Pull Your Damn Pants Up

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy

Rating: 3 Stars

With Trump’s election, this has been one of the books that has been held up as some kind of attempt to explain it. It is a kind of strange combination of memoir and social analysis.

As a memoir (even if it is the memoir of a 31 year old man), it is extremely moving. It provides a microscopic view of a sub-culture in America that does not usually reveal itself for inspection.

J.D. Vance was born a through and through Kentucky hillbilly (he calls himself that). He’s actually from something approaching hillbilly royalty. On his father’s side, he is a distant relation to Jim Vance, who was one of the key leaders of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (on the Hatfield side). On his mother’s side, his grandmother was legendary as one of the toughest hillbillies around.

He actually lived most of his childhood in Middleton, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Jackson, Kentucky.

He learned the ways of the Scots-Irish from his very earliest days. In the early days of the republic, the Scots-Irish were known to be fighters. You can read narratives from the 19th century where fights in the Appalachian region would regularly lead to eyes being gouged out and ears being torn off.

Even now, any apparent insult to honor leads to brutality. Once someone insulted the mother of one of his relatives. That relative beat the man senseless and then cut him up with a power saw, nearly killing him. Not even arrested, he was instead respected for defending the sacred honor of his mother. In his early days, Vance learns this lesson well.

He had, to say the least, a troubled childhood. His mom was off and on addicted to drugs. Even when not addicted, she clearly had mental issues that included suicide attempts and at least one time when Vance thought she was going to kill him. She was married (I think) five times and took up with numerous other men, many of whom tried to act as some kind of paternal figure to him. At one time, he tried to count the number of siblings (step and half) that he had and figured it was over a dozen.

His life was almost undoubtedly going to end up like those that he knew growing up. There would have been drugs, multiple children with multiple women, jail, unemployment, and just a general sense of defeat.

His saving grace was his grandmother and grandfather, Mamaw and Papaw. Although they themselves were uneducated hill people, they understood the importance of education and wanted Vance to escape his upbringing.

After many difficulties with his mom, he ended up living pretty much permanently with Mamaw.  The three years or so that he lived with Mamaw would constitute the longest consistent stretch that he lived throughout his childhood.

After graduating from high school, desiring to attend college but knowing that he wasn’t ready, he joined the Marine Corps. There, he was taught the basic lessons of life (how to get a loan, how to balance a check book) that he never learned. After he was discharged from the Marines, with his new found life skills and iron discipline, he went to Ohio State and ultimately got a law degree from Yale. He considers him a conservative and now works at a venture capital firm that was founded by Peter Theil.

Now, from his perch among the elite, he tries to look back to piece together the path that led him there and whether any lessons can be applied to the Appalachian culture itself.

Considering his background and the obvious deep caring that he has for the people, his opinions must carry weight. He acknowledges the impact that the overall joblessness, loss of manufacturing, and addiction has had on his community.

He also says that choices matter. You can choose not to have three children with three different women. You can choose to work an eight hour day and consistently show up on time every day. You can choose not to take heroin or prescription opioids. You can choose not to give your six month old child Mountain Dew in its bottle.

Those are all fair points. The question that must be asked is, why do people make those choices? When he says those things, he kind of sounds like Bill Cosby telling black kids that they need to pull their damn pants up. He sounds like one of my friends, who says that the problem is not racism but black culture.

OK, but from where does the roots of black culture rise if not from systemic racism? And from where does the roots of Appalachian culture rise if not from centuries of oppression? I recently read about this in White Trash. Quite literally from when settlers first landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, there was a need for what was then called ‘Waste People’. These were people who came over to be worked to death. There was no American dream for them. There was no education for them. There was toil and misery and an early death.

For a personal description of why smart people make poor decisions, I strongly recommend that you read “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America”. It’s a first hand story of Linda Tirado and her struggle to emerge out of poverty and the seemingly poor decisions that she made along the way.

Work ethic and good decisions can lift someone out of poverty. Until we acknowledge that our country has not equipped tens of millions of people with the tools to allow them to make good choices, it seems unfair to condemn them for there lack thereof.

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A True Corporate Slave

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Title: Underground Airlines

Rating: 4 Stars

This is an action / mystery wrapped up inside of a counterfactual.

Winters re-imagines a world in which slavery still exists in the United States. This is an interesting challenge because, at its core, it’s pretty tough to imagine a realistic scenario in which this could be true. How do you conjure a reality in which the South does not see the election of Abraham Lincoln as an attack upon their cherished institution and immediately start to secede? How do you erase the enormous material and manpower advantage that the North had over the South? How do you resolve the implacable will that Abraham Lincoln had to keep the South from tearing the union asunder?

