Things That Make You Go, “HMMM.”

I’m channeling my inner Arsenio Hall.

Make no mistake:  I haven’t lost sight of the fact that President Joe Biden, by his willingness to run for the most challenging office in the world at an age more than a decade older than most people – including me — retire, showed a level of selflessness and patriotism we’ve rarely seen in our public officials in recent years.  Mr. Biden is a good man.  I remain thrilled that he is in the White House.  That said, for an Administration whose primary foreign policy pledge has been closer cooperation with allies, it’s been Amateur Hour.

Put aside whether our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was correct; I don’t think so; many do.  It was Mr. Biden’s call; he’s the President of the United States.  What is becoming apparent is that the allies who got embroiled in the Middle East quagmire 20 years ago because of a grotesquely misguided series of decisions by former President George W. Bush felt inadequately consulted and little considered by our decision to so abruptly withdraw.  This seems an unnecessary error in allied relations.

As I’ve already lamented in these pages, it was pretty darn clear to anyone who read any credible news accounts on Taliban activity in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021 that it was pretty darn likely that Afghanistan was going to fall to the Taliban almost the minute we withdrew.  In fact, it fell to the Taliban before we withdrew, and it was only under its auspices that we were able to get a lot of Americans and our collaborators out.  To not anticipate that such a precipitous Taliban takeover was at least a possibility, and plan for it, I find a disconcerting oversight on the part of the Administration’s foreign policy team.

Perhaps the most glaring:  The grievous insult to France recently perpetrated by the announcement of our AUKUS arrangement with Australia and the United Kingdom.  I think the arrangement itself – providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to help it patrol waters in which China has been increasingly aggressive – is exactly the type of step we need to be taking as we adjust our foreign policy to fit current realities.  That said, anybody with a shred of sense – and Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team is supposed to be comprised of professionals – should have seen that in not being advised and mollified in some fashion before it was announced that they were losing a $60 billion submarine contract with the Australians, the French would feel outraged and humiliated.  French President Emmanuel Macron, in tight political competition with right wing political groups sympathetic to Russia that we do not want to see take control of France, was belittled.   It is reported that Biden Administration National Security Advisor Jake Sherman was aware of all of the AUKUS machinations as they were occurring.  Whether he was or not, this was a stunning unforced blunder.

In a separate vein, I am mystified by Congressional Progressives’ indications that they will withhold their support from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package already passed in the Senate unless Democrats also pass most or all of the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package currently under their consideration.  Since no Republican support is expected for the human infrastructure package, its passage it will require the support of all Senate Democrats and virtually all House Democrats, moderates as well as Progressives.  If I thought that Progressives’ thundering was merely posturing, it wouldn’t bother me; as it is, I am concerned that some of the self-righteous among them may actually be serious.  If so, I would suggest that their harrumphing is akin to someone who threatens to jump off a roof unless others do what he wants.  Progressives should take whatever they can get on human infrastructure, and be satisfied.  It seems that too many continue to be oblivious that the majority of our citizenry – not only Republicans, but moderate Democrats and many Independents (including me) — have misgivings about the scope and extent of some of their policy aims; and that while their seats are mostly not imperiled by seeking the moon, many moderate Democrats’ seats will be at risk if the party is seen as acting too rashly, and the Democrats could end up forfeiting control of Congress to Republicans.  What will happen to their priorities then?  If Progressives indeed scuttle a bipartisan infrastructure bill that has widespread public support because they can’t get a number of initiatives that a significant segment of our people, correctly or incorrectly, have sincere question about, they deserve their fate.

Unless I’ve missed it, the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients remains uncertain as parties’ Congressional delegations wrangle over wider immigration reform.  For years, there has been widespread support, including among the Republican electorate, for granting these young(er) people, who were brought here illegally in their youth, a path to permanent legal status.  I believe that the House of Representatives has already passed a measure to safeguard DACA recipients.  Every minute Democratic Senate leadership delays, a law becomes more difficult, since immigration will undoubtedly be a contentious issue in the 2022 campaign.  I don’t understand why that leadership doesn’t put a simple bill on the Senate floor, requiring all Senators to vote, designed to secure legal status for these blameless individuals.  Either the DACA recipients get protection or the Democrats get an emotive issue.  My guess:  it would pass.

Finally, a good friend asked me recently why I haven’t posted on the Packers.  I never watch preseason games, and I missed the 38-3 debacle while we were vacationing, so my first look at the team was last Monday night’s victory over the Detroit Lions.  Green Bay seemed a long way from a Super Bowl champion to me.  Granting that one of its primary rushing threats, Za’Darius Smith, was absent, the defense was underwhelming, and I don’t think that the team can maintain a championship offense with only meaningful production from Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Running Back Aaron Jones (who will tire without the assistance of his former backup, Jamaal Williams), and Wide Receiver Davante Adams.  Hopefully, I’ll prove to be sadly mistaken.  Either way, Packer games will provide a wonderful distraction from the other issues we face.

Channeling my inner Mr. Hall was a good way to end the week  ;).  Have a nice weekend.

Vacation Impressions

We just spent a week touring the eastern part of Wisconsin – some of which, despite its proximity to our residence in Madison, we hadn’t visited since our honeymoon, 45 years ago.  It was a wonderful trip.  (I’m our trip planner, and like George Peppard’s fictional John “Hannibal” Smith of the 1980s television series, The A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together.)  Amid a lot of fun and interesting sights and experiences, a few impressions linger. 

