Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Maurice Chevalier - Reminder of a More Innocent Time?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Maurice Chevalier – Reminder of a More Innocent Time?”
August 28, 2019

Thank Heaven for little girls;
they grow up in the most delightful way.”
                                                                                    “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” 1957
                                                                                    Sung by Maurice Chevalier (1988-1972)

Today’s emphasis on political correctness and identity politics has me thinking of the words above, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe in 1957 and sung by Maurice Chevalier, in his(as described in the New York Times) “…magical Gallic accent.” My concern:In a nation with its focus on politically correct bromides for climate, identity and equality rather than collapsing infrastructure, failing public schools, a lack of control at our borders and entitlements we can no longer afford, would today’s PC Police permit such a song? I doubt it. Yet the PC Police are silent regarding the horrid, ill-mannered comments from Bill Maher on the death of David Koch. Why? Despite the incivility of the Left and the yearning from some on the Right to return to a time gone by, there is much about today’s world that is better than it was sixty-odd years ago:Civil and Women’s Rights especially, but also more comfortable lifestyles that stem from innovation and economic capitalism, like the ubiquity of air conditioning, the internet and cell phones. But there are also things that are worse.

The Left would have us conform to what they deem is correct – the substitution by the Business Roundtable, of “stakeholders” for “shareholders;” the granting of privacy to college students, which supersedes the interests of their parents; the acceptance of multiple layers of genders (New York State identifies thirty-one categories); a theocratic belief that man is solely responsible for climate change; that a ban on guns will eliminate mass shootings; that the answer to the immigration crisis is open borders, and that healthcare and college tuition should be free – it is a world out of “1984” where government dictates what we say and do.

These demands on the part of the Left are bereft of common sense: The owners of a public business are its shareholders. If the business is not profitable, no one benefits, certainly not its shareholders, but also not its employees, customers, suppliers, or the communities in which it operates. Students, at age 18, may be adults in the eyes of the law, but protecting them against “harmful speech” suggests they are children, at least in the minds of university administrators. Not all people are heterosexual, but biologically there are only two genders. To pretend otherwise, in the interest of “inclusion,” is to deny reality. To the extent we lose sight of that, society collapses into a miasma of hedonism. Anyone participating in a mass shooting must be mentally deranged. Can you, the reader, imagine doing such a thing? Also, how many mass shooters have been members of the NRA? According to the Washington Post, none. The climate is in constant flux. It always has been, and it always will be. Man has had an impact, but no one knows to what extent. Rich nations can afford to address the environment, while poor ones must focus on survival. If we want to reduce pollutants, we must help poor nations become wealthy. A country without borders is not a country, and if it has borders should it not defend them? Free healthcare and college tuitions are oxymorons. Apart from liberty in democracies and bad advice everywhere, there is no such thing as “free.” In this Seussian world, commonsense has given way to inanity.

In this race to destroy what has taken the United States 243 years to build (not 400 years, as the New York Timeswould have us believe), there is something else we have lost. And that is a lightness of touch, a sense of humor, the ability to laugh at one’s self and the enjoyment of words and music without fear of offending. People should be naturally considerate of others, just as they should take responsibility for actions they take. Empathy is a positive trait. The Golden Rule is something to which we should all adhere, but it should be learned at home, in kindergarten or in church, not as a policy prescribed by the State.

Yesteryear was not such an innocent time. Since time immemorial, powerful but immoral men have taken advantage of innocent – and a few not-so-innocent – women. Franklin Roosevelt had Lucy Mercer Rutherford; Dwight Eisenhower had Kay Summersby; Jack Kennedy had a number of ladies who shared his bed, among them Judith Exner, Mary Pinchot Meyer and Mimi Beardsley; Lyndon Johnson had Madeleine Duncan Brown; George H.W. Bush had Jennifer Fitzgerald; and Bill Clinton, like his predecessor JFK, engaged in  multiple affairs with a long list of women: Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, to name just a few. The point is not to excuse sexual exploitation of women – Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein deserve the condemnation society has provided – but to suggest perverts have always been among us, and that includes some of our Presidents who should never be seen as paragons of virtue.  

