December 2010 Archives

The Richest Man in Town

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"Remember no man is a failure who has friends."

     Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, to George Bailey in "A Wonderful Life"

 

        It wasn't exactly on my "bucket list," but one thing I managed to accomplish over the holidays was seeing at exceedingly long last Frank Capra's classic 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life." I do not mean for even a second to suggest comparisons between the Ol' Bloviator and George Bailey, the staggeringly decent and selfless protagonist of the story, who has helped and in some cases actually saved or salvaged the lives of so many of his fellow citizens of the town of Bedford Falls. Still, like most people, I suspect, I could definitely relate to George's depression and sense of worthlessness when it appeared that he had not only failed in keeping the family business afloat, but in adequately providing for his children and long-suffering wife, Mary, played by Donna Reed, who was surely the most beautiful actress of her generation. Would that for all of us in times like these there would be a guardian angel, like good old Clarence, who could get us untracked at times like these and help us to see there are always good reasons to grab ourselves by the seat of our pants (taking great care, of course, to avoid self-inflicted wedgies), get back on our feet, and resume the business of doing the best we can to keep on keeping on, etc.

        In this case, the immediate cause for George's feeling that it would've been better for all concerned if he had never been born was the careless misplacement of some $8,000 by his absent-minded Uncle Billy (played by Thomas Mitchell, best remembered as Gerald O'Hara in GWTW), leading to a crisis in which George and the Bailey Building and Loan Association run afoul of federal bank examiners. In a brilliant move that ultimately wins him his wings and a promotion to Angel First Class, Clarence shows the individual and community desolation that would have prevailed had George not been around to help so many people in so many ways. Meanwhile, good old Mary has put the word out that George is in major financial trouble, leading to a veritable stampede of donors who rush in to literally fill a basket with what amounts to a community bailout for the man who has done so much for so many. In the end, proclaims his younger brother Harry (whom George had saved from drowning as a child), this outpouring of friendship shows that George is actually "the richest man in town."

        Though, unlike George, I have done little to deserve them, I have always felt blessed in the number of good friends that I have acquired over the years, dating back to my childhood and progressing through my truly "wonderful life" with Ms. O.B. There is some truth in the words of my old mentor who advised me many years ago that "by the time they're 40 years old, most people have all the friends they want." Yet, as academic vagabonds of sorts, we have managed to form new friendships wherever I have been fortunate to hang my mortarboard over the years.

        In my case certainly, the degree of my friendship with anyone is likely to be registered in the extent to which we give each other unmerciful hell. In fact, the unmerciful hell part of it may be my very favorite thing about friendship. Nothing gives me a warmer, fuzzier feeling inside than to be ridiculed and berated for my appearance, politics, profession, etc.  In this regard, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the last few years to become part of "EFD" (Don't Ask), an aggregation that gathers every morning, rain or shine, tornado or blizzard, at 6:30 a.m. and runs various and strictly proscribed routes in and around Athens. Within this group, failure to show up for any reason is tantamount to desertion or treason.  When I was out roughly three months with a broken ankle, queries about when I was going to stop babying myself and get back on the road began before the plaster on my cast had completely set. My rather laid-back sartorial style often earns me considerable abuse from certain members of the group so that when it was learned that I would be recognized by my august employer on the field at the last home football game this year, there was no shortage of critiques for any ensemble of clothing that I might propose for this occasion. This, of course, fueled my determination to attire myself in a fashion as contrary as possible to the suggestions of my "running buddies." Much to their relief, however, a serious cold snap dashed my plans to wear shorts and my beloved, if admittedly a little ragged and a lot dirty, Sanuks. 

        There was still some mumbling about what would transpire, but I was not able to discern what conspiracy might be afoot to embarrass me on this exalted occasion. As it turned out, there was a conspiracy of sorts, but it turned out to be a delightful one indeed.

