that, but not on that. I mean through the subscription, but not on the app. Although I read practically everything else — The State, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and sometimes The Guardian and the Post and Courier — via their respective iPad apps, I usually interact with this subscription through a completely different mechanism. Oddly enough, through email alerts. I read practically nothing else that way. In fact, I’ve recently embarked on a ruthless campaign of unsubscribing from every email list that I once, however fleetingly, had thought would interest me.

But not The New Yorker. I can’t explain it to you, but they seem to have hit on a formula that engages my interest where other emailers have failed miserably. One of the interesting features of this formula is that the articles the messages link me to are not all from the most recent issue. The emails mine the entire archive of the magazine; the items they lead me to read may have run months, years, even decades ago. And they tend to be fascinating. (Also, this approach supports the way I see the world of ideas: If it was worth saying last year, or in 1939, it’s worth saying today. Worthwhile ideas are timeless.)

Anyway, this week I was led by an email to read an item from back in September of this year, headlined “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” with the subhed, “The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.”

Well, y’all know how I feel about identity politics, so I dug in eagerly, and after a brief rehash of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis of three decades ago, I got to the nut grafs:

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, isis, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic…

Which made me think, I need to go read that book. Even though I know that with such books, I tend to find satisfaction in the way the idea is presented in the first chapter (actually, more like the introduction, because the first chapter usually starts getting into the weeds), and then lose interest. I’m like, “Got it!,” and I want to move on before the explication drags on for the next 20 chapters or so.

In fact, in this case I may even be satisfied with the idea as set out in the two grafs above. You know how it is with those of us who are so “N” on the Myers-Briggs scale as to be off the chart: I perceive rightness in those few words and am immediately ready to applaud and move on to the next thing.

But not Louis Menand, the gentleman who wrote the article. In fact, the words I quote above are immediately followed by these:

Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well….

Frankly, I’m not enough of an intellectual, public or private, to follow Mr. Menand’s objections. They have to do with esoteric considerations of certain terms used by Plato, Hegel and an influential 20th-century dude named Alexandre Kojève.

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Along the way, he sort of loses me the way, say, arguments between difference feminists and “do-me” feminists over which possesses the purest understanding of feminism. Or whatever. I like esoteric things. In fact, I was very excited back in school when I first learned the word “esoteric” because it gave me a term for describing some things that I liked. But even a good thing can be run into the ground.

All of the objections seem beside the point to me. They don’t really refute the idea that all those movements and phenomena described above are related to the identity impulse. Not so I can tell, anyway.

In fact, Mr. Menand helps me figure out a way to remove the fly in the ointment of the passage I like so much above. I was bothered somewhat by the fact that ideas and movements I tend to dismiss, or even abhor — such as campus identity politics and the election of Donald Trump — are described as springing from the same source as the civil rights movement.

But Menand helps me dismiss that concern, perhaps inadvertently, with this:

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like isis militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

Ah. Perfect. Those thoughts suggest to me a standard: The legitimacy of a movement or phenomenon linked to identity can be determined by the extent to which reasonable people outside the group can agree with it, even advocate it.

Nice. Neat. Perhaps too neat. Perhaps it appeals because it gives us old white guys a potential role to play. But I like it, and I think I’m going to stop while I’m enjoying it, before the objections that I sense are about to pounce on it from the shadows do their worst….

Read fast! Scientists say we’ve only got two minutes…

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

On a previous post, our own Norm Ivey proposed a new qualification for public office — “that all government officials must have a scientific background.” Mr. Smith demurred, saying “A background in science does not provide any unique insight into the public good.”

I’m with Mr. Smith. The science boffins are all very well and good within their respective fields. They can help you win a war with a handy gadget from time to time, for instance.

But I don’t see them as having any sort of particular skill at, say, keeping us out of a war in the first place. When it comes to diplomacy and politics, give me someone schooled in the humanities, with a particularly strong grounding in history and highly developed word skills.

Mixing science and politics gets you weird things like the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I was thinking about how silly that device is while watching “Watchmen” while working out one morning this week. Remember the press conference scene in which Dr. Manhattan is asked for a reaction to the fact that the scientists have moved the Clock to “four minutes to midnight?” The super-duper hero is dismissive:

My father was a watchmaker.

