Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Burrowing into Books - "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Sydney M. Williams

“Burrowing into Books”
Reviews of Selected Readings

This initiates a new series. My plan is to write a once-monthly short essay (about 600 words) on books I have recently read or re-read. The purpose is not to provide a critical review of the book, but to explain why I enjoyed them and why I feel they have relevance to life today…at least to mine.

Generally, I read between 30 and 40 books a year, with at least two, and sometimes three, going at the same time; so I won’t write about every book I read. My reading is pretty evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction. In terms of fiction, I range between classics and new; and in terms of non-fiction, I travel broadly among histories and biography. One reason I read as much as I do (apart from the pleasure it affords me) is that during my years of formal education I neglected to concentrate on learning! Since, I have tried to compensate for those lost years. In any event, we should never stop learning.

I hope you enjoy these short essays.

“All Quiet on the Western Front”
Erich Maria Remarque

                                                                                                                                December 20, 2016

This is the quintessential novel of World War I. Re-reading this book after an absence of years is revealing. In my opinion, it is among the most realistic pieces of war-time writings, like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, or E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. It is a heartbreaking story told from the perspective of Paul Baumer, who enlisted at 18 and served with three buddies in the German Army during the Great War. His three friends dead, Båumer “…fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: ‘All quiet on the Western Front.’

This is a novel which all Presidents should read. War, while necessary at times, should be avoided whenever possible; as those who suffer most are not politicians who make war, nor generals who conduct it. It is the foot soldier and innocent civilians who most often pay the ultimate price. My father, having returned from Italy where he served with the 10th Mountain Division, used to say that wars should be fought by those who declare it, a sentiment with which Remarque agrees: “Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins.” Two years into the war, Båumer, musing about his age and place in life and comparing his situation to older soldiers with families of their own, ponders: “We young men of twenty, however, have only our parents, and some, perhaps, a girl – that is not much, for at our age the influence of parents is at its weakest and girls have not yet got a hold over us.

Back at Camp Carson in October 1945, waiting to be mustered out and, with relief from knowing there would be no invasion of Japan, my father – at age 35 one of the older soldiers – wrote to my mother, venting the fear he had hidden from her when in combat: “I become more and more surprised that I ever lived through it all. There would have been very few of us left if it had lasted any longer. Somehow now I feel as if you had been helping me all the time.” Remarque has Båumer speak to the fear made bearable by the camaraderie that develops among soldiers. “It is, he writes, “a great brotherhood…”

So, how to avoid war, and the suffering we see today in Aleppo? There are only two possibilities: One is to retreat from the world, to live within one’s borders, to avoid “foreign entanglements,” to not get involved. But that risks encouraging aggressive behavior by leaders who take advantage of another’s passivity. We cannot forget that, like Shakespeare’s Othello, man remains an untamed animal. The better option is to be economically strong and militarily powerful, to show that we and our allies will not be bullied. The United States is unique. No other nation, so inherently good, has ever dominated the globe as we do today. We are not flawless. There are things we have done wrong and things we can do better, but, would the world be better if Russia or China were dominant? The world will never be rid of evil men and women. And war cannot always be avoided, but we should never forget what it does to the individuals condemned to fight it.

All Quiet on the Western Front is haunting. You (the reader) want to escape, but cannot. The pages turn. The book teaches us that, for the foot soldier, the good die along with the bad. 



Monday, December 19, 2016

"Fake News"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Fake News”
December 19, 2016

“Fake News”

“Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
                                                                                                George Washington Carver (c. 1864-1943)

Fake news! “Holy red herring,” as Robin might have said to Batman! The next thing they will be telling us that Santa Claus is fake! Come on! There has been fake news since time immemorial. Think of agencies like the CIA., M15 and the KGB that have always used fake news for purposes of deception. Consider the Apocryphal Press (www.apocryphalpress.com) run by my good friend and former classmate Tom Korson, who uses fake news for the purpose of humor. Think of The New York Times and the Financial Times, both of whom regularly confuse fact with fiction. Much of “real” news is fake.

Hypocrisy is embedded in the sanctimonious Left. Less than two months before the 2004 Presidential elections, Dan Rather went on Sixty Minutes and falsely targeted George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. Later, Brian Williams lied about his helicopter being shot down in Iraq. In 2008, while running for President, Hillary Clinton lied about coming under fire when landing in Kosovo in 1996. She blamed the attack in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including the Ambassador in 2012, on a “hateful” video. In 2009, President Obama told us that under the Affordable Care Act “…we could keep our health-care plan, if we chose.” Or Al Gore’s talking of Polar Bears stranded on melting ice sheets. Or the drumbeat among mainstream media, in the weeks leading to the 2016 election, which assured voters that Donald Trump was too flawed to be elected President. And what about the “recall?” It was born amid great fanfare, but slunk off into the forest to die alone. We were told all of these stories were “real,” but none were. So, what about Santa Claus? With ten grandchildren, I’ll let someone less encumbered respond.