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As Ms. O.B. and I prepared to trek over to our normal pre-game group tailgate, we learned that there would be no walking for us that night.  Instead, we were to be chauffeured in decidedly regal fashion by our friend Al, pictured above with yours very truly, in his trusty (but definitely not rusty) and appropriately red Oldsmobile convertible. Lest anyone along the route fail to pick up on our VIP status, subtle signage attached to the car should have made this abundantly clear, although some of the people along the route seemed puzzled as to why we both kept turning to one side and then the other to dispense our best stylized celebrity wave. 

It was quite an evening all the way around. Certainly there was nothing in my previous experience to compare with standing out on the field in the midst of 92,000 or so of my closest friends. (Take that, George Bailey!) CroppedScan_Pic0003.jpg Regrettably, I was not the only celebrity in attendance that evening, and I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Samuel L Jackson, in that my presence doubtless overshadowed his to a great extent. samuel l.F753013.jpg

When all is said and done, however, I think the best part of the whole business was knowing that my fellow EFD'ers had gone to the trouble of putting our group's special stamp on the occasion.

        So, just let me say, "Thanks, Guys."  This will help to make up for some--though certainly not all--of the times when I feel like the 29th president of the United States and the Patron Saint of Cobbloviate, Warren Gamaliel Harding, who, upon realizing  that the gaggle of old pals he had appointed to high office were repaying his kindness by stealing the country blind, was heard to remark:  "I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they're the ones who keep me walking the floor at night."

A Christmas Bloviation

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Well, the ol' Bloviator has just turned in his final grades for the semester, thereby wreaking havoc and destruction and wantonly spreading misery among those who really thought that the perfect score on the final needed to raise their "D-" to an "A" was truly within their grasp. As has become a tradition, by the time I had finished posting grades for those at the end of the alphabet, I was already getting complaints and inquiries from those at the beginning. Oh, would that we could only bottle the intense concern about grades that overwhelms students a couple of days before final exams begin and dose 'em up real good with it a little bit earlier in the term! 

Be that as it may, these days, the end of the semester always puts me into a contemplative mood as I consider how many grades I've calculated and posted in my time and the thousands of students that those grades represent. I was gratified a few weeks ago by the extremely generous comments of one of my former charges from way back when I was just a babe in these here academic woods. Now, it seems, I have also harangued two of his offspring with the gospel according to James. This is heartwarming in many respects, but it also raises the question of whether anybody who is now well into teaching his students' children has what my Mama used to find lacking in long-winded preachers, i.e., "quittin' sense."  Even though he can't quite concede that it's time to hang up the old mortarboard, neither does the ol' Bloviator desire to become the pointy-headed, ivory-towered equivalent of Brett Favre, who seems to  find some fulfillment in his inability to make the call that takes him out of the lineup, even though that is where he clearly belonged three fractures and a concussion or two ago. 

There is the question of course, of what exactly the OB would do if he wasn't doing what he's doing now, and the inability to really answer that question is the primary reason why he's likely to keep on keeping on for a while yet. If the OB were not situated at such a distance from one Barrett Callaway Cobb, his recently arrived grandson, there's no doubt that he'd be out of harness in a Minnesota minute, for there is just so much to teach that precious little guy and so little time when you're only around him for an exceedingly brief stint (in our eyes, at least, though quite likely not in those of his parents) every few months.

Barrett's first snapshot on Santa's lap has been captivating me for days, consistently reminding me of the fact that Christmas should convey the pure innocence and wonder that only an infant can manifest. This, of course, leads into my annual posting of Joyce Kilmer's "Kings," which was composed during the living hell of World War I, before that gruesome and ultimately senseless conflict took its composer's life:

The Kings of the earth are men of might,
And cities are burned for their delight,
And the skies rain death in the silent night,
And the hills belch death all day!
But the King of Heaven, Who made them all,
Is fair and gentle, and very small;
He lies in the straw, by the oxen's stall

When I read every day about our courageous young men who are being killed or horribly maimed every day in Afghanistan, I can't help but question the reasons behind such sacrificial slaughter and remember that many of these young heroes are not even two decades removed from the warm, cuddly, infinitely curious and wide-eyed little boy I can't wait to hold as close as I can for as long as I can. 

