A Pirate Looks at 140

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late

(Jimmy Buffett, " A Pirate Looks at 40")

            The Ol' Bloviator was getting along toward forty himself when he first heard Jimmy Buffet's wistful reflection on a raucously misspent youth that had dragged on far too long and washed him up on the front stoop of middle age with a résumé decidedly short on profound achievements. It's hardly surprising that "A Pirate Looks at Forty" resonated with the O.B. when he was looking ahead to the fateful Four-Oh, but it has stuck with him even as the birthday ante rose to Five-Oh, Six-Oh, and now, alas, the fateful Seven-Oh. Though the O.B. can't exactly claim to have sustained his own piratehood over the last three decades, he does like to think that he at least continued to be, a la Mr. Buffet once more, one of "the people our parents warned us about." Like everybody else who has made it thus far, the O.B. acknowledges the irony of his long-ago angst about turning forty in light of his current fantasies of being forty, fifty, or even sixty again.

            The accretion of benchmark birthdays takes on added heft when it finally brings us to the point where we decide that it is time to put aside the labors that have kept the family fed and clothed and largely (often too largely) defined the meanings of our lives over more decades than truly seems possible. Though the O.B. is still in the adjustment phase, he can report that he has reached the stage of retirement where he doesn't get paid, but the part where he no longer works as hard as he did when he was still seems a faint and distant prospect.

            For many people who have managed to surrender gainful employment without having to subsist on day-old bread and SPAM casseroles, the sharpest pang attendant to their change in circumstances is the sense of free-falling into irrelevance. Since one's relevance is always determined by others, and an ever-changing population of them at that, it is a status whose maintenance is likely to demand an increasingly whorish dedication as time passes. Still, accepting the reality of being yesterday's news professionally is for most of us the extremely rough equivalent of a dog passing a peach pit, the difference being that once that agony is past, Fido need not concern himself with the intimidating question of how he is to make the remainder of his life meaningful. In his case, being a constant source of unconditional love and an occasional fall guy for somebody else's flatulence gets it done nicely. For us septuagenarians, however, it's not quite so simple.

            The O.B. has tried to read dozens of advice columns on how to find happiness and satisfaction in retirement only to feel gravity working on his eyelids in a matter of a few paragraphs. Here awhile back though, he ran into one he could not only finish but do so with profit. The gist of the writer's advice was that rather than contenting ourselves with familiar, long-mastered activities and pursuits, we should defy our old-goathood by taking up something new and edgy, not with the idea of becoming the best there is at it, but with the goal of registering progressive improvement, not necessarily competing with others, but definitely with ourselves. Like much of the advice we cherish, this was particularly welcome for the O.B. because he realized first that he was already following it and second ,that he realized why what he was doing was so satisfying.

            As a wide-eyed college freshman, the O.B. had been instructed in physical education by a guy whose uber-coolness was further embellished by his ride, a classic Porsche 356.

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In what was truly a ridiculous fantasy for a kid surviving on a numbingly steady diet of beanie weenies and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, the O.B., right then and there, vowed and declared that one day he would own one of them sweet-lookin', even sweeter soundin' Porsche automobiles. That dream spent some forty years on hold, yet as the years pile up, there comes a point when "You ain't getting' any younger" simply cannot be taken as an admonition that if you actually aspire to amount to anything you'd best be getting to it and can only be interpreted as not simply a suggestion but an absolute mandate to do something unprecedentedly irresponsible and self-indulgent. The O.B. reached that point a little over a decade ago when he was still pondering the implication of his impending sixtieth when he spied a newspaper classified offering a mint-condition, low-mileage 1986 Porsche Carrera at, by Porsche standards, a responsible price, and as quick as that, he made good on his ancient vow. 

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Porsche 911s of that vintage embody the iconic look and design that generations of car enthusiasts have associated with the brand. Boasting the indestructible air-cooled, 200 or so hp. rear-mounted engine, amazing low-end torque, and classic Porsche indifference to niceties like air conditioning and power steering, it was, in short, a pure delight to drive, so much so that the O.B. eventually felt an irresistible urge to take it to the track at least once to see what it could do.

 It could do quite a bit, as it turned out, though it was clearly no match for the newer, better-handling, higher-powered, more expertly engineered (for both performance and safety) upstarts of more recent vintage Though he did so with much the same feelings that come with putting down a beloved old pooch, the O.B. moved on from his precious, hard-realized vehicular dream to a newer P-car of a different design, in that unlike the 911, its engine was in front of the axle.first GTS shotcompresize.jpg

 Therefore, the Porsche Cayman was less likely than its venerable predecessor to emerge from a tight corner with its rear wheels where its front wheels were supposed to be. Fearful of diminishing the attractiveness of its bread-and-butter vehicle, the 911, the brainstrust in Stuttgart deliberately held back on the Cayman's horsepower. Yet, although the number of ponies propelling the Cayman crept up only grudgingly, the superiority of its handling soon cut into its big brother's advantage on any sublimely curvy track like Road Atlanta, where speed and balance through the crookeds can cancel out a lot of horsepower advantage on the straights.

            Thus, it was that having become a track rat of the first order, in the most protracted and non-linear process imaginable, the O.B. managed in the teensiest of many, many steps to get a little better each time out. There is a reason after all why the old adage about the difficulties of teaching an old dog new tricks has been around so long. By the same token, though, there is a difference between difficult and impossible, and it was in precisely that zone where it's all about concentration and self-discipline that the O.B. found his special personal groove. Even at moderate speed, keeping a vehicle on the asphalt at tracks like Road Atlanta demands close attention, and as the mph climbs ( to say nothing of the "pucker" factor) nothing less than total mental and sensory commitment is required to send you home with your paint job undisturbed and all your wheels attached. Even a fleeting thought about how good a cool one will taste when the day's driving is done, raises the prospect of a happy hour spoiled by the sight of your precious toy strapped in contorted agony to a flatbed truck.

There are places approaching every corner where appropriate braking must begin and an equally critical spot, which always comes later than you think, where the turn-in must be executed lest you run out of track before achieving the necessary turning radius. The eager beaver first-timer might well see taking his car to the track as nothing more than a chance to show off how fast it is on the straightaways, but if he arrives with that attitude, a wizened old Gearhead is certain to tell him that most any fool can stomp the pedal to the floor while moving in a straight line. It's what you can do when the line ain't straight that really counts.

            The O.B. has been reminded of this when he checks out his futuristic whizomatic lap recorder and sees his fastest times on laps where his average speed is the same as a slower lap, but he has minimized the distance he traveled by hitting the corners just about right. It is precisely this demand for precision and focus that pushes literally everything else out of his head that has the O.B. so addicted to the track experience. Of course, he'd be fibbin' just a bit to tell you that he doesn't find just a tad of satisfaction in pushing his car to ever greater velocities as he did on this most recent track visit when he saw the needle actually tickle 140 mph for the first time. This figure, you might note, precisely doubles the O.B.'s official coming of old age. Coincidence? The O.B. thinks not, although he hastens to add that compared to his seasoned fellow drivers, he is still the equivalent of an old duffer in a '53 Plymouth, puttering along in the left lane with his blinkers on all the time. This would come as no surprise whatsoever to the decidedly downbeat Psalmist who reminded us that:

            The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)

 We might be inclined to hope that the writer went a little overboard in reminding us to make the most of our precious time on the mortal coil when he not only set our checkout date at 70, but made it seem that trying to hang around any longer simply wasn't worth the effort.  Yet for all the rah-rah, effluence about 70 being the new 50, the current life expectancy figures for males of 76.3 show the old boy's actuarials were not too shabby, particularly for a goatherd.

The O.B. would have no kick coming if, in the next few days, "buon compleanno" gave way to "riposare in pace" His three-score-and-ten have been filled with the constant and boundless love afforded him by his precious family, and the deep and abiding loyalty of his dear friends and so many of his students. There have been a lot more laughs than sobs, but if it's all the same to the Psalmist, instead of fixing his gaze on 70, the O.B. plans to double down on 140, mindful all the while that if he is still around five years hence and means to do symmetrical justice to the occasion, his driving still needs a lot of work.

When Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died in September 1922, a New York Times writer described a "violent career" marked by "a certain mental instability, and over excitability of temperament, even the presence of actual delusions, such as the hallucination of persecution."  It should not be surprising to pick up more than a whiff of many current appraisals of President Donald J. Trump in this long-ago assessment of Watson, whose troubled life suggests many striking and ultimately disturbing similarities in the traits, temperament, and personalities of two men who came to symbolize the darker side of populism.

Born in Georgia in 1856, Tom Watson transcended his impoverished childhood to establish a thriving legal practice before emerging in the 1890s as the most prominent and perceptive spokesman for the downtrodden rural masses of the South, daring even to advocate political cooperation between the races as the best strategy for combatting their corporate and financial oppressors (whose hand, of course, President Trump now undertakes to strengthen.) Elected to Congress in 1890, Watson authored the congressional resolution that paved the way for the Rural Free Delivery system, only to see three consecutive re-election bids thwarted by outright fraud, including the coercion and bribery of the black constituents whose votes he courted. When his fellow Populists were scammed into co-endorsing Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Watson was left with the futile and humiliating task of running unaccompanied as the party's vice-presidential nominee.

Watson withdrew from the active political scene in the wake of this debacle only to re-emerge in less than a decade calling not for interracial cooperation but brutal political and social repression of black Americans. Not only did Watson now want to disfranchise the black Georgians who votes he once courted and reduce them to a "recognized peasantry," but the man who once urged that lynching be made "odious" to whites was now insisting that "lynch law is a good sign . . . that a sense of justice yet lives among the people." Not content simply with persecuting black people, by 1910 he was using his weekly newspaper and monthly magazine to foment scorn and suspicion of the Roman Catholic "Hierarchy" and the "fat Dago" atop it and reveal how "The Confessional Is Used by Priests to Ruin Women." A few years later, Watson locked on to another vulnerable target, unloosing an incendiary anti-Semitic torrent that figured critically in inciting the infamous 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, the "young libertine Jew" dubiously convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a young girl worker in the Atlanta pencil factory he supervised. When the governor commuted Frank's death sentence, Watson declared that Georgia "HAS BEEN RAPED!" by a conspiracy of "rich Jews" determined that "no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile."  When Frank was seized by a mob and hung, Watson  praised the lynchers and defiantly warned outraged northerners that their "vilification" might prompt the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in order to defend the South's right to "HOME RULE." Watson's prophecy was fulfilled a few months later, and, as his biographer C. Vann Woodward noted, that if "any mortal man" were responsible for "releasing the forces of human malice and ignorance and prejudice, which the Klan merely mobilized that man was Thomas E. Watson."

 Writing in 1938, Woodward left the impression that Watson's seemingly abrupt embrace of bigotry and intolerance was the mark of a man ultimately driven mad by the incessant frustrations of his earlier career. Yet, he also presented considerable evidence of Watson's mental illness that surfaced well before he burst on the political scene. It is here that, despite their disparate backgrounds, certain critical similarities between Thomas E. Watson and Donald J. Trump become more apparent.  Unlike the born-on-third base Trump, the poverty-stricken young Watson, was unable to swing more than a couple of years of college education.  Yet Watson was nearly nine when the Civil War ended, old enough to recall the much cushier circumstances he enjoyed until emancipation took his wealthy grandfather's slaves and his own drunken and dissolute father quickly squandered what remained of the family's land and financial resources. Gripped by an indelible and at times self-destructive nostalgia for the near-idyllic comfort and security of his early childhood, as a young collegian, Tom compensated for his shabby clothing with intimidating displays of oratorical prowess and a boisterous, often bullying campus persona that screamed "chip on my shoulder."

Even as a practicing attorney, Watson's thin skin and combustive pride had triggered altercations with colleagues and verbal abuse of those close to him. "The better part of me is poisoned," he lamented at age twenty-six .He had "imagined enemies where there were none, [and] been tortured by indignities which were the creatures of my own fancy." The same might well be said about Donald Trump, though it is a virtual certainty that it will never be said by him.

There is no scarcity of references to a youthful Donald Trump as combatively "headstrong "and an aggressive "loudmouth bully." Banished to military school in the eighth grade, he was given to exaggerating the earnings from his father's real estate deals for the benefit of his classmates. Driven "to be number one," fond of "compliments," and eager "to be noticed," he made sure of the latter as a senior by ostentatiously strolling the campus in the company of "gorgeous women, dressed out of Saks Fifth Avenue."

            Whatever their ages, both men revealed an insatiable hunger, at once pathetic and pathological, for vindication and acclaim, cloaked in an ego every bit as oversized as the deep-seated inferiority complex that fueled it.  No accomplishment, however exalted, seemed to offer either of them more than the most fleeting satisfaction. Neither of Tom Watson's respective elections to the Georgia legislature and both houses of Congress, gave him more than ephemeral happiness before giving way to  perpetual agitation and discontent.  Even after capturing a U.S. Senate seat in 1920 at age sixty-five, Watson spent the final eighteen months of his life in that traditionally august body lashing out at colleagues, largely for perceived personal slights. What vitriol he had left was directed at mysterious conspirators, like the Iowa-born Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, whom Watson dubbed an "Englishman" while demanding to know "the secret influence which suddenly put him at the head of things in this country."

In Trump's case, the warm afterglow of his inauguration as President of the United States lasted scarcely twelve hours before he was complaining of a vengeful media conspiracy to underrepresent turnout for his big moment, only to move quickly to charging that it took several million "illegal" ballots to deny him a popular vote majority. As columnist Maureen Dowd observed, "Those who go into the Oval Office with chips on their shoulders and deep wells of insecurity . . . are not suddenly aglow with self-assurance." Clearly, like Watson entering the Senate, Trump did not check "the tantrums, the delusions, the deceptions, the self-doubts and overcompensation," that comprise his not inconsiderable emotional baggage at the White House door...

There is no concrete evidence that Donald Trump's sustained and ill-concealed appeals to prejudices, fears, and frustrations has yet led directly to anything so horrific as the lynching of Leo Frank. Yet the sharp spike in reports of gratuitous verbal and emotional abuse of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that accompanied his campaign and ascent to the Oval Office fairly reek of sulfurous portent. Woodward thought Tom Watson's scurrilous sensationalism gained purchase primarily among increasingly marginalized whites "frustrated in their age-long, and eternally losing struggle against a hostile industrial economy" and thus eager for new, "more exciting crusades against more vulnerable antagonists [especially] anything strange and therefore evil." This characterization is surely more than moderately evocative of Donald Trump's malleable core constituency of white voters whose economic status and prospects, not to mention social and political standing, have been on the decline for some two generations.

Trump's reliance on what he calls "truthful exaggeration" is amply documented in a good-sized and still-accreting mountain of grossly exaggerated claims about his popularity, wealth, influence, philanthropy, etc. Tom Watson was not exactly a slouch in this department either. Disseminated strictly at his direction, a mere "rumor" that an angry mob was threatening his life was sufficient to draw hundreds of followers to stand guard at his home around the clock. Like our current president, Watson also gloried is his near-dictatorial sway over his supporters, routinely ordering them to vote for a certain candidate in one election and, often as not, against him in the next, or commanding them to show up whenever and wherever he wanted to make a grand entrance to a thunderous welcome akin, one journalist thought, to what might have greeted "proud Caesar" upon entering the gates of "Imperial Rome."

It is not difficult to see in Watson the "anti-social behavior, sadism, aggressiveness, paranoia and grandiosity" that underlie some psychotherapists' drive-by diagnoses of the President's "malignant narcissism," a condition they deem "incurable." This unfortunate prognosis may explain why, instead of being elevated by the high offices they attained, both Watson and, thus far, Trump, managed to reduce the dignity and stature of their respective positions.  In the end, the critical difference between those positions simply underscores the ominous implications of the similarities in psychological makeup between the two men, one a lone, ineffectual outlier hemmed in by ninety-five bored and dismissive peers, and the other, also delusional, but uniquely empowered to destroy national and global stability whenever it serves his purpose, or, one suspects, simply tickles his fancy.


This is an expanded version of a piece first posted on the History News Network.

