" /> I write: November 2009
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November 29, 2009

Honor, a History

James Bowman - ISBN - 978159401984

This is an elegant discussion of honor from the inception of civilization to the dawn of 20th century. From the outset, in virtually all cultures throughout the world, honor has been inseparable from the story of civilization. But it has now disappeared in the West.

The book is a bold and soul-searching. It is a serious indictment of progressivism in which self-esteem--awarded free, as a birthright--has been substituted with disastrous results for honor. Loyalty, honor and patriotism are being severely compromised by the left, and proving fatal to that which we used to hold dear. The deficit is destroying our civilization.

The appeal of the code of honor is precisely that it isn't about morality. Public business is not conducted by saints. A boundary must separate public from private life. The removal of honor results in merging of these spheres.

Instead we have a culture of celebrity. Those wishing to be "stars" are required to join in the "feelings derby," if only to reassure that they have no ambitions to the "greatness" associated with honor (in which culture celebrity is dishonorable.) Worse, absent an honor culture generations are now taught to be ashamed of whom they are. The self-hatred is consuming. It has not been long since the dawn of the era of myriad millionaire celebrities: news anchors, professional athletes, movie stars and businessmen; a culture in which there is no honor, only profit . . . that and being politically correct, multicultural and all that folderol.

"You could say that the most important survival of honor in the West--that by which we separate our intellectual, moral and social elites from the rest--lies in this sense of exclusivity on the part of the enlightened and progressive-minded honor group who regard themselves as being above the demands of honor."

Discussion follows the history of war, and many of his chapters discuss the implications of honor in that effort. Conceptually it is stark: fight or run; hero or coward; honor or dishonor. In this and other permutations, the concept is at odds with the spirit of our therapeutic age of analytical non-"judgmentalism." We are now "charmed" by nuance, irony and ambiguity.

At the time of WW I psychology wasn't established. There was no pernicious jargon to cloud simple issues. "Right was right and wrong was wrong and the Ten Commandments were an admirable guide. . . . Frugality, austerity and self-control were perfectly acceptable. We believed in honor, patriotism, self-sacrifice and duty and we clearly understood what was meant by a 'gentleman.'" (Whereas we now hear terrorists being referred to as gentlemen.)

Thereafter we initiated a process which, by century's end had made the "heroic sufferer" the only recognized form of hero, and the policy of appeasement in the 1930s came to accept war as avoidable simply by a refusal to fight.

Honor, word and concept, are arcane today except in situations where meaning is essentially stripped from the recitation (duty-honor-country; on my honor I will do my best.) Honor has become a dirty word. Those who lead us, informed by Wilsonian idealists and their radical successors, have come to regard all fighting--even fighting back--as deplorable and shameful. "There's a better way."

Yet the only rational response to war is war. The alternative simply encourages the adversary. A great many intelligent people believe that by behaving in a friendly and accommodating way we will show our attackers that they have nothing to fear from us. That such conduct is taken by a ruthless enemy as a sign of weakness is as foreign to progressives as is the idea of honor itself.

"The long view of human history suggests that our choice is eventually going to be not between the liberal, unisex, pacifistic society of the feminist ideal and some throwback to caveman honor, but between some throwback to caveman honor and some more civilized variant of the long-dormant Western variety. . . . The honor-crazed Muslim fanatics who are blowing up women and children along with themselves are . . . equally stark in the alternative they pose to Western ways. Unless those ways include and are understood by all to include, honorable ways of making war on that alternative, the alternative must triumph." (Please re-read this quotation again, carefully.)

Our culture has its own distinctive, idiosyncratic history. Western concepts of honor have always differed from the rest. Being informed by Judeo-Christian philosophy, it emphasizes individual morality, sincerity and authenticity in private as well as personal life. He frames the historic background which a proper understanding of the Clash of Civilizations requires.