In a previous counterfactual fiction (The Guns of the South) that I read many years ago, Harry Turtledove actually resorted to having apartheid South Africa invent a time machine and give the rebels AK-47’s and ammunition from the future. Armed with firepower that far exceeded the unionists, the rebels successfully gain their freedom. The South Africans hopes to have a Confederacy that would align with their values in the future is ultimately thwarted.

In Winter’s counterfactual, there is no such chicanery. Lincoln is almost immediately assassinated after elected. A shocked nation hurriedly comes to a compromise consensus that allows the South to continue its slavery practices but constrains it from growing. Thus the Civil War is avoided.

Now in present day, slavery is still an institution. Over time, slavery has disappeared in most states. In fact, it now exists only in four states, the so called Hard Four. However, the United States has paid a price for this. It’s now universally considered a pariah nation due to its continuing slavery. Export and imports have largely dried up due to international boycotts. Americans can only get inferior products from countries like Pakistan and South Africa. Just recently, a ten year war with Texas had been fought to a standstill due to that state’s disgust with slavery. Even in the North, blacks suffer severe racism. America is an economically and spiritually bleak country.

In this milieu is Victor. Victor is an escaped slave from the Hard Four that was later captured and was forced to become a slave catcher. It’s now his job to track down the slaves that have escaped the Hard Four so that the government can capture them and ship them back down to where the slave escaped from. Victor is very good at the job but is clearly tortured by it.

He’s in Indianapolis to track down a slave named Jackdaw. What seems at first to be a fairly simple case fairly quickly becomes something else. Ultimately, Victor must go back down to the Hard Four himself, exposing himself to much danger but possibly having a chance to truly earn his freedom.

I thought that Winters did a fine job here. I was more impressed with the counterfactual aspect of his work. What would a United States look like in the year 2017 if slavery was still legal? What compromises would the people up North make to allow themselves to sleep at night (like having Clean Hands statutes (eg like organic) to keep goods coming in from the Hard Four)? How would the modern day abolitionists act? In the corporate world of the twenty-first century, how would slavery actually manifest itself? Winters makes a credible attempt to address such questions.

This is reminiscent of Winters’ other work that I’m familiar with, The Last Policeman trilogy. In those novels, a policeman is still trying to do his job as the world is coming to an end (literally; scientists have discovered that an asteroid is heading towards the planet and there is nothing that they can do about it).

In both cases, you have a situation where you have someone trying to do his job (either a policeman or what is effectively a bounty hunter) in an unimaginable situation that they essentially have no control over. The two characters are both competent at their job and doggedly are trying to do it, even as the world itself seems to be collapsing around them.

Also, in both cases, I found the setting that the plot takes place in more interesting than the plot itself. This just might be the way of Winters’ writing. He just might natively be better at conjuring up interesting world views than the actual execution of the narrative.

Regardless, I found Underground Airlines to be both engaging and thought provoking.

Museum For The Second Oldest Profession

Continuing my adventures in D.C., I went to the International Spy Museum. I had very low expectations. Like the wax museum, I thought it would be this very cheesy thing primarily directed towards children. When I saw that their special exhibit was 50 years of Bond villains, my hopes were not exactly raised.

It did not start out well. There had some kind of scavenger hunt game that they handed out to the children, so they were running around trying to find all of the items. It starts off where you’re supposed to memorize your cover identity so that you can pass through customs.

Luckily, that kind of stuff immediately faded away and it then became much more of a traditional museum.

They did have some interesting spy relics. They had a bunch of miniature cameras that could be concealed. There was a camera that was disguised as a cigarette case. There was a camera that was disguised as a suit button. There was even a camera that was disguised as a camera case.

Similarly, they had interesting concealed weapons. There was a weapon in an umbrella. There was a gun disguised as a cigarette case (again! spies must really do smoke a lot). There was a collar that was actually a knife. Note that these aren’t toys. These are actually real items that were donated to the museum that were at least theoretically for field use.

There were other items as well of interest. There was a tool kit that could be collapsed into a tube, which was then inserted into your rectum. There was a pair of glasses that had a cyanide pill embedded in one of its arms. As you were interrogated, you could remove your glasses and innocently chew on your glasses as if you were thinking and give yourself a fatal dose.

They also had a special section on Bletchley Park, which included an actual enigma machine.

As I’ve discovered in my tour of the museums, the things that mean the most to me are the objects that have a personal touch to them.

For example, the biggest mole in CIA history is Aldrich Ames. His story is somewhat absurd. A known alcoholic who suddenly can buy houses with cash, drive Jaguars, and wear tailored suits was still able to spy for years. Whenever he had information that he wanted to pass on to his Soviet handler, he’d mark a post office mailbox with a piece of chalk. Well, that mailbox is at the museum.

They have a letter written and signed by Mata Hari.

