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Be Afraid, America, Very afraid

Posted by Howard Denson on November 11, 2016 at 2:25 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

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I have been on the losing sides of presidential elections many times in the past, but this time I am experiencing a new sensation: a definite fear for my country.

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When I was seven in Vidalia, Georgia, I rooted for the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey against the incumbent, President Harry Truman. In truth, I didn’t know much about Dewey, but the “Stephenson circle” favored him, so I did too. I didn’t dislike Mr. Truman, partly because his voice was almost identical to Gene Autry’s, and you can’t pass up a connection like that. I wasn’t aware of the jab that Dewey looked like the man on the wedding cake, but I was a little disturbed because he looked too much like the villain in one of Gene’s pictures.

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I was a big fan of General Eisenhower and got into my teens during his administrations. I grew to tolerate his quirky vice president, Richard Nixon. I didn’t know about Ike’s war-time fling with his female jeep driver, and I didn’t know about Mamie’s drinking. I wasn’t afraid of Adlai Stevenson for he seemed like a nice fellow. Years later, I was puzzled to learn that balding, pear-shaped Stevenson was a bit of a womanizer.


.I was a little too young to vote in the Nixon-Kennedy election, although I was all in favor of Nixon. Kennedy didn’t scare me, and it came as a shock later to learn that political scientists considered them almost identical in their positions.

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Back then, it wasn’t appropriate for the media to pry into the presidents’ bedrooms, so I would have to wait for Victor Lasky’s JFK: The Man and the Myth to learn what dirt could be dished on him. (Ill Luck Dept.: JFK: The Man and the Myth is published, and he gets assassinated. Lasky’s RFK: The Myth and the Man is published, and he gets assassinated, too.)

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I knew Barry Goldwater was going to lose in 1964 and was proud to be one of the 26 million who voted for him. He was a decent man, even if not the smartest senator in Washington. By contrast, I loathed Lyndon Johnson with his slick business deals and wheeling and dealing. I wasn’t aware that much of my animosity was being fed by my latent racism and lack of insight into what Johnson was trying to do. Still, I wasn’t afraid of him, just didn’t trust him or like him.

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In 1968, I should have voted for Richard Nixon over exuberant and voluble Hubert Humphrey, but I was out of state at graduate school and knew that George Wallace was going to win both my home state and the state in which I was studying.

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Considering that the war in Vietnam went on and on under Nixon, as he searched for a way to victory instead of an armistice, it would have been better if Humphrey had been elected in 1968, but a Democrat may not have been able to open diplomatic channels with China, thanks to the fall-out from the “Democrats lost China” attacks in the 1940s. I bought into the disdain directed at George McGovern in 1972 and didn’t research him enough to learn that he was a decorated World War II bomber pilot. This good man was closer to Audie Murphy than LBJ, Nixon, and Ford were.

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I debated a long time in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ford was probably no smarter than Goldwater was (or your typical senator of any year), but he was an honorable man. Jimmy Carter was also a decent man, but, like Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, ran into ill luck with high interest rates and the Iran hostage crisis.

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In 1980, I voted for Reagan, even after years of being doubtful about his ability to do the job. The S&L crisis occurred during the administrations of RR and Bush 41, and, when I saw the sloppy, deceitful way that the GOP handled the scandal, I vowed to go with Democrats from then on or until the banking mess was cleaned up. It still isn’t and has only gotten worse.

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Of course, Reagan was re-elected, defeating Walter Mondale, another good man, and then Bush the Elder and Wiser took over, defeating the quirky Michael Dukasis. Bush had been a fighter pilot in World War II and was filmed ditching his plane and being rescued.

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I deserted Bush the Elder for the tom-cat from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who, like Kennedy and Warren G. Harding, had trouble keeping his pants zipped. Bob Dole, a WW2 veteran, was a good man and a bulldog of a GOP attack dog.

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In 2000, we had a choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I went with Al Gore since I am used to socially awkward politicos like Dukasis, Nixon, and most of the first six presidents. I didn’t fear Bush the Younger because I erroneously assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his father. I couldn’t imagine his trying to do everything opposite from what 41 had done. A media riff back then was “who would you rather have a beer with, Gore or Bush?”

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Some Americans stupidly went along with the notion that a pal could make a good president. As Sportin’ Life sings, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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An early supporter of Hillary, I switched to Barack Obama and have never regretted a moment of that support. I wasn’t afraid of John McCain or Mitt Romney. McCain, despite his temper, would do his duty if he had been elected president, and Romney was level-headed. In the Sixties, I was rooting for George Romney, who had been governor of Michigan and CEO of American Motors. Romney visited Vietnam and later said the generals had “brainwashed” him about the progress in the country. The media riffed on “do we want a president who could be brainwashed?” This time, the media helped to hand the election to Nixon.

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And that brings us to Donald Trump, and the fact is this guy scares the daylights out of me, something that none of the previous presidential winners or losers did.

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If you are an opponent, you will probably want to compare his rhetoric and that of his followers to Adolf Hitler. If so, you are missing the point. Hitler laid out what he was going to do in Mein Kampf, and, hours from his suicide in 1945, he wrote his last will and testament and essentially underscored what he had written in the 1920s. Few people, except for Churchill, were paying attention to what he was saying.

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Trump probably can’t help himself, but he is an extreme narcissist. Now, every citizen who puts himself or herself forward as a possible president, senator, governor, or congressman has a hyper-ego.

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But history provides us with hundreds of cautionary examples about the extreme narcissists. The one that we might fear most is not Hitler, but the Emperor Nero. He could be charming, talented as an amateur, but always self-centered. His egotism wearied the Romans after a bit. They even unjustly blamed him for the Great Fire and said he was plucking his lyre while the city burned. (He was elsewhere, but was delighted to have much of Rome cleared so he could build an amazing palace complex.)

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If an Emperor was barking mad, as Caligula was, he would be quickly put down (four years). Commodus (twelve years), like Nero (fourteen years), had some positive features, but the city state was greatly relieved when these narcissists were visiting their relatives in the underworld.

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We are unable to track the way Trump’s mind thinks because frankly it doesn’t. His supporters will bellow at such a canard, but Shakespeare has also been accused of not being much of a thinker. Instead, the Bard relied on his instincts and insights about human behavior.

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Trump’s mind relies on trash-talk. His mind is not that of a Lincoln or Churchill, since he essentially is as incoherent as Bush the Younger, Andrew Johnson, and others. No, his mind is that of a traveling salesman who “rassles” on the side. He comes into a town and has a product to sell, and he will tell the mark anything, absolutely anything, to get the sucker to sign on the bottom line and fork over the green stuff.

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Like Gorgeous George and Ali later, he crows that he is the greatest.

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Trump does not have the ethics of Ulysses S. Grant, who let himself be seduced by the robber barons around him, nor of Harry S. Truman, who was wiped out during recessions in the 1920s. With his family in debt and dying from throat cancer, Grant forced himself to finish an outstanding autobiography whose sales saved his family’s prospects. It took time, but Truman paid off all of his debts.

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What does a traveling huckster do? He files for bankruptcies, stiffs vendors on what is owed to them, and shafts employees by refusing to pay them.

