Monday, June 26, 2017


Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
June 26, 2017

Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than fidelity.
Faithfulness and truth are the most sacred excellences and endowments of the human mind.”
                                                                                                Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC)

Loyalty to a petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.”
                                                                                                Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Loyalty is generally a force for good, as it was in Le Résistance, in 1940-44 France; but it can be a force for discord, as it is in The Resistance, in 2016-17 United States. In 1940s France, loyalty kept spirits high and helped achieve liberation from Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators. Today’s partisan advocacy for The Resistance has as its goal the destruction of Mr. Trump’s Presidency. Advocacy, however, should not be confused with loyalty. The latter implies an allegiance, to a nation – we pledge allegiance to our flag – a group, an individual or an idea – our Constitution. On the other hand, one who advocates does so for myriad reasons, perhaps out of loyalty or a desire to help, or possibly for personal gain or even vengeance.

Most of us are loyal in more ways than one. Loyalty is ubiquitous, but oft-changing in terms of to whom or to what to be loyal. Regardless, Webster’s describes loyalty as “unswerving in allegiance.” A soldier is loyal to his comrades, promising to leave no man behind. General George Marshall once said, “I can’t expect loyalty from the army if I do not give it.” “For God, king and country,” is a toast given by loyal officers of the British Empire. Dogs have unconditional loyalty for their masters. School and college homecomings are attended by alums loyal to their alma maters. Loyalty is the faithful allegiance to a nation, leader, cause, group, family or person. It is what prompts donations to schools, colleges, museums, churches and symphony halls. It can be as harmless as rooting for one’s college football team, or as malignant as the loyalty demanded by despots like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-un and Fidel Castro.

Literature abounds with examples of loyalty: Virgil’s Aeneas would not leave his father Anchises behind, when he and his son Ascanius left Troy. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were loyal to one another. Shakespeare wrote of Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, a fidelity that killed her. In Anthony Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage,” it was Reverend Mark Robarts’ misplaced loyalty that got him in trouble, Huck Finn was loyal to Jim, which saved the latter from being re-sold into slavery. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves project a dependent and devoted loyalty between a bumbling master and an omniscient servant. E.B. White’s Charlotte, was loyal to the animals in Mr. Arable’s barn, especially to Wilbur.

“Loyalty” in the corporate sector has withered. (I put loyalty in quotes because it was largely dependent on material comforts, not the typical allegiance to family, friends and soldiers.) Nevertheless, it wasn’t uncommon for one hired in the 1950s and ‘60s to expect their first job would be their last. Unions prospered, and health care and defined-benefit pension plans gave security to employees. But, by the mid 1980s things began to change. Corporate raiders, in the form of “green-mailers,” saw bloated companies, inefficiently run, so ripe for picking. Taking large equity positions, they forced managements to take on debt to buy them out, or to pay special dividends. Consequences included: the abandonment of unions, a move away from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans, and an increase in disruptive technologies. Today, government employees have that same sense of self-satisfaction that corporate employees did forty years earlier – well-paying jobs, generous benefits, job security. But, government inefficiencies, burgeoning deficits, and bloated balance sheets will bring a day of reckoning.

Loyalty to the nation had been questioned in the mid 1960s, when television brought the horrors of combat in Vietnam into living rooms. It became impossible to explain and justify long-term foreign policy goals to those watching sons, husbands and fathers being killed on camera. News, which in earlier wars had been censored or filtered, was given raw. Reporters became commentators. Many questioned whether war was ever worth the price paid. Those questions affected our concepts of patriotism and loyalty. Today, we cringe, as we should, when we read that President Trump demanded loyalty of those in his cabinet. But, we should remember that his request wasn’t novel, that most Presidents have asked for and received the same. Nevertheless, in free societies loyalty should be offered, not demanded.

As a nation, we are a work in progress – and always will be. We are fallible, but have learned (and are learning) from past mistakes. British statesman, Edmund Burke once remarked about England, “To make us love our country, our country must be lovely.” That is as it should be. But, like all nations, we have warts. Events in our past do not always fit today’s ideal; however, they are part of the mold from which we were formed. No other country has had a better record of providing its citizens more freedoms and better opportunities. Regardless of what name we carry, what race we are, what religion we practice, or who are parents were and from where we came, success is principally personal. Yet, we also know we cannot rest on the laurels of our forefathers – that history is a continuum, that we are vulnerable to our own prejudices, and susceptible to politicians who promise rewards without work, education without cost, to those who seek power by promising goods and services in return for loyalty at the voting booth.