They have a letter signed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. That name might not mean much to you, but he was the person that formed the Cheka special police force. This was the original Soviet secret police that led to the NKVD, which led to the KGB, which in turn led to the current FSB. When you think of the diabolical reputation of the Soviet/Russian secret police, a big debt of thanks can be laid at his doorstep.

Finally, the coolest thing of all. I’ve written about him several times before. He is almost without question the greatest / most famous double agent of the twentieth century. Of course I’m talking about Kim Philby. I’ve nominated him for person of the century (you can read about my reasons here). The museum has Philby’s hat, shaving kit, pipe, and flask. Considering the fact that, like apparently most spies, Philby was a raging alcoholic, I’m guessing that the flask got a good workout.

The Philby paraphernalia alone was worth the price of admission (and yes, it’s not a Smithsonian, so there is a price to be paid).

Taking A Selfie With Millard Fillmore

After all of the heavy historical lifting that I’ve been doing over the past several days in D.C. (going to museums, going to monuments, going to memorials), I decided to try some lighter fare.

The lightest that I could find was Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Yep, a wax museum. I hadn’t been to one in over ten years at least. It’s fair to say that I came in with pretty low expectations.

And yes, it was pretty cheesy, but it was also a lot of fun. You have to keep in mind that I’m a president geek, and it starts off with a series of vignettes with each president, in succession order. This fact alone made the museum pretty wonderful to me and I ended up barely paying any attention at all to its other parts. Why would I want to spend any time with George Clooney or Taylor Swift when I can cosy up to Rutherford Hayes??

The fact that you can cosy up is one the charms of this particular museum. There are no velvet ropes here. There are no glass cases. There are no museum guards tsk-tsking you if you get too close. In most cases, the figure is just standing there. You can walk up to them and get as close as you want.

I’m thinking that they tried fairly hard to match the wax figures to the size and shape of the actual historical personage. Sure enough, I towered over the wee little fellow, James Madison. Historically, most presidents actually average somewhere around six feet and yes, most of them were taller than me.

Probably for obvious reasons, the presidents that we know only from paintings or from photographs are the ones that look most lifelike. Once you get to Nixon and after, the resemblance between the actual figure and the wax figure begins to fade because you have witnessed how they move in real life and the wax figures look just a bit off.

Although interestingly enough, they do have a wax figure of Nancy Reagan, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t look exactly like her. I’m guessing that this probably says something about the basic artificiality of her appearance in real life. On the other hand, the Hillary Clinton figure was laughably bad to an almost unrecognizable extent.

Some of the presidents were sitting down. I think the idea is that you could sit next to them and have your picture taken in a seemingly more informal setting. Fair enough. However, they had Abraham Lincoln sitting in what appeared to be a playhouse box. The box was covered in presidential bunting and the seats were old-fashioned red upholstered. I’d just been to Ford’s Theater (it’s just around the corner) and in fact, it looked startlingly like the booth at Ford’s. Was it really the intention that you were supposed to take a picture of yourself with Lincoln at the setting in which he was assassinated? I didn’t see a derringer that you could use as a prop to really make your photo pop. If you came with a friend, one of you could play Henry Rathbone (I told you I was a geek, look him up, it ends well for him!).

I was amused by the fact that Franklin Pierce’s haircut almost looks like Tim Burton’s. Eisenhower and Grant were both in their military uniforms (I can’t remember now, but I think Washington was as well). Interestingly enough, Zachary Taylor, who was also swept into office due to his military prowess in the Mexican American War (Old Rough and Ready!) was not. Clearly an oversight of epic proportions.

I particularly liked standing next to the little known presidents, the Franklin Pierce’s, the Rutherford Hayes’, the Chester Arthur’s. You see the famous presidents regularly; I liked that even the nonentity presidents got to have their own little moment in the sun.

And oh yeah, there were also some celebrities, but who the fuck cares?

Aside From That, How Was The Play?

I went to Ford’s Theater last time that I was in DC. This was somewhere between fifteen to twenty years ago. When I went last time, it was pretty low tech. They had a very simple (just a couple of display cases, IIRC) in the basement and then you pretty much could wander around the theater. It was really eerie to me to stand near the front of the theater and look up at the box where Lincoln was assassinated. In my mind, it seems like such a huge event that the actual modest setting of the play house seemed incongruent. I was able to take the actual path that Booth took to get behind the box. I was literally able to stand in the exact spot that Booth stood when he shot Lincoln. It sent chills down my spine to imagine myself living in that moment. It was one of the highlights of that trip to DC.

