The Fellowship of the Ring

May 28, 2015

The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien put it. The Lord of the Rings began as a sequel to Tolkien’s successful children’s book, The Hobbit. The early drafts of the story were written in the same lighthearted manner as the Hobbit in a style quite different from the stories of the Elves, posthumously published as the Silmarilion, that Tolkien considered his real life’s work. Very soon, however, the tale took on a darker and grander tone. Tolkien’s two worlds that briefly touched in the Hobbit, came together to produce the epic tale of the War of the Ring and the end of the Elder Days of the Eldar.

The Hobbit is a children’s book that adults can enjoy. The Lord of the Rings is the book for those children who enjoyed the Hobbit who are now grown up. The Elves no longer sit in trees and sing silly songs. They are the Firstborn, ancient beings of great ability and nobility who have their own sorrows. The Dwarves become the noble Khazad, the Naugrim with a fierce loyalty to kin and friends and ever willing to fight for their rights. Gandalf grows from being a cantankerous conjurer to a mighty enemy of Sauron. Bilbo’s ring of invisibility, which he used to avoid unpleasant callers, becomes the One Ring, whose wearer can obtain absolute power, at the cost of his soul. The Hobbits also grow in the course of the story. Bilbo Baggins began as little more than baggage at the beginning of The Hobbit., but emerged as a great hero by the end. Frodo and company are less helpless in the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, but they still need rescuing. The Hobbits are decidedly minor members of the Company of the Ring, at least until the end of the first book. . By the end of the story, they have grown great enough to stand with the wizards and warriors, yet their humbler perspective continues to be essential in bringing the story to the level of the reader. The Lord of the Rings told from the viewpoint of Gandalf or Aragorn would be a different, and more remote story.

Fellowship-cover

Tolkien always disavowed any connection between the events in the Lord of the Rings and the real life events that occurred during its writing. I am not sure that I believe him. Tolkien did not consciously model the War of the Ring on World War II and Sauron was not based on Hitler, but I cannot imagine that a writer’s life experiences wouldn’t have great influence on his writings. In Tolkien’s case, there seem to be certain themes in the Lord of the Rings that must have been based on Tolkien’s own experiences in in both World Wars.

One theme repeated several times in the Fellowship is that it is the small and humble who do the real work of saving the world while the great have their minds on other things. While the elves, wizards and warriors fight desperately to save Middle Earth, it is the insignificant Hobbits whose acts of heroism save the day. The Hobbits do not want to be kings or win glory in battle. They do not really want to be the ones to save the world. All the Hobbits want to do is their part for Middle Earth and then go back to the Shire. As Sam might put it, they have a job to do. Surely, Tolkien based his Hobbits on the common British enlisted men who served under him in World War I. The generals and statesmen made great plans for reordering the world, but it was the courage of the ordinary soldiers who won the war.

Hobbits on their

There is also a deep sense of loss that pervades the Lord of the Rings. This is not so apparent in the Fellowship of the Ring, except in the chapters dealing with the elves, especially in Lothlorien. This feeling of loss, that much that is good in Middle Earth must pass away even if Sauron is defeated becomes especially poignant in The Return of the King so perhaps I should discuss it more in a review of that part of the trilogy. This feeling of loss, even in victory, must come from Tolkien’s own experiences. In both world wars, Britain was victorious over German aggression, the good guys won, but after both wars Britain and the world was forever changed. In some ways, this change was for the better, yet much that was good about the prewar world was gone forever. By the time the Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950’s, Tolkien might well have felt like one of his Eldar, living in a world that was no longer his.

Elves leaving Middle Earth

Elves leaving Middle Earth

The Fellowship of the Ring, then, is more than simply a fantasy, but a serious, though fun, story dealing with serious themes of plot and characterization. I am convinced that the Lord of the Rings will be one of the few books from the twentieth century still read centuries from now.

Stamping Out Freedom of Speech

May 26, 2015

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has a new project he’s been working on. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with ice cream but involves repealing or amending the first amendment to end our free speech protections. This might seem like a stretch and certainly Ben doesn’t believe that he is doing any such thing, but he may not have thought through what his efforts to get the money out of our politics might actually entail.

Hi, fellow MoveOn member!
This is Ben Cohen, the “Ben” of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. For the past few years, I’ve run a national, grassroots campaign to get Big Money out of politics.
It’s called Stamp Stampede. And the way it works is simple: activists around the country stamp—and then spend—dollar bills with a simple message, such as “Amend the Constitution—Stamp Money Out Of Politics.” Want a stamp?

Just click here, donate $10 or more to help MoveOn’s campaigns to stamp money out of politics, and I’ll send you a stamp!