Loyalty to our country is again under duress. We have become compartmentalized – segregated, if you will. For example, after six decades of integration some colleges now allow students to live in dorms exclusive to specific races, religions, cultures or sexual orientation. Political parties appeal to differences, not commonalities. We have drifted from loyalty to a nation, with all its imperfections, to ardent supporters of narrow, single-focused groups: The Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, LGBT community, the Pussyhat Project, and The Resistance, among others. Devotion to such groups, while not harmful in themselves, accentuate differences. When we tear down statues of Confederate soldiers, refuse to let speak those with whom we disagree, or boycott a President’s Inaugural we weaken the ties that bind. Progressives, in the belief that government is the answer, have hastened the slide toward an administrative state and authoritarianism, with the price being an increase in dependency and a loss of individual liberty. Freedom is not a gift from government, but from nature. Freedom depends on the “Brushfires” Samuel Adams wrote about in 1775 – the kindling that keeps lit the torch of liberty, ensuring the we will have what Lincoln promised: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is to those goals – not a party or a person – we should be loyal.

Loyalty reflects our interdependence – that we don’t walk alone. We should be loyal to our families and our friends. We should be loyal to those ideals that make our country exceptional. In Stephen Decatur’s oft-criticized toast, “Our country…may she always be in the rightbut right or wrong, our country,” the emphasis should be on the first part of the quote. We may differ in terms of our political preferences, but we should not forget that it is liberty and democracy we honor, not the individual. With full awareness of our past, and mindful of our present and future, loyalty to our country is a good thing…but we do want it lovely.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"The Dystopian World of James Comey"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Dystopian World of James Comey”
June 19, 2017

I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.”
                                                                                                          Nick Carroway, narrator
                                                                                                          The Great Gatsby
                                                                                                          F. Scott Fitzgerald

Substitute Comey for Carroway and you have a sense of the arrogance and hypocrisy embedded in the former’s testimony. James Comey is expert at navigating the obstacles that constitute Washington’s politics. The former FBI Director came across as more of a prosecutor than an investigator and public servant. Having used bait-and-switch tactics over the past year, Mr. Comey gladdened, infuriated and appeased Democrats, while he irritated, enthused and angered Republicans. Like his predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover, he thought himself invincible.

His testimony was Orwellian. Words meant what he wanted them to mean. To “leak” a memo about a private meeting with the President, via a third party, to The New York Times was okay. Yet, it was not alright to tell the press that the President was not under investigation regarding Russian interference in the election, even though he wasn’t. It was his duty, he alleged last July, to lay out the prosecutorial case against Hillary Clinton for using a private e-mail server while Secretary of State, but he felt it his responsibility to determine that no reasonable jury would convict her. Nevertheless, he felt bound, in October, to say she was still under investigation. He said he had no doubt that Russia interfered in the election, yet offered no evidence.

Mr. Comey told Senators that Mr. Trump lied as to why he (Mr. Comey) was fired, but was less direct with the President. He construed the word “hope,” as uttered by Mr. Trump regarding Michael Flynn, as implying obstruction, knowing full well it would mean his good friend, special counsel Robert Mueller, would have to investigate the allegation. (If “hope” becomes standard for obstruction of justice charges, all of Washington will be under indictment, as will most Americans.) James Comey testified that he agreed to accept (then) Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s request that the investigation into Mrs. Clinton be referred to as a “matter,” last July, knowing that to do so was wrong. Yet he did not feel obliged to disagree. His performance throughout his testimony suggested he was being either devious or he was a poltroon… or perhaps both. If he truly felt wronged, a courageous, honorable man would have resigned.

Mr. Comey has abused his position as Director of the FBI, certainly since last July. But, while he may have the ethics of a warthog, he is not stupid. For the last nine months, like Uriah Heep, the unctuous Mr. Comey bobbed and weaved around the Scylla of Washington politics and the Charybdis of ethical behavior – that is until he encountered Mr. Trump, an outsider to Washington politics, a man who had promised to “drain the swamp,” a place where he (Mr. Comey) was one of its most prominent denizens. Whether you hate him or love him, all agree that Mr. Trump is no master of subtlety. The President fired Mr. Comey unceremoniously, something unexpected by a man who felt untouchable. As one who tried to please everyone, Mr. Comey would have been well served to have re-read the story in Aesop’s Fables of “The man, the boy and the donkey” – the moral of which is, you can’t please everyone.

