Fishing for Mackerel on the High Tide

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I am at the municipal wharf fishing next to a Filipino. (I always try to place myself next to a Filipino. Filipinos know more than anyone else about fishing from a wharf; it’s a fact!) He says the mackerel are going to come over with the high tide. I already believe that, from experience.

There are always tourists on the wharf, from a little bit of everywhere. Invariably, some are fishermen and fisherwomen, or would like to be. Two tourists have overheard us. They are from southern Indiana. It’s the first time they have actually seen the ocean, they say.

One of them asks if he heard right: you catch mackerel on the high tide? He is a fisherman himself; he fishes a lake-reservoir near Bloomington. I explain to him that the tide is high every 11 to 14 hours or so and that the sea recedes between those high marks. The mackerel, for their own very private reasons, mass on the high tides, and that’s when they look for something to eat, an anchovy, or even a shiny bare hook.

I belong myself to the tribe that values knowledge for its own sake. Fortunately, I am a fisherman.

I make a disgusting noise with my mouth to signal that the moon causes the oceans to slosh by kind of sucking on them and then releasing them. The first tourist seems interested but also puzzled by my lack of precision about the times when high tides occur. He also wants to know how important it is to respect the tides. I tell him what I know, what I think I know: you catch much more fish on the high tide than at any other time. The Filipino guy moves his head approvingly. I have instant validation. How do I figure out the tides, the first tourist asks? You can get tide tables for the current year at the tackle shop right over there. They are not exactly accurate but they are good enough for fishing; ask any expert fishermen (plural).

Hoosier number two wants to know what causes tides. He has already heard that it’s the moon. If that is so, he states, why can’t the high tide occur at exactly regular intervals? I point out to him that the moon changes its position relative to the earth pretty much all the time. And then I let him know that the sun also has an effect, a sucking effect like the moon’s but a weaker one because it’s farther away, and the earth rotation, and the local relief, and the winds, and . . .

By the time I am less than a third into my lecture on tides, tourist number two is looking at me with vacant eyes; I am afraid that his face will fall forward and hit the rough wood banister. But tourist number one now has tide tables in his hand and he is examining them with animated curiosity. The man would soon catch mackerel if he lived around here, I am thinking. The other tourist, the head-nodding one, understands tides at least 500% better than he did a short while ago. It does not matter to him at this point that he knows no more than one one-thousandth of what’s known about tides. He has no idea of this reality anyway.

The Filipino guy moves his head approvingly. I have instant validation.

I belong myself to the tribe that values knowledge for its own sake. Fortunately, I am a fisherman (an average fisherman). It helps me keep track of the fact that catching fish is also valuable, in several ways. Plus, I really like the fatty taste of mackerel. What I told the two tourists about tides serves both purposes. I believe that the first guy does not need to understand in detail the complex mechanisms of tidal motions to catch more fish. Of course, he must be convinced that I am not lying to him, that the mackerel really run on the high tide, and not on the low tide, for example

In the end, it all depends on what you want, mackerel or knowledge.

* * *

PS: When you cook mackerel, gut it but don’t remove the head, ever! Put it in a fairly hot skillet (not to a maximum heat, more like three-quarters High). Do not use oil or butter. The fish cooks best in its own fat. After it’s well seized on both sides, reduce the heat and cover to finish by steaming. It’s ready when the flesh comes off the main bone easily. Mackerel is not a wimpy fish; it’s hard to ruin. Salt only just before you serve. You can add black pepper anytime. Eat with lemon, of course. One more thing: if your spouse or partner is not a fishy-fish person you may have to trade him or her in after the second or third time you cook mackerel at home. Life is made of choices.




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The Abyss Gazes Back

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“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Though I’m a Libertarian, and in the Left-Right fight I am both-yet-neither, I’m hardly on the 50-yard line. At this stage of my political evolution, I’m considerably more likely to vote Republican than Democrat when no other option is available. In the Arizona senate race this year, I cast my ballot for Martha McSally. I did so without much enthusiasm. I am close enough to the 50-yard line — yet far enough from the field — so that when I vote either Republican or Democrat, I usually end up regretting it.