Whether it be as a result of the additional federal $300 weekly stimulus payment which just ended in Wisconsin, workers’ fear of contracting COVID, their assumption of new occupations during the pandemic quarantine period, or otherwise, a significant percentage of pre-COVID hospitality workers have not returned to their jobs at northeastern Wisconsin hotels and restaurants.  Hotel housekeeping services are provided upon request rather than as a matter of course.  Restaurant service is a little slower than one would expect in some establishments, abysmal in others.  “We can’t find anyone” was a common plaint, particularly in Door County (for those from outside the Badger State:  that’s the beautiful and heavily-toured part of the Wisconsin that juts northeast into Lake Michigan).  In a tale of dueling mixologists:  in one town, a genial dispenser of spirits bemoaned others’ unwillingness to work; in another, an equally genial bartender opined that the shortage wasn’t for lack of willing workers, but because employers weren’t willing to pay staff what they should.  My general sense was that the proprietors of many of the businesses we visited were eager to pay anything remotely within reason to get additional help.  Whatever its cause, we will soon see whether the hospitality staffing shortage recedes as benefit checks end and more of the vaccine-hesitant get their shots.  If not, it may require a significant shift in expectations for hotel and restaurant patrons in some parts of Wisconsin and the nation.

One of our stops was in the historic, quaint, and decidedly well-to-do town of Cedarburg, just north of Milwaukee.  At one point during the pandemic, the local authorities apparently instituted a mask mandate, but at this point, the town has adopted an honor system.  Almost every shop had a sign such as, “No need to wear a mask if you are vaccinated,” or “Please wear a mask if you are not vaccinated.”  Since TLOML is the shopper and I am simply her escort, it gave me time to chat with sales people about how they had fared when they had in a sense been required to enforce a mask mandate.  One woman told me that Cedarburg “is very closely divided [politically], which made it very difficult for us.”  Another:  “It gave me PTSD.  I actually hated to see customers come through the door.  If they institute another mandate, I’m closing rather than deal with the abuse.”  Another – from a charming, white-haired woman:  “When I asked a well-dressed older man to put a mask on, he screamed at me and called me, ‘A F*****g Nazi.’  My heart was still beating fast an hour after he left.”

Too many of us have lost our sense of decorum.  While former President Donald Trump clearly provided certain personalities the license to act out, they still have to take responsibility for their own behavior.  Although I have a fiery Irish side and have made it difficult for more than one salesperson in my lifetime [sometimes with good reason; sometimes, in retrospect, perhaps not  ;)], I cannot rationalize making a salesperson’s life difficult when anyone with the slightest sense of awareness should understand that the clerk is simply trying to abide by the law.  Anyone that reads these pages is aware that I support vaccine and mask mandates, and seriously question the sense of those that contest them.  Even so, if one is going to get angry about a mandate, go yell at those that imposed it.   

Finally, we have literally traveled Interstate 94 between Madison and Milwaukee hundreds of times.  There are signs along the highway indicating sights to be seen.  We have never exited.  On this trip, we did.

An early stop was Aztalan State Park, a National Historic Landmark depicting an ancient Middle-Mississippian village existing between 1000 and 1300 A.D.  The Aztalans had an advanced culture for the time based on farming with a clear social structure.  It was fascinating.  We recommend it to all in our area.  That said, aside from one gentleman who has made the study of ancient native peoples his hobby, there was nobody else in the park.  We assumed that the lack of people resulted from it being a weekday after school started.  Our companion advised us that he visited the park regularly, and there is rarely much attendance.

Our last stop of the day was Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, the vacation home of the Lunts, which has also been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a married couple, are at the forefront of the American theater pantheon.  Their work spanned four decades from the 1920s to 1960.  Mr. Lunt was born in Genesee Depot, and built – some of it with his own hands; he was a clearly multi-talented guy — an impressive home on 100-acre grounds to which the two repaired each summer.  At their estate they entertained such stage and screen luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, and Noel Coward.  Mr. Lunt died in 1977, Ms. Fontanne in 1983.  The complex was interesting and certainly worth visiting if one has an interest in American theater history.  Clearly elegant in its day, more than a bit eccentric, now — despite extensive and effective restoration – it is a bit faded, a relic of a former age.  Only two other visitors joined our tour, conducted by two docents, all six of us senior citizens.

The day’s lasting impression:  the Aztalans are long gone.  Despite their impressive culture and community, today only a few archeologists know or care that they were ever here.  The Lunts dominated American stage in a way that perhaps no one else has.  Query how many Americans still recall the couple called “the greatest husband-and-wife team in the history of American theater.”  What it made me realize:  how few of us will make the impression upon our times that the Aztalans and Lunts did; and how even these have faded.

Our youngest grandchild is 2.  If I’m fortunate enough to live another 10 years and if he retains his faculties to a ripe old age and if he remembers me fondly, some vestige of a memory that I was even here might last to 2100.  It is more probable that any meaningful memory of TLOML and me will pass when the last of our children passes.  So it’s important to do what you can, while you can.  Help your loved ones.  In an observation perhaps more relevant for retirees with time and resources than for the younger among us having to deal with the obligations of family and career, a portion of one’s time might best be spent volunteering in one’s community.  But by all means, devote yourself now to what you feel is the most important — for however long now might be. Judging by the dimming legacies of the Aztalans and the Lunts, ultimately only the Almighty will remember that most of us were here.