 

Like Clockwork or Not, the Orange One Still Cometh

   

Longsuffering patrons of this establishment need not be told that the Ol' Bloviator is not much given to seeing the metaphorical tankard as anything other than half-empty. Those who know him personally also know that he is responsible for making many an actual tankard completely empty. During the holiday season, at least, the O.B. has traditionally striven for a less baleful, more hopeful, cheerful outlook, which in sufficiently intoxicating doses can actually lead him to feel, for a few days at least, grudgingly optimistic about the future of humankind. Unfortunately, his strivings this year to "keep on the sunny side" have thus far availed him zilch.

The O.B. had no celebration plans, regardless of the outcome on November 8, and in the first days that followed, he did his damnedest to discount the ramifications of his fellow citizens' electoral embrace of the decidedly greater evil of the two evils confronting them. There ensued a truly Herculean effort to suspend his well-honed instincts for disbelief and entertain just the faintest hope that having shocked nine-tenths of the human race, himself charitably included, by actually being elected president, the Orange One,--a.k.a. " the O.O"--might now cease and desist in his bombast, bullying, boorishness, lying, scapegoating, etc. In other words, maybe, just maybe, he would summon from somewhere hidden deep within himself, the self-control requisite to doing justice to the job he had so ardently and effectively pursued.

Well, so much for that. It turns out that not only is there no moderating impulse within our next prez, there is absolutely nothing within him at all. His innards are without form and void. His outtards are where it's all happening, and it is important to understand this above all else right now. The O.B. don't have much truck with all these diagnoses of ol' Orangey as a narcissist or self-delusional psychopath or whatever. It ain't all that complicated. The man is just an asshole. Not simply of the garden variety, to be sure, or even of the sort that comes along only once in a great while. Indeed, it would seem in this truly extraordinary case that the Almighty himself, having finally lost patience with seeing so many of his human creations seemingly hell-bent on establishing their individualized asshole bona-fides, He had decided to show them how it was really done. Throwing himself totally into his work, he proceeded to construct the ultimate aspirational model for assholes everywhere. Not just one for the here and now, but one whose monstrously obnoxious, befouling presence would continue to induce shudders and grimaces across centuries and millennia yet unimagined. Struck by the brilliance of his own handiwork the Creator then succumbed to the puckishness that is sometimes his wont, and opted to showcase his achievement on the biggest stage available

If, somehow, the campaign itself did not fully validate this unflattering version of  his nature and origins,  how about the copious examples of  President-Elect Orange's aggressive disregard, not simply for official protocol, but international stability, the benefits of  a smooth transfer of power, or the need for a unity after a campaign propelled by the politics of polarization and division.? On this latter point, it appears that the O.O., who continues to go merrily about the business of mocking, taunting, and demonizing those whom he has vanquished is intent on establishing himself as history's worst winner. More troubling still is the prospect that he sees the next four years as a continuous victory lap in which he gets to strut, posture and encourage his adoring minions to greater heights--make that greater depths--of bitterness and animosity toward anyone who has dared to stand in his way.

The O.B. started flatly telling folks early on that O.O. actually envisions the presidency of the United States as, for a person of his incredible talents, certainly, nothing more than a part-time job. Let somebody else cool their heels in those butt-numbing daily briefings on threats to national security. Let the kids sit in on as many high-level meetings as possible so that they can assist him in assuring that the business of America is not just "business" but HIS business. Then there is the proposed cabinet of the Great Orange "populist," which is still a long way from being complete but already boasts an aggregate worth estimated between $13 and $16 billion--50 times that of W's first  "millionaires club "cabinet and more than the annual GDP's of some 70 small countries. In keeping with his promises to save the American working class, the poseur-elect has tapped a labor secretary who thinks the current minimum wage of $10.10 per hour is too high, and to see to their health care needs, he has designated a physician who is primarily interested in healing his suffering fellow physicians while stripping millions of their healthcare with nothing resembling a replacement to fill the void. The forces of Orange are quick to cite his quick fellow-up on his vow to force Carrier to abandon its plans to ship some 2,000 jobs at an Indiana plant to Mexico.  It is true enough that Carrier's mother company, United Technologies, does a fair amount of business with the feds, but it's also fair to suspect the prez-elect's rhetorical stick -or shtick--may have been insufficient to seal the deal (which actually saved only half those jobs) without the $7 million tax-break carrot served up by the state of Indiana (Wow! The O.O. must have really done a sales job on Indiana's governor. . . . Oh, wait!) There will doubtless be other such charades such charades for a while at least, but please don't think the O.B too cynical for suspecting that not many of those cabinet-level corporate bigwigs were  enticed from the boardroom by the prospect of championing  the cause of the folks on the assembly line.

            Some are inclined to credit the Orange One for at least pulling back on his demand for top-secret security clearances for his offsprings, but the O.B.'s guess here is that he simply realized he could get better, quicker intel from his best bud Vlad Putin. As luck would have it, ol Puty has just picked up a great new source in Michael Flynn, the proposed National Security Advisor who is as comfortable sharing information of the classified sort as he is in disseminating total fabrications. (BTW, since it's safe to assume you are reading this Vlad, word is Mike wants to talk to you about some things Billy Clinton said about your daughters. Also, don't be concerned that nothing has been announced yet about Sarah Palin. An eager-to please Orange One will come up with something to occupy her because he truly understands how creepy it must feel to know she is constantly staring at your country.)

Alas, for those who are resting their hopes on our vaunted system of checks and balances, don't let them rest too easy. Obama already showed us how much can be done by executive order, and while, on the face of it, these can be rolled back, the damage they might do in the interim may not be so quickly or simply repaired.  The simple fact of the matter is that the framers of the Constitution and subsequent legislation pertaining to executive power and privilege thought and wrote broadly about reasonable questions that might arise, never in their wildest nightmares imagining an audacity even remotely on the scale of that which is simply SOP for the new guy. For example, search the regulations on what and how the president can earn or receive in gifts while in office for the section labeled "In the event the President-elect wants to continue to produce 'Celebrity Apprentice...'"

Washington was rocked badly by the invasion of President-elect Andrew Jackson and his rustic supporters who reportedly turned the inaugural festivities, still held in the White House at that point, into a furniture- and carpet- destroying frenzy of boozing, belching, farting, and fighting. Strong-willed and occasionally volatile, Jackson himself simply scoffed at a Supreme Court ruling that would have blocked the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, but even he knew when to bluster and when to back off, in a way not suggested by many recent actions of the O.O., who, as they say at Harvard, is sooey-generous, and not in a good way.

As he did during the campaign, said prez-elect continues to convey toward the Republican Party something too much akin to outright disdain to worry about finding a better word. How long do you think his torrid bromance with Paul Ryan will last?  The prospect of a president simultaneously battling not only the opposition but his own party--and let's not forget the lying liberal media--hardly seems out of the question. A lot of Republicans bit big chunks out of their tongues because they were afraid of jeopardizing their own campaigns this fall.  Duly re-elected, will they all maintain their locked-jaw deference and for how long? If the Big Orange's legislative agenda is to be thwarted, that surely must happen in the Senate, where some see a glimmer of  hope for a fractionally bipartisan Senate coalition of Democrats and a smattering of Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham in numbers at least sufficient to block any ultra-ultra-idiotic initiatives. Should this come to pass, what next? We are dealing here with the explosive ego and a temperament of a man to whom mere opposition is anathema and a definitive "no" from the Congress or the courts is almost certain to set the stage for a firestorm of popular outrage deftly kindled by a master arsonist who hardly seems the sort to shy away from provoking a constitutional crisis in order to get his way. And, understand, this might be the best we can actually achieve, for in the face of what appears to be the greatest threat to the presidency, and perhaps to the entire governing process, in this nation's history, gridlock is far from the worst possible outcome.

 

HICKS IN THE STICKS SHOULDN'T BE THE PUNDIT'S QUICK FIX

There is but little satisfaction for the old Bloviator in having been no wrong-er than the best of them in his projections and expectations for November 8. No small part of his chagrin may be traced to the smart-assy skepticism evinced in this jewel from his pre-election pontification right here on this very site:

 

The Republican ranks may also hold a number of "silent voters" too embarrassed to tell a pollster that they actually plan to cast their lot with The Donald on November 8, but while their boy may fare well enough in the popular tally to sorely discomfit the Left, Middle, and even some on the Right,  it appears at this juncture at least that these resolutely mute voters will suddenly have to let loose with one hell of a bellow to affect the actual outcome.

