Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Road Not Taken"

Sydney M. Williams


Thought of the Day
“The Road Not Taken”
February 21, 2017

Making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level.
                                                                                                Peter Drucker (1909-2005)
                                                                                                Management Consultant
                                                                                                “Harvard Business Review,” June 21, 2004

We live in unusual times. While most of my Leftist friends refuse to admit it, the Obama Administration tilted far to the left: ObamaCare became the biggest government program since the 1960s. The “Life of Julia” and Pajama Boy represented the promise of Obama’s paternalistic government. Administrative agencies like the EPA, the Consumer Protection Bureau and the FCC enacted and administered laws, and then assessed penalties on violators – acting as judge, jury and executioner. Universities, once bastions of free speech, became temples of intolerance toward those who dared speak freely against accepted norms. The Administration compartmentalized voters, deepened divisions and then plumbed the subsequent fractious behavior for political advantage.

Mr. Obama backed away as leader of the free world – leading from behind in Libya, doing nothing as Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. He ignored Assad’s crossing of his “red line” in Syria, and watched as China invaded, then developed airbases on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. He opened the door to Cuba, but ignored its human rights’ violations. Israel was isolated and North Korea continued its nuclear program. He stood by as Venezuela sank into dissolution, and provided Iran the time and means to develop nuclear weapons. Despite Islamic attacks at home, Mr. Obama never called Islamic terrorism by name, for fear of offending Muslims.

The seeds that were sown by those on the far Left – coastal elites, academic chauvinists, environmental militants, vacuous minds from the world of entertainment, a potpourri of constituents that had been segregated for easy access, and millions of people dependent on the largesse of government – are now reaping the whirlwind. The consequence: for six years, Republicans have picked up State legislative seats and governorships, indicating that people want government to protect their God-given rights, not to take them away. It has been a trend ignored by the Left.

There have always been fringe elements on the Right, like white supremacists and knuckle-dragging anti-evolutionists, but they never dominated the Republican Party. The Left argues that the Tea Party is far-right, but they want a smaller, less authoritarian government. They argue that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were far-right, but, for both, practical politics came before ideology. Consider the bi-partisan support their major legislative initiatives received in Congress. Can you imagine a Republican Speaker of the House with the idiotic, supercilious hollowness of Nancy Pelosi? – “We must pass this bill to find out what’s in it.” Can you imagine a Republican getting away with the lies told by Hillary Clinton about Benghazi, or the promises Mr. Obama made about being able to keep your doctor and your health plan if you prefer? The lies and exaggerations of Mr. Trump are childish and silly, but they do not undermine our democracy. Can you picture an ex-Republican President starting an advocacy group designed to undermine his successor? Can you imagine the media giving a pass to a Republican candidate for President who was counseled for twenty years by a bigot like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

The Left has long played identity politics for political advantage, creating envy and dispelling pluralism. Newspapers no longer disguise their preferences, nor do cable or network TV. But they and Mr. Obama have not operated in isolation. Talk radio preaches to the converted. Real news and fake news have proliferated, with no distinction made. C-SPAN was created thirty-eight years ago, with the intent to make government more open to the people. But there have been unintended consequences. Today it is available in 100 million homes, which means that when individual Senators and Representatives address their respective bodies they talk less to each other and more to those who elected them. In 1980, CNN became the first twenty-four-hour news station. Today, Wikipedia lists sixty-one such news stations. Partisanship has long been a reality, but its worst tendencies were accentuated by Mr. Obama.

But, back to the road not taken. If Democrats in Congress had tempered Mr. Obama’s most radical instincts, if they had guided him toward a more centrist path, they (and we) wouldn’t be in the pickle we are. (Or, if you prefer, have the opportunities we do!) Mr. Trump tapped into a backlash against an increasingly omnipotent federal government: ObamaCare belied its promise of choice. Excessive regulation impeded economic growth. For the first time in our history more small-businesses failed than started. Big banks got bigger, while small ones disappeared. Racism increased and wealth and income gaps widened. Democrats did not help their cause with the ethically-challenged Mrs. Clinton, but neither did Republicans with a political novice and wild card. The reasons another Democrat did not follow Mr. Obama were due to his abandonment of the American worker and the anti-liberal policies of his Administration.

President Clinton, who I found morally repugnant, moved the Democratic Party toward the center. Working with a Republican-led House, he signed the Welfare Reform Bill, which required welfare recipients to work; a Balanced Budget Agreement, which strengthened the Medicare Trust Fund; and the Landmark Education Investment Act, which doubled investment in education technology and increased funding to charter schools. Together, he and Congress created 20 more Empowerment Zones and 20 additional rural Enterprise Communities, which helped private sector job growth. Together, they encouraged NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. It was Mr. Clinton’s ethical lapses, not his policies, that hurt Mr. Gore’s prospects in 2000.