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Could that personality produce an effective president? It might in terms of foreign relations. Elizabeth I’s ministers cautioned the ministers from possible opposing countries, in effect, “My God, be careful what you do. She’s a hysterical woman and nobody can predict that she’ll do. Don’t upset her.”

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Nixon liked for the North Vietnamese leaders in particular to think he was a bit unbalanced and God knows what he’ll do next.

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As a long-time (largely ineffective) labor leader, I read books on management to understand how managers think. (If you are an effective manager, you don’t have to worry about your employees unionizing. If you are a bully and a tyrant, then you are also the best and primary organizer of a union.)

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One rule of thumb cropped up over and over: “If you want to know what individuals will do [as an employee or CEO], look at what they have done in the past.”

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With that standard in mind, America, be afraid. Be very afraid.

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--30--

 

 

The Cowboy Way

Posted by Howard Denson on October 25, 2016 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (0)


 

By HOWARD DENSON

 

She Who Knows All was disgusted about one of the political creatures and demanded that I write what men are really like. Despite her confidence in my ability to say something worthwhile, the world is not beating a path to my door to discover my insights into men and women and boys and girls.

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One of my short stories, “The Magic of the Burning Boy,” deals in part with a boy learning from a friend about how babies come about. That element involved me as a fifth-grader (a 10-year-old), but I moved it to third-grader because I didn’t think that readers today would believe that a kid that old could be so obtuse. That was back in the Fifties, and most grownups in my limited universe just didn’t talk to kids about certain things.

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About the time that Remedial Sex Info 0001 was occurring, a joke was going around. A father says to his son, “Georgie, I need to talk to you about the birds and bees,” and the son says, “Sure, Dad, what do you need to know?” We thought it funny although most of us didn’t know what Georgie would have to say.

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Another story going around in the seventh and eighth grades involved three boys hiking through the woods when they hear moans in the bushes. The American boy whispers, “What are they doing?” The British boy gives him a look and shakes his head. “They’re making love.” A French boy sighs with disgust. “And doing it poorly.”

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That joke doesn’t work today because nudity, porn, and sexuality are everywhere. All three boys would know what’s occurring, thanks to the porn site that’s off-limits to them or the disc that Uncle Elroy keeps hidden in his socks drawer. They are likely to be taking away unintended lessons:

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*You meet someone and you do it within minutes, and that must be the way it is for everyone.

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*You don’t have to worry about germs or precautions.

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*The more the merrier.

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*It’s just sex, no bigee.

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*And other lessons that we need not detail here.

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Although I wasn’t much of a Boy Scout (only made it to Bobcat in the Cubs and Tenderfoot in the Scouts) nor a cowboy, I grew up with the Scout-Cowboy Code: You were helpful, courteous, and kind; you were always prepared (although I often wasn’t); and you treated women, girls, and your elders with respect. It was the Cowboy Way, podner.

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The converse of the above is also true: Grownups should be helpful, courteous, and kind and treat women, girls, men, boys, and youngsters with respect. Of course, grownups fall short in that ideal, just as a kid has trouble not raiding the cookie jar.

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Today, we hear about locker room talk, what the guys say when they are by themselves. NFL, NBA, MLB athletes scoff at the notion and claim they talk only about stocks, bonds, childcare, etc. Since a MLB player will have about 150 games a year, it’s likely that any sex talk will soon exhaust itself.

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It’s a mistake, however, to accept the notion that guys just talk about their finances and perhaps upcoming batters and pitchers. When we look at the sports teams of American colleges and universities, we see far too much sexual aggression in operation. We also see universities circling the wagons to protect their NCAA franchises. (Yes, we also instances of females trying to get their hands on future signing bonuses, etc.)

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In the armed services, we have rampant sexual aggression, and the top brass have given lip-service to reforms but often failed to follow up with meaningful reforms.

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When we look at males’ behavior, we end up drawing analogies with the research of Jane Goodall into chimpanzees and baboons. One primate decides he is now the Alpha male and goes to his chief competitor and bares his teeth, roars, etc. If the Alpha male roars back louder, the challenger moves off. However, if the Alpha male finally decides he doesn’t want to fight, he surrenders his spot and his prestige and moves over to dislodge the Beta male.

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In the Sixties, when we loaded our National Guard infantry unit onto the buses to drive down to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, we started hearing, “Oh, I’m s-o-o-o horny!” Many of the guardsmen had only left their wives or girlfriends an hour or so before, but the ritual went on until we returned.

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Trapped in the un-air conditioned barracks at Camp Shelby and no bus service into Hattiesburg, some horny guardsman dug out a 16mm projector and some black-and-white porn movies from the Twenties and Thirties. All participants wore Lone Ranger-style masks, and the women had on Mary Jane shoes and little else.

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We have been hardwired to have sexual urges and to procreate. Nature (and God) instilled that to ensure that the species continued. When we sit on a park bench, we witness the hardwiring when a pigeon bumps into another pigeon, who turns away, only to have him continue bumping. Eventually he may try other pigeons or this female will decide that she is ready. They flutter around each other, and the species continues.

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We can sugarcoat male aggression and claim that it is necessary for a boy bird and a girl bird to get together, but that aggression too often is transformed into misogyny. When a culture finds that a woman or girl has been raped, it demonstrates that it hates females when the men stone her and not the rapist.

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When a culture demands that its females totally cover themselves and their faces, except for meshes, the males are demeaning themselves and announcing that they are incapable of looking at a female without trying to rape her.

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Girls and women may participate in their own misogyny by asserting the most trivial of their equal rights but abandoning the high ground that can be most useful. A girl who apes the behavior of a testosterone-riddled male by throwing herself into a Debbie Does Dallas-situation does not break through any meaningful glass ceilings. Neither Debbie nor her role-model Donnie will stand out as natural leaders.

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Americans are pulled this way and that as we discuss sex and sexuality. First, we have a puritanical streak that is dismayed at the sight of nudity, nude beaches, even nude statuary. We froth at the mouth at things that largely go unnoticed in European countries. In this respect, we are quite provincial.

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Second, we grin at the sexual antics of some individuals and frown when others engage in similar antics. Errol can be in like Flynn, but Barney the barber might be run out of town.

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Third, we may try to excuse the sexual behavior of the politically elite. The acts show the virility of our king, prime minister, or president. It may also reflect our culture’s acceptance of droit du seigneur (which generally translates as “right of the lord” and refers to a great one’s supposed right to lay with the bride of a serf or subordinate before her wedding night). Two problems quickly emerge: The droit du seigneur may have occurred more in plays, novels, and ballads than in reality. In addition, puritanical generations may have assumed that virginity was held in high regard in the ancient world and Middle Ages. (A duke’s daughter’s virginity could be a factor in a first-rate marriage, to a prince or a king; that of the blacksmith’s daughter may have been of little consequence.)

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Past images of the sexually attractive can stick with us always. One anecdote from, say, Coronet magazine described an old World War I doughboy who fell from a ladder while hanging a picture. His wife asked him why he fell. He said, “I had a room in a hotel in a town not far from Paris and the maid came in and asked if I needed anything else. I told her I didn’t, and she asked again, and again, if there was anything else I wanted. . . And I just figured out what she was getting at.”