 

Well bellow they did by golly! Political number cruncher extraordinaire Sam Wang, who vowed to eat a bug  if Donald Trump got more than 240 electoral votes--and thus learned on national television that crickets do not in fact taste like chicken--may have come as close as anybody will to explaining why so many of the pollsters got it wrong. Wang suggests that "we retire the concept of the undecided voter. Based on cognitive science, so-called 'undecided' voters might be mentally committed to a choice, but either can't verbalize it or want to keep it to themselves." This would be all the more likely, needless to say, when the national media and a big chunk of the interweb are awash in depictions of one candidate as one or two evolutionary cycles behind a pig, and those inclined to hold their noses and support the pig are not interested in revealing a position they might then be forced to defend.

 

At any rate, one of the most striking things to the O. B. about the campaign and its aftermath was the readiness of journalists, commentators and Internet photoshoppers alike to file so much of the blame, first for the stubbornly persistent viability of Trump's candidacy, and then for the knee- buckling shock of his election, on the ignorant, knuckle-dragging bigots who continue to rally to the symbol of the Confederate flag.  

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Trump enthusiasts have been seen waving the Rebel banner in Traverse City, Durango, and a slew of other decidedly northern outposts. Yet the media and blogosphere's visual fixation the flag seem all too suggestive of an impulse to stretch the regrettably enduring, self-delusional nonsense about the "Southernization of America" into a suitably uncomplicated explanation for an unthinkable national debacle. For some two generations now, way too many American liberals have been beguiled by this facile trope, which blames the nation's shift to the right since the 1960s on the South's rapid political, economic, and cultural ascent.  If early takes on the 2016 presidential election, which chalk up Trump's upset triumph to the "revenge" of the rural white voter in traditionally blue northern states and essentially leave it at that, are any indication, we may soon see "ruralization" supplant "Southernization" as the primary threat to political liberalism in this country. 

(Dare we undermine so simple and straightforward a take on so complex and unexpected an occurrence by asking just how severe this threat could be in light of the ongoing, and in some cases dramatic, shrinkage of the rural white population? As Kinky Friedman would most assuredly say, "Why the Hell, Not?" )

There is surely no denying that ardor for Mr. Trump burned hottest and sometimes manifested itself most frightfully among nonmetropolitan whites whose turnout figures exceeded all expectations this year, most notably in the Clinton camp, where supreme confidence in the strength of urban support appeared to make rural a marginal consideration.  Still, there are fundamental flaws in the rush to lay Trump's victory off on the hicks in the sticks. The most obvious of these lies in the raw numbers showing that, with half of the population now clustered in just 146 of the nation's largest counties, rural America supplied but 17 percent of the votes cast this year. In Wisconsin, for example, Donald Trump carried rural Florence County by 71 percent compared to Mitt Romney's 63 percent in 2012, but this amounted to a grand total of 252 additional votes. Fond du Lac County is larger, but Trump's 2+ percent margin over Romney still adds up to only 699 votes. On the other hand, Ms. Clinton trailed Barack Obama's 2012 total by 58,000 in Milwaukee alone on her way to losing Wisconsin by just over 24,000 votes, and her vote in metro Detroit counties fell some 83,000 short of Obama's in a state that she came up scarcely 13,000 ballots short. In Pennsylvania meanwhile, the estimated 130,000 African American no-shows roughly doubled Ms. Clinton's margin of loss, but it isn't simply that, as some writers for Politico observed, "black voters in Philadelphia didn't love Clinton more than the displaced steelworkers hated the people like her who dealt away their jobs to foreign countries," it's that  countervailing white and black Democratic turnout in numbers even approaching those of 2012 failed to materialize in the largest urban/metro centers in three states that, rural and small town white outrage notwithstanding, could otherwise have made Hillary Clinton president. In 2016, as in so many elections, the significance of one trend was dependent on another, as high rural white turnout coincided with slumping urban black turnout.

On the national scale, there is no denying that Trump cashed in heavily among whites without college degrees, but that should not obscure his victory with college-educated white men and his 45 percent tally with white women with college degrees. Likewise, writing off   his election to the success of his "populistic" appeal to the anger and paranoia of economically and culturally imperiled whites amounts to making unlikely populists of voters with incomes exceeding $100,000 in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina with whom he bested not only Ms. Clinton, but his Republican predecessor in 2012.

It seems more comforting to many commentators to rationalize this election as a distressingly powerful affirmation of Donald Trump by increasingly marginalized rural whites than to entertain the prospect, her millionish popular vote plurality aside (She was running against Donald Trump, for God's sake!), of a potentially more telling rejection of his opponent across a broad spectrum of the electorate..  The decidedly underwhelming general enthusiasm for Ms. Clinton that had been almost palpable throughout the campaign became a crushing reality on election day, even within her own party. Where Donald Trump claimed the votes of 91 percent of white Republicans, Hillary Clinton won the support of only 84 percent of whites in her party. It was anticipated that she would run behind President Obama in the black vote nationally, but perhaps not by a full five points, which hurt all the worse in light of a general slippage in black turnout.  In an interesting slant, a Pew Foundation survey shows Ms. Clinton ran behind Barack Obama in 2012 with Americans of every Protestant and Roman Catholic demographic, most notably coming up 8 points shy with Hispanic Catholics and trailing by 2 percent among the "religiously unaffiliated." Overall, once again, even presumed outrage over Trump's promised wall and mass deportations, failed to yield enough of a Hispanic/Latino "surge" to be of much help to Ms. Clinton, who actually trailed Obama's 2012 performance with this group by 6 points.

Beyond the brutal, but ultimately legitimate question of whether Hillary Clinton is "likable enough" to be president, she clearly did herself no favors in rejecting advice to pay more attention to blue collar voters instead of running what seemed to many outside her little bubble as an aloof, glam-besotted, utterly tone deaf campaign typified all too well by the $250,000-a ticket gala where Barbara Streisand provided the entertainment, but HRC made the wrong kind of headlines by dismissing half of Trump's supporters as loathsome, bigoted "deplorables." It is easy enough to see why not only rural whites acutely sensitive to slights, but a good many others in the suburbs and elsewhere may have jumped off the fence on Trump's side at that very point.

None of this is to suggest that Ms. Clinton did not face serious opposition rooted in racial and sexual bigotry, not to mention the economic and cultural anxiety so ruthlessly and recklessly exploited by her opponent. Nor is there reason to dispute that these pathologies seem more readily and menacingly apparent in some rural areas than elsewhere. Yet, it would only compound the tragedy that so many Americans already see in this election to consign these insidious traits and attitudes solely to those who lack the sophistication to conceal them or, sadder still, merely see nothing to gain by trying. If anything, though, it would be even more unfortunate to overlook a clearly substantial, much more influential and advantaged segment of the electorate who might deplore such hatred and blind anger publicly right up until they close the curtain in the voting booth where, upon rethinking, these sentiments, however regrettable, suddenly become a tolerable means of furthering their own class and political ends.  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is a big-time Hillary devotee who proudly casts himself as a representative of the "educated, socially progressive, Hollywood" crowd, even as he is cast by others as the embodiment of "why people hate liberals." Sorkin was not necessarily incorrect, however, in telling his daughters in a livid morning-after rant published in Vanity Fair (Where else?) that "the Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons." His mistake, and a most egregious one at that, lay in implying that they or others of their ilk could have pulled it off without a lot of help, some of it admittedly inadvertent, from a great many others who scarcely fit the conveniently narrow and villainous "Trumpster" profile he had constructed, including, ironically enough, the likes of Sorkin himself.

A less expansive version of this rant appeared over yonder on LiketheDew.com.

 http://likethedew.com/2016/11/16/hicks-in-the-sticks-shouldnt-be-the-pundits-quick-fix/#.WC3rK9UrKn9

WHEN THE WORST WE CAN IMAGINE IS THE BEST WE CAN DO

Well, Buckaroos, believe it or not, it is time once again for the Ol' Bloviator's fearless and feckless quadrennial estimate of our ever-sorrier state of electoral affairs. It's hard to recall, or even find in the historical record, a presidential campaign where the choice put to the sovereign voter has come down to so joyless a decision on which candidate is less repulsive, however marginally, than the other. Let's face it, we can readily check the "liar," "corrupt," "schemer" and several other boxes in the nefarious for both, and if Donald Trump loses this race--it is hard to think of any "winner" emerging from this God-awful mess-- it will be because he has pulled off the Herculean achievement of being more repugnant than his opponent. (In fact, he has supposedly racked up the most prodigious negativity ratings in the storied history of Gallup tracking.)