Now, many years have passed. Since then, clearly Ford’s has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation and it definitely shows. The somewhat simple basement museum is now a state of the art examination of Lincoln’s election and term in office. It is definitely a professional quality exhibit, and the increased attendance shows it. Last time, I was able to wander around somewhat freely with very little interference from other patrons. Now, there are scheduled viewings with a couple of hundred people admitted at a time.  The basement is thronged, with a crush of people struggling to get a selfie with Booth’s derringer.

The playhouse itself is now much more roped off. You can still view Lincoln’s box from the front part of the theater, but you are now no longer able to get as close to the box as I once did.

Last time I visited, I also went to the Petersen House. This is where they took Lincoln after he was shot and where ultimately he was declared dead. Again, it was eerie to stand and look into the room, imagining the scene with Lincoln’s prostrate body, Mary Lincoln inconsolable, and Edwin Stanton frantically trying to keep the Union together, catch Lincoln’s killer, and deal with his own grief.

This time, when I left Ford’s Theater, I looked over at the Petersen House and there was already fifty people standing in line waiting to enter. I didn’t bother.

The problem for me is that I already know about the Lincoln presidency. The basement exhibits, although professionally done, added nothing to my knowledge. The magic of Ford’s Theater isn’t the Lincoln presidency but the tragedy of the assassination and the echoes that it stirs in people when they come into close proximity to such a historically significant event.

I’m sure that this has resulted in much more revenue for Ford’s, and they are welcome to it. For me personally, the updates were a pretty serious disappointment.

Scraps of Paper

Like yesterday’s post, this is going to be another list of things. I’m sorry about that. It just blows my mind how much history is on display at your fingertips in Washington D.C.

Today I went to the National Archives. Most people go there to see the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They’re all there, and I was suitably awed to be in their presence. I was last in D.C. over fifteen years ago, and it appears to me that the Declaration of Independence has deteriorated even more since I last saw it. Virtually none of the letters or signatures are readable on it anymore. Granted, it’s kept in such low light that it’s hard to read anyway, but still, it’s kind of sad that such a historically vital document will inevitably weather away.

I do have a comment regarding the fact that, for a big chunk of the other documents, they display facsimiles instead of the original document. I totally get why this has to be done. Over time, light does bad thing to ink on paper. Still, it does take away from the magic, that no matter how realistic it is, in most cases you’re looking at a copy. Now you can console yourself with the knowledge that somewhere in the building is the original, but still some of the power is lost knowing that it is a facsimile.

But still, the unimaginable array of documents that they have is absolutely mind blowing. I wrote yesterday about how objects inspire in me a sense of historical connectedness. Viewing the original source documents, especially those written, read, or signed by historically significant people, sends chills down my spine.

OK, here’s some of the things that I saw:

  • Rosa Parks arrest report
  • The Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending segregation (with that well meaning but horribly abused phrase) “with all deliberate speed”
  • The handwritten petition that Clarence Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court that ultimately resulted in the right to counsel
  • A note that the 14 year old Fidel Castro wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him for $10 (WTF??!! Seriously?)
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
  • A 1777 draft notice from the Revolutionary War
  • A letter from Reagan to Gorbachev
  • JFK’s notes during the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Al Capone’s guilty jury verdict

This is the kind of stuff that blows my mind.

Way back in 1800, the Democratic-Republican party ticket of Thomas Jefferson / Aaron Burr had pretty clearly beaten the Federalist ticket headed by John Adams. In those days, each elector had two votes and the top two vote recipients became President and Vice President.

Well in a cluster fuck of epic proportions, the Democratic-Republican electors did not throw away one of their votes so that Jefferson could win the tally. Instead they all voted both for Jefferson and Burr. They both ended up with 73 votes. No winner. A tie.

With no winner, that sends the vote to the House of Representatives to decide. Two problems crop up.

One problem is Aaron Burr. Everyone knew that the plan was for Jefferson to be President and Burr to be Vice President. However, Burr is, to put it mildly, one of the more interesting politicians that no one really talks about anymore. He later allegedly tried to procure a major chunk of South-Eastern territory from Spain to set up an independent state led by himself. Here, he sees the chance to steal the presidency from Jefferson, so he quietly sits back and sees how it will all play out.

The other problem is that even though the Democratic-Republicans have won decisively in the House elections, it’s actually the sitting House that conducts the vote. The sitting House is not only majority Federalist, but as a party they pretty much hate Jefferson, so this might be a good time to give a big fuck you to him by denying him the presidency (not to mention the fact that some of them legitimately feared that a Jefferson presidency could turn into some kind of Jacobin revolution).

The house casts many ballots over several days. Jefferson gets close but keeps falling just short. Here the plot thickens. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are both aggressive, ambitious politicians from New York and they detest each other. So, even though Hamilton is a Federalist and himself has had many clashes with Jefferson, his hatred of Burr is stronger than his fear of a Jefferson presidency. Behind the scenes he does just enough political magic that finally allows Jefferson to squeak through and gain the presidency.