It is not innocence we have lost, but a moral sense that has gone adrift. It has floated off without an anchor, an anchor chiseled from the institution of family and forged in the furnaces of churches, synagogues and schools. We have lost a sense of right and wrong, honor and dishonor, good and evil, the important versus the frivolous, truth versus lies, respect versus neglect. For most of his existence, man’s life was a struggle to survive, to find water, food and shelter. It has only been in the past hundred or so years that the average Western man has had the leisure to pursue such pleasures as vacations and has had the time to advocate for causes like the environment. But too much free time has given rein to trivial pursuits. We must recognize that to live together peacefully we need be respectful and use good manners. These are the civilities that make life endurable. While women and men have equal rights, we have lost a sense of graciousness that reflect our differences. Doffing one’s hat, opening doors were not expressions of man’s condescension toward women, but acts of deference. Civility and communality go hand-in-hand. As most of us are not hermits or recluses, such acts of decency are integral to our lives. 

So, when you next hear Maurice Chevalier sing about little girls growing up in the most delightful ways, don’t take it as sexist or demeaning, but as it was intended, a song to love, life and distinction. With four sisters, one wife, one daughter and six granddaughters, I can assure you they do – grow up, that is, in the most delightful ways.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“The Judge Hunter” by Christopher Buckley
August 15, 2019

Balty wobbled down the gangplank onto the New World. He would have dropped
to his knees and kissed the ground beneath his feet, except that it was a mire of muck.”
                                                                                                            The Judge Hunters
                                                                                                            Christopher B uckley

The English Civil War, fought between Parliament and King Charles 1, began in 1642 and resulted in the King being tried, convicted and executed in 1649. In 1660, following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the monarchy was restored, with Charles II, son of Charles I, ascending the throne. Parliamentarians who had signed the death warrant and were directly responsible for his father’s death were not pardoned and were, in fact, sought. Two of the regicides (“judges,” as they came to be known)escaped immediately to America – Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe. A third, John Dixwell did not arrive in the New World until 1665, after spending five years in Prussia, so plays no part in Buckley’s book. This story begins in 1664 in London and moves quickly to the New World, where it ends later the same year

The author relies on historical figures, places and events. He makes extensive use of Samuel Pepys’ diary, though most of the entries in this novel are of his own creation. The real diary was begun in 1659 and continued for ten years. At the time the story begins, Pepys was the Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy. In December 1655, he had married fourteen-year-old Elizabeth de St, Michel. Nine years later, when the  story begins, we meet Samuel Pepys’ fictional and wastrel brother-in-law, Balthasar “Balty” St. Michel. Early in the story Buckley writes about Pepys: “His rise within the Navy Office had barely kept pace with the proliferation of impoverished relations.” Prominent among the latter was the twenty-four-year-old Balty. So, when the opportunity arises, Pepys nominates him as a candidate to go to the New World to hunt regicides, qualifications be damned.  

As most of the story takes place in the New World, which had been colonized by the Dutch and Britain, it is important to know that 1664, was the year before the Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out. Tensions between the two imperialist powers were high, as readers will come to learn. In the New World, everything south and west of what is now Greenwich was Dutch. New Haven was a separate Puritan Colony. Buckley has Mrs. Pell speak of the Puritan-run city: “But I’ll say, with God listening, if the earth opened and swallowed New Haven and all its saints, I wouldn’t cheer, but neither would I weep.” Balty was more sardonic: “What joy, Sundays in New Haven.”

Buckley’s two main characters, Balty and Colonel Hiram Huncks, who Balty meets on his arrival in Boston, have striking similarities to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, with the capable Huncks, a Harvard dropout, as Jeeves and the oh-so-pleasant but dimwitted Balty as Bertie. (George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman,” however, must be smiling down upon the two, in recognition of their antics.) 

We meet real historical characters like John Winthrop the Younger., founder of Connecticut Colony in Hartford; John Davenport, founder of New Haven Colony; Dr. Thomas Pell of Fairfield and Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. We read of Metacomet (also known as King Philip), whose English name became synonymous with American Indians’ effort to drive out English settlers in 1675-1678, and we hear the story of Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan who was excommunicated from the Church of Boston and then massacred in Pelham by Algonquins in 1643. She had been mistaken for being Dutch.

In Boston, Balty and Huncks begin the expedition that takes them to New Amsterdam and then back to New Haven. The regicides were said to be in New Haven Colony, a Puritan settlement not then part of Connecticut; though it became so one year later, in 1665. On the way, they cross the “Great River” (the Connecticut) and visit Hartford. When the “judges” are not found in New Haven, they travel to Fairfield, sail across the Sound to Long Island and New Netherland, and thence to Breuckelen and Manhattoes – New Amsterdam. Along the way, the reader meets several characters, real and imagined, like the fictional Quaker Thankful, and we get to visit Judges Cave, which is now in West Rock Ridge State Park in New Haven.   