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The hardwiring isn’t going to let us go, ever. In about 1980, my great-cousin Jimmie left Birmingham to move into her church’s retirement home in Jacksonville. I visited her fairly often (and learned many of the family secrets that had been kept from me for forty years).

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One day, she was shocked, absolutely shocked at the behavior in the retirement home. “There’s a ninety-three-year-old man who is chasing after this eighty-eight-year-old woman. She rides this big tricycle, and he runs along behind her calling ‘Mona, Mona, Mona!’ It’s disgusting.”

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Moral of the story: Follow the Cowboy Way and be a good Scout, but, even if you are helpful, courteous, and kind and strive not to be a predator, you are still going to embarrass yourself. You’re hardwired that way.

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--30--

 

Looking to Future Presidential Elections?

Posted by Howard Denson on October 14, 2016 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)


 

By HOWARD DENSON

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The 2015-16 election cycle has been one of the silliest in modern history. It may be that, with Facebook, Twitter, and similar tools, we will have a new norm: all outrageous illogic, shouting matches of lie against lie, etc. If so, that does not mean we will have a better country. What we have at present is a sick nation. Those with negative intentions immerse us in a warped perspective about who we are and where we are going.

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All parties like to cry, “This is the most important election in our country’s history.” Often it’s not since what they mean is, “This is the current election.”

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The U.S. would have done all right if Tom Dewey had defeated Truman in 1948 . . . if Adlai Stevenson had defeated Ike . . . if Nixon had defeated JFK . . . and so on.

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When we have a healthy country, either party’s candidate has been a reasonable person who could plot the country on a sensible course.

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They certainly had their crazies in past years, with 1948 being outstanding. It featured Strom Thurmond heading the Dixiecrats with racism to surpass what we have seen today.

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Talking heads like to compare this election to 1964’s, when Barry Goldwater was the GOP standard bearer. That, of course, is way off base. Barry knew he wasn’t going to win and described himself as a kamikaze pilot since there was no way the country could go from JFK up to November 1963, LBJ from November until the election a year later, and then the swearing in of Goldwater in January 1965. Three presidents in that short of time? Not going to happen.

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If it mattered (and it didn’t), Goldwater erred in answering a reporter’s question about how atomic bombs could be used in Southeast Asia. Barry, an Air Force general in the reserves, gave a reasonable answer from a military college standpoint of discussion of tactics and strategy . . . and suddenly ads were showing bombs going off while a little girl picked flowers. Barry was a gentleman and totally non-partisan in his civilian capacities. As a C.B. operator, he could carry on cordial conversations with an FDR liberal  (a friend’s liberal father had regularly conversations with him).

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In 1968, an A-bomb advocate might have been George Wallace’s running mate, General Curtis LeMay, who headed the massive bombings of Japanese cities during World War II.

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As I argue that we cannot continue doing what we’re doing, I’m not opening the door to a First Amendment Gestapo, but we do have to stand upright the figure of Sanity and Truth. The 1960 debates provided a standard. The Democrats and Republicans had different perspectives about what facts meant, but they were closer together than what we have witnessed for months now.

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So . . .

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Step #1 in making America sane again is to promote truth and accuracy. That means all parties need to participate in truth-vetting. The goal is to exclude candidates who lie 80-90 percent of the time.

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We are all paranoid, so a NON-PARTISAN fact-checking group should be established and set up rules that will be followed by all candidates from major and minor parties.

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100% Truth is unlikely since some positions are simply matters of perspective. A good example here is the difference between pro- and anti-abortion. Each side will argue that their position is correct. However, if one side argues that abortion is increasing in the U.S., while statistics say it is decreasing, then a flag could be thrown.

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In addition, we will have some issues concerning which we can't measure the accuracy or truth index. Climate change may fall into this area. A truth index may deflect arguments about the accuracy of climate change toward the reality of states having to cope with rising coastal waters, loss of wetlands, increased floods, etc.

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A Scrooge McNutt may revel in his billions and back a candidate who has a truth index of 10%. He may get the candidate of his choice to use fiery but reckless rhetoric.

 “Never in the history of our country have we seen such tyranny and injustice!” That doesn’t jibe with what occurred before, during, and after the Civil War.

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Let's say that we will NOT respect nor acknowledge a candidate who is lying more than, say, 20-30% of the time. That doesn’t set the bar very high, but it allows wiggle room for matters that may be simply individuals’ opinions.

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If a candidate has a truth index of 50-60%, then he or she is penalized. It won't matter if Scrooge McNutt is backing him to the hilt. The parties could be encouraged to deny him or her funds for any campaigns. If the parties refuse to do so, then the candidates certainly could be ruled ineligible to participate in any debates between the major party candidates.

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The truth index might result in, say, only two individuals on the stage for a party debate. Lincoln and Douglas, and JFK and Nixon, proved that two candidates can provide a fine debate. To cut out the childish interruptions that we are seeing too much of, the debate organizers might borrow an approach from the Golden Age of Quiz Shows. Candidate A is in his or her isolation chamber and speaks for two minutes on a topic. The mike is then turned off, and Candidate B gets to speak uninterrupted for two minutes from inside an isolation chamber.

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For the final debates before the November election, candidates from the minor parties would fill out the debate platform. It shouldn’t matter that they had support from only three to eight percent of the electorate. If their Truth Index were high enough, it would entitle them to a podium on the stage.

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Will the suggestions work?

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Of course not.


What will happen then?


For starters, pieces like this will be written asking what rough beast, its hour come around at last, creeps toward Washington to be born.

--30--

 

The Worst Day of Peeper's Life

Posted by Howard Denson on October 11, 2016 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

 

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Earlier I wrote about making friends with a feral kitten, whom I called Peepers.

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Finally, a day came when I set the food dish down for Peepers but began leaving it on the porch, all the while making sure that Eddie the Old Predator didn’t discover the intruder and attack. After a couple of feedings, Peepers accepted that he could safely eat on the closed-in front porch, and I was able to close the door on him and get him, hissing and spitting, to the back of the house.

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As we have done before, we again put up the Berlin Wall to separate the free-spirited old cats from the down-trodden kitten of East Germany.

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Rather than bring feline diseases into the house, we got him to the vet’s to be fixed and inspected. We quickly learned the following:

• Peepers was not a “he” but a Miss Peepers.

• She had been captured as a feral kitten, fixed, and released back into her territory. One of her ears had been trimmed slightly, just enough for a vet or sharp eye to spot, but not yours truly.

• She was given whatever shots she needed and was now ready to live the good life.

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Except . . .

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The wee creature had spent her entire existence (a year, two years?) living in fear: attacks from other cats, dogs, and perhaps the occasional possums and raccoons that wander over from Fishweir Creek. Everything in her life was a potential threat.

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We reached sort of a truce. When I traveled through the checkpoint into East Germany, I would grab her brush and groom her until it occurred to her that this was a trick from the Stasi.

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By and by, when she was not eating or using the litter box (or anywhere else), I took her to the vet, who kept her a day or two while they sedated her and manipulated her bowels to relieve a blockage. We returned to normal, until the procedure had to be done again. Eventually, we learned she suffered from “mega-colon” where part of the colon is expanded, fills up, and then blocks the system if not treated.