He abandoned it when Einstein discovered that time is relative.

I would only agree that a symbolic clock…

…is as nourishing to the intellect…

…as a photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.

OK, so that analogy doesn’t really work. Maybe the person who wrote that bit of dialogue was a scientist rather than a wordsmith.

Anyway, what I would say is that the Clock attempts to quantify the unquantifiable. It has NO application to the real world. There’s no way to make use of such information.

800px-Doomsday_clock_(2_minutes).svgYou doubt me on this? OK, let’s test it scientifically. Right now the Clock says it’s two minutes to midnight (which is way WORSE than in the movie when everyone is expecting nuclear war, by the way). Now that you know that, wait two minutes. Has nuclear war occurred? No? Wait another two minutes. Test the proposition several times, if you like. You’ll find it’s not scientifically sound….

(And don’t tell me I’m being too literal. I’m just trying to play by the rules of science, which is pretty useless if it’s not literal, measurable, empirical. Which is why it gets itself in trouble when it ventures into metaphor.)

Oh, wait: I see the scientists have tried to improve their odds of being right by enlarging the symbolic meaning of “midnight” to denote global climate change as well as global thermonuclear war. So… since climate change is already happening, they guarantee that they are “right,” in a sense. Which, in a temporal sense, makes for an entirely different dynamic from the nuclear war metaphor.

Sheesh.

To me, it just underlines the silliness of the whole business. At the very least, it lacks precision

‘Dooanld the Ready’

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I’ve called your attention before to the hilarious Twitter feed Donaeld The Unready, the chronicles of a king from the era of “The Last Kingdom” and “Vikings” who goes about blustering and promising to “Make Mercia Great Again!”

Sample recent Tweet:

As you probably know, my first name is Donald. My first name comes in handy because I can always tell when I’m being addressed by people who don’t know me or anything about me — they call me “Donald.”

But I was really confused this morning. My wife and I are planning a trip to Ireland in a few months. We signed up for a package deal that my brother-in-law and his wife are also planning to go on, out of Memphis.

Today, I got an email from one of the organizers telling us that… well, I’m still trying to sort out what it’s telling us. Something about our flight to Heathrow and from there to Dublin, I think.

Anyway, it addressed me as “Dooanld.”

Is that an ancient Irish version of “Donald?” No, that would be “Domhnall.” (The name is of Gaelic origin, by the way.  It means “world ruler,” which tells you I have yet to come into my birthright, and I’m kind of getting impatient about that. I mean, don’t names mean anything anymore?)

Also, how is one to pronounce “Dooanld?”

Whatever. I’m looking forward to the trip. Call me Dooanld the Ready…

Actual photograph of Dooanld the Ready. OK, so technically it's an actor portraying my ancestor Ragnar Lothbrok. Best I could do...

Actual photograph of Dooanld the Ready. OK, so technically it’s an actor portraying my ancestor Ragnar Lothbrok. Best I could do…

Max Boot is now a free man

Meant to post earlier this week about Max Boot’s column headlined: “I left the Republican ideological bubble. I don’t want to join another.” An excerpt:

Max BootNow that I’ve left the Republican Party, I am often asked why I simply haven’t become a Democrat. In part it’s because I don’t agree with the progressive wing of the party: Some of them are as protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible as President Trump. But it’s also because, after having spent my entire adult life in one ideological bubble, I don’t want to join another. I refuse to make excuses for Trump — and I don’t want to be tempted to make excuses for a future Democratic president, either, as so many did for Bill Clinton after his sexual misconduct…

Of course, one doesn’t have to succumb to such foolishness to identify with a party, but there is that danger.

That arises from the intellectual dishonesty that party identification fosters. One falls into the habit of supporting (or at least failing to oppose) the stupidest things advocated by members of one’s own party, and opposing the wisest notions that arise from the other. Boot uses similar words to describe the problem:

One gets the sense, as my Post colleague Jennifer Rubin wrote, that if progressives championed the theory of gravity, conservatives would denounce it. In fact, public-opinion research suggests that many Republicans would be likely to support climate-change solutions if they were proposed by Republican leaders — and conversely many Democrats would be likely to oppose them even if they would have backed the very same policies when put forward by Democrats. We’ve already seen the parties flip positions on Russia because of Trump. That is the danger of ideology, and why I strive for an empirical, non-ideological approach instead, even if that leaves me in a political no-man’s land where I am sniped at by both sides.