It is a difficult book to review. It is of a piece from the front to the back cover, betwixt which are 324 pages (excluding end notes) of information and carefully reasoned explanations. It is a ponderous read, not because of inelegant prose, but because the data is so comprehensive and the analysis so tight that study and rumination are required, page by page. In the end, however, there is little more to be said. He adroitly makes his case, which is a damning one for the cultural trends of the West.

The book should be read by all. Weighty and demanding it is, but very much worth the time and challenge.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:09 PM

November 27, 2009

have a little faith

Mitch Albom - ISBN - 9780786868728

It has been said that this new offering from the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, is better than that memoir. It is not. But how could one do better after pitching a No-Hit game, or, having bowled a 300, get a better score? It can't be done, but one can try to duplicate the feat. He did!

While his intervening books (The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and For One More Day) were wildly received best sellers, they were, in my opinion, o.k. but not that great. Just books from a now/then famous author who had written the best selling memoir of all time.

Like "Tuesdays," this is another memoir which records contact with the now elderly rabbi of Albom's youth in New Jersey. "Reb" asked that Mitch deliver the eulogy at his funeral, whenever it takes place. Albom was reluctant, but agreed to do it, but insisted that he be permitted to get to know the old man as a person, not a cleric. Therein is the essence of the tale.

Actually, there are several tales wrapped up in one. The life of another preacher is included, with a pairing of chapters dealing with somewhat parallel lives, all-be-they poles apart. The rabbi is a Jewish man of God from day one, albeit with challenges. The preacher is a black man who has "broken all of the Ten Commandments" and now seeks to somehow reconcile that fact by ministering to the destitute and the homeless in Detroit. He does not believe in redemption by deeds, but does feel he owes the world the remainder of his life dedicated to "doing good" in daunting circumstances. He expects no reciprocity from God, only mercy.

Both of the principals have families who are loyal and helpful to the end. Both have many contacts and friends. Both have impacted enormously upon their congregants. Both are loved and appreciated by multitudes. Both are noble; the minister only in his later years

As with Morrie--a professor he worshiped in college--Albom resurrects contact with an old and important mentor in earlier years. As he climbed the ladder of success he had abandoned both rabbi and religion. He reflects upon what he has given up in that quest, and finds new meaning in life.

When reading the first memoir I found myself choked and tearful on frequent occasions throughout. The second reconstructs the aura.

Do read have a little faith. And consider giving it to all of your friends and family as a holiday gift, be that Christmas, Hanukah or whatever. It is sufficiently non-denominational as to motivate and appeal to Hindus and Muslims as to Jews and Christians; as well to Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Taoists and the rest. It is full of insight and wisdom, compassion and forgiveness universal to all . . . even to Atheists, if they'd only admit it. And faith is reinforced by the fact that it is universal, especially, I'd observe, to Atheists.

I guarantee you will tear up more than once as you re-learn some long suppressed, perhaps forgotten, lessons of life and how it should be lived.

Reb counsels that "The genius of life is its variety. Even in our own faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates. In Christianity, in Catholicism, in other faiths, the same thing--debates, interpretations. That is the beauty. It's like being a musician. If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts. It's the blending of the different notes that makes the music."

And what is the music? . . . "believing in something bigger than yourself."

But what if someone wants you dead for it? "That is not faith. That is hate . . . and if you ask me, God sits up there and cries when that happens."

Posted by Curmudgeon at 10:03 AM

November 15, 2009

Infamous Scribblers

The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism
Eric Burns - ISBN - 97815864883340

This tome is a revelatory treat; aucourant as well, with present attitudes of and about the press and its scoundrels. Doubt-cha knew the journalists of our early history put the present pack of miscreants to shame. Like today, these were people who ritually tilted the balance of truth toward their favored parties, and were proficient at prevarication when need arose. They were passionate and ferocious, even vulgar in print. They attacked each other viciously with ink and fists--even weapons on occasion. Sometimes partisans invaded shops, destroyed materials and occasionally the printing presses themselves.

The scarcity of both paper and ink added to expense; sometimes even prohibiting publication. Most were one man operations since few could employ help. Production was slow, hard work, and circulations were tiny by most any standard, but copy was read by myriad people, thus increasing their influence.