Stamping dollar bills is one of the most fun—and subversive—ways you can demand a revolution in the way we fund campaigns. (And yes, it’s totally legal. Our lawyers have confirmed it.)

It’s also like a petition on steroids. The math is pretty incredible. Here’s how ordinary people can give billionaires a run for their money:

  • Every bill we stamp is seen by over 875 people.1
  • If just 5,000 MoveOn members (out of 8 million of us) get a stamp—and stamp one bill every day for one year—our message will be seen 1.6 billion times.
  • Each dollar bill that’s stamped directs people to a website where they can join the fight to overturn Citizens United.

Together, we can get our message in front of millions of Americans and bring in droves of new money-in-politics activists each year—which is what it’ll take to win this long-term fight.

Click here to get your stamp for a donation of $10 or more—and help build the movement.

Once you start stamping money, you’ll find it’s pretty addictive. You can spend your stamped money with pride. And let people know that this dollar is not to be used for bribing politicians (you’ll be surprised by how many new friends you’ll make!)

Thanks for all you do.

–Ben Cohen, Stamper-In-Chief

What does money have to do with free speech and why would getting the money out of politics threaten it? Well, to start with, it costs money to run for public office. Either an aspiring candidate may spend his own money to fund his campaign or he may solicit others to donate money. There are not many people wealthy enough to spend their own money to fund a political campaign on the national or even the state level and most people would consider a government made up of only the very wealthy to be undesirable, therefore there will always be a need for politicians to request donations from those who for various reasons are willing to give them money. No campaign finance legislation can change that simple reality. In fact, most proposals for getting the money out of politics seem to be aimed at getting the other side’s money out of politics. We are funded by small donations from ordinary people who wanted to make this country a better place. They are funded by millionaires and billionaires who want to protect their own greedy interests. Somehow, for all the fuss the progressives make about the nefarious Koch Brothers, they never seem to be bothered by the money George Soros spends on politics.

o-STAMP-STAMPEDE-facebook

 

The first amendment guarantees our freedom of speech. It does not require anyone to provide us a forum for our speech. If an individual or a group wishes to have some impact on the political process by speaking for or against a given policy, law, or candidate for office, they must spend money to get their message out. They must purchase advertisements in printed periodicals or on broadcast media. They must print pamphlets, create audio visual media, etc. They may have a staff of volunteers, but at some point, they may find it desirable to have people working full time on the cause. These people have to be compensated for their time and efforts. More recently the rise of the Internet and digital broadcasting and published has made the process of getting a message out cheaper and more democratic. You do not need to own a newspaper or television station to influence events anymore. Still, if you want to be really effective, you still need to spend some money.

Free speech is not free.

Yes it is. Free speech is not free.

 

Like the politician seeking office, an individual or group seeking to get a political message out can spend their own money or solicit donations from people who support the individual or group’s goals. If the government can control and limit the funding of any political advocacy organization, it can effectively control and limit its speech. It does little good to guarantee freedom of speech if you prevent people from using that freedom in any sort of really effective manner. Indeed, this is a far more effective method of controlling dissent than the gulag. What good does it do to have the freedom to speak out if the only audience you are permitted to reach is a small circle of acquaintances? A dissident in a gulag may still be somewhat dangerous since he gets some attention and can even be regarded as a hero. A dissident who no one ever hears of is no danger to anyone.

Ben is probably sincere in  his desire to limit the influence in our politics but there will be money in politics as long as their is politics simply because politics requires money. Attempting to control the flow of money in politics will always tend to benefit some factions and parties at the expense of others. Controlling the money used to publish speech can be used to control the speech. This is not to say that we should have no campaign finance laws, but, as in everything else good intentions do not justify bad results and you must be on the lookout for unintended (or intended) consequences. Ben should stick to making ice cream.

Memorial Day

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_Day

Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

The Real O’Neals

May 18, 2015

Here is another petition that I probably won’t be signing.

If you didn’t know who Dan Savage is until today, it’s probably a good thing. But right now we need you to familiarize yourselves with one of the cruelest, most vile political activists in America.

Why? ABC plans to release a pilot sitcom based on the life of radical activist Dan Savage. Dan Savage is a hateful anti-Christian bigot.

This is a complete disgrace.

We are asking for ABC and its parent company Disney to IMMEDIATELY cancel their pilot sitcom based on the life of radical activist Dan Savage.

Don’t get me wrong. I do know who Dan Savage is. He is a nasty, bigoted piece of work who seems to believe that because some Christians have been less than Christ-like in their treatment of homosexuals, he as a homosexual activist has the right to bully Christians. Why ABC has decided to loosely base a sitcom on his life is beyond my comprehension. Here is a description of this charming project.