Frankly, I didn’t think of Boot as being stuck in GOP thought ruts to begin with. He has seemed independent-minded for some time. But I’m glad that he feels he’s been freed of such habits.

Anyway, welcome to the UnParty, Max…

One of my favorite moments from the campaign

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While I’m sharing photos of James enjoying the campaign trail, I need to show you this sequence, which never went out on social media, but which was a favorite moment of mine.

This was at the Joe Biden fundraiser. This was after all the speaking, when the candidates and Joe were just meeting and greeting and posing for selfies and such.

A lot of politicians kiss babies. But I’ve never seen one get more of a kick out of a baby than this. And it didn’t seem to bother him that this baby was campaigning for someone else…

 

A guy who really enjoys some retail politics

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On a previous post, I said something about James Smith liking the retail politicking way better than the unfun stuff like making fundraising calls. Which of course makes him, well, human.

Someone said he didn’t seem that way at the Gallivants Ferry Stump meeting last spring, that he seemed kind of standoffish there.

Well… I can’t speak for the primary campaign. But during the general, when I was working for him, what I saw was a guy who really dug meeting people. In support of that, I’ll just share a very few of the pictures I pumped out, a couple of dozen a day, on social media.

When it came to interacting with regular folks, I can only think of one guy who might enjoy it more than James, and that’s his longtime political mentor, in the front row of this picture I took on Oct. 13:

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Wait! Isn’t that one of my campaign tweets?

One of the many occasions on which we spoke out about this very thing...

One of the many occasions on which we spoke out about this very thing…

Just saw this, which gave me flashbacks:

Man, how many times in the last few months did I say or type — in Tweets, on Facebook, in press releases, in statements to reporters — some variation of “Some of the best jobs in South Carolina are threatened by the tariffs that Henry McMaster refuses to take a stand against?”

More times than I care to remember…

Not gonna say we told you so… not gonna say we told you so…

Blue IS my favorite color, but others are nice as well…

blue iconsOccasionally, when I’m in a hurry to open my Twitter app, I mistakenly click on my email. Or my WordPress app. Or LinkedIn. Or the remote app for the Apple TV.

Why? Because they’re all blue!

This morning, my iPad was showing me a bunch of apps that needed updating (don’t ask me why it was showing me this rather than just updating them automatically as usual; I suppose I’ll have to go in and reset something), and every single icon showing on the page was blue.

And note that some of the most obvious blue icons that come to mind — Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox — weren’t even represented in this list.

Why is that? Is there research showing that that’s the most desirable color for an app? Is that evidence so powerful that it prevents developers from even having the thought, “Maybe I should make my icon stand out from the others?”

And does anyone besides me think this is odd?

OK, now… as I frequently do, I wrote the above without taking the trouble to Google, “why are so many app icons blue?” Before clicking “publish,” I decided I would. Like most questions that occur to me, this one had apparently been asked a gazillion times. (You know, I was a far more original thinker before Google came along.)

None of the answers were totally satisfactory to me. Yeah, OK, so blue is the most common favorite color on the planet, across cultures, genders, etc. It’s a safe choice for someone trying to appeal to a wide audience, not as edgy as, say, the execrable orange.

Got it. In fact, I sort of knew that stuff without asking. But still, it seems more developers would look at that sea of blue on their smartphone screens and think, “I want to stand out.”

But they don’t. Because they’re not such original thinkers either, apparently…

Evidently, I was misreading the signs (or lack of them)…

In a comment on a previous post, Scout was talking about how James Smith did better than Democrats usually do in her Lexington County precinct. She went on to say:

James got significantly more votes than Sheheen did against Haley the first time around in actual vote numbers (not percentages), but the turnout was just bigger all around, so it still wasn’t enough.