President Trump, to put it frankly, is a drama queen. He plays every scene bigly. Those who cling to his coattails seem, to me, inclined to do the same thing. Martha McSally is no exception. There were several times in her campaign when I had reason to think, per the old Marx Brothers routine, “Oh, Martha! Slowly I turned, step by step!”

Her opponent, now Senator-Elect Kyrsten Sinema, thinks it’s dandy for Americans to join the Taliban? That was the charge leveled against her by the McSally campaign. (“Step by step . . inch by inch . . ”) Actually, my very first thought, once McSally began making this claim, was that she thinks we’re all idiots. But in the 2003 interview in which Sinema made the “Taliban” comment, talk-radio host Ernie Hancock — himself a libertarian — was trying to show how liberal Sinema really was. His point was that she liked spending the taxpayers’ money on causes she considered noble. Flabbergasted when he said that as an individual, he had every right to join the Taliban (because the taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for it), and certainly thinking he was just trying to get her goat, she told him to go ahead and join: “Fine. I don't care if you want to do that, go ahead." The notion that she genuinely exhorted a middle-aged political pundit to become a terrorist is so absurd that it’s insulting anyone would expect me to believe it.

President Trump is a drama queen. He plays every scene bigly. Those who cling to his coattails seem inclined to do the same thing.

Congresswoman McSally’s views are closer to libertarian than Sinema’s, that’s for sure. It’s why I pulled the lever for the former instead of the latter. McSally generally believes in smaller government, at any rate. Though Sinema’s antiwar stance is significantly closer to mine, she is indeed a big-government booster on nearly every other issue. And I find political histrionics tiresome, regardless of which side indulges in them.

McSally used to be an Air Force fighter pilot — one of the nation’s female firsts. “I was shot at by the Taliban,” she tells us. The obvious and understandable emotion behind that assertion doesn’t change the fact that Sinema made an offhand, unscripted remark. It was a “gotcha” moment, plain and simple.

The fact that what she said would have been terribly insensitive (at the very least) had she meant it seriously does not change the fact that it was never meant to be taken seriously. She undoubtedly didn’t realize that, a decade and a half later, it would be scrounged up and used against her. But the fact of the matter was that Sinema didn’t think McSally should have been in the Middle East, flying a fighter plane, to get shot at in the first place. The whole point she’d been trying to make was that she was against the war.

The notion that Sinema genuinely exhorted a middle-aged political pundit to become a terrorist is so absurd that it’s insulting anyone would expect me to believe it.

Shenanigans like this are why libertarians — capital “L” or small — get frustrated with Republicans. The red-meat GOP base loves to call its political opponents “snowflakes.” But too often, they give the impression of being pretty snowflaky themselves. We want substance — logic — but what we so often get is emotional razzle-dazzle.

Politics these days reminds me increasingly of a black-and-white comedy. Lacking the wit of the Marx Brothers, it’s more on the level of the Three Stooges. Whenever a charge is lobbed by one side against the other, the opposition’s response is, basically, “But you started it . . . nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” They’re forever poking their fingers in one another’s eyes and smacking one another on the head.

Yet as buffoonish as many politicians are, their antics don’t stay funny for very long. They’re taking our money and meddling in our lives. Republicans may do it less than Democrats, but they do it, all the same. When we gaze into the big-government abyss, the abyss gazes back. And there’s nothing funny about that.

The red-meat GOP base loves to call its political opponents “snowflakes.” But too often, they give the impression of being pretty snowflaky themselves.

We need a third option on the ballot: one with an “L” beside it. The only other choice in the Arizona senate race was a Green Party candidate, appropriately named Angela Green, who withdrew from the contest once it became obvious that Sinema needed her votes. Thousands of people still voted for Green, but in any case those wouldn’t have gone either to McSally or to a Libertarian.