Well, anything remotely having to do with sex columnist and pro-gay bully Dan Savage would have to be bad, and the just-released trailer for The Real O’Neals confirms it. “The O’Neals are your typical Irish Catholic family,” the voiceover begins. Which of course means the daughter pockets what she collects for church charities, Mom and Dad are divorcing, the family priest’s vow of poverty doesn’t apply to his Lexus, and the main character, a teenage son, is gay and struggling to come out of the closet. Supposedly based on Savage’s early life, The Real O’Neals is all pretty standard religious-people-are-hypocrites lefty stuff. There are shots at Catholic theology and iconography (“I can’t come out. Have you ever met my mom? She put a statue of the Virgin Mary over the toilet so we’d remember to put the seat down.”) and lots of talk about vaginas and condoms. And it appears the whole plot comes to a very public boil at the parish bingo night. Frankly, there’s nothing new and it doesn’t look very funny, so ABC’s determination to go ahead with developing the show in the face of protest from the MRC and a host of religious groups and leaders looks like a cultural thumb in the eye.

Did I mention that Dan Savage is a nasty bigot?

Savage is a hateful anti-Christian bigot who publishes filth under the guise of “sex advice.”  Some of his greatest hits: In March Savage invited Dr. Ben Carson to “Suck my dick.” Last January, he suggested the Christian parents whose transgender teen committed suicide be charged with murder, tweeting “an example needs 2 be made.” He’s hoped Sarah Palin gets cancer, and marked the retirement of Pope Benedict’s retirement by headlining his column: “That Motherfucking Power-Hungry, Self-Aggrandized Bigot In the Stupid Fucking Hat Announces His Retirement.” Most infamously, because Savage didn’t like something Sen. Rick Santorum said about homosexuality back in 2003, he “Google-Bombed” the senator’s name in the vilest possible way.

All the same I will not support this effort to get ABC to cancel the upcoming show. If I were the sort of person who wanted to tell television networks what shows they should run, I would be a liberal. As it is, as far as I am concerned, they can run whatever garbage they please. It is unlikely I’ll be watching.

The other reason that I do not support this petition is that it will do no good. It is obvious that the executives from ABC and the other networks do not care what conservatives or Christians think or whether they are offended. In fact, from their perspective, protests from conservatives are the best possible reason to go ahead with the program. No doubt the executives at ABC are patting themselves on the back, praising their courage for standing up to the “religious right”. Also, it must have occurred to more than one person in production and promotion of the The Real O’Neals that this show isn’t really very good and will likely be cancelled before the season is over. They have probably decided that the only way to get people to watch the the show is to invoke the “banned in Boston” effect by playing up the show as a controversial program that the Christians want to censor, hoping that the progressive and the dull witted (but I repeat myself) can be encouraged to keep watching just to show those anti-gay conservatives. I would rather not play into their hands.

The best way to protest an obnoxious and offensive show like this is simply to not watch it and not give it the attention it does not deserve.

Death , Taxes, and Ice Cream

May 15, 2015

Ben and Jerry, of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, have a petition from Moveon.org that they want me to sign.

Dear MoveOn member,

It’s Ben and Jerry—the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream—and we need your help.

We want to pay our fair share of taxes, but Republicans in Congress are trying to pass an unnecessary tax giveaway to America’s wealthiest citizens. We don’t want, need, or deserve this tax cut—which is why we’re asking you to sign

our petition to Senate Democrats that states:

If Senate and House Republicans have their way, they will eliminate the estate tax, which affects only the wealthiest 0.2% of taxpayers. Repealing the estate tax would hurt our economy and be fundamentally unfair. Senate Democrats: Stand with us—and stay united against the repeal.Sign Ben & Jerry’s petition

Here’s the truth: We don’t need this stupid tax cut.

As we recently wrote in an op-ed in USA Today, we’re wealthy thanks to the good fortune of our efforts—but also because of many other societal factors that contributed to our wealth.1 The estate tax is one of the ways that the wealthy pay forward so the next generation has the opportunities we had.

The estate tax, which the U.S. has had for more than a century, currently affects Americans with estates worth at least $5.4 million, or $10.8 million for a couple—only 1 out of every 500 taxpayers.2 And yet, it’s been a target of right-wing lawmakers, working on behalf of their wealthy donors. 

Click here to sign our petition calling on Senate Democrats to stand united and stop this Republican giveaway to the superrich.

Congress has shrunk the estate tax in recent years—and now the Senate and House, in advisory votes largely along party lines, have voted to repeal it entirely.3 The votes are only advisory, for now, but when the Republicans press this issue again, Senate Democrats will need to be ready to beat back the repeal and block this latest Republican giveaway to the superrich.