Clearly James got more democratic votes than typically happens around here. But again, It just still wasn’t enough…

That got me to thinking about this: Statewide, James not only got a lot more votes than Democrats usually do; he got way more votes than Republicans usually do. Consider:

  • In 2006, Mark Sanford won with 601,868 votes.
  • In 2010, Nikki Haley won with 690,525 votes.
  • In 2014, Nikki won even bigger with 696,645 votes.
  • In 2018, James got 784,182 votes — and lost.

It’s sort of a cliche that big turnout favors Democrats. Not this time.

One explanation I’ve heard is that the S.C. population is growing rapidly — and that a lot of the newcomers are people who don’t know squat about either Henry or James, but brought the habit of voting Republican along with them when they came here.

But obviously that’s not the whole answer. A lot of other factors were at work here.

For us on the Smith campaign, that outcome is counterintuitive. The lack of enthusiasm for Henry even among Republicans was palpable throughout this campaign. He barely squeaked by in a runoff in his own party’s primary, and was particularly weak in the Upstate — which is one reason why James did about 20 percentage points better than Vincent Sheheen had done in Greenville.

All over the state, we could see that almost no one wanted a McMaster sign in his front yard. My brother, who lives in a Republican neighborhood in Greenville, kept sending me pictures of Smith/Norrell signs next to signs for Republicans running for other offices. I thought maybe he was just noticing the things he wanted to see, but when I spent the day up there before the second debate and drove around looking, I saw the same thing — Smith signs everywhere, McMaster signs almost nonexistent. (And I’m not the kind of guy who fools himself into seeing only what pleases him. I’m hypercritical — always looking for the things that are WRONG — and attach great importance to bad news. Every McMaster sign I saw during the campaign was like a kick in the gut. But during all those months, I got very few kicks in the gut.)

It would be foolish to go by yard signs alone in trying to predict an outcome (so you can save your breath telling me that), but the McMaster sign deficit was so HUGE that I kept thinking it was a ruse of some sort. Maybe the McMaster campaign was deliberately holding the signs back, and they’d all go up in the last few days before Election Day to give him and his supporters a psychological boost, and discourage our voters. Or something. The lack of red signs was just weird.

(One day shortly after joined the campaign in July, I drove past the McMaster headquarters on Gadsden Street behind the governor’s mansion. The yard was full of signs, and I thought, so that’s where they all are! I almost did a blog post about it, but decided it would be unseemly given my role in the campaign. Anyway, I figured that sooner or later, I’d start seeing them scattered across the state in great profusion, and then I’d regret having made fun. But it never happened…)

Obviously, it seemed to us, we had the enthusiasm advantage. We weren’t counting our chickens or anything, because we knew the odds were always against a Democrat. But we had some things to feel good about. And the reason I’m talking about the sign thing, as insignificant as it it, is that it was something tangible I can point out to you.

It stood to reason that McMaster would get the votes of people who always voted Republican, but from what we could see, that was about it — and he wouldn’t get all of those (we were seeing and hearing a lot of indicators on that point). So how is it that there was both a big turnout, apparently with lots of people who had never voted for governor in previous years, and Henry still won?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but we can speculate…

I took this photo on July 12. I thought, "So THAT'S where all the McMaster signs are -- at his headquarters!"

I took this photo on July 12. I thought, “So THAT’S where all the McMaster signs are — at his headquarters!”

Humanity took one small step forward this week

At least The State played it prominently...

At least The State played it prominently…

There’s been little in the news to make us happy about being a member of the human race lately. I certainly wasn’t encouraged by the election result, as you can imagine. But the tawdriness, the discouragement goes far beyond that.

So it was nice to see us make a tiny bit of progress as a species earlier this week, with the successful descent and landing of our latest mechanical emissary to Mars.

No, it’s not as cool as if we’d actually send people there, but it’s something, however small. It shows us reaching out, growing, expanding out grasp and our consciousness beyond the cesspool that dominates our public conversation.

So I felt good about it, and looking back, I wish I’d seen more prominent coverage of it. No, I don’t expect everybody to be herded into the school auditorium to watch it live, the way we did upon John Glenn’s first flight when I was in 3rd grade. But I’d like to have seen more than I did.