.“Mega-colon?” asked She Who Knows All. “That’s what Elvis had.”

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The vet said Peepers would need to be given a dose of two meds each day, one a stool softener and the other a prescription apparently to tighten up the colon.

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The first attempt went well, if you consider holding a hissing, spitting, and slashing creature at arm’s length to be well. The mouth was open, so I was able to squirt in the meds.

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Eventually, I went to a hardware store to get some gloves to handle the cat. The pet store franchises were no help. Neither franchise had a suit of armor thick enough to deflect the claws.

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Then it became a moot point.

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In the East German half of the house, Peepers may access two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and our library, which overflows with books and boxes. She has discovered tunnels in there and won’t even peep if I softly meow her name.

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For a time before The Troubles, she slept in my bedroom on a stack of clothes that I’m too lazy to hang up. One night she jumped into the bed with me, and I felt a cold, wet nose on my back until she realized she was about to get cooties and jumped down.

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Now, she finds her tunnel among the books and boxes in the library.

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She could sing a Cole Porter song. She gets no kick from catnip. Sprinkled on her once-favorite sleeping spot doesn’t please her at all. She gets no kick from a jingle toy. The feather on a stick means nothing to her.

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She probably doesn’t even get a kick out of her secret tunnel.

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Come on, little one. Enjoy life.

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“Are you there?”

 

Fond memories of Amos and Andy

Posted by Howard Denson on October 5, 2016 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

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She Who Knows All and I once rotated in hosting film parties back in the days when guests brought copies of 16mm reels of, say, Frankenstein, Dracula, and whatever cartoon might be available from the library or friends’ collections.

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The cartoons were usually from Warner Bros.’ Golden Age (of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery). One night, the cartoon at the get-together was Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943). It opened with beautiful animation of a crackling fire, and a mammy telling a story to a child.

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As the story and visuals unfolded, the room went into shock. The guests, probably all Southerners, had never seen such blatant racism and stereotypical characters. It turned out the cartoon was a parody of Disney’s Snow White, and it attempted to pay homage to American jazz, similar to what Clampett had done in Tin Pan Alley Cats. The cartoon parodied the poisoned fruit, the zonked-out-probably-dead So White, and the attempts to revive her with a special kiss. Along the way, it used imagery of the day: zoot suits, the war, fighting the Japanese, etc.

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The cartoon is now in the public domain (as are some others in the Censored Eleven cartoons from Merrie Melodies and Loony Tunes). Called one of the best cartoons ever, it is worth admiring the classical-age animation even if you have to distance yourself from the content.

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As that WB cartoon played back in the Forties, Americans had no television (except in experimental pockets) and were entertained by Golden Age Radio Shows, including Amos ’n’ Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and dozens of others.

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The one show that gets zinged for political incorrectness, of course, is Amos ’n’ Andy, but I’ve had a fond spot in my heart for the characters ever since I was a child.

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The show was created in the late 1920s by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white performers. They first did a dialect show on radio called Sam and Henry, for which they were paid little or nothing. Initially that was okay because they wanted an attraction to bring folks to their stage act. When they moved to another station, they did not own the rights to Sam and Henry and had to alter their material. They came up with Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown, who ran the Open Air Taxi Service in Chicago (later moved to NYC’s Harlem). The white guys voiced the two featured characters, along with the Kingfish a.k.a. George Stevens of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge, and about 170 others. I have neither heard the early shows nor read the scripts from the late 1920s through the 1930s. I only recall the show entered my consciousness in the 1940s.

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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began complaining about the show in about 1930, and perhaps they were on to something. Except for brief scenes in a documentary, I’ve never seen Gosden and Correll in blackface in the film(s) done back then nor their voicing for cartoons done then.

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Eventually a biography of Jack Benny noted that he had instructed his writers about 1938-40 to treat Rochester (Eddie Anderson) with respect. The writers came up with scripts in which Benny was vain, cheap, stubborn, and untalented as a violinist. Rochester was always smarter than his boss.

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Had similar directions been given to the writers for Amos ’n’ Andy? Or were the creators more interested in the characters, including an intelligent family man (Amos), his good-natured friend and a chump (Andy), the old rascal (Kingfield), and so on?

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Memories play tricks on us, if only because of the oceans of facts, scenes, and imaginings that we experience. From Amos ’n’ Andy, I recall the Christmas show, when Amos would explain to his daughter Arbadella the Lord’s Prayer (or the story of Joseph, Mary, and Bethlehem). The Christmas season also meant that A Christmas Carol would be aired on radio, with Lionel Barrymore playing Ebeneezer Scrooge. I listened to both each year.

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In the early Fifties, Amos ’n’ Andy made it to TV, and they wisely decided to cast black actors in the parts.

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Amos Jones was played by Alvin Childress, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, while Ruby Jones, as sensible as the mom on Father Knows Best, was played by Jane Adams (no, not today’s Jane Adams).

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Andrew Hogg Brown was portrayed by Spencer Williams of Vidalia, Louisiana. In researching the Charles Norman Film Studios in Jacksonville, where African American actors played straight dramatic roles for films that were shown to minority audiences, I came across the name of Oscar D. Micheaux, an influential African American director of films. Norman, a white, helped to distribute some of Micheaux’s films. In the same book on African Americans in U.S. films were extensive sections on the actor who played Andy. Spencer Williams wrote films, directed them, and even starred in Western films.

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For bits of stage business, Williams stands out for the way he lifts his derby, removes his cigar, and says a melodic “H-e-l-l-o” when meeting a potential lady friend. The bit is similar to Matt Le Blanc’s Joey Tribbiani saying “How-ya-doin’ ” to sweet young things.

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A splendid actor and stand-up comedian, Tim Moore of Rock Island, Illinois, played the rascal George “Kingfish” Stevens. A key bit of comic business occurred when the Kingfish was trying to hook Andy into one of his schemes. He’d tilt his head, purse his lips slightly, and study Andy to see if his fish was on the line.

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Kingfish’s wife, Sapphire (Ernestine Wade of Jackson, Mississippi), had the same sort of exasperated expression that some of the women in my allied families had with their husbandly reprobates.

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Sapphire’s mother and Kingfish’s mother-in-law was Ramona Smith, who was played by one of two sisters on the show, Amanda Randolph of Louisville, Kentucky. Her “hmmph!” let you know that she saw straight through the Kingfish no matter what his shenanigans were.

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Andy’s on-again-off-again sweetheart was Madame Queen, played by Lillian Randolph of Knoxville, Tennessee.

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A recurring character was the shyster lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun. Johnny Lee of Los Angeles would get him wound up as he bellowed and pounded the table to someone in authority, “Do you mean to tell ME that—” Invariably, perhaps as he realized a desk sergeant was thumbing through a stack of wanted posters, he would be deflated and quickly hurry outside. Lee is best known for his voice work on Disney’s The Song of the South.

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The character of Willie “Lightnin’” Jefferson was played by Nick Stewart (billed as “Nick O’Demus” ) of New York City. Lightnin’ was rubberstamped from characters portrayed by Stepin Fetchit (the first black actor to become a millionaire) and Willie Best.