Burns is a graceful writer who delivers a narrative which is as agreeable as it is informative. He chronicles the important papers and emphasizes their serial ups and downs. He engagingly describes the era and its people--inclusive from 1710 thru the end of the Jefferson administration. The characters range from Ben Franklin's brother and grandson, to the Adamses, Jefferson, Paine, and Hamilton. Ben himself was one of the founding journalists in America, and was said to make his readers smile more than any other journalist at the time.

The early press was almost exclusively partisans, in large measure supported by politicians, parties and their myrmidons who had a message to deliver. Principals, often rendered in history as a unit of agreeable gentlemen, were in fact quite intolerant of each other. Hamilton and Jefferson were notoriously tireless adversaries, always at verbal fisticuffs.

His middle chapters give one a fulsome understanding of the times, attitudes and principals of that era. During, and particularly after the revolution the Federalists controlled 85% of the press, but by the end of the Jefferson administration the Republicans had reversed that equation, controlling over 60%, which reflected evolutionary governmental change. Following Hamilton's death there was a notable diminution in contentiousness, which attenuation persists to the present.

The era also resulted in the first use of jury nullification in a case tried, with Hamilton defending. The era promulgated the first sex scandal as well. This, too, involved Hamilton, who was humiliated and excoriated for his illicit affair. In addition it birthed the first political cartoon: a snake cut into sections to emphasize the colonies separated and dysfunctional, which threatened the ability to handle the adversary.

Over time "news" was introduced, but it was scarce and usually months late due to communications. Even within the continental area such intercourse was slow. In fact it was slower overland than by ship from either Europe or the Caribbean.

There was particular fire over the Stamp Act and other imposed taxes. Events such as the Boston Massacre and later the Tea Party were widely reported and largely misrepresented by people like Sam Adams--known as "the Grand Incendiary"-- was by far the most aggressive and vitriolic of his time. Paine's original missals were widely published, as were the Federalist Papers. Pseudonymous columns were popular, and while writers, though seldom unrecognized, tried to obfuscate their identities. Franklin often wrote to himself under a pseudonym in order to give pose situations and give answers which would increase his circulation, or permit him to comment upon an issue.

Burns elaborates upon the constitutional debates, covered in the papers only after the conferences, observing that the 1790's were passionate decades. The nation's journalism could not help but reflect that heat, and he emphasizes that when Americans ceased combat with the British they immediately started skirmishing with each other.

I sometimes comment that there are "too many notes;" that narratives are too long, or suggest that one might want to "fast forward thru the boring parts." In this book there are, at minimum, just the right number of notes, and probably too few. There are no parts one wishes to fast forward thru. It is an incandescent and lustrous tome which one hates to end. I highly recommended it!

(Footnote: As a physician I found it particularly interesting that Cotton Mather became aware of American Indians inoculating themselves for Smallpox in 1702; he published the facts and technique in 1720. Instead of being lauded he was ridiculed by contemporaries. A Boston physician inoculated his own son and 286 others, using trace amounts of fluid from the pox pustules. Of the thousands of other Bostonians who contracted smallpox during the next epidemic 14% died; of the vaccinated group only 2% did. Still, no one believed. This datum was overlooked until Jenner "discovered" vaccination almost a century later.)

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:25 PM

November 1, 2009

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Lee Iacocca - ISBN - 9781416532491

Here is a book from the man who "rescued Chrysler" from the jaws of bankruptcy in the 70's. Unfortunately, none of that tale is altogether true. He went to the government and groveled for 1.2 billion dollars to "save jobs." The only jobs he saved were at Chrysler. Instead, Ford and GM took the hit. They all made money, but only because the government simultaneously restricted imports of European and Japanese cars. Americans had few choices but to "buy American." Thus Iacocca became the poster boy for protectionism as Chrysler was "saved" . . . for a while.