I'm sure this has gotten about as weepy as most of you can stand and it certainly isn't right to end any reflection on Christmas on such a downer. Hence, let me convey my good cheer but perhaps my infinitely bad taste, as I present for your viewing pleasure the third annual Cobblovian festival of holiday lights, delivered once again this year through the indulgence of my noble 1994 GMC pickup, which is once again bathed in light, even though it's been many a moon since it's been bathed with anything else.

Xmas Truck.AVI

This is my way of conveying my warm holiday wishes to any and all who happen to stop by this humble little patch of cyberspace. Once again, in a true display of the Christmas Spirit, I also salute my Georgia Tech friends with a hearty "Felice, Bobby Dodd!"

Just Who Won This War, Any Way?

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In conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the recent unpleasantness which is now upon us, the New York Times has set up a special series on the web following the course of events as they unfolded in late 1860 and flowed across the next four  and half years.  The ol' Bloviator sent them the following little piece, pointing out that the secession crisis facing the nation at the end of 1860 had been building for quite a while and that it was actually northerners who had first begun to practice the politics of sectionalism, albeit under the guise of a nationalist agenda.  You can read the posted version here or slog through the O.B's virginal prose below:

Historians once routinely blamed southerners for introducing the virus of sectionalism into the American body politic while praising their northern adversaries for their selfless devotion to the Union. More recently, however, Peter Onuf and others have argued that New Englanders were actually the nation's most "precocious sectionalists," even though their sectionalism was often cloaked in the soaring rhetoric of  early American nationalism. writers like geographer Jedediah Morse  shamelessly touted their native New England as the quintessential model for American national identity and character, pointedly contrasting its Yankee "industry . . . frugality .[and] piety" with the slothful, irreligious southern slaveholding culture of "luxury, dissipation and extravagance." "O, New England!"  How superior are thy inhabitants in morals, literature, civility and industry." Employing similar juxtapositions of New England virtues and southern vices, later writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, helped to inspire and nurture what would eventually become a broader "northern" vision in which the northern states became synonymous with America while the southern ones stood as its complete antithesis.

By 1823 New Yorker Gerrit Smith could already remark on the almost "national difference of character between the people of the Northern and the people of the Southern states." Lost in translation here, as historian Joyce Appleby noted, was the sense that by that point "Northerners imaginatively thought of their 'nation' as the United States, leaving the South with its peculiar institution and a particular regional culture."

Before the talk of secession at the Hartford Convention of 1814 blew their cover, New England Federalists had succeeded in using a  nationalistic façade to conceal a sectional political agenda that could best be served by a central government powerful enough to protect and advance their trade and shipping interests at home and abroad. In the years to follow, New England's eloquent champion, Daniel Webster, consistently cloaked his support for sectional policies such as protective tariffs and internal improvements in the language of national interest. By the middle of the nineteenth century though, Webster made no secret of his hope for a politically cohesive "North" rooted in a coalition of northeastern and western free states (settled in part by New England émigrés) intent on protecting the interests of free labor and halting the spread of slavery. Webster's wishes were realized in the meteoric ascent of the Republican Party whose strikingly concentrated northern support base made it, as historian David Potter observed, "totally sectional in its constituency." Yet with their party's strength centered  in some of the nation's fastest growing states, Republican leaders realized that northern interests might soon be calling the shots in national politics. Thus, as Potter noted, they could "support the Union for sectional reasons," while southerners clearly could not.