Once fired by Mr. Trump, Democrats forgave Mr. Comey his transgressions regarding Hillary Clinton and Loretta Lynch. Since his firing, Mr. Comey has cast his lot with those who see Mr. Trump as an illegitimate President, an autocrat, they claim, with a far-right agenda – a President who should be hastened from office, regardless of the cost to our democracy. In testimony, Mr. Comey offered the excuse that the leaking of his memo was for self-protection against a President he did not trust. He said it was justified if the consequence was the hiring of a special counsel. Since Mr. Comey was unable to bring the President down on charges of colluding with the Russians over last November’s election, he now hopes his friend Mr. Mueller will find obstruction of justice as cause for impeachment.

The failure of Democrats to accept last November’s election results reinforced the vitriol that consumes our country. It worsened the culture of incivility and violence. It is manifested in many ways: in the use of crude (and cruel) language by late night comedians and talk-show hosts, like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon; in Madonna calling for the White House to be bombed, and in a mask of Mr. Trump’s bloodied, severed head held up by Kathy Griffin; it is visible in a publically-funded Shakespearean play in New York’s Central Park that showed the stabbing of a blond, blue-suited Trump-lookalike as Julius Caesar. And, five days ago, we saw it in the shooting of four Republicans on a ball field in Alexandria, Virginia. While no one political party has an exclusive in terms of foul language and heinous acts, we cannot ignore the role played by social media, i.e. the posting by James Hodgkinson, the shooter of Republican House Whip Steve Scalise, to his Facebook page in March: “Trump is a traitor. Trump has destroyed our democracy. It’s time to destroy Trump & Co.”

But icons from Hollywood, the media and Washington take no responsibility for the culture of hatred they have helped inspire. Instead, when a CNN host calls the President a piece of s**t, they cite First Amendment rights; or, in the instance of Congressman Scalise, they employ the Trojan horse of gun control, as did Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe within moments of the shooting in Arlington.

Politics has long been a blood sport, but incivility has reached heights last seen in the Vietnam era. Science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, once wrote that dying cultures invariably exhibit “personal rudeness, bad manners and a lack of consideration for others in minor matters.” That is a current cultural trend that no one can deny. Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, said civilizations die from suicide, not murder. Social media has become a medium for the venting of passionate hatred. I post photographs of my grandchildren and wildlife, and an occasional non-political essay. But what we see are venomous outpourings of those who see this venue as a forum for political hyperbole. Like Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the United States Army when it was under investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy, we ask those who post such partisan comments on social media, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

As a friend in Europe recently wrote, the attempt to find a Russian connection to Mr. Trump’s campaign of last year has created an Austin Powers-like atmosphere of looking for a crime to fit a predetermined judgement. In his self-serving testimony before the Senate, Mr. Comey did nothing to reduce the hate-filled tenor that permeates Washington and our nation. Could he have helped? He is a smart man, a man who has been around corridors of power for a long time. Honesty, fairness and straight-forward answers would have brought some succor to a divided country. However, it was his reputation he was interested in saving, not bandaging wounds or revealing truth. He knew what he was doing. He chose the dystopian way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Sydney M. Williams

Essay from Essex
June 14, 2017

“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you,
than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”
                                                                                                Bob Proctor
                                                                                                Canadian author, speaker and mentor

While campaigning in Virginia in 2008, President Obama said, “If you’ve got a businessyou didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Later, in the same speech, he did mention the need for individual initiative. While Mr. Obama stated his belief that government is instrumental in individual success, he was also referring to the roles mentors play.

A mentorship can be defined as a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. Young people who do well in school and in sports often attribute their success to the dedication of a teacher or coach. The same can be said for those beginning their careers, and it is true even for old goats who, late in life, take up writing essays. Mentors help turn doubt into determination, aspiration into accomplishment. Earlier this year, in the Harvard Business Review, Anthony Tjan wrote that “mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it.”