In time, Balty realizes the mission with Colonel Huncks is not solely – or even primarily – to capture the regicides. The British would like the colonies for themselves, not to share with the Dutch, and the colonists, despite their dislike for the monarchy and the British Church knew they were tied to England in matters of defense and trade. Assessing Dutch strength in New Amsterdam was the real mission.

Christopher Buckley provides a delightful romp through one year of our early colonial history. He makes life come alive in these colonies of three hundred and fifty years ago. We see how conditions change but people do not. None of the regicides were ever brought back to England. Whalley and Goffe left New Haven for Hadley, Massachusetts. While they officially continued to be hunted, a diminished interest in the Civil War and a general reluctance to do the bidding of Charles II allowed them to avoid detection. Edward Whalley died in 1675 and William Goffe died around 1679. The latter, because of his anonymous but critical role in the defense of Hadley during King Phillip’s War in September 1675, became known as the “Angel of Hadley.” (John Dixwell, who plays no role in Buckley’s book, had changed his name to John Davids. He died, undetected, in New Haven in 1689. The names of all three are memorialized in New Haven, through Whalley and Dixwell Avenues and Goffe Street, all of which commence just west of the Yale bookstore.)

This is a fun and informative read.

Monday, August 12, 2019

"Murder in the U.S.A."

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Murder in the U.S.A.”
August 12, 2019

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind…”
                                                                                    John Donne
                                                                                    “No Man is an Island”
Devotions from Emergent Occasions, 1624

New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with their rugged, natural beauty and the sense of peace that whispers through the Pines, Hemlocks and Spruce that comprise their forests, seemed a long distance from the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton, as well as the never-ending killing of – mostly – young, Black, inner-city males. But this is a big country and it holds people of every ethnicity, nationality and religion – most all who are good, but a few who are evil. When united, we are morally strong; when divided we are vulnerable

What unites us is the idea of America. At our core, we love what America represents – the freedom it gives us and the opportunities it provides. Among our freedoms are those that allow us to speak up when we disagree, to protest policies that are at odds with ours. We can, in fact, insult our President. It is this personal freedom and the opportunities for social and economic advancement that attract so many to our shores.

What divides us has been the rise of extremism, driven by a sense of being ignored and by politicians who find compartmentalization of the electorate – by gender, race, religion and sexual orientation – politically opportunistic. The result is a culture that promotes identity politics and victimization; hatred is their progeny. In an August 6 op-ed for the New York Times, David Brooks wrote: “The struggle between pluralism and anti-pluralism is one of the great death struggles of our time, and it is being fought on every front.” What he wrote I believe to be true, but he did not connect anti-pluralism with politics of identity. Pluralism is preferred by those who believe in integration, not just of race, gender and religion but of ideas. It was what drove Martin Luther King, while Anti-pluralism is a consequence of those who thrive on politics of identity – be it white nationalism, Antifa, BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, LGBTQ, or neo-Nazis. These lead to politics of hate and, thence, to acts of terror. We would be wise to heed David Brooks’ call for pluralism. After all, it is the motto on the Great Seal of the United States – e Pluribus Unum.

Politics, it has been said, is a blood sport. This is particularly true during elections, a cycle that today never ceases. Extremism did not originate with the election of 2016. “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff in 2009.  Extremism did not originate with President Obama either. Consider how mocked was George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and how sullied was Bill Clinton. Time white-washes some of the vitriol, but it was there. Politicians claim to abhor the consequence of this hatred, but they fail to take responsibility for the role they have played in its genesis. In dividing us, they have found benefit in addressing specific concerns for specific groups, but they have failed to foresee the unintended consequences of pushing people into segregated compartments. We have become, with their help – and abetted by the media – divided. We are like the Jets and the Sharks in “West Side Story.” We promote victimhood and then wonder at its deadly consequence. 