At least my former newspaper played as the centerpiece on the front. That was nice, although I’d have appreciated a little more depth. And I’d like to have seen more celebration elsewhere, because lately there’s been so little for us humans to celebrate. Maybe it was there. Maybe I was just looking in the wrong direction…

Another sad thing: My sojourn in a Trump-free world is over

James Smith and Mandy Powers Norrell told me they wanted to bring me onto their campaign in a meeting on June 26 in Mandy’s legislative office in the Blatt building.

I don’t know what brought it up, but at some point I said something like, “One thing I feel sure of, you don’t win this election by talking about Donald Trump.”

“THANK you!” said Mandy. Apparently, she’d heard too many people give her advice that differed from that. Being from a county that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 — but one that loved her enough that she faced no opposition from either party for her House seat this year — she saw us as having nothing to gain talking about you-know-who.

The pattern was set there and then. Henry McMaster would be about Donald Trump, and Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, and abortion, and other names and ideas that divide us on the national level. We would talk about South Carolina issues that we face in common — SC schools, SC healthcare, energy for SC, our roads and other infrastructure. This would not be a simple matter of political expedience in a red state — the truth was that those issues were the reasons James and Mandy were running. They wanted to provide leadership on issues that matter to South Carolina, not play the stupid 24/7 national partisan talking-points game. Everything about their public lives up to that point underlined that fact. This was who they were.

There would be times in which it was impossible to completely avoid that person’s name, or the policies he propagates — such as when his tariffs threatened some of the best jobs in South Carolina — but our emphasis would be on emphasizing Henry’s refusal to distance himself from those policies.

Within the campaign, if someone embarked upon a sentence that could not end logically without acknowledging the existence of the person who is currently POTUS, we — and especially the candidates — would usually handle it by calling him “45.”

So, I spent a blessed 14 weeks, plus a day or two, without having to think about him. It was wonderful. It wasn’t hard, because I didn’t have time to think about him. I didn’t have time to think about the things I needed to think about, much less the occupant of the White House. I spent most of my breakfast reading time on The State and the Post and Courier, and neglected my usual Washington Post and New York Times. I’d skim those national outlets, but I wouldn’t dig in.

The only thing that marred my bliss from being in a Trumpless universe was the reporters who wanted to drag him, or other national shouting-match issues, into this far better world. “What does James think about Brett Kavanaugh?” “What effect is Trump having on your race?” Or the ultimate “have you stopped beating your wife” question, “Are you for or against abolishing ICE?” (Usually, these came from national outlets — the last one from the right-wing Daily Caller, which seemed to do little but ask such questions — and I felt OK ignoring those. Nothing against national journalists, but unless they were asking about something that bore on the job of governor of South Carolina, they were a waste of my scarce time. But occasionally, to my great dismay, such questions came from South Carolina outlets. Sometimes I ignored those, too; mostly I answered with our campaign’s raison d’être: “We are completely focused on South Carolina issues…”)

But now, those happy days are over. There’s little in the SC papers to interest me — certainly nothing to absorb me with the intensity of the campaign — and I’m drifting back to those opinion pieces in the Post, the Times and elsewhere.

And you know who keeps coming up there, in pieces by writers from across the political spectrum. With a certain resignation, I allow myself to think about what they’re saying. And occasionally, someone says something worth saying.

As you know, I rather enjoy Ross Douthat’s High Tory-but-unpredictable approach to things, and I thought he made a good point here the other day:

Generally, Donald Trump’s Twitter beefs are an expense of spirit and a waste of breath. But a minority of them are genuinely edifying, and illustrations of his likely world-historical role — which is not to personally bring down our constitutional republic, but to reveal truths about our political situation, through his crudeness and goading of others, that might be harbingers of the Republic’s eventual end…

Indeed. The problem with Trump isn’t Trump himself. When he was a national joke on both the left and the right, someone everyone could safely ignore, everything was fine. The problem is that enough voted for him to make him president. The problem is out there, in the electorate.  That is the thing that could be the sign of the Republic’s end. He is just a sort of canary in the coal mine, except that the warning isn’t that he’s keeling over, but that he thrives, at least with a dangerously large segment of the population.

