Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Elite -- commentary

In his column published in The Sun July 26, Richard Cohen bemoans the fact that politicians have to dumb down their message and credentials in order to get elected. He claimed they have to hide their academic degrees from prestigious universities and avoid their erudite vocabularies and play down their intellectual abilities. He seems puzzled as to why we commoners don’t appreciate these elitists.

For the most part, I have avoided politics in this column, but I can’t resist taking this opportunity to enlighten Mr. Cohen. To begin with, his column reflected the condescending attitude of so many elitists. We commoners may not be the smartest people on the planet, but there are some things that insult our common sense. Intuitively, we know it does not take a 2,000 page bill, unread by those who voted on it, to reform health care or our financial institutions. In both instances, we were told it must be passed so we can know what is in it. Such actions tell us it is not intellectual aplomb that rules in our capital but rather political savvy and gamesmanship.

Secondly, those who are elite, erudite, and graduates of prestigious universities often promote an ideology unacceptable to us common folk. They eschew the label liberal and prefer to call themselves progressives. Either way, the ideology goes way back.

The late Malcolm Muggeridge, tells about his experience with progressives back in the 1920’s. He had grown up with a socialist father, and Beatrice Webb, the famous British socialists, was his aunt, fore runners of modern progressives.

As a young reporter, he moved his family to Moscow, Russia, where he intended to live out the rest of his life and contribute to the development of the great, people’s utopian experiment known as Soviet communism. He was quickly disillusioned with this progressive ideology. Even as the failures of the experiment became obvious, there continued to be regular visits by American elitists, mostly college professors and government bureaucrats, to Russia to get a glimpse of this wonderful experiment.

Muggeridge reports in his autobiography that these elitist so badly wanted this experiment to be a success that they would believe just about anything they were told, and so, he would try and see how far he could stretch their credulity. It was common for the visitors to ask why there were so many lines of poor peasants at stores and government offices. Muggeridge would explain that these people were so committed to the grand experiment that they would work themselves from morning to night to make it happen. The only way the government could insure that the people would get some rest was to engineer these long waits. Yes, many of the elitists bought it, according to Muggeridge.

As an ideology, progressivism has been around long enough that it has developed its own fundamentalists. The latest iteration of this ideology is being expressed by politicians like Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. It makes no difference that their progressivism has been tried and found wanting around the world in a number of venues, these current progressive fundamentalists are going to try it anyway. In many ways, they are like the religious fundamentalist who says, “Don’t bother me now; I’m looking for a scripture to back up my preconceived idea.”

Those of us who live in what the elites dub fly over country, who graduated from common state universities, or didn’t even get that far, see political games being played with our borders, our taxes, our health care, our investments, our jobs and our energy. We look at the messes in our country and around the world, and we realize that these things are the results of policies of the erudite, elitists who graduated from prestigious universities, and we become suspicious of those who govern. We just want straight talk and solutions.

Mr. Cohen might ask himself why an intellectual heavy weight like Bill Buckley would rather, “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Why didn’t Buckley, an erudite, intellectual elite, graduate of Yale University, trust people with his qualifications to run the government? What did he know that we don’t?

One of my college professors and a lifelong friend and novelist, the late Robert O. Bowen, once explained to me that a true intellectual is a person who observes life going on around him, thinks carefully about what he observes, and learns from it – nothing said about books.

So, Mr. Cohen, those of us who are suspicious of the elite, the erudite, and those with credentials from prestigious universities, are people who can learn from the past, something the progressives you want us to embrace don’t seem to do.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An Adventure -- commentary

My last column, I applauded Abby Sunderland for launching her around the world sailing adventure and ended by saying it is better to reach old age with memories than regrets. To affirm that I live by my own philosophy, let me share one of my own adventures.

It was 1976. I was 34-years-old, married to Pearl, with a son, Greg, in the second grade. One afternoon, I asked Pearl if she would like to take sixth months off and tour Europe and the U.S. “We can’t afford to do that,” she objected.

“You apparently misunderstood my question,” I replied. “All I asked was how would you like to?”

“Well sure, I’d like to,” she responded.

“Good,” I said. “Now, let’s figure out how to make it happen.”

I was making about $10,000 a year plus housing; Pearl had not worked outside the home since Greg was born. The morning paper had an ad for a mortgage loan closer, Pearl’s previous occupation. My work allowed me to be home when Greg left for school and when he came home, so I told Pearl to apply for the job, which she got. And , I got a part time job for a custodial firm specializing in cleaning restaurant hoods. We banked all the income from these jobs for a year, except for money used to purchase a used Volkswagen micro bus, camper conversion.

This was the old timey kind of VW bus the hippies liked so much with the boxer, air cooled engine and manifold heater. With the vehicle paid for and $10,000 in the bank, we set out from Anchorage, Alaska, to drive to New York on January 2, 1977. We drove around the clock; Pearl drove days and I drove nights. As we travelled through the Yukon Territory, temperatures were a minus 50 to 55 degrees. There was so little heat in the camper that our water jug froze while setting on the floor in the middle of the bus.

A memory imprinted on my mind as I drove through the Yukon Territory is the most spectacular display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. The Northern Lights at their finest are truly one of the most outstanding displays of nature. Unfortunately, they seem to be at their finest when it is the coldest; most tourists go to Alaska in the summer and never see them.