Democrat candidates were quick to blame President Trump for the murders in El Paso, for his alleged condoning of white nationalists, but were more subdued regarding the Dayton shooter Connor Betts and his support for Elizabeth Warren. The El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, has admitted to targeting Mexican immigrants. And, until this past week, President Trump had not singled out white nationalists as carriers of hate, but neither had Democrats condemned Antifa or those in the entertainment world who have called for Mr. Trump’s assassination. The hatred for President Trump exceeds anything our history offers. It is a hatred that knows no bounds. It is not limited to the Left. It has blurred the vision of publications like the National Reviewand individuals like George Will. When President Trump first spoke after the tragedies, he called for unity, but has been given no credit. The headline in the first edition of the New York Timesthe next day read: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” But that was too much for biased readers. The headline over the same story in the second edition read: “Assailing Hate but not Guns.” In their sanctimonious hypocrisy, the media enflames the division. In an editorial on the causes of the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, the Times referred to “white nationalists” fourteen times. They also mentioned “white supremacy” and “white extremists.” To ensure their opinion was not muddied, they added: “white nationalism has attained new mainstream legitimacy during Mr. Trump’s time in office.”

There was no mention in the Times editorial of the role played by mental health, identity politics, or the part played by a lack of moral teachings in families and in schools. No mention was made of politicians who have adopted political correctness as their mantra and who bow to union leaders, in a mutually symbiotic relationship. The editorial was not balanced with discussion of violent left-wing extremists like Antifa. There was no mention of those in the entertainment world who have publicly called for Mr. Trump’s assassination. All blame lay on the President and those who support him. While extremist talk is common in elections, we have reached a point that would be unrecognizable to prior generations. Both Patrick Crusius and Connor Betis should have been red-flagged, by parents, teachers and society.

Members of both parties must own up to and condemn extremists in their parties. In a passage attributable to Aristotle, it has been said we cannot change human nature, so a successful governing body must include concepts of virtue and compromise. We are a myriad people, representing different religions and races. We are conservatives and progressives, extremists and moderates. We come from different socio and economic backgrounds. We are not equal, nor can we ever be. Some of us are athletes, others are intellectuals. We range the spectrum in terms of abilities and aspirations. We are men, women, tall, short, heavy and thin. We are individuals, yet we are part of the greatest country the world has ever known. We are blessed, but only if we recognize the redeeming necessity of compromise. Out of many, one. Pluralism, as David Brooks reminded us, had better be our future. 

While mass shootings command our attention, thousands more get gunned down on city streets, with cities like St. Louis and Baltimore leading the way in urban murders. We need to talk about gun ownership, especially the ownership of assault weapons, while recognizing that restrictive gun laws do not prevent gun violence, as can be seen in cities like Hartford, CT. Nevertheless, we need to discuss universal gun registration and intelligent, thorough background checks. We need to do something about the danger represented by extremists, whether on the right like white nationalists or on the left like Antifa. We need to understand the role played by mental health and to red-flag those who might be at risk. We need to address the anti-social consequences of violence in movies and video games. We need to celebrate marriage and reflect on the cultural downside of single-parent families, a decline in church attendance and an abandonment of community memberships, and the loss of virtue mentioned by Aristotle. We need to dowse the heated rhetoric, whether coming from the President’s Tweets, political candidates or members of the media and entertainment communities, recognizing that one unintended consequence of social media is that what you say, do or write will follow you the rest of your days. We need to think of the damage done to the goal of pluralism by identity politics, and the hatred it spawns. We must regain the ability to laugh at ourselves. We are all, conservatives and progressives alike, as John Donne’s words remind us, “involved in mankind.” Every death affects us.

This essay was completed back in Essex, Connecticut, along the estuary of the Connecticut River. On Saturday, following the Connecticut River south from Brattleboro, Vermont, I thought of it as a metaphor for our nation. A river reflects the woods, fields, farms, towns and cities through which it passes.  It carries myriad objects, natural and man-made; and I thought of how man can pollute it, but also of how it provides enjoyment, employment and enriches and cleanses the land through which it and its tributaries passDiversity, like that in the river, is our strengthUnited we rise. Divided we fall.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

"the Pioneers," by David McCullough

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“The Pioneers” David McCullough
August 4, 2019

Now, all at once, almost unimaginably, it had acquired 265,878 square miles
of unbroken wilderness, thus doubling the size of the United States.”
                                                                                    The Pioneers, David McCullough

History allows us to marvel at our own time with renewed perspectives. For example, how rich and easy our lives are – despite a freshman Congresswoman telling a Newsweek interviewer that “an entire generation [millennials] came of age and never saw American prosperity”– compared to the hardships experienced by early pioneers, like those along the Ohio River.