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It is interesting to learn that Stewart took the part in order to raise enough money to open the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles so that minorities would not be restricted to playing maids and porters. Their alumni, from all races, included John Amos, Phil Collins, Tom Ewell, Al Freeman Jr., Chaka Khan, B. B. King, Eartha Kitt, Gladys Knight, Nichelle Nichols, Isabel Sanford, William Schallert, and Yuki Shimoda.

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When She Who demands that I do something, I’m still apt to answer, “I’m going to whiz on out there,” and then take my time doing anything.

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The radio show, in particular, relied on word-play and malaprops: “Let’s simonize our watches.” Meanwhile, on Jack Benny’s show, a character was repeatedly asking for “cimarron toast.” At the movie theater, Stan would complain to Ollie that he was having a “nervous shakedown.” Comic word-play of this nature goes back to Shakespeare’s Constable Dogberry and Mistress Quickly and Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop.

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Amos ’n’ Andy helped to expand the horizons of this kid back then (as did The FBI in Peace and War, Johnny Dollar, and Richard Diamond on radio). Keep in mind that this shy kid lived in such big cities as Jasper in Alabama, Vidalia in Georgia, Marianna in Florida, and eventually Pensacola. I had never seen a judge except in movies and on TV shows. The black judges on Amos ’n’ Andy seemed as sensible and competent as Morris Ankrum or Ray Collins on other shows.

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My towns did not have any black policemen or deputies, but I saw them on Amos ’n’ Andy.

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I rarely went into stores run by blacks, except when my father drove a bread truck and I “helped” with deliveries. In Cokeoven (the black region of my hometown), a black man ran a small store and invented pulleys that he could manipulate to open doors and close shutters. But Amos ’n’ Andy had shopkeepers and merchants as dignified as, say, family friends Herman and Bernard Weinstein in my hometown.

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Amos ’n’ Andy planted seeds that said African Americans could do more than they were doing in the Forties and Fifties in the South.

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The black cast of Amos ’n’ Andy would have sympathized with Robert Townsend’s plight when he moved from Illinois to make his way in an entertainment world that restricted black actors to playing maids, porters, waiters, and the like. He satirized Hollywood’s preference for Mandingo stereotypes in Hollywood Shuffle (1987). Black actors were often told they weren’t black enough for key roles.

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Each decade or age will have its respective fads and foibles. Sometimes we have to recognize when some talented people strived to good work in a project that we may not admire overall.

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--30--

 

 

Lies vs. "Truth with blinders" on?

Posted by Howard Denson on September 30, 2016 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

 

We can ignore Parson Weems’ stories about young George Washington always telling the truth. We all lie. Grownups lie regularly. Children lie even more since they don’t know what will truly get them into trouble.

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I even remember my first lie, or, to be exact, I remember when I first had to say that which was not so.

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During World War II, with my father in the Navy, my mother and I were staying with my maternal grandparents at their house on Sixth Avenue in Jasper, Alabama, and my great-grandfather, Joseph Stephenson, had dropped by for a visit.

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He was in the front yard and about to go up the steps when he slipped and fell into a bush. He struggled to get up, and, to be helpful, I alleged, with the wisdom of a two-to-three-year-old, “I fell there once and was able to get up.”

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He tried again to get up and eventually asked me to go get my mother, which I did.

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Let’s jump forward in time when everyone had wrist watches that had to be wound up every day. If you had Citizens #1, 2, and 3, you could ask them what time it was. Citizen 1 might say, “It’s 10:15.” Citizen 2: “I’ve got 10:17.” Citizen 3: “10:15.”

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I would simply assume that 10:15 is probably the correct time, but that Citizen 2 liked to have a two-minute margin for appointments.

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But some people would frown and grumble, “Why did Citizen 2 lie to me.”

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Often they have no gray in their world.

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We like to quote Hitler and his crew about the eventual success of telling a lie if you tell it often enough. That seems to have become a fixture in American politics of the early 21st Century.

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If a person knowingly tells a lie over and over, he or she may be using a political technique. “Listen to me (wink, wink), for I’ll tell you yahoos the truth.”

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I have trouble understanding why honorable individuals would continue to tell whoppers.

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Before I climb up on my pedestal and polish my wings and halo, I decided to do a fearless self-inventory and ask, “Have you, as an adult, ever said something (other than white lies) that was clearly false?”

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(Disclaimer: She Who Knows All doesn’t believe a thing I say.)

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Finally I came up with an incident. Northeast Florida civil rights leader Rodney Hurst and I were lunching on the Northside and got to discussing race, differences between the races, etc.

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I remarked that you can generally tell when a speaker is African American.

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Rodney disagreed.

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Looking back, I was thinking with blinders on, meaning I was using part of my brain. My classes often had anywhere from 10% to 55% African American, and each day I tried to be helpful, courteous, competent, and kind to my students. My attention was generally more on their writing than on the way they spoke, but generally there was a difference.

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Sometime later, Rodney and I munched again, and, as the topic came up again, I stood my ground.

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After that, the blinders came off bit by bit, and I actually started using all of my pea-brain. As a little boy, I grew up listening on the radio to “Amos and Andy,” whose voices, plus that of George “Kingfish” Stevens, were done by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, both white guys.

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On radio in Pensacola and Norfolk, I had my favorite announcers and DJ’s, and, when one came into The Pensacola News Journal office, I saw he was a pencil-neck geek and not at all the dashing Rip Kirby or Clark Kent I had imagined.

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When you hear radio announcers today, you are too often reminded that they are graduates of a Radio Announcers College Program since they all sound alike, whether black, white, Hispanic, or Asian.

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I first became aware of George Takei a.k.a. Mr. Sulu, when he was a guest star on “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” in the mid-Sixties. He played a Japanese soldier who had attended Georgia Tech and had the thickest “sho-nuff” accent imaginable. Takei over the years has voiced dozens of roles and, unless a role requires him to play a Japanese soldier, you don’t detect anything “Asian” about his enunciation.

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I get led astray and wind up with blinders on when I think in terms of human voice boxes. For example, Bing Crosby of the Forties greatly influenced Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, as they both admitted. However, Perry Como in his early years with Ted Weems Orchestra sang so much like Bing that it is hard to tell them apart. Sinatra spawned a bunch of saloon-singer sound-alikes, including Dick Haymes, Jack Jones, Matt Monro, and others.

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A major influence on Bing Crosby was Louis Armstrong, who influenced vocalists and pianists. When Tommy Dorsey died in 1956, his musician friends were recruited by Jackie Gleason to do a special tribute to the sentimental gentleman of swing. Part of the discussion focused on Louis’ influence on musicians. At age 15, I didn’t understand enough about music to know what they were talking about, but Louis wasn’t restricted to traditional singing notation, but gave special emphasis to the each lyric. Pianists were often using chords in both hands, but Louis’ trumpet playing inspired them to let a lead melody dominate. (I think. I’m no pianist, but--and this is true--I played Liberace in a ninth grade play at Blount Junior High in Pensacola.)

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Sammy Davis Jr. in his earliest recordings came across like Sinatra, who told him to trust his own voice and sound like himself.

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Similar voice boxes to my ears included Billy Eckstine, Al Hibbler, and occasionally Joe Williams. On the female side, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee had similar voices. Peggy was accused of shamelessly imitating Billie.