I wonder if Democrats today, like Robert Frost in 1920, ponder on how different things might have been had they, in 2008, taken the middle road? Frost was satisfied with his choice. Are Democrats with theirs? The fact that Mr. Obama has formed a community organizing project, a 501(c)3 called Organizing for Action, linked to George Soros and with a training manual to challenge his successor with constant protests – itself a first – suggests no lesson has been learned, at least not by him or his disciples.


Monday, February 20, 2017

"On Reading"

Sydney M. Williams

Essays from Essex
“On Reading”
February 20, 2017

The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
                                                                                                Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel, 1904-1991)
                                                                                                I Can Read with My Eyes Shut

With eyes focused on the ceiling, having been accused that what he had drunk could fill half the room, Winston Churchill allegedly retorted, “so much to do, so little time.” Readers, looking at shelves of unread books, feel the same way.

Between five and ten million books have been published in my lifetime. A reasonable estimate for the number of books published before I was born would be another million, including, of course, the Bible and most of what we consider the classics: Homer, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Orwell, Wodehouse, Tolstoy[1], Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Alcott – an array of literature that would be virtually impossible for the average person to read in a lifetime – and which would leave no time for modern fiction, poetry, essays, histories and biographies. Thoreau once wrote, apropos of the myriad choices we are given, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” P.J. O’Rourke saw humor in the problem: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

A fast reader might plow through 100 books a year. (I usually read between thirty-five and forty.) But, let’s assume a man or woman in their 80s read fifty books a year for 70 years. That would mean a lifetime of reading would consume 3,500 books. I am told, in this day when books come off presses like rabbits, that about 250,000 books are published each year in the U.S., with another 700,000 self-published. This trend is not new. Over a century ago Oscar Wilde, placing wit to words, wrote, “In old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays, books are written by the public and read by nobody. Most books, like old soldiers, do fade away, leaving not even a small indentation on the mind of the reading public. My brother Willard, who owns the Toadstool, tells me that perhaps a hundred or so books make the New York Times best seller list every year; even then, many are bought to be displayed, not read. We are reminded of Churchill’s comments on drinking: So much to read, so little time! But such concerns should not dissuade the reader.

Like many, my interests exceed my abilities. Books are purchased with greater rapidity than can be read. So the decision of which book to read is difficult. (Keep in mind, I am only capable of reading about 0.0035% of the books published each year, and that assumes I read nothing that was published in past years.) C.S. Lewis admonished us: “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one [until] you have read an old one in between.” Wise advice, in my opinion.

In general, I prefer dead writers of fiction and live writers of history and biography. Don’t ask me why. I just do. Of course there are exceptions, like my very much alive daughter-in-law, New York Times best-selling author Beatriz Williams. Besides raising four children and keeping her husband in check, she writes three books a year. As to whether the writer is alive or dead, I am indifferent when it comes to essays. I like the deceased Michel de Montaigne, E. B. White and Christopher Hitchens, as well as the living (but getting older) Joseph Epstein and Willard Spiegelman. I don’t read much poetry, as I am untutored in the subject. And I have an aversion to those who skillfully (though not subtly) impose their political preferences on an unwitting reader, like Bill O’Reilly and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I always find it amusing that authors, when interviewed for the Sunday New York Times Book Review, mention that their bedside tables hold a half-dozen books. Mine has a dozen, ranging from Earning the Rockies, by Robert Kaplan to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. There are another thirty sitting on my desk waiting to be picked up: Kafka’s The Castle and Christopher Hitchens’ And Yet square off against Grit and A World in Disarray, by Angela Duckworth and Richard Haass respectively. While not assigning anthropomorphic qualities to books, I nevertheless believe that each fights for attention.

Sometimes a book jumps to the head of the line. That happened recently when my brother Frank suggested Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart – a history of Ms. Stuart’s mixed-race heritage, in which she traces her roots back 400 years, to both owners and slaves on a Barbados sugar plantation.

As one ages, time rushes by. Like most, my reading is not confined to books. Because of my weekly essays (mistitled as Thoughts of the Day), I stay current on news; so it’s five newspapers a day. (If there were one paper that was truly unbiased my job would be simpler!) I also get sent essays and articles, most of which I peruse. And I try to stay reasonably up-to-date regarding two not-for-profit boards on which I serve. Besides, I have a wife, three children with spouses and ten grandchildren, all of whom I love and deserve more attention than I give them. There are other distractions: crossword puzzles; lunches and dinners with friends; and the woods near our new home which beckon; I find walking through them provides a modicum of exercise and clears up unwanted but ever-present, mind-numbing cobwebs. Unfortunately, I need eight hours of sleep. So time is short. What gets omitted is television and, to my wife’s dismay, movies. As for the latter, I periodically succumb and am almost always glad when I do.