David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in his new book, follows several families, including those of Manasseh Cutler and his two sons, Ephraim and Jervis, along with Joseph Barker and Samuel Hildreth, from the founding of the Ohio Company in 1784, through the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, to 1863, when the Territory had become five states and all the founders were dead. 

In 1783, as a condition for signing the Treaty of Paris, John Adams insisted that Britain cede rights to what was called the Northwest Territory, an area west of Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi River, north of the Ohio River and south of British Canada. It consisted of 265,878 square miles – an area larger than France, an area from which five states would eventually be carved: Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848). In 1800, the U.S. Census recorded a population of 51,000 in the Territory. By 1860, those five states had a population of seven million.

The land they first settled in 1788, where the Muskingum River meets the Ohio, became the town of Marietta. It was named after the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. Marietta was settled by forty-eight pioneers led by General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran and friend of George Washington. It is in the southeastern part of what is now Ohio, bordering on Virginia (now West Virginia). The passage of the Northwest Ordinance gave ownership of the land to the U.S. government which, via the Ohio Company, sold land to pioneers, including Revolutionary War veterans – men, as Joseph Barker later wrote, who “had been disciplined to obey, and learned the advantage of subordination to law and good behavior in promoting the prosperity of themselves and the rest of mankind.” Traits needed by those who would venture west included, Mr. McCullough writes: “fortitude, perseverance, patience, resolution and good sense.”

The Northwest Ordinance, as prepared by Manasseh Cutler, the hero of Mr. McCullough’s book, had stipulated that the Territory be (and remain) slave free. His son Ephraim, as a state legislator, later ensured that Ohio stayed slave free. While today that stipulation sounds obvious, at the time the Ordinance was enacted there were slaves in all of the thirteen original states.

The earliest pioneers suffered hardships we can barely imagine: Indian attacks, disease (including the devastating attack of influenza in 1807 when more than 70 people in Marietta died, earthquakes, wolves, President Jefferson’s embargo act, floods, freezing winters (the “Starving Year” of 1790) and accidents. Yet they endured. They had arrived, newly liberated from England, but with the benefit of English laws and customs, the concept of representative government and a sense of responsibility and accountability. Liberal ideals of the Founders made their way into the Ordinance, Article III of which read: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The pioneers were interested in education and historic preservation, as could be seen in their preserving sacred Indian burial grounds, some of which dated back almost 2000 years. 

The years covered in this history incorporate the first stages of the industrial revolution. Robert Fulton’s steamboat was developed in 1807. In 1825, the 363-mile long Erie Canal was opened, and soon steamships began to ply lakes and rivers, which eased upstream trips – no more “bushwhacking.” By the end of the 1840s, trains were running between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia by way of Harrisburg. The first settlers struggled across the Appalachians, on foot, with horses or oxen, struggling with carts and wagons. Within two generations canals, steamships and trains had shortened a two-month trip to a few days, allowing visits from Aaron Burr, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, among others.

The subtitle of Mr. McCullough’s book reads: “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.” Therein lies his most important message – how the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence, laws embedded in our Constitution and the desire to create educational institutions came west. With them – and because of them – settlers were able to produce communities where people lived harmoniously on farms and in towns and cities, where civilization prospered. A surprising number of pioneers had been educated at Yale and Harvard, and were interested in the arts, literature, writing, sciences and the environment. Institutions like Marietta College and the University of Ohio are their legacy.

There has been some silly criticism of Mr. McCullough, implying he is not “woke,” suggesting he ignored the plight of the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited these lands for thousands of years. While I am certain that Mr. McCullough does not excuse the abysmal treatment of Native Americans, that was not the purpose of this book. Besides which, it is unfair to apply today’s moral standards when judging the actions of individuals who lived two hundred and thirty years ago. As well, we should keep in mind that conflict was inevitable between nomadic, hunter-gather North American Indian tribes and pioneers of European heritage who wanted to build and settle into towns and cities and to cultivate the land. 

The purpose of the book was to relate the remarkable story of how a handful of dedicated pioneers turned a wilderness of dense, dark forests into productive fields and orchards, how they harnessed rivers to build mills, established governments, schools, churches and hospitals, how they built towns and cities where a diverse people lived happily and in peace – and how integral to the whole are all of our separate parts.

History allows us to open windows, in this case onto the pioneer spirit that drove aspirant Americans to a new frontier. A reading of The Pioneersprovides perspective of our collective pasts, permits an understanding of who we are, and offers clues as to where we might be heading