We know this may not be as fun as helping us choose names for ice cream flavors—but it’s critical to send a message that Congress shouldn’t be working on behalf of only the wealthiest Americans but should get back to the people’s business. Wages have been stagnant for decades.4 Young people are carrying around anvils on their backs called student debt.5 Our public infrastructure is falling apart.6

Good grief, Congress. With all this going on, are you really going to give another tax break to those of us who need it least?

Sign our petition—tell Senate Democrats to stand united and ensure that Republicans don’t give multimillionaires and billionaires even more tax breaks.

Thanks for all you do.

–Ben and Jerry

I always find it fascinating when millionaires and billionaires write editorial pieces demanding higher taxes for themselves because it is such an obvious exercise in hypocrisy. They want to get credit for a generosity and benevolence they do not really have. If Ben and Jerry think that they are not contributing enough with the taxes they pay, they are perfectly capable of writing a check for any amount they want. If they sincerely believe the the federal government can make better use of their money than they can, they can give away their entire fortune. It’s their money that they have earned. They can do what they want with it. It may be that other people who have been successful might believe that they have contributed quite enough already and that they can do better things with their money than give it to the federal government. Ben and Jerry don’t seem to want to give them that option. Seen that way, Ben and Jerry’s offer to pay higher taxes shows not a generous giving of their own substance, but a desire to impose their own priorities on others.

An estate or inheritance tax is simply a tax levied on wealth that is transferred by inheritance. This tax is assessed when the owner of the property to be transferred dies and his will takes effect, hence the estate tax is often called the death tax, especially by those opposed to it. The estate tax levied by the U.S. government does not affect many, only 0.2 percent of the population and it is not a major source of revenue for the government. The receipts from the estate tax makes up less than one percent of the total revenue collected by the government. It isn’t likely that repealing the estate tax will cause a fiscal crisis. In fact, it is possible that the estate tax, as it is currently configured is not worth the effort of collecting it. It may be that if the heirs to an estate were permitted to keep the entire estate, the wealth they would generate through investments, etc word yield more tax revenue for the government through the income and capital gains taxes than the revenue from the estate tax. I imagine that is the thinking behind the efforts to repeal the estate tax.

I do not know if this argument is valid, since I am not any sort of expert on tax policy. Even if the analysis is true, it does not necessarily mean the estate tax should be ended. The current estate tax in the U.S. was enacted in 1916 not so much to generate more revenue for the federal government as to prevent the emergence of a hereditary class of the super rich who would pass down an ever increasing share of the nation’s wealth from generation to generation. Oddly, even many of the wealthiest men in the country supported the idea of an inheritance tax at the time it was enacted. Andrew Carnegie argued against rich men leaving large fortunes to their children on the grounds that it was doing them no favor to allow them to coast through life as the idle rich on their father’s inheritance. Carnegie and others of his class had worked their way up from the bottom and they believed that their children should have the same opportunity to work to get ahead.

I am not sure that the estate tax, as it is currently configured really accomplishes this goal. As Ben and Jerry pointed out, only amounts above a certain limit, $5,430,000 in 2015, are subject to the estate tax which is assessed at a progressive rate from 18% to 40%. If I were to die and leave an estate worth $100,000,000 to my heirs, they would still get roughly half of the estate after taxation In fact, the administration of the estate tax seems to be very complicated, if the Wikipedia page is any indication, and it is possible for a clever person to arrange his finances in such a way as to pay little or no estate tax. If we really wanted to discourage large inheritances, the estate tax ought to be raised, perhaps to confiscatory rates above a certain level of wealth and we would tighten up the rules regarding gifts given before death and trusts.

There is a persistent myth in politics that the problems of this country have simple, commonsense solutions that everyone would agree to if it were not for the selfishness and greed of special interests. In fact, even people with the best will can disagree over policies. I think the debate over the estate tax proves the lie to this myth, since there are very good arguments both for and against it. Any issue can be debated over matters of fact, whether or not repealing the estate tax will improve the public finances, and matters of values, which is more important, economic growth or economic equality. Matters of fact can be resolved fairly easily but arguments over values tend to be intractable. If you believe the government should promote equality, you will probably favor keeping the estate tax. If you believe economic growth is more important and can be promoted by lowering taxes, you might favor repealing it. Both sides have different opinions on what is important or desirable and both sides may well be trying to do what is best for everyone. One need not assume that they only want to give away money to the wealthy, as Ben and Jerry do, or have nefarious plans to redistribute all the wealth in this country, as some of  President Obama’s critics seem to believe.

As I said, there are good arguments on both sides and I do not know enough about tax policy to really have a strong opinion on the estate tax. I do think that Ben and Jerry should stick to making ice cream.