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Early on, critics were saying that Frankie Laine and Elvis had the black sound. My ears weren’t sharp enough to detect that, but they certain differed from, say, Eddie Fisher or Vic Damone. Both were solid vocalists. Fisher was influenced more by Al Jolson; Sinatra said Damone had the best pipes in the business.

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So, with blinders on, I was wrong in what I argued with Rodney.

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That brings us to “birtherism.” The right-wing persisted in arguing this canard even though it undercut not Barack Obama but such politicos as Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and others. The line of argument basically said, “Hillary, Bill, the Bushes, and all the conservatives were too inept to prove that Obama was actually born in Kenya [or wherever].”

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The Bushes, the Clintons, and their allies have enough contacts in the intelligent services throughout the world to uncover anything they wanted to. Obama, a mere first-term senator, as Obama was, had no such network.

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Eventually, even the top birther advocate let go of the lie, only to backtrack when the base raised a ruckus.

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They aren’t telling truth with blinders on.

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They are telling lies with blindfolds on.

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--30--

 

Who has destroyed the GOP?

Posted by Howard Denson on August 12, 2016 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

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First off, I don’t think the Republican Party is dead as a national force. It has a powerful hold on governorships and state legislatures. Pundits may want to blame the national demise on Little Donald, but it’s more complicated than that.

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Let’s list some GOPers of the 20th Century: Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie (a businessman), Thomas Dewey, Robert Taft, Ike, Nixon, Rockefeller, Ford, Reagan, Dirksen, Howard Baker, Jim Baker, and so on. They had solid credentials. The Great Depression was beyond Hoover’s ability to handle (and some would argue that FDR didn’t really eradicate it until WW2 came along), but his business and public service background suggested he would be an ideal president. Except for holdouts like Barry Goldwater, Republicans in the Sixties helped pass the Civil Rights Act, while the Southern Democrats of the day were the party of “hell, no, suh.”

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Then something happened. In my stomping grounds, we had a Congressman named John Buchanan, who was a moderate conservative. The far right put up an opponent and threw him out of office. (He swung to the left and became a leader in the People for the American Way.)

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Moving forward to more recent times, we have the Tea Party movement. If a GOPer was in office and displeasing them, they primaried his sorry ass and often defeated him. That put the fear of defeat into incumbents. Many moderates chose to decline to run for re-election, and the far right prevailed even more.

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When the GOP nominated Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, the far right claimed they lost because they weren’t conservative enough. If they just had a “real conservative” on the ballot, they said they would have won. This brings up my principle (and I’m sure others have stated it, too) that the far right and far left have serious problems counting. Each end of the spectrum thinks that 15% support merits a gold medal for first place. It doesn’t.

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Moreover, the far right, having decided to become the party of “no,” has burned bridges with other possible constituent groups. They reject compromise as demeaning their high principles. As a result, they reject the path to winning national elections.

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The far right also has a problem because of its dominance in state houses and governorships. If the State of Florida is a mess, they can’t logically blame it on the Democrats. They have controlled both houses and the governor’s office. If something’s broken, it’s their fault. Kansas has been a respectably conservative state until recent years when Gov. Brownback made it into an experimental lab for right-wingers. Their policies have ruined the state’s finances, and the voters are beginning to realize that they must have a change of direction.

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Little Donald has shaken up the political dynamics and deserves some credit in that area. However, his nomination has proved a disaster. His supporters are whistling by the graveyard telling themselves how he could still win, if this and if that.

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The primary system will need to be re-examined. I question the wisdom of open primaries, despite the cries from independents for additional primaries to be open. Instead, I recommend that only Republicans vote for GOP candidates, only Democrats for Dem candidates, and so on. Independents need to take a different approach: either join one of the two major parties or form a (pick a name) American Progressive Party, the Tea Party, or whatever.

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In an ideal world, we should shorten the campaign time, but the First Amendment would kick in. If someone wishes to start campaigning for office for 2020 or 2024, the Constitution permits it. The GOP needs to explore if it really needs to subject itself to a plethora of debates. These end up smearing and butchering the field to such an extent that unity is almost impossible.

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A political joke during the second half of the last century was Harold Stassen, a perpetual candidate. However, go to Wikipedia or another source and read up on Stassen. He had solid credentials, was sane, and could have been a good-to-adequate president.

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Unfortunately, today’s jokes aren’t all that funny.

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--30--

 

 

Ms. Trump plagiarized . . . and was betrayed

Posted by Howard Denson on July 19, 2016 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

Of course, Melania Trump plagiarized her speech. For Team Trump to say the accusation is “crazy” is in itself whacko because her speech lifted 22 of 26 words from a key section of Michelle Obama’s address to a Democratic convention.

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So shame on Melania, but let’s heap even more shame on those who betrayed her: the Trump staffers in charge of speech writing. Someone may argue that the Team Trump is so shallow as to not have formal speech writers as did Obama, Romney, Hillary, Bush II, Clinton, and so on for decades.

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Particularly today a sharp staffer can use one of the plagiarism detection online programs . . . or simply type in phrases here and there to see if anything forks lightning.

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I don’t recall when potential First Ladies began speaking to their political conventions. Eleanor Roosevelt probably did, but Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower did not. I don’t think Jackie Kennedy did for Jack in 1960. LadyBird? Maybe. Pat Nixon definitely not.

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Maybe Hillary addressed the convention in 1992 for her lovable bird-dog of a husband (bless his heart). For the Bushes, Barbara and Laura very likely addressed their conventions without controversy.

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It’s a big thing when male or female addresses a political convention and the whole country. Unless the speaker is a major candidate, it may end up being the highlight of a career. Certainly that was the case for then Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Although she had been revealed as a bit of a goof-ball, she gave a solid and passionate speech at the convention. Team McCain cared enough to help her along.

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In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz Kerry gave a fine speech to the convention and would have been an interesting First Lady.

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It is tempting to try to excuse Melania’s plagiarism because of her lack of a college degree. Her husband has already said he doesn’t read much, except for magazines and perhaps Heinz ketchup bottles.

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Freshmen in college often have no concept of what plagiarism is. In olden days, when mean old Miz McGillicuddy couldn’t stand their darling faces anymore, she would send them to the library to look up and write about some topic. If a student only had the M-volume of an encyclopedia, he might copy an entire article on “Mozambique,” and perhaps discover that John Kerry’s wife was born there. Miz MG would put a check mark on the assignment when it was turned in and resume teaching when her migraine went away.

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Then online resources came along, and students learned how to copy and paste info from the web, even how to buy term papers, and they could turn these in with minimal changes, if any. They weren’t aware that it was just as easy for Miz MG to use the same tools to discover they were ripping off Wikipedia.

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A friend with two master’s degrees (science and business) once gave me his understanding of plagiarism: “If you change one word in one hundred pages, it’s not plagiarism.”

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No, no, no, no!

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When the EMT crew resuscitated me, I explained that he had the concept entirely wrong. If you use as many as, say, three words in a row from a source, you have to credit it with in-text citations and possibly an endnote. (A freshman might take that advice literally and put quotes around “outside in the,” which will make you sigh.)