 Trump's opponent, meanwhile, may garner a more than substantial electoral vote margin, but she entered the campaign as largely self-damaged goods, and as over-the-top as Trump's attacks and characterizations of her may have seemed, she will emerge, almost unthinkably, with her credibility even more tattered. If she does put up the anticipated big numbers nationally, she will do so while providing the almost scandalously scanty coattails of someone who claimed the election by a proverbial gnat's whisker. Yes, the O.B. knows as many four Democrats are poised to pick up senate seats, but if they do, their thank-you notes should go not to the person at the head of their ticket for lifting them up, but to the GOP standard bearer for pulling his own people down. Constant rumors of unethical and immoral conduct and innuendo are a family tradition for the Clintons, as are their predictable counter-claims that they are being persecuted by shadowy right-wing ideologues and other bitterly partisan conspirators. We may be assured that even if the email flap that has dogged Hillary's campaign this year ultimately dies down, her time in office, however long it may be, will be constantly punctuated by rat-a-tats of disclosures and allegations of ethical misconduct, tantamount to the serial "bimbo eruptions" that dogged her hyper-sexed hubby.

Perhaps we should wait to see what actually happens on November 8, but where's the fun in that? From where things stand right now, it seems a reasonable bet that a great many Americans will go to bed that night relieved that Donald Trump is not going to be president but depressed that Hillary Clinton is. Those curious about how the nuts and bolts of this seemingly contradictory projection came together should look first to the vaunted "Blue Wall" of eighteen states, plus D. C., accounting for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win that have voted Democratic in the last six elections. We were assured several times this fall that the Blue Wall no longer exists, but you certainly can't prove it by the current polls, which show Trump either out of the running or trailing significantly in all of them. The Republicans have a "Red Wall" of their own, of course, but consisting principally of the bulk of the Old Confederacy plus the fly-over states, it boasts but 102 electoral votes. (See the adjoining chart showing the Blue Wall/Red Wall division of the electoral vote pie.)

Consistency crop50.jpg

We all know the polls are "rigged," of course, but they are still the best thing we have to go on, and they currently show Trump with little prospect of chipping a single brick off the Blue Wall. If we look at how Trump is faring poll-wise compared to the actual showing of Mitt Romney in 2012, he is trailing in North Carolina, but seems to have at least a decent shot at besting Romney by claiming the "toss-up" states of Iowa, Ohio, and Florida. Accounting for 53 electoral votes among them, these states are no small prizes,but, according to the accompanying projection, courtesy of realclearpolitics.com, even if he pulls this off, he would still stand at only 234 electoral votes compared to Hillary's projected 304, leaving him well shy of the magical 270 total needed to make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue go all Trumpazilla. 

RCP50 % crop.jpg

Beyond that, Trump is facing enough of a challenge in traditionally red-to-the-roots states like Georgia, Arizona, and, for God's sake, UTAH (!) that his campaign has had to devote precious time and resources simply to hold onto his once-presumed base--time that could have been spent in states he needs desperately to drag into the GOP column.

Curiously, although Trump seems to be shut out of the White House by an impenetrable barrier of Democratic voting consistency, he actually owes the continuing viability of his candidacy to a corresponding pattern of Republican partisan rigidity. In fact, Sam Wang points out that despite all the apparent ups and downs of his campaign, D.T.'s support has remained "level as a pond" at roughly 41 percent.  Citing the rapid rise in partisan polarization over the last generation, Mr. Wang notes that from 1952 to 1992, the average swing or range, plus to minus, in a presidential candidate's support over the course of a campaign was 17 percent, while, over the last six elections it has shrunk to only 8 percent. More remarkably still, despite what seemed one politically disastrous incident after another, including his thrashing at the hands of the family of Capt. Humayan Khan, Donald Trump's support has varied by only 4 points, between 39 and 43 percent. The pundits have asserted more than once that Trump's backers represent a sorely disaffected minority upset over immigration, outsourcing, political correctness, and other conditions contributing to a sense of lost opportunity and relevance. This may well be true of his most strident followers, but if you are looking for somebody likely to vote for ol' Donnie, your best bet is still your nearest Republican (Ditto and vice-versa for a Hillary voter, as well )  The Republican ranks may also hold a number of "silent voters" too embarrassed to tell a pollster that they actually plan to cast their lot with The Donald on November 8, but while their boy may fare well enough in the popular tally to sorely discomfit the Left, Middle, and even some on the Right,  it appears at this juncture at least that these resolutely mute voters will suddenly have to let loose with one hell of a bellow to affect the actual outcome.

The O. B. has recently become less interested in the campaign itself than in its aftermath. He has already noted that Hillary is likely to emerge looking and feeling as though she has done fifteen rounds with Boom Boom Mancini. (Eat your heart out, Warren Zevon.) Beyond that, when Trump's irresponsible, vengeful nonsense about a rigged election and his invocation of the "Second Amendment crowd" elicit comments to the effect that if Ms. Clinton is allowed to take office, and "has to go by any means necessary, it will be done," we are reminded that the demise of Trump the Candidate will not mark the end of Trump the Menace or, more troubling still, the powerfully frightening mindset he has so recklessly exploited. 

Emmett Till's "Then" Isn't Our "Now"*

             Sixty-one years ago this month, a Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam despite a pile of  damning evidence that the two had abducted, beaten, and then shot Emmett Till, a young Chicagoan scarcely a month past his fourteenth birthday, for violating a strict racial taboo by whistling at Bryant's wife. Since that day, the Emmett Till case has often been cited as both a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement and, more recently, as a trigger for black mobilization on a scale comparable to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Understandable as they might be, these leaps to conclusions and connections simply don't square with either historical or contemporary reality.

 After Emmett's body was fished from the Tallahatchie River, with his neck bound by barbed wire to a cotton gin fan, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, was determined to let "the world see what they had done to my boy" and insisted on an open-casket funeral which revealed a corpse so horribly bloated and bludgeoned that it was barely recognizable as human. Not only did tens of thousands of mourners in Chicago file by the horrific sight in the casket, but when Jet Magazine ran an exclusive photograph of Emmett Till's battered and bloated head, that issue sold out so quickly that more copies were printed, and the photo ran the following week as well. The trial itself drew coverage from the major television networks and more than seventy reporters and photographers, representing such major print outlets as the New York Times, Life, Look, and Time, and several black newspapers and magazines and a sprinkling of foreign publications as well.

The trial proceedings offered a real-life template for a fictional southern courtroom drama straight out of central casting, complete with a big-bellied sheriff spewing racial epithets and a defense attorney who exhorted an all-white jury in a 63 percent black county to do their "Anglo-Saxon" duty by freeing the defendants. Compounding the affront to justice, in January 1956, Look Magazine published a story in which Bryant and Milam, their tongues loosened by a nice paycheck and the shield of double jeopardy, admitted to the crime, with Milam explaining coldly he had decided to "make an example" of young Emmett "just so everbody [sic] can know how me and my folks stand."

Yet, even after singer Nat Cole was brutally beaten onstage by Klansmen in Birmingham a few months later, neither the television networks or major U.S. papers like the New York Times chose to make southern racial violence a focal point, and with Cold War anxieties rendering social agitation seriously suspect, a year after Emmett's slaying scarcely 6 percent of Gallup Poll respondents outside the South thought civil rights was the nation's most pressing issue. Meanwhile, fearful of a savage backlash from white southerners, television executives forced award-winning screenwriter and "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling to eviscerate not one but two screen plays (the first in 1956 and another 1958) based on the Emmett Till story by cutting out any reference or suggestion of southern settings, characters, or racial practices before they were aired.

 If John Egerton was correct in observing that while the Till case "stirred the nation's conscience momentarily, the attention span was short and the South slipped back into the shadows," what of its supposed catalytic effect on the crusade to end racial injustice? It was true enough that when questioned about it, Rosa Parks admitted that thinking of poor Emmett had strengthened her resolve in the three-month interval between his death and her act of defiance that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. Yet plans for such an action had not only been in the works well before Till's slaying, but were modeled on a similar boycott by blacks in Baton Rouge two years earlier. NAACP leaders in Mississippi and elsewhere were also filing petitions for compliance with the Brown decision before Till's murder.