UK Election

May 11, 2015

They had an election across the pond last week and the results were kind of interesting, not to say unexpected. Before the dissolution of the previous Parliament even though the Conservatives had the most seats in the House of Commons, they didn’t have a majority so they had to form a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats. Most observers expected that the Conservatives would lose seats requiring the formation of another coalition, perhaps with the Labour Party playing a greater role. It seemed certain that Britain’s “two and a half” party system with the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal-Democrats was breaking down with the rise of the more right-wing UK Independence Party and the Scottish National Party.

It turned out the the pollsters and pundits were wrong. The Conservatives gained enough seats in the House of Commons to be a majority while the Liberal-Democrats lost big. The Labour Party was badly hurt by the rise of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, where Labour has generally been strongest. The UK Independence Party got more votes than the Liberal-Democrats, but Britain’s first past the post system meant that they only won one seat.

There are 650 seats in the British House of Commons so 326 seats are needed for a majority. The Conservatives received 36.9% of the vote getting 331 seats, just above what they needed. They had 302 seats in the previous Parliament so they gained 28. (The extra seat is that of the Speaker of the House of Commons who is considered to be nonpartisan. He renounced his former party allegiance when taking the office. ) The Labour Party went from 256 seats to 232, losing 24 seats. They won 30.4% of the vote. I am especially glad to see this. From what I can tell, the Labour Party has abandoned Tony Blair’s centrism to embrace the loony left once again. Their leader, Ed Miliband even promised to outlaw “Islamophoba” in Britain in a desperate last minute attempt at pandering to the Muslim vote.

The Liberal-Democrats simply collapsed. They dropped from 56 seats to 8 losing 48 seats. They won 7.9 % of the vote. The UK Independence Party did better, with 12.6% but only won one seat, as I said. I wish they had done better. The sooner Britain is out of the EU, the better. The biggest winner was the Scottish National Party. They only won 4.7% of the vote, but it was concentrated in Scotland, obviously, so they went up from 6 seats to 56 winning 50 seats. The remaining 23 seats were won by a number of minor parties.

So, what does this all mean? I don’t really know. I do not live in the United Kingdom, so I have no particular insights to offer about its politics. I find the rise of the Scottish National Party to be a little disturbing. It seems that last year’s referendum on Scottish independence was only a reprieve and they will be for trying independence once again. I think that would be a mistake on the part of Scotland, since by itself Scotland would be a rather insignificant country. Considering the strength that the Labour Party has traditionally enjoyed there, it seems likely that an independent Scotland would embrace the sort of socialism that has been the ruin of many nations.

One thing that seems remarkable is that every country in the Anglosphere is currently ruled by a conservative or right-wing government, except for the United States. The Conservative Party has a majority in Canada’s House of Commons. They also have a majority in Canada’s Senate, but the Senate has less power than the Commons, though more than Britain’s House of Lords. The Prime Minister is the Conservative Stephen Harper. Australia’s Parliament is operated more like America’s with both the Senate and the House of Representatives having approximately equal power. The Liberal Party controls both Houses and the Prime Minister of Australia, currently Tony Abbott is always appointed from the membership of the largest party. The Liberal Party, despite its name is actually the more conservative of the major Australian parties. Its left-wing opposition is the Labor Party. New Zealand has a unicameral legislature in which the more conservative National Party rules in coalition with a few minor right-wing parties.

Ireland, which I suppose ought to be considered a member of the Anglosphere, is a little strange. The Irish Parliament, called the Oireachtas, has two houses, an upper house, the Seanead Eireanne, which is largely powerless, and the lower house, the Dail Eireanne, which selects the Taoisearch, or Prime Minister. There is a President of Ireland, but it is a ceremonial office. The more conservative Fine Gael currently runs the government in coalition with the Labour Party. while the more centrist conservative Fianna Fail is the opposition. That seems to me to be as if the Republicans were in a coalition with the Green Party against the Democrats.

The United States is the odd man out here, with our more left-wing Democrat, Barack Obama, as president, but that is only because we do not have a parliamentary system here. Instead we have a powerful president elected independently of Congress with a fixed term. If we had a parliamentary system, President Obama would have lost his job in last year’s Republican landslide. Unfortunately we have to put up with him for another two years.

I do not know if the politics of these various countries have any influence on one another, despite all having political cultures descended from the English system. American and British politics historically have seemed to run in tandem with one another with Reagan and Thatcher or Clinton and Blair having parallel administrations, though I haven’t gone through the whole list of the party affiliation of British Prime Ministers. Roosevelt was a Democrat while Churchill was a Conservative while George W. Bush was a Republican and Blair was Labour. It would be nice to take the results of last week’s elections in Britain as a good omen for the Republican’s prospects next year, but we will have to wait and see.