Mentoring is a way of giving back. Five years ago, I was invited to join a small group of retirees in Old Lyme, people who realized their experiences and talents could be of use to those in need. While I was not then retired, I was spending most Fridays in the country, so Friday morning meetings worked. We called ourselves Mentoring Corps for Community Development (MCCD), a 501(c)3 organization. Our website speaks to the “sparkle” we try to add to our town and the region – Old Lyme and southeastern Connecticut. Over the years, we have worked with schools and students, with families who have experienced natural disasters, and individuals who have suffered hardships. We have aided non-profit organizations and helped small businesses. We try to abide by advice Robert Frost once gave: “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”

We all have had mentors in one form or another. Mistakes are a form of mentoring. Certainly, that has been true for me. While I was not smart enough to learn from them all, I have learned from some: my rudeness, when I was fourteen, to a young girl who was not very popular; a wise man who gently advised my 16-year-old self about the risks of speeding on back roads; a group of construction types who separated me from my paycheck when I was seventeen; I learn from my grandchildren who chide me when I mess up.

But, I also benefitted from those who mentored me: a teacher of English at Williston Academy, Horace “Thugsy” Thorner, whose class on Macbeth and Hamlet I have never forgotten; an instructor in journalism in college, and the editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, NH, for whom I wrote a sports column. I recall being told by my first real boss – Jim Donnelly of Eastman Kodak – that, if I set my mind to it, I could achieve anything. I was taught the basics of selling equities to institutional investors by Andy Monness, who thirty years later encouraged my fledging writing career. He often disagreed with my opinions, but liked the way I expressed them. As important as anything, in terms of my writing, have been the hundreds like you who have corrected me when I was in error, challenged my opinions when yours differed, and emboldened me in offering praise, not all of it deserved. I consider you all mentors.

It is when we are young, and not fully formed, that mentorship is most effective. I think of an experience in mid-summer 1960. I was a member of a prospecting team in the Northwest Territories of Canada, along the Nahanni River. It was 3,000 miles from home and about 200 miles from a road, not to mention a village. I was nineteen and lonely. There were twenty people in the expedition, most of whom were at least twenty years my senior. In mid-July, we were to move the base camp about 100 miles further north. I told the manager, a man named Doug Wilmot, that I wanted to go home. He said fine, just help us move the camp. He said nothing more, nor did I. A week later, once the camp was moved, we prospectors were ordered back to the field. I joined the others without hesitation. I have always been thankful I did. Quitting would have been something I would have regretted the rest of my life. I am grateful that Mr. Wilmot handled me as he did – no arguments, no recriminations, no attempts to convince me of the error I would have made by leaving betimes, and no smugness at my decision to stay.

When thinking of mentoring, we typically think of bright, talented, but reserved or introverted students who come to the attention of an observant, caring and capable teacher. A January 2014 report titled The Mentoring Effect, commissioned by the National Mentoring Partnership, found significant positive outcomes for those who had a mentor: They were more likely to aspire to or attend college; they were more likely to participate in sports or extracurricular activities; they were more likely to assume leadership roles in school, and more likely to volunteer in their communities. While the political focus is on funding underperforming schools, the greater need is finding teachers, coaches and volunteers who will give counsel and care to students navigating the shoals that separate childhood from adulthood. Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

But, as important as I believe mentoring to be, it is no guaranty of success. It is not a magic elixir. In cannot substitute for a lack of aspiration and initiative. It cannot compensate for those who do not work hard, or who do not show fortitude. We all know the adage of leading a horse to water. Mentees, like Dickens’ Barkis, must be “willing.” Good mentors, as Mr. Proctor notes in the rubric at the start of this essay, see a spark that just needs igniting. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch wrote, as a lesson to both mentors and mentees: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

Looking back on my life, I count myself lucky – fortunate to have been born into the family I was, and lucky to have been born at the time I was. I was fortunate in the woman who agreed to be my wife, in our children, and now in our grandchildren. I have been fortunate in my friends, both new and old. I was lucky to have served in the military when I did, after Korea and (just) before Vietnam. I was fortunate to have a career and a job that I loved. I have been lucky in my health, and thankful I was blessed to find an avocation as a writer. I was fortunate to have been endowed with an optimistic outlook. And I was fortunate to have had help from so many people over the years.

And, now, as age creeps up and I think of the past seven decades, I am thankful I can give back something through groups like MCCD. Mentoring is partial payment for all I have received.