On Vaccinations and Masking: John Stuart Mill … and Joinville, Brazil

Given the fact that three members of our family studied Political Science during their education regimes, we have a disconcertingly extensive collection of the works of political theorists from Plato to J. D. Vance.  [Given Mr. Vance’s transformation from telling observer to pandering politician, I suspect that being linked to Mr. Vance in the preceding sentence has made Plato cringe in the Hereafter ;)].  The persistent resistance of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to employ or enable others to institute measures now clearly demonstrated to help limit the spread of COVID-19 – on the ground that it is an encroachment upon someone or other’s freedom – recently caused me to pull out John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay, “On Liberty.”  

Considered by some the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mr. Mill, an Englishman born in 1806 who was among the first members of Parliament to condemn slavery in America and, author of the 1869 essay, “On the Subjection of Women,” among the first to argue for social equality between men and women, is a founding father of the notion that each person should be free to conduct his or her affairs in his or her own way.  “On Liberty” is an ode to individuality.  In it, Mr. Mill waxed eloquent about our need for eccentrics (he did literally talk about eccentricity).  He did not believe that society was advanced by those in the conforming, complacent majority.  Thus, I was curious to see if I could discern, if he was alive today, how he would assess the views of those staunchly opposing mask and/or vaccine mandates on the ground that such constitute an infringement of citizens’ “liberty.”

It didn’t take much guesswork.  Early in “On Liberty,” Mr. Mill wrote:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.  He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.  … [T]he conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one [sic] else.  The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.  In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.  [Emphasis Added]”

I would venture that given the strong evidence that masking and vaccines have helped check the spread of a deadly disease, Mr. Mill, a Godfather of Liberty, would have no patience with mask and vaccine mandate naysayers.  Some who claim to cling to the libertarian philosophy that Mr. Mill articulated over 150 years ago might still assert that such mandates constitute an infringement of their rights because the science is not completely settled.  Given the data we have, I suspect that at this point such supposed reservations would hold no sway with Mr. Mill.  He was also a scientist who believed that knowledge was derived from experience.  In A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, he wrote in 1843:

“After a general law of nature has been ascertained, men’s minds do not at first acquire a complete facility of familiarly representing to themselves the phenomena of nature … [T]his habit, in the case of newly-discovered relations, comes only by degrees. … But in time … a prolonged habit of arranging phenomena in certain groups, and explaining them by means of certain principles, makes any other arrangement or explanation of these facts be felt as unnatural … [The philosopher’s] real reason for rejecting theories at variance with the true one, is no other than that they clash with his experience … he adopts the true theory because it is self-evident …”

While the vast majority of those opposing vaccine and mask mandates as intrusions on their “freedom” probably have no familiarity with Mr. Mill – not all of us can be this geeky; somebody has to get stuff done – FL Gov. Ron DeSantis (possessing a Yale undergraduate degree and a Harvard law degree) and TX Gov. Greg Abbott (possessing a University of Texas undergraduate degree and a Vanderbilt law degree) should be and presumably are well aware of Mr. Mill’s philosophy and of the careful distinctions he articulated over a century and half ago regarding an individual’s right to liberty.  As they exert all of the powers of their offices against imposition of what are demonstrably the most effective measures for preserving the health of their respective states’ citizens, they are shameless, despicable provocateurs.

On a less ponderous note:  in an early April post, I entered portions of a close friend’s email describing the manner in which he had spoofed a young woman getting her first vaccination shot by suggesting that she would receive the inoculation not in her arm, but rather in a lower bodily area in which we have all received other injections.  [He also indicated that she later indicated by gesture that she did not appreciate his sense of humor when she discovered that he had been pulling her leg (so to speak  ;)].  Now, it turns out that our friend was perhaps not that far afield.  There is a link below to a Washington Post article by our favorite correspondent, “Most everyone gets the coronavirus vaccine in the arm.  Butt this Brazilian city is shooting lower,” in which he reports that in the Brazilian city of Joinville, medical personnel providing injections have elected to wage a rearguard action.  As justification for its bottom-up approach, a city spokesman has cited the Brazilian health ministry’s guidance that for vaccinations such as the COVID inoculation, the body’s ventrogluteal region is one of the “best options” for “alternative administration” of the shot.  In light of this guidance, I suspect all reasonable observers will agree with the Joinville medical community that given the world’s vital need for widespread COVID protection,  any twinges we have about vaccines should be put … behind us.

May you have an enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/27/most-everyone-gets-coronavirus-vaccine-arm-butt-this-brazilian-city-is-shooting-lower/

Deck Reflections on Our Forever War

There has recently been less time to devote to these pages as we do chores left to late summer, among them putting a new coat of stain on our deck.  Such chores do provide mind space for reflection.

While the observations of a retired Midwest blogger add little to the avalanche of commentary attending the Taliban’s swift conquest of Afghanistan as America has withdrawn its forces, the final outcome seems all the more tragic because it was so glaringly predictable.  In a May post on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days, I stated:

“I would submit that Mr. Biden’s most significant foreign policy failing thus far is his decision to withdraw U.S. Troops from Afghanistan.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Taliban, who oppose the Afghan government we have kept upright, will overrun the country almost as soon as we depart; we leave ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks; we open the door to suppression of Afghan women; and we will appear to have abandoned another set of Middle East allies (remember the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria), further reducing our credibility in the region [Emphasis in Original].”  