 

Ben Carson for President

May 7, 2015

Retired neurosurgeon and conservative icon Dr. Ben Carson has announced his bid to run for president in next year’s election. I cannot say that I support Dr. Carson’s campaign for president. While I have no doubt that he was a competent, even brilliant neurosurgeon and he certainly seems to possess more wisdom and courage than most, I question whether he has the right experience. He has never held any political office. Telling off President Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast is not, in itself, a sufficient qualification for the presidency.

He looks the part anyway.

He looks the part anyway.

As the former head of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins Hospital,  Dr. Carson has had some experience in executive leadership, perhaps more than the current occupant of the White House. It is not clear how well directing a division at a hospital will translate into skill in national politics. A candidate may have all the right ideas on solving the nation’s problems, but unless he has spent some time getting to know some of the influential people in Washington and learning the culture, he will find it very difficult enact his ideas. The presidency is not an entry-level position and giving the job to a person with no experience is asking for trouble. Barack Obama held only a single term as a Senator from Illinois before being elected to the presidency and his relative lack of experience has caused him to make mistakes that a more experienced politician might have avoided. While Dr. Carson may be more suited for the job of president temperamentally, it is hard to imagine he won’t be any better than Barack Obama as avoiding missteps. I would be happier if Dr. Carson began his political career running for Congress. If he does well, I would have more confidence in supporting a presidential bid.

I am, however, glad that Dr. Ben Carson has decided to run for president. For the past six years, the progressives have insisted that the only reason conservatives have disliked Barack Obama is because he is African-American. It has to be racism. It couldn’t possibly be President Obama’s extreme left-wing politics. If a White president had proposed the same policies, the Republicans would have supported him all the way. It will be interesting how these same tolerant progressives treat a Black conservative who is running for president. My guess will be that he will become the latest Emmanuel Goldstein.

Goldstein

Goldstein

I expect that as the latest subject of the two minutes hate, Dr. Carson will be subject to the worst sort of personal abuse, including blatantly racist insults. The liberals can’t stand for any members of the groups they think they own; Blacks, women, gays, Hispanics to wander off the plantation. Once again, we will get to see the tolerant, compassionate, diversity loving liberals show their true nature as the worst sort of intolerant bigots.

The Rolling Stones

May 5, 2015

The Rolling Stones Robert A Heinlein‘s story of the great American road trip updated for the space age. Like Heinlein’s other juvenile science fiction novels written in the 1950’s, The Rolling Stones is great fun to read and teaches the lessons in self-reliance, courage and rational thinking found in all of Heinlein’s books for young adults.

51M4VeZeDoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The plot of the Rolling Stones is simple enough. Castor and Pollux Stone, two fifteen year old twins who are Loonies, lunar colonists, want to buy a used space ship so they can begin a career in interplanetary trade. They ask their father, former mayor Roger Stone, for their inheritance in advance, but he outright refuses, insisting that they need to complete their education. The other members of the family, his wife Dr. Edith Stone, older daughter Meade, younger son Lowell, or Buster, and Roger’s mother Hazel Meade Stone, a founding mother of the Lunar Free State, convince him to buy a larger space ship for the use of the whole family. Soon, the Stones are on a trip to Mars and then the Asteroid Belt. They encounter some problems, but are able to resolve them with careful thinking and ingenuity. At the end, the Stones are on their way to Saturn to see the rings.

This book was published in 1952, before any human being had gone to space and even before Sputnik, yet Heinlein was amazingly accurate in his descriptions of how space travel would actually work. Heinlein was an engineer and he clearly put a lot of thought and research into writing this book, perhaps more thought than many might bother with for a story aimed at young adults. The Stones do not just push a few buttons and head for Mars. They must  go through a take off procedure much like that of real space craft. They must carefully calculate the proper course and account for the orbits of the planets in order to get to their destination.

With all of that being said, it is interesting to note where Heinlein and other science fiction writers of his time got things wrong. In general it has proven far more expensive and difficult to establish a human presence beyond low earth orbit than anyone anticipated. Space is a more hostile environment than thought and the extended period of weightlessness experienced by the Stones on their trip would probably leave them crippled by the time they reached Mars, unless they managed to provide some sort of artificial gravity, perhaps by rotating their ship. The depictions of the planets in Heinlein’s juveniles is far out of date. Neither Mars nor Venus is habitable without extensive terraforming and there are no natives, alas. What is most remarkable for an engineer like Heinlein is the inability to predict the electronic and computer revolutions. The computers in Heinlein’s juveniles are still huge, room sized contraptions and the characters use slide rules to perform calculations. I imagine that when the time comes when families are able to take trips to other planets, there will be an app to calculate trajectories.

