It should be remembered in this time of dissonance about Confederate memorials that Memorial Day was first commemorated to honor the dead of our Civil War. Unique among all wars, it honored both the victors and the vanquished. Thus, Memorial Day served to not only remember those who gave their lives for the Union side, but to honor their enemies and help bind the wounds created by four years of fighting. Today, Memorial Day causes us to reflect on our history, on those who gave their lives that we may live in this glorious, though imperfect, land – imperfect in an absolute, not a relative, sense; for there never was a country as good, generous and equitable as the one we are lucky to live in.
In this essay, I consider some of my opinions – functions of my genes and my experiences – and how they came to be. I refer to an essay I wrote a year ago last March, so have attached a pdf version, should you have an interest.
Next Monday, the Month That Was – May 2017 will be out. In the interim, there will be another “Burrowing into Books,” this time on Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.
Happy Memorial Day!
Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Things I Think About”
May 29, 2017
“I didn’t like having to explain to them,
so I just shut up, smoked a cigarette, and looked at the sea.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
The Stranger, 1942
Agatha Christie wrote, in The Seven Dials Mystery, that “…to rush into explanations is always a sign of weakness.” However, I believe opinion writers should, periodically, explain why they think and write as they do. Flannery O’Connor said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I disagree. We know what we want to say, but do our words express what we mean?
Last year, I wrote a TOTD, “I Believe…,” a compendium of things important to me: education, the necessity of family, dignity of work, respect and tolerance for others, rule of law, the importance of democracy and free-market capitalism, and an understanding of the fragility and evanescence of liberty.
Opinion writers are not reporters. We are individuals expressing our perceptions and prejudices; we hope our essays reflect judgement and wisdom, but know we are fallible. We rely on reporters to uncover and present facts, which we use to thresh out opinions. However, media bias has made the job difficult. More time is spent chasing down allegations. But that bias has made what we do more critical. Proliferation of “fake” news must be offset with wisdom and judgment. Time will determine if we are right.
Opinions are formed over many years, and are a consequence of heritage and environment. I grew up in a large family in a small town in New Hampshire, I was raised in a family of protestant Republicans and, apart from a few years in my 20’s, have retained a conservative outlook – an outlook I claim to reflect common sense, rather than ideology. Nevertheless, my political philosophy was influenced by my family and friends, my job, traveling, and a lifetime of reading, fiction as well as history and biographies.
My childhood more closely resembled the rural idyll that Thomas Jefferson admired, than the sophisticated life he lived. My parents were artists, so by definition, non-conformists. We lived simply, but with grandparents and other family members who lived urbanized lives, we had feet in both groups. In some sense, we never felt comfortable in either. My parents were educated, had traveled and were well-read, so we were always aware of the world around us. Our home was filled with books, and British magazines like “Punch” and “Country Life,” not typically found in small New England farm homes.
I grew up, went to college and then, after two years at Eastman Kodak, spent forty-eight years on Wall Street, all but four of them in New York City. One could argue that my essays reflect capitalism and banks – Wall Street, as opposed to Main Street – and no doubt there is some truth to that assertion. But Wall Street never had a single identity. What attracted me in the mid 1960s, besides the money, were the minds of those who worked there, their entrepreneurial spirit, and that merit was rewarded over connections. I liked the idiosyncratic nature of individual firms, and how the industry differed from large corporations.
I began writing essays almost twenty years ago. I had no formal training, but my favorite writer was E.B. White, who still serves as my exemplar. In early 2000, I found the stock market no longer fathomable. People bought stocks with no earnings and no sales. I wrote what I called a Market Note, as a means of helping decipher what was happening. A few years later, the credit crisis of 2007 and 2008 opened floodgates of incomprehension. House prices had been rising faster than speculators could flip them. Banks, with the encouragement of government, granted “no-doc” mortgages to people with no incomes. Investment banks were leveraged at thirty or forty to one. When the credit crisis hit with gale-force winds in September of 2008, it was as though a small boat inadvertently found itself in the Bermuda Triangle during a storm. Then, a couple of months later, when credit market fears began to ebb, alarm bells were re-rung: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” declared Rahm Emanuel, speaking for a new Administration. Investing is a deliberative exercise that involves analysis and the anticipation of events, yet investors were only reacting. Perspective was needed. That was the opportunity, and it is what I tried to provide.
Politics call for the same dispassion – a stepping back and viewing the world from 30,000 feet. Partisanship permeates our culture. Trump is accused of volatility, but most politicians and the media have become even more inflammatory. If you are a middleclass, high school-educated, white, working American who believes in God and traditional families – you hate the elites who govern Washington, and who live better than you on dollars you pay them in taxes. If you are of the Left, or an establishment Republican, you hate Trump. If you are a conservative who believes in limited government, who worries that today’s debts will threaten your grandchildren’s well-being, you hate what selfish politicians have done to their future.
Hyperbole is a legitimate tool used by opinion writers, but emotions distort analysis. My opinions are clearly conservative, but I try to view events through a lens of common sense. Opposing arguments, which use reason, are welcome. I try – not always successfully – to be civil. (A few reactions to my essays have been decidedly uncivil.) As one would expect from one living in Connecticut, I have liberal friends and would rather not lose their friendship, but not at the expense of compromising my principles.
I have read enough of history to understand how rare is our democracy, how precarious it is and how ephemeral it can be. We are lucky to live in this country. I worry, however, about those things that threaten our culture: hypocritical and supercilious politicians; a press that puts partisanship above impartial reporting; multi-culturalism and moral relativism; political correctness; the failure to see dignity in work; intolerance; “safe spaces;” the misuse of science for political gain; the segregating of voters for political expediency; the increase in dependency and concomitant fall in personal responsibility; the failure to celebrate traditional families; the decline in community organizations. I do not understand why the West will not acknowledge we are at war with Radical Islam. I grieve that the young do not know our history, or understand the role played by capitalism in eradicating poverty. I am concerned with the growth of the administrative state, and the bureaucracies created. I wonder, why feminists condemn Trump for his crude language, yet condoned Bill Clinton when he sexually abused women? I know the path we are on, from a fiscal and monetary perspective, is not sustainable. Consider how far away we are from when President John Kennedy implored people to “ask not what the country can do for them, but what they could do for the country.”
Everyone should periodically undergo self-analysis. We don’t have to be omphaloskeptics, but we should question ourselves: Why do we believe as we do? Are our opinions grounded in history and in an understanding of human behavior? De we reflect compassion and common sense? Or, do we live in a world as we would want it to be? Have we become Walter Mitty’s? Does prejudice not sense, dictate actions? If Congress passes a health care bill, why would they exempt themselves from its provisions? Should those who live in a cocoon of privilege – private schools and armed body guards – be adamant in limiting school choice or opening borders? These are things I think about and which cause me to express the opinions I do.