I didn’t add – perhaps alone, only recently having become aware – that Afghanistan is said to have significant deposits of rare earth minerals required in common high technology instruments, some strategic defense systems, and applications designed to address Climate Change.  By our departure we have apparently ceded a seeming counterweight in this arena to China, which the Centre for Strategic and International Studies reports to have approximately two thirds of certain rare earth elements.  If still not enough:  In The Room Where It Happened (“The Room”), former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton noted that he cautioned President Donald Trump against withdrawing from Afghanistan in part because he feared that a Taliban takeover might hasten the fall of neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power, to terrorists.   

There has been some attempt in the liberal media to place some of the responsibility for our departure on Mr. Trump, since his Administration agreed to the arrangement with the Taliban under which America is withdrawing its forces.  (These have concurrence from an odd bedfellow, Mr. Bolton, who commented in The Room: “[Even] after Trump leaves office ….Trump will be responsible for the consequences, politically and militarily.”)  I don’t buy it.  In a post several years ago, I sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [the actual title of the agreement limiting Iranian nuclear activity (the “JCPOA”)] that the Obama Administration negotiated with the Iranian government – despite the fact that even Democrats now agree that the pact had significant deficiencies — on the fundamental grounds that “we gave our word.”  That consideration does not apply to our agreement with the Taliban.  The international inspectors monitoring Iran’s JCPOA compliance considered Iran to be in compliance at the time we withdrew.  Here, the Taliban have been violating the promises they made to the Trump team from the day they were made.  Mr. Biden had ample grounds upon which to have rejected the agreement had he chosen to do so.

There has also been some suggestion that it’s just that we didn’t expect the Taliban to take Afghanistan … this quickly.  This is sophism.  If we believed that the Taliban was ultimately going to overrun the country, whether it achieved the takeover in a two weeks or six months has no geopolitical strategic significance.  (Such miscalculation was obviously of the first importance insofar as our ability to safely evacuate the Afghans who cooperated with us over the years.  Here our misreading will likely cost of the lives of thousands who relied on us.)

To his credit, as the situation in Afghanistan worsened, President Biden recited the first maxim of presidential leadership:  “The Buck stops with me.”  True.  He also asserted that the Taliban’s swift takeover has proven that this was going to be the result whenever we left.  Most probably true.  He has been widely reported to have chafed against our Afghan involvement over the years because he believed that we should have departed Afghanistan as soon as our initial purpose for entering the country – rooting out the interests that supported Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on us – was achieved.  Arguably his view once had significant merit.  However, it overlooks another precept of presidential leadership:  A President must play the hand s/he inherits.  I disagree with Mr. Biden’s claim that our departure will end a “Forever War.” Afghanistan was no more than a front in our Forever War.

I would submit that our nation has been in a Forever War since at least September, 1940, more than a year before it formally entered World War II, when it began to provide military aid to England and its allies.  President Franklin Roosevelt approved the aid because he realized, notwithstanding most Americans’ complacency born of our ocean buffers, that if Nazi Germany prevailed in Europe, it ultimately would come after us; he did it to prevent our becoming, in his words, “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”  By 1945 we had become the world’s preeminent super power.  Since that time, by the very nature of our position, we have been in a Forever War – sometimes hot, sometimes Cold, sometimes via proxy, on military, economic, cyber, advocacy, diplomatic and other battlefronts, and with shifting adversaries, but never truly unchallenged, at peace.  Today we remain, despite our failings and missteps, the world’s preeminent power.  China, Russia, Iran, and other hostile foreign powers are acutely aware of this, which is why they seek to undermine and supplant us either globally or regionally.  I am too much a Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy disciple not to believe that any event that makes us weaker anywhere makes us weaker everywhere.

It has been said that we are right to depart Afghanistan because we could never “win.”  We Americans have a subliminal understanding, given the manner in which we threw off a colonial power over 200 years ago, that determined natives will ultimately prevail over a weary outsider.  Granting that nation building may have been the misguided vision of the George W. Bush Administration, it’s been clear for over a decade that such was not achievable in Afghanistan.  I would nonetheless offer – to use a chess analogy (although all who know me are well aware of how painfully bad I am) – that sometimes achieving a draw is a win.  Our small military footprint constituted a bulwark against terrorist groups likely, if unrestrained, to attack us, and against larger powers whose expansion in the region will only make America strategically less safe:  Iran, Russia, and to an increasing extent, China.  While we could never “win” in Afghanistan, another chess analogy:  it is unwise to voluntarily relinquish a square that thwarts an opponent’s advance. 

While our Afghan withdrawal isn’t, in my view, anywhere near as colossal a blunder as the G. W. Bush Administration invasion of Iraq, I consider it more detrimental to American interests than either President Barack Obama’s failure to follow through on his warning to move against the Syrian regime if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, or Mr. Trump’s 2019 abandonment of our Kurdish allies, because Mr. Biden’s decision may materially increase the prospect of a terrorist attack(s) on our shores.  I also suspect that it is more unnerving to the world community because most understood that Mr. Obama was a foreign policy neophyte and all recognized that Mr. Trump was an untutored loose cannon.  Mr. Biden was supposed to know better, be a return to American competence and stability, to understand the use of power and the obligation to help those who have in good faith helped and relied on us.  An observation that occurred to me that I have seen reported elsewhere:  our precipitous Afghan withdrawal can do nothing but make Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern Gulf States, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (the latter three Baltic members of NATO on Russia’s doorstep) restive if not outright anxious.  In their places, I would be.  Our hasty departure has weakened our credibility in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, even within the Americas.  I remain confident that we can maintain our preeminent position indefinitely if we act wisely – which has not been the case either domestically or internationally in recent years.  Our global advantage is easily squandered if we continue to blunder.  In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could look to us for help.  Today, there is no one behind us to whom we can look for help.    