            While the adult generation of black activists were vividly familiar with the South's long history of racial atrocities, their children, especially those in Emmett's age group, were much more vulnerable to the horrors of the Till affair, especially the terrifying casket photo so jealously guarded by Jet that few of their white peers ever saw it. Young Cleveland Sellers could not shake the feeling that the ghastly figure in the casket "could have been me or any other black kid around that same age," They were only teenagers in 1955, but it was surely no coincidence that, when a new decade dawned with less than 1 percent of school-age southern black children in integrated classrooms and southern black voter registration only 4 percent higher than it had been in 1956, it was four frustrated members of the Till generation who boldly took seats at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. This action, in turn, helped to spawn the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee whose more aggressive and confrontational approach attracted a number of Till's peers, including Sellers and Joyce Ladner, who could easily identify "ten SNCC workers who saw that picture [of Till's body] in Jet magazine, [and] remember it as the key thing about their youth that was emblazoned in their minds."

 Instead of an immediate and dramatic spark for black activism, the Emmett Till tragedy proved more akin to a seed pod, which, at maturity, released a deferred but timely burst of pent-up energy and anger from a young adult generation whose adolescence had been taken hostage by fear. Current concerns about an extended spate of controversial killings of black Americans have stirred several well-known filmmakers to revisit the Till story. This is welcome news, especially if they resist such facile comparisons as likening the impact of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till to that of  the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri slaying of Michael Brown, which is seen as triggering the "Black Lives Matter" movement, on the grounds that "both events galvanized a black community that had been unheard and spawned movements around what many saw as particularly egregious racial incidents." In reality, the Black Lives Matter campaign testifies to nothing so much as the hard-won advances in black, political, social, economic, and technological empowerment that have marked the last three generations.  Such a rapid, aggressive, coordinated and broad-based response would have been unthinkable to black leaders struggling in the 1950s to mobilize their impoverished, disfranchised, uneducated, and historically brutalized constituencies in an era of virtually unchecked racial terrorism when, by any valid measure, black lives mattered far less than they do today.


*A modified version of this essay appeared under a different title on TIME.COM.

 

 

WISH THIS NO LONGER RANG TRUE AFTER 15 YEARS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

September 12, 2001 Wednesday, Home Edition

Americans left to fear unseen enemy;

BYLINE: JAMES C. COBB

SOURCE: For the Journal-Constitution

SECTION: Editorial; Pg. 23A

LENGTH: 368 words

On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to forge "a world founded upon four essential freedoms," including "freedom from fear."
But our victory in World War II soon dissolved into a nuclear arms race fueled by the Cold War. The generation that spent portions of their childhoods practicing for direct nuclear hits on their elementary schools can hardly look back with much nostalgia on that era.

Yet, even as the Cold War ended and we breathed a collective sigh of relief at the diminished likelihood of a global nuclear holocaust, we were already slipping into a new era of fear and uncertainty, one in which the enemy could be internal, as well as external, and essentially invisible, one in which extravagant defense budgets and massive missile stockpiles count for less than the ruthless and calculated fanaticism of relatively small numbers of unseen and often unknown enemies.
Our inability to protect even the Pentagon and perhaps even the White House or the Capitol served chilling notice that, when all is said and done, a terrorist can get closer to President Bush, than the latter, for all his resources, can get to him. An unseen enemy can make not just the residents of New York or Washington afraid, but can implant that fear into the hearts of the rest of America as well.
This reality came through to me in a number of ways, including the cancellation of classes at the University of Georgia and the anxious investigation of a "suspicious" van parked near the federal building in Athens. However, it was local reaction here in Hart County that I found most enlightening. The mayor of Hartwell, a woman of Lebanese extraction and Episcopal faith, urged citizens to offer their prayers for the victims and their families "in their own tradition." To that end, churches in town and throughout the county opened their doors to the prayerful.
Yet, for all the sincere expressions of grief and compassion, I feel certain that explicitly or not, those prayers also embodied a personal plea for the freedom from fear that, despite our victories in World War II and the Cold War, seems more elusive now than it did when Roosevelt promised to pursue it 60 years ago.

In their "Open Letter to the American People,"released  last week, a group called "Historians Against Trump" declared that "the lessons of history compel us to speak out against [Donald] Trump." Their motives, they insisted, were not partisan in the least, but rather they were simply a collection of schools, teachers, public historians, and graduate students united by their common conviction "that the candidacy of Donald J. Trump poses a threat to American democracy." There followed an indictment whose list of particulars gave no hint of academic expertise but could have been assembled by anyone who owns a television or computer, much less reads a newspaper now and then. Yet the statement suggested that a well-defined professional skill set left its historian-signatories well equipped to topple the Trump campaign and build "an inclusive civil society in its place.

As is frequently the case with letters or other statements drafted by a committee whose members are passionate about the rightness and importance of their cause, this one occasionally waxed a bit grandiose in some of its language and imagery.  In this and the exposure it received, the historians' impassioned missive amounted a big, fat, hanging curveball tossed squarely in the wheelhouse of none other than the switch-hitting, language-bending, career-contrarian critic of practically everything, Stanley Fish. Once tagged, ironically enough, as "the Donald Trump of American academia," in his early incarnation as a literary theorist and campus wheeler-dealer, this "brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect," seemed to stoke much the same public outrage against the Academy that the shape-shifting Fish now undertakes to exploit himself, courtesy of the bully platform afforded him by The New York Times.  

At any rate, the historians' "open letter" afforded an irresistible opportunity for Fish to do precisely what he loves best, i.e., play word games, preferably, as in this case, with unsuspecting adversaries. For example, mocking the writers' insistence that "as historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity," he found "very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity" in their apparent conflation of "political opinions" with "indisputable, impartially arrived at truths," as in: "Donald Trump's presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact." "How's that," Fish asked, "for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?"

             Possibly a bit juiced by his merciless flaying of yet another offending text, Fish went on to boldly declare that historians "are wrong to insert themselves into the political process under the banner of academic expertise." He may have barely worked up a sweat in puncturing the presumptuous rhetoric of writers whose zeal  may have occasionally run roughshod over their discretion, but he was not exactly free from presumption himself when he lectured the parties to the document on the actual nature of their job, which is,  to wit:  "To teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between likeable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or gurus."

            Not surprisingly, like many academics, some historians have taken none too kindly to being told where "their competence lies" or having the parameters of their discipline defined by someone who is neither a fellow practitioner nor much of a fan of parameters himself. Taken at face value, this little interdisciplinary dustup might seem at first glance like little more than simply another tempest in the faculty lounge teapot, and a largely contrived one at that. I no more believe that the overwhelming majority of the people who signed on with "Historians Against Trump" really meant to suggest that their academic credentials entitle them to speak more authoritatively on current affairs than others--nor do I believe that Stanley Fish actually believes it either--than I believe that either Fish or anyone else can make a legitimate argument that those credentials should inhibit such activity.   Even if, as I suspect, this latter suggestion was offered largely as a deliberate provocation, it requires at least something of a response because, regardless of the trappings in which it might be delivered, we have never been in more urgent need of historically informed social and political commentary than we are right now.

Though they are certain to face accusations of favoritism from one side or the other if not both, historians who venture into these waters incur no obligation to the candidates themselves. If they have done their dead-level best to offer their readers a balanced, detached view of relevant historical phenomena from which they may reach their own conclusions, scholars are not party to partisanship simply because the implications of their work prove more favorable to one aspirant than the other. The matter of what parts of the past are deemed relevant will inevitably be shaped in large part by the candidates' positions on the most salient issues of the campaign, although the obvious concerns that go largely unaddressed in the partisan sphere are still fair game in the historical arena. For example, the effects of the high tariff policies of the 1920s in fostering and exacerbating economic distress at home and abroad clearly deserve attention in light of Donald Trump's apparent disposition to protectionism in some form and circumstances. On the other hand, however, there is the equally critical issue of already enormous and still widening gaps in wealth and income that were generally blown off by the Republican administrations of the pre-Depression era and, though they loom equally portentous today, still seem closer to the margins of the current campaign than the core.