We libertarians are prone to second-guessing our votes. The Republican Party in Arizona has done everything it can to keep us off the ballot, by rigging the system to deny us third-party status. To be frank, that didn’t endear McSally to me, either. What I probably should have done, in the choice for the senate, was vote for nobody at all.

With no third option (I would have voted for Groucho Marx before I’d have chosen Angela Green), I cast a lackluster vote, for a candidate I knew was trying to manipulate me. Though it made no difference to the outcome, I feel sullied and used. Now we have Kyrsten Sinema, a big-government, tax-and-spend “progressive,” in the US Senate seat formerly held by an at least somewhat libertarian Jeff Flake.

I believe the Republicans are fighting with monsters. The Democrats have little left in their arsenal besides cheap emotional appeals. But in stooping to their opponents’ level in the tactics they use, and in cynically shutting other candidates out, the Republicans are turning into monsters themselves. Voters are gazing into the abyss, and the abyss is gazing back.




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The Choices of Jeff Bezos

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Amazon’s choice to expand in New York City and the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC reminded me of a story I did on the company in January 1999, when I was a business reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Amazon was three and a half years old and was approaching $1 billion a year in revenue — an amount it does now in two days. Back then Amazon was operating out of an old building near the Pike Place Market above a cheap Indian restaurant and across the street from the Green Turtle youth hostel.

Its employees there worked from desks that were made from interior doors the company bought for $135 each and equipped with legs. “We have a carpenter who makes a hundred of these at a time,” Jeff Bezos told me. Bezos made a point of showing me his CEO’s desk was made from a door, too. It was a matter of priorities, he said. Amazon could not afford to piddle away its cash on fancy office furniture.

Bezos was 35 then. On paper he was worth $9 billion, though the company had not yet earned a nickel’s worth of profit.

Back then Amazon was operating out of an old building above a cheap Indian restaurant and across the street from the Green Turtle youth hostel.

In those days I wrote a lot of company features, which included an interview with the CEO and a walk around the plant. I always included the story of the founding, which in Amazon’s case was about how Bezos chose Seattle. Bezos wasn’t from here; he was from New York, where he’d been working on Wall Street. His idea for Amazon was an internet business to sell books, which were standard products, easy to handle, cheap to ship, and didn’t require after-market service. You might think such a business could be set up anywhere, but the location was important. It had to have good airline connections, for example.

The biggest thing, he told me, was the labor market. In order to grow, it had to have a deep pool of computer-savvy talent. The deepest pool on the West Coast was in Silicon Valley, but he avoided that place because the competition for talent was too fierce. He didn’t want to have to bid against Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Apple. Microsoft had created its own talent pool in Seattle, and he was happy to dip into that.

When the movers came to his apartment in New York, he said, he still hadn’t decided where to start his company. He had narrowed it down to four Western cities: Boulder, Colorado; Reno, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle. Portland and Reno, he decided, were too small; Boulder was near Denver, which was big enough. Well, he chose Seattle, which is now packed with 40,000 Amazon employees.

In order to grow, Amazon had to have a deep pool of computer-savvy talent.

Some commentators noticed that Bezos chose one of the seven states with no income tax, and suggested that when he went looking for “HQ2,” he would choose one of the others — Texas, maybe, perhaps Austin. If he had chosen Austin, the anti-income-tax people would have made hay over that.

A columnist in the Seattle Times, Danny Westneat, writes that by choosing New York City and suburban Washington DC, Amazon has thrown in with “two of the most expensive, high-tax environments in the nation,” places that have personal and corporate income taxes, including a city income tax in New York. Such a choice puts paid to the notion that a company like Amazon will go to the place with the best “tax climate.”

I have no objection to Amazon accepting subsidies—government’s offering them is another matter.