A couple of very close friends asserted to me recently that as messy as the withdrawal and evacuation have been, Mr. Biden’s decision merely ended a pointless incursion; that with us out of Afghanistan, the region’s terrorist elements will have little remaining interest in us.  I hope they are right.  I fear they are not.  The American people apparently currently largely support our withdrawal, even if they are taken aback by its messy Vietnam-like denouement; I would predict that they will continue to support the withdrawal unless there is a major terrorist attack on our homeland which can be linked to Afghanistan.  If there is, American sentiment will turn on a dime.  Mr. Biden will not be re-elected. 

This has been a dense note – in perhaps more ways than one – but it was actually easier to consider the prospect of America’s waning influence than to dwell on yesterday’s gut-wrenching deaths of our soldiers and Afghans seeking evacuation – at the hands of an ISIS faction, seemingly indicating that we face a continuing threat from that quarter — or on the anguish of the Afghans that will be left in our wake.  I believe that all of us reach out to the same God, if through different paths.  I pray for them.

A Summer Town Hall

We have spent a week in central Wisconsin virtually every August for more than 30 years.  At this time of year, I would submit that the weather in this part of this state is unsurpassed.  Although our political views and those of many of the Wisconsinites that live north of us have diverged ever more widely over the decades, such differences are easily avoided when all can share lakes, sun, and refreshers in congenial – and numerous 😉 – watering holes.

That said, we recently happened upon a town hall meeting conducted on a very pleasant day by a Republican Wisconsin Congressman in the park pavilion of a small community.  The gathering provided insight into both Republican political messaging and the startlingly different concerns of citizens sharing the same state and nation.

The format was customary:  the Congressman spoke first, followed by a question-and-answer period.  Although he is a member of a House committee responsible for immigration issues, I was nonetheless surprised to see how much time and emphasis was placed on border issues.  The Representative made notable reference to the drugs coming across the border, leaving the incorrect impression while not specifically stating that a significant number of those crossing the border are drug runners.  Fear of illegals played well with the crowd, and is clearly a theme that Republicans intend to use with their base nationwide.  What surprised me a bit was how deeply the message seemed to resonate in central Wisconsin.  This is an area of a northern state hardly overrun with illegal aliens.  What’s more, TLOML, whose family had a cottage in the area in the 1950s and 1960s, well recalls Mexican migrants who picked pickles here in those years in sufficient numbers to support Spanish food markets and Spanish movie nights.  Nevertheless, the attendees at the town hall – who, judging by their appearance, are old enough to remember those days of migrant labor – nevertheless seemed suitably worried about the prospect of brown peril at our southern border.  The Congressman was asked whether any of the illegals being processed by the Biden Administration came north, and he said they did, but — clearly experiencing a pang of candor — couldn’t bring himself to claim that he was aware of any illegals processed by the Biden Administration who had come to Wisconsin

The Congressman also mentioned in passing that there was a rumor that the Biden Administration supported teaching “Critical Race Theory” (a teaching based on the premise that race is a social construct) in public schools (although the Administration has specifically separated itself from the concept), stated that he opposed it, and declared that America was “not a racist society,” citing a Hmong family he knew that had made a good life in Wisconsin.  The total number of African Americans we have seen in our decades of coming to the area can be counted on the fingers of both hands.  Issues of African American depravation in Wisconsin’s two major metro areas are not part of the central Wisconsin experience.  The Representative’s declarations nonetheless earned appreciative nods from the crowd.  He observed that Democrats want to defund the police – which, admittedly, some do – while failing to mention that President Joe Biden unequivocally opposes defunding the police. 

At the same time, the Congressman avoided an overtly partisan tone when discussing the President – unlike the contentious approach of better-know Republicans playing for the camera.  Faced with a direct question regarding the legality of the 2020 presidential election, and while expressing some vague reservations about voting in Milwaukee County, he did not claim that either the Wisconsin or federal election was stolen from former President Donald Trump (clearly the sentiment of the questioner).  While expressing concerns about how the Administration’s and Congressional Democrats’ spending proposals could add to inflation – misgivings I share – he was careful to place a fair part of his inflation concern at the foot of the Federal Reserve Bank.

The question-and-answer period was both illuminating and at times, disconcerting.  There was marked unease about the Biden Administration proposal to eliminate the “stepped up basis” in willed property that legatees currently receive under federal tax law – obviously pertinent to a community in which the predominant value of many estates is appreciated farm land (and a valid point that will make me reflect).  The Representative understandably pledged to oppose the measure.  There was a appreciable attendee support for the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, particularly as regards expanded broadband access.  The Congressman indicated that he generally supported the bill (since then, Mr. Trump has expressed his opposition to the bill; it would be instructive to learn whether the Congressman has changed his position).  There was criticism of the Administration’s abandonment of the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits the expenditure of public funds for abortions).  The Representative pledged to oppose abortion rights.  In response to a question we didn’t catch, he vowed to vote against any measure limiting the Second Amendment – hardly a surprising response in the middle of a hunting state in which a gun is considered a tool.  