The rest of Douthat’s piece is worth reading as well, particularly his evocation of the danger posed by “the steady atrophy of legislative power and flight from legislative responsibility” on Capitol Hill.

I was a bit disappointed today by neocon Jennifer Rubin. Her headline, “Trump’s incoherence is too much — and it’s getting worse” — drew me in because it made me think the piece would concentrate on his constant abuse of the English language, a topic always near to my heart. She started promisingly enough:

Jennifer RubinPresident Trump has never been a model of consistency or coherence. However, as pressure builds both from looming investigations and the impending transfer of power in the House from the Republican majority to the Democrats, his ability to maintain even the pretense of normalcy and rationality begins to crumble. That’s true on both foreign and domestic policy, giving the impression of a president teetering on the brink of a complete meltdown….

But on the whole coherence wasn’t the issue so much as erratic behavior and policy inconsistency. So, you know, the usual stuff…

Then, from the center-left, we have E.J. Dionne’s piece today, “This is the only Trump syndrome we need to worry about.” The syndrome he means is “denial — a blind refusal to face up to how much damage Trump is willing to inflict on our system of self-rule, and on our values,” with particular concern expressed for “the cost to the United States of abandoning any claim that it prefers democracy to dictatorship and human rights to barbarism.”

I think the part I liked best, though, was when E.J. specifically pointed to the very same problem Douthat lamented, the abdication of responsibility on the part of the legislative branch:

E.J. DionneTrump’s crude statement backing the Saudis was too much even for many in the GOP. “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter.

But Republicans have said all sorts of things about Trump and then backed off when it mattered. (See: Cruz, above.) They have long tolerated the praise he regularly lavishes on dictators. They have been eager to moonlight themselves as Trump PR firms as long as he delivered tax cuts and judges….

Anyway… I’ve been dragged back into the world where people talk and write about Trump. I suppose I should take solace from the fact that at least some smart people are doing so thoughtfully — although whether their thoughtfulness is enough to light our way out of this mess remains to be seen…

More about those job-killing tariffs Henry won’t stand up against — but y’all don’t care about that, do you?

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As Levon Helm said as Jack Ridley, All right, y’all — here we go again.

The P&C brings us twin stories today about the continuing ill effects of Trump’s tariffs — up to which McMaster will not stand (I’m nothing if not grammatical). Of course, they’re doing what anyone with any understanding of the way the world works would expect: threatening some of the best jobs in the state:

I’m not going to repeat myself. I’m just going to refer you to this release, and this one and this one and this one, and then stop there, because you’re probably not even following the links to those.

But yeah, we told you so.

And what did reporters keep asking me about? The next ad buy, or when some yahoo who plans to run for president in 2020 might be coming to South Carolina…

Here we go again, y'all...

All right, y’all — here we go again…

Anybody else tired of ‘Christmas’ yet?

"I say humbug to you, sir! We haven't even had Thanksgiving yet!"

“I say humbug to you, sir! We haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet!”

… ‘Cause I am.

I am not a Scrooge. I have been fully conditioned to say that, by a lifetime of seeing Scrooge — before the ghosts — as a bad guy, who was redeemed by getting into the Christmas Spirit.

But you’ll note, if you go back and read the story, that he got into the Christmas Spirit on Christmas Day — that is, on the first of the 12 days of actual Christmas.

If Scrooge had gone into Walmart on the day after Halloween, hoping to pick up some Brach’s Mellowcreme Pumpkins on sale, only to find all the Halloween stuff replaced by Christmas-themed merchandise — which actually happened to yours truly — I’d have called him a hero for crying “Humbug!”

And that’s what he’d have been: A hero. A man fighting a lonely fight against the cheapening and dilution of what was once a perfectly lovely holiday. Not the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, but a nice one nonetheless.

What put me in this Scroogesque mood? I made the mistake of listening to commercial radio for a few minutes this morning, and every ad I heard was Christmas-themed. And this is 13 days before the start of Advent, which is the whole season that occurs BEFORE Christmas arrives.

So I have my legitimate grievance…