From that cluster fuck, there was general recognition that perhaps the electoral college voting process has not yet been optimized. In fact, before the next presidential election, an amendment is proposed, voted on by Congress, and approved by the requisite number of states to have the electors separately vote for President and Vice President.

As can be imagined, this did not do great things for the already battered relationship between Burr and Hamilton. It would deteriorate even further when Hamilton thwarted Burr’s bid to become governor of New York. Ultimately, their fates would be forever intertwined in the interview at Weehawken.

Why did I go into all of this detail? Well, at the National Archives, on display, is the original hand-scrawled electoral college count of 1800, showing both Jefferson and Burr at 73 votes.

Just seeing that scrap of paper filled my brain with all that I just wrote about. Having such thoughts flood my brain is the reason why I planned a vacation to D.C. and it has exceeded all of my expectations.

Relics From a Secular Religion

Being a history geek, while I was in Washington D.C., probably my number one priority was to go to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

There is just something about having an artifact that is associated with a historical figure that moves something in me. I’m not sure, maybe it’s the equivalent motivation that leads medieval Catholic churches to showcase their, what to a modern, areligious point of view, seems to be silly, relics. You know what I mean. It’s the right knuckle of St Stephen, the big toe of St Christopher, one of many slivers of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

Somehow, beholding something that you know that this distant historical figure once owned or used gives that object special feeling, as if you can somehow reach across the centuries and commune with that person through the object.

I remember, many years ago, I was in Rome. I was wandering around the Roman Forum, somewhat lost, not really appreciating what I was experiencing. Out of nowhere, a young man walked up to me and said that he was doing a free tour (he was starting up some kind of new business and was just trying to generate word of mouth business and hopefully generate some tips in so doing). Well, he brought the Forum alive to me. Where before I was just wandering around in a desultory manner, he pointed to objects and explained them. It was amazing and ended up being one of the highlights of my trip to Rome. The main point that he made was that the stones that we were walking upon were literally the original stones. That is to say, that we were walking on the very stones that once upon a time, Julius Caesar also once walked upon. For whatever reason, that blew my mind and somehow made the past and the present collide in some way that made my mind reel.

The Smithsonian American History museum is chock full of such artifacts. Inside its walls are a nearly endless bounty of relics that allow you to commune with the history of our relatively young country.

Relics that I came to worship include:

  • Muhammad Ali’s gloves
  • Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick
  • Pikes used during John Brown’s raid
  • The actual fucking penicillin mold that Alexander Fleming grew and gave to America (seriously, WTF!?)
  • Clothing that Harriet Tubman wore
  • Uniform and swords for both George Washington and Andrew Jackson
  • George Washington’s mess kit (including his camp stool)
  • Sam Houston’s rifle
  • Grant’s official promotion from Major General to Lieutenant General, signed by Edwin Stanton AND Abraham Lincoln
  • The top hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre
  • The chaps that Theodore Roosevelt wore when he was a cowboy out west
  • William Tecumseh Sherman’s much abused hat that he wore on his march to Atlanta
  • Bill Clinton’s nuclear football
  • Tongs made by Paul Revere
  • Light bulb made by Edison laboratories
  • One of Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephones
  •  The desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence
  • The compass William Clark used on the Lewis and Clark expedition

You get the point, right? This is pretty amazing stuff that, if you’re a history geek, just automatically transports you back through time.

There are two things that transported me, but in a negative kind of way.

First of all, they have FDR’s original order (at least the first page is original, apparently the other two pages are copies) to intern American citizens of Japanese descent. This is one of the darkest, most paranoid periods of American history. Especially for FDR, with all of his New Deal politics of lifting the everyman out of hopelessness, this is darkness. To automatically assume that an American citizen, because he has a different color skin, must be considered suspect is disgusting. And then to hear about all of the Japanese young men volunteering to fight, even knowing that they will face racism and knowing that their families have been imprisoned by their government makes it all the more horrifying. Seeing the original order signed by FDR brought me back to this dark part of American history.

Another artifact had meaning to me because it is more historically tangible to me. I was a pretty young man when Ronald Reagan was elected. Sometime, I think it was in the middle of his second term, I read David Stockman’s book, The Triumph of Politics.

For those that don’t know, Ronald Reagan was the first president that really believed in supply side economics. This was the trickle down economics that he was so famous for.  David Stockman was one of the original believers in the theory.

The way that the theory goes is that if you tax a very wealthy person at a 100% effective tax rate, then that person would no longer work because he’d have no incentive to work. Therefore, his potential earning would be worthless because he’d choose not to earn them. Fair enough. Similarly, if you taxed a wealthy person at 90%, then he’d work some, but not a lot because, again, it’s not really in his benefit to do so.