One should always have a horde of easy-reading books, to read when not feeling well – like comfort food, only for the mind. In that category, I place the aforementioned Wodehouse, along with mysteries by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Beverly Nichols and two or three local writers of mysteries (local to this part of Connecticut): David Handler, James Benn and a woman whose husband I recently met, Ann Blair Kloman. The latter’s heroine is nice little old lady, Isobel, who, in order to live the life to which she was accustomed before her husband died, has become a contract killer…but only to put away those who are truly evil!

Even though my shelf space, since moving, has shrunk, it is books made with paper that attract me. I have tried electronic books, and I know that for many they are critical. For some, it is the ability to adjust the print size; for others, it is the convenience of carrying a library on a tabloid. But I like the feel of a book and the turning of pages. In recent years, I have taken to paperbacks, as I find my ability to recall is better when I underline particular passages. Remembering what one has read is therapeutic. I recall when my grandmother could no longer read, she used to recite poetry, poems she had learned as a young girl.

Reading is individual and endlessly educational. The late critic Edmund Wilson wrote, “No two persons ever read the same book.” He’s right. A reader inevitably places what he reads in a context with which he (or she) is familiar. Dr. Seuss saw the wisdom in reading. It is not just for entertainment – though that is important – but to get understanding: “The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

[1] P.G. Wodehouse, of course, published his last book in 1974, a year before he died. He poked fun at himself and at Russian novelists. In his 1922 collection of ten golfing stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert, he writes of a fictional Russian writer, Brasiloff, who “…specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery…” Brasiloff is quoted: “No novelists anywhere any good except me. P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoy not bad. Not good, but not bad.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"The Old Curiosity Shop," Charles Dickens and "The Wicked City," Beatriz Williams

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

“The Old Curiosity Shop”
Charles Dickens
                                                                                                                                  February 14, 2017

She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God,
 and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.
                                                                                                Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
                                                                                                The Old Curiosity Shop

Little Nell is one of Dickens’ best known characters, yet appears in one of his least read novels. She was the butt of ridicule from a few late-19th Century critics who opposed the romanticism of the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde once said: “…a man would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell without laughing.” G.K. Chesterton, not to be outdone, added, “…it is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell that I object to.” George Bernard Shaw, speaking about Victorian emotional excess, remarked, “Little Nell was nothing but a sort of literary onion, to make you cry.”

Is the story that sappy? Dickens was concerned with good and evil and how good ultimately triumphs, and he cared about the devastation of urban poverty. Dickens wanted to expose those men and women who inhabited London’s underside, the millions who lived apart from Jane Austen’s and Anthony Trollope’s polite society. He wanted his audience to know that these souls (many of whom were illiterate) shared the same emotions: love, grief, passion, despair, anger – that they were real, not caricatures to be pitied or parodied. Good is represented by Little Nell and her friend Kit. Her grandfather, a gambling addict, is fallible but remorseful and loving. Evil is reflected, principally, in Quilp. The story is also an odyssey, the leaving behind of one life in search of another, a better place.

Harold Bloom, in an interview with Ray Suarez on PBS, once said about Dickens (and Cervantes and Shakespeare) that the author carries you “so deep into the interior of the crucial figures in the book that you will be concerned about their lives and deaths as human beings, not about the times in which they live or the political causes through which they’re struggling.” Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, wrote about his favorites, including Dickens: “This is not a canon. This is a refuge.” He’s right; we get lost within the pages. Characters from “The Old Curiosity Shop” – Little Nell, her grandfather, Kit, Swiveller, Sampson Brass and his sister Sally, Quilp and his long suffering wife, and others – remain long after the novel has been put down.

No, I do not agree with the cynics. While Little Nell’s death was necessary to the story, because of her youth and temperament it was tragic. Dickens concludes his story with words borrowed from the Book of Psalms, “…and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told.

“The Wicked City”
Beatriz Williams

But I always did wonder what became of Ginger?”
                                                                                                Aunt Julie speaking to her great-niece, Ella
                                                                                                Beatriz Williams (1972-)
The Wicked City

This is a fast-paced novel (her seventh) by my daughter-in-law, a New York Times best-selling author. The story takes place in 1924 prohibition-era New York, and seventy-four years later in 1998 New York. Aunt Julie, born in 1902, is a flapper, and frequenter of the City’s speakeasies. In 1924 she befriended the story’s main character, Ginger. For purposes of historical perspective and to add mystery, Beatriz takes the reader back back and forth across time, and transports the reader from the City to Long Island, from coastal New Jersey rum-runners to moonshine centers in western Maryland.

“The Wicked City” is the first of three novels about New York City during prohibition and, yes, we will find out what became of Ginger in future stories. “Writers,” wrote Joe Bunting, a young author, “then, are the great connectors. We enable our readers and ourselves to experience the rest of humanity, to feel a part of the whole.” That describes Beatriz, and the characters and story she has created.