At the same time, a notable number of questions dealt with local issues clearly outside the Congressman’s job description, such as concerns some citizens had with solar farm development next to their properties.  (Admitting the need to address Climate Change, one could sympathize with the questioners, but their grievance seemed best directed to town, county, and state officials, not the federal government.)  Most unsettling:  the citizen that asked what the CIA was doing about the UFO threat.  While at this point my visceral association with Republicans is at a pretty low ebb, I have to admit that at that moment, I identified with the Congressman:  How is he going to handle this one without either justifying the question or insulting this guy?  I should have realized that anybody that reaches Congress is a professional at dealing with absurdities by inoffensive means:  the Representative indicated that he didn’t have much familiarity with the issue, and invited the voter to provide his UFO information to the Representative’s staff for his later review.

The Representative did not discuss COVID vaccines; for a Republican facing what was undoubtedly a vaccine-skeptical crowd, undoubtedly the wisest political course.  There was nary a question about the Capitol riot or foreign policy; unfortunately, when surrounded by Wisconsin cornfields, it is easy to overlook that threats to our system of government presented by seditionists and malign foreign powers are, like objects in a vehicle’s side mirror, closer than they appear.

There is a book report feeling to this note, but the town hall was a new lesson in American democracy for this citizen. In a phrase most closely associated with the late former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., “All politics is local.”  I suspect a town hall conducted by a Democratic Representative would offer similar doses of manipulation and pandering.  While there was a sense of dignity to it, of Norman Rockwell, at the same time the session made one wonder whether the man in the well-known Rockwell town hall drawing was rising to ask whether the road in front of his farm really needed to be expanded from one to two lanes; and how a nation can proceed when so many of its citizens are too determined to largely denounce its past, while as many others are too determined to tenaciously cling to it.

Rage Surfing

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, March 31, 2016:

“I bring rage out.  I do bring rage out.  I always have.  I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”

  • Rage, Bob Woodward, 2020

It is clear that former President Trump is authentically enraged.  Throughout his public life and perhaps throughout his entire life he has genuinely felt disrespected, and what he considers rightly his to have been unfairly taken from him.  It doesn’t matter, in this context, whether such feelings are reasonable; they are sincere.  It enabled him to give voice to a large swath of Americans stung by the scorn of elites who feel that what makes sense to them, what seems fair and right to them, what should be theirs, has been robbed from them by those with ways foreign to them.  Some of their anger (certainly their resentment at the disdain of the elites) – if not Mr. Trump’s — is justified.  That said, our national fabric seems to be wearing dangerously thin because these — even if in many instances, their plight has resulted from an intentional or oblivious failure to adapt to an evolving world — consider themselves to have been dispossessed.  They are … Enraged.

I fear that we are at a perilous point in this country.  I would submit that while Mr. Trump made the rage socially acceptable, displayed a unique ability to exploit and exacerbate it, and for a while was arguably able to manage it, neither he nor anyone else any longer controls it.  One frequently hears commentators opine that if Mr. Trump would admit the truth about this or that, more aggressively tout COVID vaccines, etc., etc., our social conditions in various areas would improve.  I disagree.  Mr. Trump now appears to me more than a bit spent; he seems to be struggling to maintain his position as titular head of the Enraged to whom he gave license (I recently saw them referred to as, “Trumplicans” – an apt moniker.  I intend to use it.)  The former president is renowned for his ability to “read a room”; I suspect that he realizes that his influence is waning better than bootlicking Republican officials or the talking heads do.  Although he can justifiably claim credit for the development of life-saving COVID vaccines during his presidency, he gives at most tepid support to inoculation efforts because he fears losing the support of the anti-vaxxers.  He’s no longer leading the Enraged; he’s trying to stay in step with them.  Objective observers can appropriately decry Fox News’ despicable failure to accurately cover the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Capitol riot, the Coronavirus, and the value of the COVID vaccines; however, when Fox reports a fact that the Enraged don’t like – for example, (accurately) calling Arizona for President Joe Biden on election night – the Enraged don’t believe Fox but instead abandon it for outlets that will tell them what they want to hear.  The majority of Republican officials can be rightly castigated for spinning fabrications that they for the most part must recognize to be poppycock; I would venture that they, manifestly more desirous of retaining power than abiding by their oaths of office, realize that if they tell the truth, the Enraged will simply replace them with others who will support their reality.  Driving through the middle of Wisconsin this past weekend – six months after President Joe Biden’s inauguration — I saw a huge Trump banner flying above a peaceful corn field.  It used to be that a losing presidential candidate’s banners were quickly dismantled by his disappointed supporters.  Trumplicans are not only enraged … they are defiant

We have always had, and will always have, fringe elements.  What appears alarmingly clear is that at least at this point, a disconcertingly significant segment of our electorate will not accept truth.   One need merely note that 60 judges and innumerable state election officials, many of them Republican, found no merit in Mr. Trump’s electoral challenges in order to understand that he lost the election.  One need merely note the correlation between states’ vaccination rates and where COVID is again raging in order to recognize the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.  One need merely believe one’s own eyes in order to acknowledge that there was a seditious and murderous attack on our Capitol on January 6 undertaken by Mr. Trump’s supporters.  The Enraged are currently intentionally and wantonly choosing to ignore truth easily discerned.