Most media today twist news to accord with a predetermined narrative. News sources on both the Left and the Right succumb to pressure from readers and viewers. But the left’s version is more heinous, as it makes a pretense of having no biases. They cloak their stories in a mantle of sanctimonious rhetoric. The New York Times, a week ago last Sunday, had the chutzpah to editorialize about guiding Americans back to a path of commonly accepted facts: “A President and other politicians who care about the truth could certainly help them along. In the absence of leaders like that, media organizations that report fact without regard for partisanship, and citizens who think for themselves, will need to light the way.” Mr. Sulzberger, it has been you and your staff that have persistently sculpted the news to fit your story lines. It is you and the liberal mainstream media that are so badly in need of a lantern.

Consider two recent articles, one from the FT and the other from the Times: The Financial Times selected Donald Trump as their person of the year. The article, which appeared on December 13th, was spiteful. They compared him to Sinclair Lewis’s fictional fascist “Buzz” Windrip, from his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. They called him a populist running roughshod over opponents. They implied he could only have been elected by the unwashed and uneducated. They argued his legal use of tax-loss carry-forwards were unethical. They associated him with conspiracists who denied the 9/11 attacks and Sandy Hook school massacres. They then had the temerity to claim to be a “gatekeeper” that will protect gullible readers from exploitation by those who tell tales! Imagine the uproar had tables been turned and media like The Wall Street Journal or The Telegraph similarly excoriated Hillary Clinton!

A New York Times headline last week: “C.I.A. Judgment on Russia Built on Swell of Evidence.” Then the third paragraph: “The C.I.A.’s conclusion does not appear to be the product of specific new intelligence obtained since the election…Rather, it was an analysis of what many believe is overwhelming circumstantial evidence – evidence that others feel does not firm judgments – that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump, and got their desired output.” The headline was deceptive; circumstantial evidence represents neither a “swell” nor is it “specific.” And, the FBI has never corroborated the allegation.

The CIA. is critical to American interests, but keep in mind, the art of deception is elemental to their work. They have been known to deceive the press; certainly the Times felt that way when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq. Cyber security must be a priority for the next President. Everything, from our water supply to missile deployment to banking transactions are vulnerable. It is a major reason why so many – though not The New York Times – were so concerned over Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private server. It seems likely that, at a minimum, she compromised the e-mail addresses of all those with whom she was in contact, including high-ranking government officials and members of the Democratic National Committee. If anyone is to blame for a foreign government hacking our computer systems, it might well be a former Secretary of State who lives in Chappaqua. The Times has not pursued this line of inquiry, implying motives that are more about assigning blame for the loss by their candidate than uncovering truth.

Of course, the conclusion that the Russians preferred Mr. Trump seems absurd on its face. Mr. Putin was able to do as he wished with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton – think how strengthened he has become in the past eight years. It was Mrs. Clinton who presented Mr. Putin with a “re-set” button, a button he has re-set to his own advantage. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, represents an unknown, something far riskier to Mr. Putin.

Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves,” so read Politico’s headline two days after the election. Democrats are doing what they can to make the loss last month appear the fault of someone other than themselves: for example, bars in the Midwest that were tuned only to Fox News, or Russian leaders who were terrified Mrs. Clinton would be elected. That Democrats nominated one of the most flawed candidates in U.S. history was apparently of no significance. In Trump voters, Democrats see racists, misogynists, xenophobes and “irredeemable deplorables.”  Yet Mr. Trump increased the GOP’s percentage of Hispanic and African-American votes by 2% over 2012. The economy, a stumbling ObamaCare, a collapsing Europe, deteriorating relations in Iraq, and Syria, racial divisions at home, debt, an ethically-challenged candidate – none of these factors played a role, according to those on the Left! Democrats are doing what they claimed Republicans would do when they felt assured of victory. It is humorous, in one sense, discomfiting in another, but mostly it is dangerous, as it threatens our democratic processes.

Elections have consequences, as Mr. Obama reminded us eight years ago. Yes, they do. The people chose, and they selected someone the establishment now recklessly associates with demagogues and fascism. If the Left is serious about removing fake news, a panel should be formed of representatives from MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, but not Facebook. They could become arbiters. In the meantime, it is time for Democrats to grow up, and to understand the difference between news that is real (Trump won) and news that is fake (Hillary deserved to win).