Although they were relative Johnny-Rebs-come-lately to the business of what might today be called regional "branding," as they scrambled to find a legitimate, unifying antecedent and symbol for their increasingly particularized and embattled region, southern writers and orators threw themselves into the politics of sectional identity with determination and verve. Some, like George Fitzhugh and Thomas R. Dew, invoked the slave society of ancient Greece as a laudable analog, but, as cultural icons go, an Athenian in toga and sandals is no match for a dashing English Cavalier.

Gaining currency amid mounting criticism of the South in the 1830s,  the Cavalier legend held that white southerners were actually far superior in breeding to their northern detractors. After all, southerners could trace their bloodlines back to the  old Norman barons through the  Cavalier-aristocrats who had emigrated to the southern colonies after losing out in the English Civil War to the middle-class Puritan "Roundheads" or "Saxons" whose kinsmen had ultimately settled the North. Although outside Virginia few southerners could show evidence of Cavalier ties and even fewer Cavaliers likely had Norman ties, as early as 1835 Louis Phillipe was warning that the Puritan North-Cavalier South cultural divide meant that Americans, "as a people, have conflicting interests and ambitions and unappeasable jealousies." His words seemed prophetic indeed in light of a Virginian's assertion in 1863 that "the Saxonized maw-worms creeping from the Mayflower" could claim no "kinship" whatsoever with "the whole-souled Norman British planters of a gallant race." Zeal for the Cavalier legend had also been stoked by the enormously popular writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose tales of Scotland's struggles against English oppression seemed to evoke the South's struggles against the North so effectively that Mark Twain would later blame the Civil War primarily on southerners' affliction with "the Sir Walter disease."

If, however, the Cavalier legend had become what James McPherson called "the central myth of Southern ethnic nationalism" among more affluent or literate southerners by the 1850s, efforts to promulgate it more widely ran afoul of such regional realities as a relatively small urban population, a per capita circulation for newspapers and magazines that was less than half the northern rate, and an illiteracy figure roughly three times the northern average. Finally, there was also reason to doubt the resonance of the Cavalier ideal among the white yeomanry which had grown politically restive during the 1850s as soaring slave prices dashed their aspirations to climb into the planter class. Indeed, a rather clueless proposal to feature the figure of a "Cavalier" on the official seal of the Confederacy was ultimately derailed by concerns that the slaveless two-thirds of the South's free population might be less than enthusiastic about taking up the cause of an institution in which they had no immediate stake if the symbol of said cause bluntly reminded them of precisely that fact.

            Ironically enough, the common feelings of  affinity and obligation to the Union consistently expressed by northern troops during the Civil War may have represented a fulfillment of the adroitly concealed sectional ambitions of their forbearers. Among the Confederates, meanwhile, the frequently echoed sentiments of the Georgia private who declared "if I can't fight in the name of my own state, then I don't want to fight at all" testified to the difficulty of creating what Alabama fire-eater William Lowndes Yancey described as a shared "southern heart." It would take a fierce four-year conflict ending in a bitter and ignominious defeat to forge anything approaching the sense of kinship and common cause that the white South's leaders had tried to instill before its ill-fated struggle for independence began.

 

As it turns out, the real story here is not that a guy who reads the Dawgvent religiously and has "Waltz across Texas" for his ringtone, actually wrote something that appeared under the New York Times masthead.  That's actually happened beforebelieve it or not.  For me the most striking aspect of the whole affair was the reaction to the OB's humble little offering.  This reaction, by the way, sprawls over six pages and reflects the views of no fewer than 139 commentators.  These responses go well beyond straightforward stuff like "Put a sock in it, Redneck!" Most are in fact quite lengthy-- some are damn near encyclopedic-- and reasonably eloquent.  What jumps out at me is the fact that now it seems it's not just southerners who want to keep fighting the Civil War.  There's also a good number of Yankees just itching to mix it up a little more as well. At first blush, this may seem a bit strange in that the victors are supposed to content themselves with self-satisfied gloating while the losers whine, alibi, and demand a rematch they really don't want. (Contrary to popular wisdom, southerners have hardly been unique in upholding their end of this bargain.  Check out the Irish and the Scots, for example).  This emergent--and, I'd say growing--chip on northern shoulders may actually reflect a sense that whatever their ancestors may have thought they accomplished militarily in 1865, has, a century and a half thence, largely been neutralized by a southern cultural and political counterattack.  One of the commenters on my piece captured this frustration quite well:

 No question that the culture of the North, based on doing your own work, was morally and culturally superior to that of the South, based on enslaving others and making them do your work for you. It's not as though one side wasn't in the right, and the other wrong. Sadly, the South won the cultural "war" in the 150 years following. Now NASCAR, religious fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism and redneckism have infected the entire nation. Perhaps it would have been better to just let the less-civilized South go.

 

 In short, the spoils of war have been spirited away. Jeb Stuart is back and raiding the Yankees' corn cribs and smoke houses with absolute impunity.  About the only difference this time around, it seems, is that the big tussle , otherwise known as the "irreconcilable conflict," ain't between the Blue and the Gray, but the Blue and the Red. Consider Gerrit Smith's  1823 observation above about the "almost national difference of character" between the northern and southern people.  Then, reel forward 187 years and note the very first observation on my disquisition, which came from a guy in St. Paul:

The North and the South are as culturally apart as any two nations. We have little in common, as far as I'm concerned, except our contempt for each other. One look at the consistent Blue State / Red State map makes it very clear: we don't belong together. That sounds radical today, but I think 150 years from now our descendants will wonder why it wasn't obvious to us. The North was right to emancipate human beings held as slaves; having done it, we should have not only allowed the South to secede, but demanded it.

 

Lest you think this dude represents some-ultra-pissed off Yankee lunatic fringe, note the observations the senior editor of Foreign Affairs Mark Strauss, who  noted in 2000  that while "W" had  lost the popular vote nationally by 500,000 votes while winning in the old Confederacy by 3.1 million votes. It was obvious, therefore, that "the North and South can no longer claim to be one nation." Rather, they "should simply follow the example of the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Shake hands, say it's been real and go their separate ways." If this meant that the North wound up seceding this time around, then so be it. Likening the South to "a gangrenous limb that should have been lopped off decades ago," Strauss  supported his indictment with a lengthy list of particulars, including, "The flow of guns into America's Northern cities stems largely from Southern states" and "the tobacco grown by ol' Dixie kills nearly a half-million Americans each year."

Surely there is reason to suppose or at least hope that Strauss was operating with tongue partially in cheek.  Not so, I think with the sociologist who described Sarah Palin in 2008 as culturally at least, 'a snowbound southerner"  or with this commenter, reacting not so much to my piece but to other comments on it, who served up a classic example of liberals'  to "southernize" everything they don't like about contemporary America. Note the following and the rejoinders it attracted:

But how does one account for the ignorance of the South coming from the mouth of Sarah Palin?

Ditto. And how does one account for the ignorance of the South (hate-speech, racism, religious intolerance) coming from the mouths of all of my Italian-American relatives and their friends in New York? The first time I ever heard the "n-word" as a child was in New York. What do you have to say about the urban race-riots and hate crimes in the North during the 60's, 70's, 80's and early 90's? The twin diseases of hate and ignorance exist in every culture, every region and every section of the United States....As for Southern succession(sic) solving the problem of today's political polarization: the last time I checked, Michele Bachman was from Minnesota.

 

The points I was trying to make quickly fell by the wayside as the commenters went after each other like Grant and Lee, but when anybody bothered to notice the piece that actually ignited this conflagration, reactions to it were fairly equally divided between accusing me of bashing the South and charging that I was a southern apologist.  Perhaps the unkindest cut of all, however, came from the person who asked, " "Dr Cobb, would you consider changing your thumbnail photo? Whenever I'm scrolling down the page, I always think it's Joe Lieberman."

 

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