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At one time, we didn’t have a concept of plagiarism. If you check out the Oxford English Dictionary, you will see that the term goes back to about 1600 (slightly before). The word originally referred to “kidnap” because, when you steal another’s words, you steal his or her baby. In the 1500s, English poets would translate works by French or Latin poets and readers in the British Isles would congratulate them for their wonderful work (Petrarch having become chopped pepperoni).

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When scholars wrote their theses or gave addresses, they quoted like mad from the Greeks and Romans, giving credit to known poets and writers. The scope of their writing demonstrated the depth of their learning (and made for awfully hard reading today).

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You may be surprised to learn about a contrarian view concerning plagiarism. The perspective is put forth by formerly wicked children who once stuffed green peas up their noses. This group argues that everything belongs to everyone nowadays thanks to the ubiquitous internet. It’s no longer necessary to cite.

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That falls somewhere between Absolute Nonsense and Silly Nonsense, for, even if we are unclear on the definition of plagiarism, we are quick to tsk-tsk at others when they transgress.

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The Hall of Fame of Plagiarists has many prominent names in it. As we turn down this corridor, we notice the smiling face of Vice President Joe Biden. The plaque informs us that he plagiarized at the Syracuse School of Law and later as a presidential candidate when he ripped off a speech by the U.K. Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

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One of Biden’s speechwriters was Pat Caddell, and he has a bust and a plaque in the HoFoP. When needing a speech for a candidate, he liked to rely on speeches given by Robert Kennedy or Kinnock.

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Stephen Ambrose had to apologize for using passages from historian Thomas Childers in his book about World War II B-24 bomber crews. He had footnoted the source but didn’t put quote marks around material he took verbatim.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin ran into a similar problem. She had footnotes, but she didn’t paraphrase sufficiently the sources she used. A Harvard University guide for freshmen says this about plagiarism:

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Most often, however, the plagiarist has started out with good intentions but hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires, has become desperate, and just wants the whole thing done with. At this point, in one common scenario, the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source's words and ideas blur into those of the student, who has neither the time nor the inclination to resist the blurring. … If, in your essay on plagiarism, after reading the [previous sentence] you observe that "at a certain point in the writing process the student has neither the time nor the inclination to resist the blurring of his source's words into his own" but don't use quotation marks at least for the words in the middle of the sentence, you are plagiarizing even if you do cite [this] booklet.

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Alex Haley made history with his “Roots.” It was first presented as a nonfiction memoir, but eventually was labeled as a novel. That may have been caused partly by the accusation of author Harold Courlander, who said that passages of "Roots" were taken from his novel "The African." Haley said he did not intentionally plagiarize but claimed he was relying on some research by students to help flesh out the book.

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Norman Mailer went through a schoolyard-style exchange of “you did . . . did not, you did . . . did not” after the release of Marilyn: A Biography (1973). Mailer had been asked to write text to go with photographs for a coffee-table book about MM. Mailer tried to call his manuscript "a novel written in the form of a biography. . . . a species of novel ready to play by the rules of biography." But Maurice Zolotow (“Marilyn Monroe” 1960) and Fred Guiles (“Norma Jean” 1969) thought they were being ripped off. Eventually, the school marm blew the whistle, and the boys returned to their classes.

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Many professions have books of boiler-plate that can be consulted if you need to give a talk. Ministers rely on them. Need a sermon for Palm Sunday? Let’s go to the Book of Sermons. It is not uncommon for politicians to have similar books or at least collections of talks.

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Dear hearts, you aren’t going to believe this, but in universities it’s now a grievous sin to engage in self-plagiarism. That means you can’t take a paper you had written for Class I and then turn in that paper a term later for Class II.

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We will forget that Professor McGillicuddy plagiarizes his or her own lectures. When you take him in Course A, then B, then C, so often the lectures are the same.

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Newspaper columnists like to ask each other, “How many columns do you have in you?”

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They refer to “how many different topics,” and the responses will range from three to seven or more. Yet they may be producing two or three columns a week for 50 weeks (allowing time off for holidays).

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Solutions? Write your first draft from what’s inside you. If you need to flesh out your talk here and there, cite any sources you use. If you are overly careful and cite a little too much, you may irritate your audience. If you are sloppy and cite too little, you may antagonize your audience and destroy your career.

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Can Campuses produce good writers or is it a lost cause?

Posted by Howard Denson on July 18, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (1)

By HOWARD DENSON

 

When I was a student more than a half-century ago, my profs would occasionally grumble, “No really good writing or books come from newspapers.” Of course, that assertion wasn’t true since newspapers and magazines have produced many fine writers. Just to name a few, we have Dickens, Twain, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, Hemingway, and others.

 

In one respect, the publications didn’t produce the writers. Instead, the writers used various newspapers and magazines as their publishing venue.

 

The print media can infuse writers with many good habits. They teach the importance of a deadline. Reporters learn to tune out distractions and knock out the copy. Reporters learn the importance of the five W’s and the H. You use these specifics in news, but also in fiction and nonfiction.

 

These media can also handicap writers with several bad habits. A steady diet of routine police reports, sewage contract discussions at a city/county council, etc. will not help writers to develop their own voices. New Journalism came along, thanks to Tom Wolfe and others, and relieved the voiceless problem a bit.

 

Writers can also find that they are expected to produce “one take” (page) stories about most topics, and, when the one-take approach is applied to nonfiction narratives or stories, writers may have trouble getting a handle on a subject.

 

The other extreme occurs when a reporters are having to produce verbiage without the benefit of stories and photographs from the wire. A weekly paper, for example, may have as its minimum size 12 tabloid pages, and, if advertising is practically non-existent that week, the reporters may struggle to fill the pages without using a house ad (a full page saying something like “The Bugtussle Bugle blows its horn every Thursday to give you the news and best buys in Lake Algae” ).

 

One of the “hither and yon” items in this issue refers to an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Noah Berlatsky declares that no one should be surprised if much scholarly writing continues to be mediocre and confused. He is the editor of the online journal, The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-48.

 

In the 1920s, Henry Watson Fowler attacked the problem of shoddy writing with his Dictionary of Modern English Usage. An ally in this fight was George Orwell, who produced “Politics and the English Language” twenty years later. Both of these complain about convoluted passages similar to those that drew Berlatsky’s wrath.

 

In the 1950s, Malcolm Cowley concentrated on bad academic writing in “Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification.” Cowley noted that a poet friend had gone for a degree in sociology, but he sent this zinger to his friend: “You have such a fine sense of the poet's craft . . . that you shouldn't have allowed the sociologists to seduce you into writing their professional slang — or at least that's my judgmental response to your role selection.”

 

At a get-together later, the poet confessed: “I knew my dissertation was badly written, but I had to get my degree. If I had written it in English, Professor Blank . . . would have rejected it. He would have said it was merely belletristic.”

 

Cowley’s friend had learned that he had to absorb the Academic Power Dialect if he wanted to succeed on campus with a doctorate and a possible tenure-track position.