I said that The Rolling Stones was the story of a road trip, but it is also the story of the ever expanding frontier. Heinlein’s political and social views were often described as libertarian, but perhaps a more accurate label would be frontier. On the frontier, whether in the Old West or in space, people cannot wait for a distant government to solve their problems or take care of their needs. By the time the government even learns of their problems, they may be dead. The people on the frontier must learn to take care of themselves and once they have become used to taking care of themselves, it is hard for them to accept the idea that their betters in a distant capital are more capable of solving problems that they are. The frontier creates a political climate that emphasizes equality over hierarchy and individual freedom over regimentation. It may be that many of the problems America is currently facing, not least an ever more intrusive and lawless government and a ever shrinking personal sphere of individual freedoms, is precisely because we no longer have a frontier. If this is the case than the sooner we get up into space, the better.

Political musings aside, The Rolling Stones is an enjoyable story that can appeal to youngsters of any age.

The Election of 1836

May 3, 2015

At the end of his second term as president, Andrew Jackson was still popular enough that he could have run for a third term if he wanted. Jackson decided to abide by the two term limit precedent set by the previous presidents and instead promoted the candidacy of his vice-president and hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren. It was curious choice given how very different the two men were. Jackson was a rough and ready frontiersman who had worked his way up from an impoverished youth to become a military hero. Van Buren was a smooth politician from New York who was descended from an old Dutch family. Although they agreed on most of the issues, the two men didn’t really have a lot in common. The thing that actually brought them closer together and convinced President Jackson that Van Buren was just the right man to continue his legacy was the Peggy Eaton, or petticoat affair.

Peggy Eaton was a pretty young woman from Washington D. C. who had developed a certain reputation by her teens. In 1816, at the age of 17, Peggy eloped with a thirty-nine year old Navy Purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake died at sea in 1828 and Peggy married an old friend, Senator John Henry Eaton. This would not normally be considered scandalous, except that there were rumors that John and Peggy had been somewhat more than friends and that Timberlake had committed suicide because he learned of her infidelities.

At the beginning of his first term, in 1829, President Jackson had appointed Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State and his friend Senator Eaton as Secretary of War, and that was when the scandal broke. Peggy Eaton was accused in Washington society of being an adulteress who had married Eaton indecently quickly after the death of her first husband instead of spending a proper time in mourning. In mean girls fashion, all of the wives of the men in Jackson’s cabinet snubbed John and Peggy Eaton and get their husbands to do likewise. Vice-President John C. Calhoun‘s wife Floride was the ringleader of this clique and this, along with their differences over state’s rights led to Jackson dropping Calhoun from the ticket when he ran for his second term, since Jackson, recalling the vicious gossip about his own marriage to his beloved Rachel, took the side of the Eatons, against his whole cabinet, except for Martin Van Buren, who being a widower did not have a wife to fear.

Because President Jackson became involved the petticoat affair caused a schism in his cabinet that made it impossible to govern. Jackson was unwilling to ask his friend Eaton to resign, so in 1831, he had everyone in his cabinet resign and began again with a new cabinet. Since Martin Van Buren was the only member of the cabinet who had treated the Eatons decently, Jackson made him his vice-president for his second term  selected Van Buren as his political successor.

With Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for president at the convention that met in Baltimore in May 1836. For his running mate, the convention selected Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky. Although Johnson balanced the ticket, being from the South, and something of a war hero from the War of 1812 and the conflicts against the Indians, he was a controversial choice because he had had a longstanding affair with a slave named Julia Chinn, who he treated as his wife.

The American Second Party System was still developing in 1836. There had been some opposition to Jackson from a variety of factions and these came together to oppose Van Buren. The National Republicans from the previous election joined with state’s rights supporters and the Anti-Masonic Party to form the Whig Party. The Whig Party was only united in their opposition to Andrew Jackson and they never did form a coherent party identity before breaking up over the slavery issue. In 1836, this disparate group could not settle on a site for a national convention or a single candidate, so they nominated three presidential candidates with each man appealing to a different region of the country. First there was Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts. He was a supporter of Henry Clay and could win New England and the Anti-Masons. Senator Hugh White from Tennessee could attract voters from the South. Finally, there was William Henry Harrison, a Senator from Ohio and the first governor of the Indiana Territory, he was most famous for leading the military force that defeated Tecumseh’s coalition of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison, then, was a war hero who could really the West. The Whigs hoped that each candidate would be popular enough to defeat Van Buren in his region and since no candidate could gain a majority. The House of Representatives would select the new president from among the top three, presumably Whig, candidates. It was an unusual strategy that has never been tried again. Perhaps because it didn’t work.


There is not much to say about the actual campaign. There was a great deal of personal invective from both sides. The Whigs assailed Van Buren for being merely a clever politician without character or principles who was evasive on where he stood on the issues. The Whigs in the Senate, over which Van Buren presided as part of his duties as Vice-President, tried to embarrass Van Buren and arranged for tie votes, which would oblige Van Buren to cast a deciding, and possibly controversial, vote. The Democrats portrayed Van Buren as a worthy successor to Jackson and attacked the honor and credentials of the three Whigs.