Rather than leading a movement, I would submit that most of those courting Trumplicans are merely surfing the rage.  Some, such as U.S. WI Sen. Ron Johnson, U.S. FL Rep. Matt Gaetz, and U.S. GA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, are enthusiastically leaning into it (although I concede that these may be sufficiently unbalanced to actually believe what they are spouting).  Some, such as U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are shamelessly attempting to stay atop it to further their own ambition.  Some, such as Fox News, and, ironically, Mr. Trump himself, are attempting to stay sufficiently abreast of it to maintain their relevance.  Still others, such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are attempting to simply ride it out.

Rather a distressing picture.  That said, a leaderless cult is more easily divided and quieted; if Mr. Trump’s influence is indeed dissipating, as yet no demagogue combining his rage and animal magnetism has appeared to seize his mantle.  We can only hope that enough of the Enraged can be cajoled into accepting truth soon enough for us to maintain a viable democracy.

On the Catholic Bishops’ Vote and the Unsolvable Dilemma

As all who care are aware, last month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted by a large margin to – in the USCCB’s own words – “… task [its] Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”  In the Catholic faith, under the doctrine of “Transubstantiation,” the whole substance of bread and wine are changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus (the “Eucharist” or “Communion”) when consecrated by the priest during the Mass.  The words describing the Doctrine Committee’s assignment, innocuous in and of themselves, were widely interpreted as an initiative by conservative Catholic bishops to issue a statement disfavoring the provision of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians such as President Joe Biden.  The USCCB’s action stirred immediate and intense controversy, and apparently caused the body to issue a qualification that “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.”  Even so, American Bishops’ overwhelming support for creating a document which might at least impliedly cast disapprobation upon pro-choice Catholic politicians underscores the marked rift between Catholic liberals and conservatives that has developed in the U.S. Catholic Church.

That life begins at conception is one of the core tenets of the Christian faith.  Even the fiercest pro-choice advocates will presumably acknowledge that if one accepts the premise that the fetus is indeed a person, the conclusion that abortion is murder is inescapable. No one can deny the emotional force, the hope, the prayer that drives a couple yearning to have a child and the joy that accompanies their earliest awareness that a baby is in the mother’s womb; it makes one wonder why the Almighty grants conception to some who have no wish for it, while withholding the blessing from others so desperately seeking it.

I nonetheless find the seeming thrust of USCCB’s initiative deeply troubling both as a Catholic, and as an American.  From a personal standpoint, I, like the President, have been a practicing Catholic my entire life.  I, and I assume the President, believe that life begins at conception.  My spouse and I, and I assume the President and Mrs. Biden, would not have aborted a fetus.  It accordingly appears to me that despite the fact that I have tried for close to seven decades – while admittedly frequently failing — to be a faithful Catholic, any disapprobation that the majority of American Catholic officialdom may, even by implication, level at Mr. Biden is also directed at me, given my support for his candidacy against a materialist with notable fascist tendencies who, notwithstanding his purported “pro-life” stance, enthusiastically incites false and hateful discord among our people and intentionally implemented demonstrably inhumane border policies while in office.

I will always believe that the best way forward for our nation is through accommodation of competing positions held in good faith (i.e., not espoused for political or other self-interest).  Abortion is the one issue that seems to me by its very nature to defy compromise between Americans sincerely holding conflicting views. That said, I would submit that Christians’ belief that life begins at conception — no matter how fervently held — is, inherently, no more (or less) than a matter of Faith.  Many scientists reject the notion that the few cells existing upon and for a period following conception constitute “life.”  I claim no expertise in other religions, but understand that neither Jewish nor Islamic scholars consider life to begin at conception, and that these Faiths do not prohibit abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.  There are certainly millions of Americans of other or no faiths who reject the notion that life obtains either at conception or for a period thereafter.  Justice Harry Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade, observed, “It is undisputed [i.e., even those defending the Texas criminal abortion statutes at issue in Roe conceded] that, at common law, abortion performed before ‘quickening’ – the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy – was not an indictable offense. …  In this country, the law in effect in all but a few States until mid-19th century was the preexisting English common law.”  [Note to the Originalists now sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court.  ;)].  Notwithstanding more recent holdings arguably designed to limit abortion rights, the Supreme Court held in Roe and has maintained since that a woman has the constitutional right to abort a fetus.  It is Mr. Biden’s duty as President to protect women’s constitutional rights as defined by the Supreme Court and to not impose his personal faith beliefs on the American people – the majority of whom, if polls are to be believed, favor women’s right to early term abortions. 

Despite its backtrack, there is no little irony in the USCCB’s apparent intent to pressure Mr. Biden, given the reassurance that then-Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. MA Sen. John F. Kennedy delivered in September, 1960, to a conference of Protestant Ministers fearful of the influence that the Vatican might seek to assert on a Catholic president:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no … minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote …  I believe in an America … where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials …. I want a chief executive … whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. … Whatever issue may come before me as president … I will make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

One of our children remarked to me recently that while our family was being raised, there was much greater emphasis in our household on our Catholic faith than there was on our identity as American citizens.  Despite my many failings, I hopefully still place much greater weight on what I believe the Almighty expects of me than I do upon my responsibilities as an American.  Even so, I have not been able to avoid the conclusion that in a diverse secular civil society pledged to separate the affairs of church and state, I should accept the fact that my religious beliefs regarding abortion are not shared by a substantial segment of my fellow citizens.  I accordingly cannot make the abortion issue my overriding civic focus. I fear that any attempts by American Catholic hierarchy to impose its views upon the nation generally will ultimately severely undermine the Church’s mission in the United States. 