Clearly, candidates who embrace what are perceived to be extreme positions are inviting the most expansive examination of their historical antecedents, and this year's GOP nominee is no exception.  Flipping through the pages of American history, it is pretty hard to find much of an upside to recurrent appeals to xenophobia, which have never ended other than badly, either for the demonized immigrants themselves or for the nation as a whole. When it comes to the politics of fear and guilt by association and innuendo, Donald Trump may still be a dive or two shy of plumbing the depths reached by red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, but it is hard to imagine McCarthy resisting a knowing wink at Trump's suggestion of a link between Sen. Ted Cruz's father and Lee Harvey Oswald. 

            Trump's unfiltered addiction to the spotlight virtually mandates a search for his personal and policy precursors. This does not mean, however, that Hillary Clinton, who has, for obvious reasons, sought aggressively to minimize the exposure of her past, has earned any reprieve from the historical third-degree. Clinton, for example, has been more circumspect in her attitude toward recent controversial free-trade agreements like TPP, but like her husband, she should forever bear the yoke of the hideous NAFTA treaty, which ruined the lives of thousands of U.S. textile and apparel workers, devastated their communities, and left them crippled in their efforts to recover. Though Clinton has tried to distance herself from NAFTA, President Obama was on the mark back when he quipped that she said "great things about NAFTA until she started running for president."  It is also worth noting that Hillary's email fiasco is hardly the first manifestation of an obsession with secrecy and a desire to use it for political protection and aggrandizement. If you don't find this a troubling inclination for a presidential candidate, then you're either too old or too young to remember Watergate and the national trauma it inflicted.

Anyone cognizant of historical processes and the critical importance of the discrete contexts in which particular events and trends have played out also understands that such comparisons and analogies should be advanced as cautiously by scholars as they are received by readers. Proceeding cautiously, however, is not the same as proceeding timidly, and in this case, it is eminently preferable to not proceeding at all.  Stanley Fish and others may well be content to give the last word to the old duffer in the New Yorker cartoon who allows that while "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. . . .Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it." I trust, however, that the great majority of  my colleagues will agree that no one who is possessed of a genuine historical consciousness is by any means "helpless," much less "doomed"--or perhaps even entitled--to simply "stand by" and allow whatever lessons the past affords to go not just unheeded, but unheard. 

(This piece also appears on The History News Network, albeit under a less forthright and somewhat unrepresentative title.)

It's not as if the Ol' Bloviator and his wonderful bride needed any further confirmation of Gavin Stevens's famous declaration in Requiem for A Nun that the past is neither "dead" nor "even past," but if we had, we definitely got it a few weeks back after my long suffering bride and I made the twisty trek from Lexington, Virginia, where the O.B. was teaching at that point, across the mountains to Appomattox National Historical Park.

The exhibits and artifacts were impressive but our real destination was the McLean House, where the actual surrender took place. (There is a misconception that this happened in the courthouse because at the time this tiny hamlet was known as "Appomattox Courthouse.") This had come to pass because poor Wilmer McLean happened to be the first person Lee's aide, Col. Charles Marshall, encountered upon arrival at Appomattox Courthouse. When they pressed McLean about a suitable site for the surrender, he first offered a dusty, unfurnished building nearby that struck Marshall as not quite up to snuff for one of the most critical meetings in the nation's history.  McLean then offered an on-the-spot, Medallion-miles-be-damned upgrade, the parlor of his home.  Lest ol' Wilmer be seen as churlish and inhospitable, it is important to note that he had pretty good reason for reluctance in handing over his home to the Confederates, having done the same with his previous residence, near Manassas, as a hospital and command post for General P.G. T. Beauregard during the first major battle of the war at Bull Run # 1.  His house had taken a cannonball to the chimney during the fight, and, after seeing it and his and his wife's 1,200 -acre plantation ravaged by war, he removed himself and his family some 120 miles to the south to the near-obscurity of Appomattox Court House, where he thought surely the war would not find them again. (Even today, any soldiers approaching the town from the west, might deem this a fair surmisal on Wilmer's part.) Yet, Wilmer McLean seemed destined to have, as he was later to say, "the war beg[i]n in my front yard and [end] in my parlor."  

After the proceedings were concluded, Wilmer's coerced hospitality would be rewarded with a locust-like stripping of his furnishings and even pieces of his house itself by Yankee souvenir-seekers who took most anything not nailed down and tore out a lot that was, especially in the "surrender room," where Lee accompanied by a single aide, sat at the desk on the left and Grant, surrounded by several members his staff, sat at the one on the right.

mclean parlor small.jpg

All in all, at 20' x 16' it seemed like a mighty tight space for such a momentous event. The carefully reconstructed courthouse, dwellings, store, etc. definitely took us back and underscored what a tiny, out of the way place the village of Appomattox Courthouse had been in April 1865.

It had been a satisfying experience and a sobering one, though perhaps not nearly so much as the one that awaited us. As we approached Appomattox, we had at one point found ourselves in the midst of what seemed like a caravan of trucks and SUVs, all of them with humongous Confederate battle flags flapping all over the place. The O.B. remarked at the time that he hoped to hell they weren't headed to the same place we were, but they all whupped into a truck stop, and we headed on. We noticed as we neared the park that there were four state trooper cars with flashing bubble-gum machines along the road and several park rangers as if they were awaiting either a Donald Trump rally or Bonnie and Clyde in a stolen get-away car. All of this had told the O.B. somehow that we had not seen the last of that ostentatious band of flaggers, and sure enough, upon exiting, as we came upon a little Confederate cemetery on the edge of the park, there they were, apparently holding some sort of rally, replete with flags whose profusion is not done justice by the photo below, taken by yours truly when we wheeled into the parking lot to get a better look.

flaggers.jpg

As the O.B. stood in the parking lot a hundred feet or so from the proceedings trying to get the widest-angle image an iPhone can deliver, he noticed the approach of a right good sized fellow whose grim countenance and purposeful stride said that he was less than thrilled by the O.B.'s attempt to capture the event for posterity. Thereupon ensued the following exchange.

He:  "What are you up to, buddy?"

O.B.: "Taking some photos."

He: "I see that." (Slight, but pregnant pause.) "Would you like to join us?"

O.B.:  "Not really. Just been over at the park and wanted to see what was up. This is public property, isn't it?"

Instead of replying, he turned away, doubtless after concluding that it would not say a whole lot for his version of southern honor if he curb-stomped a rickety old geezer six inches shorter and thirty years older than he, especially in plain sight of a couple of park policemen. The incident might have seemed less striking had we not just been hammered with the park service's emphasis on Appomattox as the place where, thanks largely to two reasonable and heroic men, America came together again. Suffice it to say, you certainly could not prove any such thing by the crowd at the cemetery, who gave little indication they were aware of what actually transpired about a half-mile to the east in Wilmer McLean's parlor.

The O.B. regrets not pressing on another 100 miles or so east of Appomattox to take in his family's first North American "home place" near Petersburg, where Ambrose Cobbs, late of Willesborough, in the South East of England, claimed his 350-acre headright grant in 1639. (Each new colonist was granted 50 acres of land for every "head" he brought, including his. Ambrose arrived with his wife, Ann, children Robert and Margaret, along with three men indentured to Ambrose in exchange for his paying their passage.  Hence Ambrose was credited for 7 heads at 50 acres each= 350 acres.)

Fuming about this missed opportunity to get better in touch with his family's past did spark the O. B.'s curiosity about how his ancestors fared in their early years in Virginia. Turns out that they did pretty well. Ambrose's son, Robert, and grandson Ambrose would both serve as vestrymen of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, and Robert was appointed sheriff of York County in 1682.  According to historian Christine Eisel, however, Robert's rapid social and political ascent did spark some jealousy:

"In October, 1658, Elizabeth Frith Woods, along with Johanna Poynter and Elianor

Cooper, plotted to post a libelous document on the Marston parish church door. As recorded by

the county court clerk, Elizabeth wrote:

"Gentlemen this is to give you all notice that we have a new fine trade come up amongst us. One of our Vestrymen is turned Mirkin maker. Thomas Bromfield by name, and alsohis wife and goodwife Cobbs, one of our Churchwarden's wife, they make one very handsome Mirkin amongst them and sent it to ye neighbors."