So, the theory goes, if you tax a wealthy person lightly, then that person would work more and would put his wealth to full use, which in turn would employ more people, who in turn would get taxed and ultimately there would be a net increase in taxes.

Therefore, paradoxically, by taxing wealthy people relatively lightly, the government would end up with more tax revenue.

It’s a great theory. Unfortunately, it’s absolute bullshit. Reagan tried it but deficits exploded. George H.W. Bush (and later Clinton) made a deal to raise taxes, (for which Bush probably paid for it with his presidency) and by the end of Clinton’s term, the government was running a surplus. George W. Bush tried it again and deficits went out of control again. Obama came in, raised some taxes (on the rich!) and by the end of his eight years had cut the deficit in half.

Empirically speaking, it simply does not work.

And how did this madness even start? Well, there’s an economist named Arthur Laffer. In a meeting with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (yes, those guys) in 1974, he described the theory to them and on a napkin, he drew what came to be called the Laffer curve (even though he admittedly did not invent it). It shows the relationship between levels of taxation and levels of tax revenue (which, to remind you, has empirically been determined to be bullshit).

This napkin served as the underpinnings for so-called Reaganomics and for the later George W Bush tax cuts.

At one time, believe it or not, the Republican party was known as the party of fiscal conservatism. The Democrats were the tax and spenders. A Republican president would need to be brought in to bring things back into control.

Now, as a result of this napkin, the Republicans are the party of the borrow and spenders. Dick Cheney has said that deficits don’t matter.

It can be argued that this napkin is one of the things that has left the American economy in a state of serious peril. It might be the thing that, 100 years from now, people might look back on and say that marked the beginning of the end of the Pax Americana.

And yes, believe it or not, that fucking napkin is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The Not So Sweet Science

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Title: The Murder of Sonny Liston

Rating: 4 Stars

A true crime story involving the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. He died in 1970 under very mysterious circumstances. He was dead for five days before his wife, who was visiting relatives, came home and found his body. His wife waited several hours before calling the police. He was a known drug user and drug paraphernalia was found near him, but he had a phobia about needles and would have never injected himself. The medical examiner ruled his death of natural causes. He claimed that Liston died of a rare heart condition that usually only affects women or diabetics, of which he was neither (and the coroner was new to his job and not an expert on heart diseases to boot).

All that is interesting, but is not really what the book is about. The probability of solving a 45 year old mystery is pretty slim, and, spoiler alert, the author does not solve it here.

What is interesting is the milieu in which Liston lived.

First of all, there’s his life story. He was born the son of a sharecropper, in a part of Arkansas that was so poor that birth certificates weren’t even required until the 1960’s. Therefore, he didn’t even know how old he was. He would give various answers when pressed. He finally settled on 1932, which would make him 38 when he died. He always seemed older than that and Assael claimed in the book that he was closer to 50. However, given the fact that he didn’t show up in the census in 1930 and in the 1940 census he shows up as being 10 years old, that claim seems not to hold merit (and was one of the reasons that I docked him a bit in the rating; if he got that wrong, what else did he fudge over?).

His father brutally beat him. His mother moved away to St Louis when Liston was 13, and he joined her shortly after. He tried to go to school but he was so far behind that he quit. He was essentially illiterate his entire life.

He fell in with criminals and committed muggings and robberies. He was eventually caught and sent to state prison. While in prison, he took up boxing and discovered he had a talent for it.

He was paroled and became a professional boxer. Since he was a large, intimidating black man, he was constantly harassed by police. One of the reasons that he probably ended up enjoying Las Vegas, his final home, was the fact that the Las Vegas police, themselves notoriously corrupt, protected him.

He defeated Floyd Patterson and then defeated him again in a rematch. Ultimately he lost to Muhammad Ali and then lost to him again in a fight widely believed to be fixed. In fact, there is a rumor that Liston struck a deal with the Nation of Islam to take a fall in exchange for a cut of Ali’s future earnings. At the point of his death in 1970, the first Frasier / Ali fight was being scheduled, with a multi-million dollar payout for both fighters. Liston was going around claiming that he was going to get a cut of that fight, although no evidence exists that such a deal was made.

Pretty much up to his death, he was still fighting or planning to fight. At his death, even if we assume his age of 38, he was still considered a top fighter.

One thing that was surprising to me was the life of boxers after boxing. Both Liston and Joe Louis, who is without a doubt considered to be one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time, were living in Las Vegas and were close friends. Both of them occasionally lent themselves out as enforcers to gamblers or drug dealers looking to collect money owed. It blows my mind to think of Joe Louis, a true legend, hanging out with a drug dealer, threatening deadbeats for probably some small fee.