 

Some realistic cynics will complain that 95 percent of what we write as students isn’t worth reading a day, year, or decade later. Prodigies, such as Milton, Keats, Capote, and others, will be exceptions, but the rule holds for everyone else, including this scribbler. For decades, students hadn’t gotten a handle on English itself, despite the best efforts of mean old Miz McGillicuddy. Lately, they have been writing with their thumbs, in phrases, and auto-correct on and suggesting outlandish possibilities or auto-correct off and letting us see the natural creature that is homo ungrammatical.

 

The students evolve, improve their natural writing here and there, and absorb the Academic Power Dialect to an increasing degree. Finally, some will have mastered the Academic Power Dialect, and they will fly over hurdles and through mazes until they reach their degrees.

 

Problems may arise when they scratch the urge to write seriously and enter contests or send off submissions to magazines. Too often, their entries or submissions don’t soar but nosedive into the ground.

 

What could the problems be? First, in much of journalism and almost all of the Academic Writing Arena, the writing is distanced from the action. Second, the Academic standard can, and usually does, deaden the prose.

 

Orwell save six suggestions for improving one’s writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You will notice that the most valuable of Orwell’s rules is the last one. Also keep in mind that, with his educational background, he had a vocabulary better than the average bear. He might end up using a longer word than you and I would have selected. Indeed, since a Brit of his generation knew Latin, French, and German, you expect to see a Latin phrase creep into his essays. It’s like Bubba of Abilene telling his buddies “adios,” not even thinking of it being Spanish.

 

Is there hope for the future?

 

Absolutely not.

 

First, no one is teaching grammar.

 

Second, most higher education faculty don’t know grammar anyway.

 

Third, they argue, “Studies show there is no correlation between good grammar and fine writing.” They don’t want to address the matter that much bad writing correlates quite well with bad grammar.

 

Fourth, they won’t utilize the computer-assisted lessons that can help writers to address their specific errors. A typical student does not need to go through all of the grammar lessons: on agreement, proper case, misplaced modifiers, incorrect punctuation, etc. We have the technology to identifying the respective areas of weakness of Marcia and then Kevin. But the system doesn’t follow through.

 

What do the high ed experts rely on?

 

Osmosis. Yes, yes, that mainly applies to plants, but communications departments often figure that if they arrange their smaller plants in close proximity to the larger plants (the students and then the teachers, you see), the wee plants will absorb what they need: the Academic Power Dialect . . . and maybe some chlorophyll for a breath with the freshness of spring.

 

In fifty years, will things improve? Nope. We’ll hear the same basic complaints, and some curmudgeon will write a piece similar to this one. Someone please say, "Denson told you so back in 2016."

--30--

Lessons from nature about what is a conservative

Posted by Howard Denson on July 4, 2016 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)

By HOWARD DENSON

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I am a sucker for quizzes that assess your positions and announce whether you are liberal, conservative, or whatever.

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Back in 2000, I regularly took one website’s quiz to verify where I stood up against the candidates of the day. As I expected, I regularly ranked closest to Al Gore, although I was surprised once when the program said I most agreed with U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

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I checked the GOP alternatives and found that George W. Bush was my closest match, not John McCain, as I had hoped. Of course, it turned out later that Bush the Younger switched positions right and left, and, if Bush had been honest about what he would actually do as president, McCain would have been a better match.

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A recent quiz didn’t tie my positions to particular candidates, but the quiz concluded that I was a raving liberal.

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Hmm, said I then, that’s strange, considering that I voted for Barry Goldwater and was a member of the (now defunct) Conservative Book Club.

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What would make me liberal?

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As a boy, when I walked the trails of Walker and Winston counties with my grandfather and other grownups, I learned how to take, say, a cowcumber leaf and make it into a cup to drink from the springs we came across. Some springs dripped from cliffs; some bubbled out of the ground, heavy with sulfa.

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You could drink from some of the creeks and rivers without worrying about E. coli.

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The trails teach you about life: For example, they teach you to conserve what is precious, and nothing could be more precious than clean ground water, lakes, and rivers.

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Shysters back then automatically wanted to use creeks and rivers for dumping poisonous chemical byproducts. They wanted a creek or river to wash their wastes away. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River had so many chemicals dumped in it that the surface caught fire about a dozen times. A half century ago, the fires didn’t just make an unsightly mess; they also racked up $1 million in damages to bridges, boats, and buildings adjoining the river.

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For a long time, if someone wanted to clean up the mess, the polluters could call them job-destroying liberals or tree huggers or commies. When your river is on fire, people don’t feel comfortable getting along by going along.

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In truth, the manufacturers then believed in laissez-faire, their right to do anything they wanted. Their version of total non-regulation may put them closer to the classical definition of liberal only if we accept they are “free” to do as they damned well pleased with that which did not belong to them. We can’t call them conservatives because they are not conserving; we can’t call them liberals. These corporate miscreants are something else: “corpsters,” in the spirit of “banksters” (i.e., those in the banking industry out to enrich themselves even if it bankrupts the country and their clients).

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Those who track economic terms note that laissez-faire was expanded into “Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même!” (“Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!” ).

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The key phrase in this expression is “the world goes on by itself,” because at a certain point cities may overwhelm nature. It was handy to have a river that could wash away our bodily wastes. We could always drink upstream. But when the river is on fire or when it becomes an open sewer, as did the Seine in France, the Thames in London, and the St. Johns in North Florida, we have to take action.

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As I walked the trails of Walker and Winston back in the late Forties and early Fifties, we would often see the ruins of log cabins. Sometimes a building would simply be boarded up and perhaps was storing equipment. At other times, there would be no doors or windows to keep you out, and you could imagine escaping a storm until the weather cleared up. Still other cabins, had a free-standing fireplace, some foundation supports, and only a hint of the walls.

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Even so, you realized someone had lived here, perhaps during the Civil War, perhaps in the early 1800s when whites were pushing out the Cherokees and Creeks. The foundations of some outbuildings might exist, and here might be the smoke house. You would remember that during the Civil War many families no longer had access to salt, and they resorted to sifting through the soil in the smokehouse for salt that had dropped off of slabs of pork or beef. They poured the mixture into pots, and the wood chips and debris floated to the top to be skimmed off.

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The scene taught these lessons: People would work hard on their farms to raise crops and animals. If they gave of their sweat and labor, they were entitled to the fruit of their farms. If one family had a season of bad luck, kith and kin often stepped in to tide them over to the next season.

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Wars interfered with this process, causing them to struggle to find salt for their farms or making them roast acorns and the like to find substitutes for coffee.

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Today’s agri-business often destroys this self-reliant model. The farmers may be forbidden to share seeds among themselves or even for their respective farms. Indeed, the crops have often been modified so they will not produce seeds. When agri-business suspects some seed hanky-panky is occurring, they file suits and often prevail without just cause simply because the small farmers can’t afford the expense of fighting the suits.

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The end result may be a centralization of crops, mainly in California, instead of being spread throughout the country. The vegetables produced quite often have been designed to provide tough skins permitting them to travel long distances. They generally lack the nutritional value of comparable vegetables grown in the 19th and first part of the 20th Centuries.

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What should be done in this age when some bellow that we want to make America great again?

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Leave agri-business alone? Don’t mess with the actual workers and producers? Let’s be conservative?

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Hardly. What they are “conserving” is a profit mechanism based on short-cuts and shoddy agriculture.

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We can do better than this . . . without worrying about political labels.

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