In the end, the Democrats proved to be far better organized than their opponents and proved to be far better at rallying their supporters. Van Buren won the majority he needed. He won 764,168 or 50.9% of the popular vote.  He won 170 electoral votes from states all around the Union. Of the three Whigs, William Henry Harrison proved to be the most popular with 550,816 or 36.6% of the popular vote. Harrison won the mid western states Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont for a total of 73 electoral votes. Hugh got 146,109 or 9.7% of the popular vote carrying only Tennessee and Georgia with 26 electoral votes. Daniel Webster won only his home state of Massachusetts and 14 electoral votes. Webster received 41,201 or 2.7% of the popular vote.

The Election of 1836

The Election of 1836

There was one more Whig, Willie Person Magnum who got South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes. South Carolina was the only remaining state in which the electors which selected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Willie Person Magnum

Willie Person Magnum

 

There was one other oddity about the election of 1836. This was the only election in which the Senate selected the Vice President, as provided by the twelfth amendment,

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, proved to be very unpopular in the South because of his relationship with Julia Chenn, and 23 of Virginia’s electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson. As a result he only received 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Johnson easily won the Senate vote which was along party lines 36 for Johnson to 16 for the Whig Francis Granger.

 

Oskar Groening

April 30, 2015

Oskar Groening was an officer of the SS stationed at Auschwitz. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the killings at that extermination camp. Groening was an accountant charged with taking possession of the belongings of the Jews and other undesirables brought to the camp. For the most part, he worked in the office and kept track of the money. Groening knew what was happening at Auschwitz, and by his own account, he didn’t much care for it. He tried repeatedly to be transferred but his requests were denied. Now Oskar Groening is on trial as an accessory to the murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Here is the story I read at Yahoo News.

Hedy Bohm had just turned 16 when the Nazis packed her and her parents onto a cattle car in May 1944 and sent them from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

After three days and nights in darkness, crammed into the standing-room-only car with babies wailing, the doors were flung open. “An inferno,” is how she remembers the scene she saw.

“The soldiers yelling at us, guns and rifles pointed at us,” she recalled. “Big dogs barking at us held back on their leashes by the soldiers.”

One of the black-uniformed men on the ramp was likely SS guard Oskar Groening. Now 93, he goes on trial Tuesday in a state court in the northern city of Lueneburg on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Two of those deaths were Bohm’s parents, who are believed to have been killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival in Auschwitz.

Groening’s trial is the first to test a line of German legal reasoning opened by the 2011 trial of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he was a Sobibor death camp guard, which has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects.

Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

Groening has openly acknowledged serving as an SS non-commissioned officer at Auschwitz, though denies committing any crimes. His memories of the cattle cars packed with Jews arriving at the death camp are just are vivid as Bohm’s.

“A child who was lying there was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a truck to be driven away,” he told the BBC in an interview 10 years ago. “And when it screamed like a sick chicken, they then bashed it against the edge of the truck so it would shut up.”

His attorney, Hans Holtermann, has prevented Groening from giving any new interviews, but said his client will make a statement as the trial opens. Earlier, Groening said he felt an obligation to talk about his past to confront those who deny the Holocaust.

“I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened,” he said. “I was there.”

Though acknowledgement of his past could help mitigate the 15-year maximum sentence Groening faces if convicted, the court’s focus will be on whether legally he can be found an accessory to murder for his actions.

Groening is accused of helping to operate the death camp between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

His job was to deal with the belongings stolen from camp victims. Prosecutors allege among other things that he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found, which has earned him the moniker “the accountant of Auschwitz” from the German media.

Whenever I read of some Nazi war criminal being brought to trial, I have to wonder what the point is. Anyone who has had any role at all in planning  and executing the Holocaust is long dead. Any low level functionaries who might still be living are in their nineties and probably so senile that can scarcely remembered the crimes they might have committed sixty years ago. And what punishment could possibly fit their crimes? Even a life sentence will only be, at most, a few years, hardly enough for justice to be done.

Oskar Groening-then and now

Oskar Groening-then and now

As for Oskar Groening, I wonder if he would be in the legal difficulties he is in if he had decided to remain silent about his experiences at Auschwitz. Perhaps his past would have caught up with him anyway, but I can’t help but feel that he is somehow being punished for opposing the Holocaust Deniers by speaking out about the atrocities he had witnessed and been complicit in. Herr Groening is not Himmler, Eichmann, or Mengele. He is simply a man who wanted to belong to what was regarded as an elite organization and found himself in a Hell on Earth.


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