Although Mr. Kennedy’s words obviously no longer resonate with U.S. Catholic officialdom, I would venture that the following passage offers ample ground for reflection – perhaps providing solace, perhaps evoking despair — for an American Catholic who seeks in good conscience to differentiate between faith and civic responsibilities:

[Then the Pharisees said,] ‘Tell us, then, what is your opinion:  Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?’  … Jesus said, ‘… Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’  Then they handed him the Roman coin.  He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’  They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’  At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’

Mt. 22: 17 – 21

On Lowering Your Hands

As one’s time in retirement extends, more and more friends retire; how one best approaches retirement is a topic that comes up from time to time.  This seems a suitable time for this note, since for the vast majority of my life, mid-summer meant … baseball.

In the fall of 1967, three teams were locked in a tight race for the American League pennant:  the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox.  Boston wasn’t intimidating across the board, but where it was stong, its quality was superior:  Starting Pitcher Jim Lonborg, and most importantly, unquestionably the world’s best baseball player that year:  Leftfielder Carl Yastrzemski, then 28 (hereinafter, not “Mr. Yastrzemski,” but merely, “Yaz”).  After finishing ninth in a 10-team circuit the preceding season, the Red Sox bested the Twins and the Tigers to win the pennant by a single game (before the current playoff era) primarily because Yaz seemingly hit a home run to win a game in the late innings every day down the stretch.  I have the warmest memories of the Brewers’ Robin Yount’s 1982 MVP season, and concede that my knowledge of baseball deeds is dated, but I can’t name any player who so single-handedly brought his team a pennant as Yaz did in 1967.  He was the season’s American League Most Valuable Player and posted the last Triple Crown (combining the League’s highest Batting Average, Home Run and Runs Batted In totals) Major League Baseball would see … for 45 years.

A left-handed hitter, Yaz had a distinctive batting stance (for those more attuned to the current era, a stance somewhat similar to the Brewers’ recently-retired Ryan Braun):  he would stand in the batter’s box grasping the bat with hands held highhelmet-or-higher high – and from that position, without the assistance of steroids, would bring the bat through the strike zone with unnerving velocity to spray hits across the field and over the fence.  Think about the reflexes required to bring a bat through the strike zone from that high against a 90+-mile-an-hour fastball.  And even in those days, baseball had great fireballers – the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, Sandy Koufax, had just retired, and Bob Gibson, he of the mean heater, was in his prime.  [In those days, no statisticians were documenting pitch speed with radar guns   ;)].

The Red Sox lost the World Series in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals, although Yaz hit .400 with 3 home runs and 5 RBI.

Although he never again had – nor for decades, did anyone else have – as mighty a single season as he did in 1967, Yaz remained a force for pitchers to reckon with until he retired in 1983.  Even so, as the seasons passed, his batting stance changed; he kept lowering his hands.  When asked about it, he was candid:  his reflexes were slowing.  He kept lowering the bat to a position from which he could still react and get the bat through the hitting zone against baseball’s best.  He had become more selective about the pitches he went after.  Had he continued with his 1967 approach, he would not have been around to contribute to another decade and a half’s worth of Red Sox teams. 

We seniors are overwhelmed by a blizzard of data and opinion about how to “age gracefully.”  Some of the commentary is helpful, some not.  I would submit that one could do worse than to follow Yaz’s example:  be selective about where you devote your energy; and from time to time assess when, and by how much, you need to lower your hands to stay in the game. 

A Couple of Postscripts

In a post a while back assessing President Joe Biden’s performance during his first 100 days in office, I awarded him an A+ for his Administration’s efforts against the Coronavirus, indicating that it had consistently under promised and over delivered.  The Administration recently announced that it will not meet its goal of getting 70% of adults at least partly vaccinated by July 4.  I stand by my grade, and think any open-minded American will agree.  The Administration’s failure to meet its goal arises from the lethargy and obstinacy of too many Americans.  As my mother used to say:  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

In a note last week on Infrastructure, I opined that Republican Senators working on a bipartisan infrastructure bill would be unable to muster support for their effort among 10 members of their caucus – the threshold to avoid a Senate filibuster.  While remaining mindful of another of my mother’s sayings – “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” — and despite my suspicion that the Progressives apparently outraged by the compromise could be as intransigent as the Republican Freedom Caucus has been in the past, there is at the time this is posted at least the prospect of passage of a bipartisan bill allocating sums to refurbish our infrastructure that will exceed all such predecessor laws. If such a measure does become law, it will in our toxic political environment be a notable and heartening achievement by the bipartisan Senate group, Mr. Biden, and his team.  Hopefully, the doubts I expressed in my infrastructure post about the bipartisan group’s ability to get legislation enacted will prove to be woefully wrong-headed. 

On Infrastructure and the Art of the Possible: a Correction

A good friend kindly pointed out to me that I incorrectly indicated in this post that the infrastructure proposal currently being put forth by the bipartisan Senate group including U.S. WV Sen. Joe Manchin and U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney is valued at approximately $IB ($billion), when the package is in fact valued at approximately $1T ($trillion).  I appreciate his calling my attention to the oversight; apparently it is true, as apocryphally attributed to the late U.S. IL Sen. Everett Dirksen (whose gravelly voice I fondly remember from my youth):  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”  😉