Even though we took a motel two nights, we still made it to New York, in six days. We got tickets for London on the Freddy Laker flight and left our bus with a friend in Connecticut. Freddy Laker was a British aviation entrepreneur who tried to compete with the government owned British Airways. It was dubbed the hippy flight because it was a bare bones, cut rate, bring you own lunch airlines.

This was a time when hundreds of young Americans were traipsing around Europe, living out of backpacks and traveling on Eurail passes. They stayed in hostels, pensions, or just rode the train for a place to sleep, not caring where it went. We joined them with our own backpacks. The only thing that distinguished us from the hippies was that we did not have rich parents at home to bail us out if we ran out of money or got into trouble.

We went from London to Switzerland where I attended a study center in the Alps for a few weeks. Then we went on to Spain where we shared an apartment on the Mediterranean with Tony Cox, the ex-husband of Yoko Ono and their daughter, Kyoko. This is a story all in itself, but among other things, it involved me making a clandestine trip to Majorca with Tony, whose motto might have been “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

We went on to France and finally back to Connecticut to pick up our VW bus. Then it was off to Florida. Greg had endured the sights of London, Paris, the Alps, the Louvre, the Cathedrals, the museums, the ferry ride across the English Channel, the Eiffel Tower and other incidentals as something he had to do to get to Disney World. Once we got back to the U.S., we still had three months before I had to be back to work, so we had our fun at Disney World and then begin wending our way north and west to Kentucky, then Minnesota, where Pearl grew up, and out to Washington State, where I grew up.

While in Washington, I traded the VW in on a brand new Dodge Aspen wagon, paid for in cash, and headed back to Alaska. We arrived back in Anchorage with a grand collection of memories, a new car, and still had $1,000 in the bank. Lots of memories; no regrets.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Risk Takers -- commentary

Sixteen-year-old sailor, Abby Sunderland, has been in the news following her rescue on her solo attempt at sailing around the world. Pundits have been quick to castigate her parents for allowing such an adventure. I say hooray for her parents and will try to put a few things in perspective.

First, most 16-year-olds have adult bodies and if physically active, they are in as great shape as they will ever be and can handle such challenges. Whether they are mature enough depends on their upbringing.

Secondly, her chance of doing this is better now than later as she has no other responsibilities. Such adventures done later in life usually involve the neglect of family or career. The movie “Seven Years in Tibet” comes to mind.

One pundit belittled the parents’ justification that driving a car down the freeway is also risky, but parents let their kids do it all the time. The pundit said the difference was that driving is necessary to get from point A to point B while sailing around the world is optional. The fallacy here is that most teenage driving is also optional. Do they really need to go to the mall or a friend’s house?

He further argued that the girl’s adventure cost the Australian government big bucks to rescue her. True, but we spend big bucks every year rescuing adventurers from Mt. McKinley, Mt. Everest, and many other places adult adventurers go. People regularly have emergencies while hiking or mountain biking on forest trails and have to be rescued. We also spend thousands getting victims from roadside accidents to emergency treatment whether their being on the road was optional or necessary.

There is a bigger issue here. It is the incessant drive by “do gooders” to eliminate all risk from our lives. If kids get hurt playing dodge ball, then we must do away with dodge ball. If kids get hurt on four wheelers, we must do away with four wheelers.

This “anti-risk spoiling life” syndrome even affects our military. A recent news article describes a 70 year tradition at the Annapolis Naval Academy where plebes, at the end of their grueling first year, scale a 21-foot obelisk. The obelisk is usually greased to make the climb more difficult. The tradition may be ended by the commanding admiral because of “unnecessary injury risk.”

I have argued and will continue to argue that our culture suffers, especially among males, from the lack of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. I believe this lack is what drives extreme sports, gang initiations and the like. The more we work to eliminate risk, the more wimpy our culture becomes, especially our boys, and they will seek out ways to affirm their manhood. To some extent, girls undergo biological changes that confirm when they have reached adulthood. Boys, on the other hand, never quite know for sure unless there is a ritual which confers manhood on them and such rituals usually involve risk. If we shelter our kids from all risk, we will wind up with adults like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.

We are rapidly becoming a culture that experiences all risk vicariously. I think this is behind the popularity of reality TV. We sit and watch TV as ice road truckers, crab fishermen, and NASCAR drivers take all the risks. From our TV sets we learn how to survive in the wilderness or launch a business. The only risks we have to take are those that come from obesity brought on by inactivity.

The real key to living life to the fullest is risk management. Abby Sunderland’s father schooled her in the art of sailing and through proper planning, minimized the risk. Even at that, there are some things you cannot control. The storm she encountered would have broken her mast whether she was 16 or 26.

You can teach your kids how to safely ride a four wheeler and make them wear protective clothing to minimize the injuries they will probably experience.

We learn from experience, preferably other people’s, how to manage risk. There was a time when it was considered unmanly to wear a mitt when playing baseball, whether pitching, catching or playing in the field. As a result, there were a lot of broken bones, but the players developed appropriate gear. The gear has evolved over time as a way of managing risk.

It is risky to have high school football practice in the hot August, Arkansas sun, but wise coaches learn to manage that risk. Yes, there are heat injuries and an occasional death, but we still play football.

I applaud Abby and her parents. With time, we all grow old and it is better to have memories to share with our grandkids than regrets.