Similarly, both Louis and Liston were addicted to heroin. In the months before his death, Liston began to take on the hollow, shaky appearance of a junky. Louis, if anything, was even worse off. He became paranoid and delusional, blocking off vents to keep radioactive waves from getting to him. You think of how fit boxers must be to be able to take/give out punishment, it seems shocking that they would become heroin addicts, especially since Liston was, at least until he got into a serious car accident shortly before his death, still shooting for another title shot.

Las Vegas was truly a seedy town in those days. The Las Vegas cops were on the take. The county cops were on the take. The casino owners and their employees (eg managers and dealers) were members of organized crime. Police would regularly arrest drug dealers, confiscate their drugs, and then sell the drugs to the casinos for them to give to their high rollers.

There was rampant racism where the black community was completely isolated to one part of the town and, if they dared cross it, they would either be arrested/assaulted by the police or attacked by the whites. Liston, only with his fame, was able to live in the white area.

Las Vegas was a cesspool of corruption. In this cesspool, Liston was not only taking drugs but also dealing them.

It’s within this context that his alleged murder took place. Who could have done it? There were any number of suspects. Was it the casino owner who was under investigation by the feds and was worried that Liston would roll over on him? Was it the ex-hero cop now turned criminal who was ordered to take him out? Was it the Nation of Islam ordering a hit to deprive Liston of future earnings? Was it the snitch who seemed to know everything but whose stories never quite added up?

Who knows? The author certainly doesn’t? Which is unfortunate, but not that surprising.

If you want a true crime noir with all of the grit and seediness, you can certainly do worse than reading about Liston’s troubled life.

Walking Through History

I spent my first day walking around Washington D.C. I spent pretty much all of my time around the National Mall area. I saw the following monuments / memorials:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • White House
  • Vietnam Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
  • Franklin Roosevelt Memorial
  • Korean War Memorial
  • WWI Memorial
  • WWII Memorial

That’s a lot! However, they are all pretty close together and they are memorials, not museums, so you don’t have to spend hours looking at exhibits or something like that.

A couple of things that I noticed:

WWI is sadly ignored. It’s basically just a little pavilion set up in a corner. Technically, it’s in commemoration from the city of D.C (not even a national memorial). I know that it was a long time ago, but over 100,000 Americans died in it (11 million total). I might have written about it a while ago, but WWI is the dividing point between the 19th century and the 20th century. France is physically, emotionally, and psychologically destroyed (as will soon be evident when the Nazis invade it). The Russian empire ceases to exist. The Ottoman empire ceases to exist. The Austria-Hungarian empire ceases to exist. The German empire ceases to exist. If the 20th century is the century of America (and really, who else?), then you’d think that the war that really set the stage for this emergence would get a better billing.

On the other hand, the WWII memorial is prominent and huge. It’s very impressive, if slightly imperial if not actually Speer-like fascist (which, given how the US came out of WWII, might be appropriate). It’s actually a fairly recent memorial. It was dedicated in 2004. I remember when it was first proposed sometime in the late 1980’s. The fact that there was no WWII memorial on the Mall struck some as scandalous. How could it be that we hadn’t recognized our Greatest Generation and their sacrifices before then?

I remember at the time thinking, really? I’ve read my share of history and I certainly understand the huge role that the US played in WWII and the cost in lives (somewhere around 400,000 but let’s not forget the ten million lives lost of the Soviet Union), but is anyone really going to forget our role in WWII? Is history on the verge of forgetting Hitler and our role in fighting back fascism?

With the possible exception of the Revolutionary War itself, WWII might really be the only unambiguously ‘good’ war that the US has ever fought. Especially when you consider the military interventions of the last 70 years: Korean War, Vietnam War, First Gulf War, Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Balkans, and probably others that I’ve forgotten. Notice that in all cases, either the bad guy wasn’t that bad, or the US didn’t get a clear military victory (no unconditional surrenders here), or it’s just small potatoes. Maybe that’s why it’s front and center. It fits our country’s personal narrative that we are the force of good and the beacon of democracy. Perhaps WWII is the high mark in our history, at least according to how we think of ourselves. Therefore, this prominent grandiose is a perfect monument for the event.

On the frieze of the Lincoln Memorial is a list of states. I find it quite humorous that the state that is closest to being in the center of the front entrance is South Carolina. Keep in mind that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States immediately after Lincoln’s election. They were the hotheads of the secession movement (known as the Fire-Eaters), advocating for secession way back in the 1850’s. In fact, after Sherman completed his march to the sea, he turned and headed up North and ravaged South Carolina for her part in the secession movement. Given the still occasionally not so latent hatred of the Yankee down South, how much does it gall a proud citizen of the state (whose capital until July of fucking 2015 still flew the confederate flag) to see its name prominently emblazoned on the memorial of someone who did more than anyone else to remove them of their ‘peculiar institution’?