The "K" cars weren't revolutionary. They were poorly engineered and badly built. They were less fuel efficient, less reliable, and more expensive both to buy and run than "foreign cars." And did I mention ugly? So, with a multi-billion governmental salvage loan, wrapped in import restrictions, big auto profited. The loan was repaid before it was due, and Iacocca became an icon. Whoopee!

Within a few years Chrysler was again losing money, as were the other American manufacturers. They put new bodies on "old guts" while Japan and Germany offered new, fully re-engineered vehicles every 3-4 years. And you'll all recall the sale to Mercedes, henceforth named Daimler-Chrysler. (Well, not really, the "Chrysler" part was silent.)

While things have improved since, Detroit is still well behind. Americans took notice; they still do. Some of the problems are "legacy issues:" ancient pension and health care liabilities, pay for no work, and myriad union requirements which are inflexible. These issues are absent in factories built by the Japanese and the Europeans in "right to work" states. Still, one ought to remember that the reason Japan and Germany started to build cars in America was to skirt the import quotas fostered by the original Chrysler bailout. There is no better example the law unintended consequences than that. GM and Ford have been very successful overseas, but not Chrysler. Lee wasn't and isn't the wizard he claims to be, though some of his activities post-Chrysler have been admirable.

"Where have all the leaders gone?" Legitimate question. He does provide some answers to it, but he begins with "lets compete" without acknowledging that he is an avid protectionist. In his world it ain't about competing on level ground, it's about cheating; getting government to h'yep out, don'tcha-no?

The head of a car company, "losing money like crazy, had better come up with a new plan if he wants to retain his job," says Lee. I say give him the gate. Hire someone else to correct the situation. And, "whatever happened to pay for performance?" Good question. "What kind of capitalist system [overlooks pay based on merit]" he asks . . . well, it's the kind that he helped foist upon us. He has the ego of a wildly successful capitalist without the performance record to match.

"The way free trade operates today it's a 'win-lose' situation, and the loser is the United States." He has a point, but there are ways to level the playing field without governmental take-over of industry. On globalization, his emphasis is touting Lehigh University's Global Village for Future Leaders of Business and Industry. He funds this with some of what he "earned" saving Chrysler. One would hope his myrmidons teach some more realistic lessons.

"In business, people get it," he crows. Really? Doesn't seem the car industry gets it. And he supports Detroit and unions while demanding that government fix it . . . like before. How about bankruptcy? Does anyone believe that all of that sophisticated machinery will just be destroyed by a bunch of Luddites? Not! It'll be picked up for dimes on a dollar by people who know what to do, and they will create valuable jobs. Creative destruction is the engine of capitalism.

He does allow that the auto industry historically builds what it wants and tries to sell it with advertising. Of course, the deal he made with Washington to save Chrysler enhanced the concept that not just big auto, but the government itself would tell them what to build. Great concept. And government gives "cash for clunkers," too. "Why don't we ask the customers what they want, and then build it?" Good idea! But we didn't hear that before and we aren't hearing it now. The modern bailout is the same old policies with new suits in charge. There's a new band leader but it's the same music.

He observes that the unions were phenomenally successful at first (Not really. . . . Really!), but drove the bus off a cliff with increasingly larger demands. Ya think? The relevant question is what to do now? Neither Obama nor the unions address the problems, investors have been savaged, and the whole thing is a mess. Bankruptcy is the answer. Just get it over and done, and begin on a sound basis.

He does sing my song in noting that some of our inability to compete is tied directly to the litigiousness in our country. We need tort reform. In this regard he gives a variety of great ideas, and opines that we are punishing ourselves, wrecking opportunity to compete and "stomping out progress." He emphasizes that "it's not just our ability to compete that gets harmed . . . it's our ability to live with one another . . . to cooperate because . . . it's the right thing to do--not because we might get sued." Hear-Hear!

He does go on . . . and on . . . but I won't. With myriad unmentioned caveats it is still worth reading. He raises lots of questions which demand answers, and whether or not you agree he does bring them to the fore.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:52 PM