The three women maligned [vestrymen] Thomas Bromfield, Robert Cobbs (by implication) and their wives by accusing them of making mirkens. Mirken was a slang term used to describe a "pubic wig" for women.

The device was most often associated with prostitutes and sexually promiscuous women of low standing. A mirken was designed to hide the deformities that could occur from mercury treatment for syphilis and/or gonorrhea, or to temporarily replace pubic hair that was shaved due to body lice. The women did not accuse anyone of wearing mirkens; they accused them of making mirkens, an accusation that carried layers of meaning. They did not imply that the Bromfields and Cobbses engaged in loose sexual activity themselves; rather, they implied that the Bromfields and Cobbses associated with such people, who were beneath the standing of proper vestrymen and their wives. The women also implied that the Bromfields and Cobbses insulted their neighbors by sending mirkens to them. Further, Woods and her conspirators implied that the Bromfields and Cobbses were covering up some improper and ugly activity, just as a mirken was designed to cover or disguise a deformity." *

According to Eisel, the women were eventually dismissed as vicious gossips, and two of their husbands were fined a whopping 10,000 pounds of tobacco for their wives' efforts to defame my 7X great grandpa Bobby, but from the looks of it, things got hairy for a while.

*(From "SEVERAL UNHANDSOME WORDS": THE POLITICS OF GOSSIP IN EARLY VIRGINIA." Christine Eisel, PhD. Dissertation, Bowling Green University, 2012)

 

THE "PECULIAR INSTITUTION" WASN'T SO PECULIAR AFTER ALL

This little piece is a fuller version of an essay, which, in accordance with the Ol' Bloviator's quixotic crusade to better educate the Yankees on matters historical, was posted up yonder at TIME.COM.

Reflecting on recent calls for stripping the name of Robert E. Lee, a slave owner who went to war in slavery's defense, from Washington & Lee University, historian Emory Thomas noted that since the school's other namesake, George Washington, was also a slaveholder, and raised the awkward possibility that one of the country's most distinguished liberal arts institutions might be known one day simply as "&." Thomas spoke with tongue securely in cheek, but the scenario he posited seemed a logical, if absurd, progression of the current obsession with de-christening institutions, buildings, parks, or thoroughfares named for someone with ties to slavery. However well-intentioned such efforts may be, recent explorations by several historians suggest how truly monumental the task of rooting out connections with such an indisputably powerful, intricately pervasive, and ultimately integral institution would be.

African slave labor had been introduced on the tobacco plantations of the seventeenth century Chesapeake, but slavery's emergence as a truly dominant force in national and international commerce and finance awaited the arrival in 1793 of Eli Whitney's fabulous cotton gin, which spurred the explosive spread of cotton-growing and slavery across the southern interior and into the new southwestern states of Alabama and Mississippi. The booming southwestern cotton frontier proved an irresistible magnet for both people, free and unfree, and financial investment. Some struggling Upper South planters opted to relocate with their slaves in tow. With slave prices rising meteorically in response to soaring demand, and stoked as well by a congressional ban on further importation after 1808, many others simply consigned their increasingly valuable human property to a massive stream of bound labor destined first for the lucrative slave markets of the Southwest. Cotton accounted for nearly one-third of the value of U.S. exported merchandise by 1820, and closer to two-thirds by 1860, more than three-fourths of it going to Great Britain.

Maintaining this fibrous connection between southern slave plantations and the voracious looms of Lancashire required myriad supporting ventures in production, trade, services, and financing on both sides of the Atlantic. With the American banking system still wracked with growing pains in the early nineteenth century, English firms like Baring Brothers marketed high-yield bonds backed by the slaveholdings of planters in Louisiana and elsewhere, while profits extracted from the slave trade supplied vital capital for the nascent Barclays Bank. As the American financial system matured, a wide range of domestic banks got in on this act. Two of these, Citizens' Bank and Canal Bank of Louisiana, which accepted roughly 13,000 slaves as collateral and came to own well over a thousand slaves outright, became cogs in the great financial wheel that became J. P. Morgan Chase. Likewise, Moses Taylor, director of the City Bank of New York, the forerunner of Citibank, managed the fruits of the tireless exertions of slaves on large sugar plantations and was also deeply involved in the illicit importation of slaves into Cuba.

Northern shippers also profited handsomely after 1808 in the brisk interstate transfer in slaves that saw some one million bondsmen transferred by sea as well as land from the Upper to the Lower South between 1810 and 1860. Thus it was not in New Orleans but Providence that some of the state's most prosperous and influential citizens gathered at what the local newspaper described as "a very numerous and respectable" meeting, on November 2, 1835, to unanimously endorse several resolutions condemning the actions of recently formed anti-slavery societies in the free states, declaring "coercive measures for the abolition of slavery" a "violation of the sacred rights of property" and "dangerous to the existing friendship and of business between different sections of our country." This proclamation was altogether fitting. Rhode Island had sent more than twice as many ships to Africa for slaves than all of the other colonies or states combined, many of them as part of the infamous Triangular Trade in New England rum, African slaves and southern or Caribbean molasses and sugar. Across the region, a sizable workforce was also employed in building the vessels requisite to these activities. Although slavery was said to be the "peculiar institution" of the South, so pervasive were Boston's entanglements with it that one wonders whether when the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots, the subject of their common ties to the slave trade ever came up.

As for New York, surely there are few cities, North or South, where so many prominent physical fixtures are tied to slavery, even down to key sports venues like Madison Square Garden, Citi Field, and the Barclay Center. These disturbing reminders are actually less incongruous than they seem.  Even though the international slave trade had been illegal for more than half a century, this illicit commerce was being conducted so brazenly in the city, the London Times dubbed New York "the greatest slave trading market in the world" in 1860.This appellation seemed to trouble the city's Episcopalians less than their Anglican brethren across the water, however. More than once the convention of the Diocese of New York declined by an "overwhelming majority" even to discuss resolutions asking the Bishop and clergy of the Diocese to speak out against a practice, so blatantly contrary to "the teachings of the Church" and "the laws of God."

            Ironically, in an era when so much wealth was derived from pursuits directly related to slavery the two institutions seemingly most deserving of philanthropy were churches and colleges. Surely no institution of higher learning has confronted its historical indebtedness to slavery and the slave trade more forthrightly than Brown University, whose principal early benefactors included the Brown brothers, who, operating as under the name of Nicholas Brown and Company raked in hefty profits from trading and transporting slaves. All told, at least thirty members of Brown's early governing board at one time owned or captained slave ships. Meanwhile, Tench Francis, who wrote the insurance for some of the Brown Company's slaving voyages, became one of the founding trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, whose ranks presented a virtual who's who of Philadelphia's high-profile slave traders.  And so it goes, from Rutgers, to Columbia, to Yale and Harvard, all of which and others detailed in Craig Steven Wilder's Ebony and Ivory, benefited significantly at some point from the largesse of men who owned or trafficked in human beings.

Although we might quibble about matters of degree, there is no escaping the critical role of slavery in facilitating our development as a nation. Historian Calvin Schermerhorn has it right when he calls enslaved Africans laboring in southern cotton fields "the strengths and sinews of a robust capitalist system." By maximizing the output of labor-intensive cotton agriculture in order to keep pace with the demands of mechanized textile production abroad, slavery established a vital and timely reciprocity with the Industrial Revolution that would first stabilize and then position this country for its remarkably swift journey from the periphery to the core of the world economy. Lest they exaggerate what can be achieved by simply scouring the taint of slavery from the faces of a variety of American institutions and edifices, those who propose to do so would do well to heed the words of a former bondsman featured in the title of Edward Baptist's recent book on slavery and American capitalism, for they are truly reacting to a story whose "half has never been told."

Bloviate:

"To orate verbosely and windily."

Bloviate is most closely associated with President Warren G. Harding, who used it frequently and was given to long winded speeches. H.L. Mencken said of Harding:

"He writes the worst English that I've ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the top most pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Cobbloviate dedicates itself to maintaining the high standards established by President Harding and described so eloquently by Mr. Mencken. However,the bloviations recorded here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the mangement of Flagpole.com,nor,for that matter, are they very likely to be in accord with those of any sane, right-thinking individual or group anywhere in the known universe.

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