The Martin Luther King Jr memorial was new to me. I found it (maybe because it is so relatively historically close to me) to be particularly inspiring. Along the wall behind his statue is enshrined a number of his quotes. His messages of peace and love are truly inspiring. His statue, left unfinished, seems to show him struggling to emerge out of unformed rock.

I also found it interesting that his memorial is directly across from Thomas Jefferson’s. I have no idea if it’s intentional, but King’s arms are crossed and he seems to be looking away from Jefferson’s memorial. At some level, is this some judgment of King upon Jefferson? After all, although he was a great defender of liberty and understood that slavery was a fundamental wrong, the fact remains that Jefferson was a slave owner. He owned over a hundred slaves. He had a slave mistress and fathered several children with her, all of whom were treated as slaves. Upon his death he freed them, but the rest of his slaves were sold off and dispersed to pay off his debts. As was typical at slave auctions, families were broken up, possibly never to see each again. Given the fact that Jefferson knew it was wrong makes this all the worse. King could very well be looking away in disappointment.

More to come, but those are just some preliminary thoughts as I wandered around and was soaked in my nation’s history.

 

The Reckless Futility Of A Blind Superpower

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Title: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

Rating: 5 Stars

This indeed is a grim tale of America’s misadventures in the Middle East over the last four decades. What makes this notable to me is how Bacevich has managed to thread together and find common themes across the seemingly independent military actions that America has embarked upon in this region.

It’s notable that prior to the 1970’s, America didn’t really care about the Middle East. Prior to WWII, this was the colonial playground of the British and the French, and as per usual, they left the area much the worse for wear.

So, what happened in the 1970’s that made America, over the ensuing four decades, spend multiple trillions of dollars, costing thousands of American soldiers’ lives and hundreds of thousands of civilian lives?

Well, if you have to use one word, of course that one word is oil.

In the 1970’s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Now history tells us this was one of the last gasps of a failing superpower trying to secure one of its borders. The American generals and politicians instead decided to interpret it as the first play in a power move to sweep through the Middle East and gain control of the Persian Gulf.

In the same proximate time frame, our favorite Middle Eastern dictator that we’d so graciously installed by helping to overthrow a democratically elected government, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown. In his stead was a rabid Muslim cleric who hated America.

These twin threats impelled President Carter to promulgate the Carter Doctrine, which said that the United States would, if necessary, use military force to protect its national interest in the Persian Gulf.

Yes, President Jimmy Carter, that weak, ineffectual president turned Nobel Peace Prize winner, started us down this slippery slope of Middle Eastern interference that has resulted in nothing but wasted money, wasted lives, and an area of the world that in all likelihood would have been much better off if we’d just left them alone.

For example, America provided explicit support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (here called the First Gulf War). At the same time, we supported Israel as they were selling arms to Iran (not to mention the whole exchanging arms for hostages in Iran-Contra). Yes, we were providing military intelligence to one side while selling arms to the other side.

And the madness continues across all presidents of both parties:

  • Reagan’s catastrophe in Beirut, which left hundreds of marines dead and America ignobly leaving
  • Reagan’s bombing Gaddafi in Libya, which in turn led to the Lockerbie bombing by Libyan agents
  • At the end of H.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq (the Second Gulf War), Saddam was still left in power and exacted his revenge by killing thousands of Kurds and Shiites; also, the now permanent presence of infidel Americans in Islamic sacred land infuriated bin Laden
  • Clinton’s military exercise in Somalia, which led to Black Hawk Down and America ignobly leaving
  • Clinton’s bombing of Serbia, which led to the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy and to lingering mistrust between the two countries
  • W Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq (the Third Gulf War), the early declaration of victory and then the many years of death, waste, and chaos
  • Obama’s support of the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, leading to the death of America’s ambassador
  • Obama’s support of drone warfare, raining death from the sky to countries that America is not even at war with
  • During one year in Obama’s term, special forces conducted operations in 150 distinct countries

And what has that got us? Afghanistan is a failed state (and is now the major provider of the world’s opium). Iraq is a failed state (in the midst of the Fourth Gulf War with ISIS). Libya is a failed state. Somalia is a failed state. The Balkans are at peace solely because all sides conducted their own ethnic cleansing.

And, oh yeah, let’s not forget about some planes flying into some buildings.

After nearly forty years of war, has America learned its lesson? This question is especially relevant because, since America now gets most of its oil from Canada and Venezuela (not to mention the rise of fracking), a very real argument can be made that we have a very limited national interest in the Middle East.

Well, let’s see…in the first 100 days of his administration, Trump launched a missile attack on Syria that in no way, shape, or form, changed the situation in the Middle East.

Draw your own conclusion.

Seriously, read this book.