Was Amazon chasing subsidies? It was offered big ones by New York and by Virginia — but then, it was offered even bigger ones by other jurisdictions, and it turned them down. I have no objection to Amazon accepting subsidies (government’s offering them is another matter); Bezos owes it to his shareholders, including himself, to get the best deal he can. But he also owes them, and himself, the discipline not to be bribed into making a bad decision.

I note in the news reports that Amazon says it chose New York and metro Washington in search of the best pools of tech talent — which is the same thing Bezos told me about Seattle 20 years ago.

None of this is to say that a state’s tax and regulatory climates are not important. Texas has been growing faster than New York, and one of the obvious reasons is that Texas has fewer regulations and taxes. But to Bezos, that difference is not the most important one, and not enough to tip the balance in favor of Texas.

All of which assumes he is making a good decision.




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We Survived Another Election

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A newspaper columnist in my hometown called the elections of 2018 about social justice and the soul of America. It was, some said, the most important election of our lifetimes.

So much for that. RealClearPolitics projected a Democratic gain in the House of Representatives of 25; Nate Silver said 35. As I write, the day after the election, the result looks to be in that range. The Democrats lost seats in the Senate, which the pollsters had also predicted.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned. Consider that in 2010, two years into the reign of Obama, the Tea Party-driven Republicans conquered the House with a 63-seat gain. In 1994, two years into Clinton’s first term, Republicans took the House with a 54-seat gain. In 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Republicans picked up 47 seats in the House, though they fell short of controlling it. In each of these first-term off-year elections, the “wave” party also took seats in the Senate.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned.

So we’ll have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. That’s not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most. Congress passed welfare reform, ratified NAFTA, and decided to keep its hands off the Internet — all good.

Rand Paul, libertarians’ favorite Republican senator, was not on the ballot this year, but he would have won. A Republican won Tennessee’s other Senate seat. Justin Amash, libertarians’ favorite Republican congressman, was easily reelected in Michigan.

In New Mexico, big-L Libertarian Gary Johnson came in third with 15% of the vote for a seat in the US Senate. He was not a spoiler; the Democrat had a majority and would have won had Johnson not been on the ballot. Johnson said it is his last campaign. Too bad. He’s a good man — but America has a two-party mind.

It's not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most.

In Arizona, small-L libertarian Clint Bolick was up for a retention election for his nonpartisan seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. Bolick, who had been appointed to the court by the Republican governor, was targeted by the National Education Association — and he made it through easily.

As with most elections, some of the more interesting things were choices other than candidates, especially in the central and western states. Start with dope and guns. Voters in Michigan, which has had medical marijuana since 2008, passed Proposal 1, general legalization. Voters in North Dakota rejected a similar proposal. Medical marijuana won in Utah, the nation’s most conservative state, and also in Missouri, which had three versions of it on the ballot. Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Voters in my home state, Washington (which has had medical marijuana for 20 years), passed Initiative 1639, which raises the age for owning a gun to 21. The measure, said to be one of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, was pushed by urban progressives, and they had the votes to pass it.

Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Washington is a Democratic state with a split personality: it is the leftiest state with no income tax and no appetite for income taxes or any other new taxes. This year its voters nixed Initiative 1631, which would have slapped a hefty tax on gasoline refiners and handed the money — a lot of money — to a coterie of political appointees to spend on environmental good. Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Washington also considered Initiative 1634, to prohibit local government from adding new taxes on food. The left-leaning city of Seattle had recently slapped a tax on sugary drinks — a measure that was, of course, entirely for the public health. This went into effect in January, raising the price of a case of Gatorade at Costco from $15.99 to $26.33. Though I-1634 advertised itself as a barrier to taxes on food, everyone knew it was to stop any more raids on the consumers of Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Red Bull. The propaganda for it was paid for by Big Soda, and Big Soda had a big victory.

Thank you, Big Soda. And Big Oil. Several of my friends voted for the food and gasoline taxes because it offended them deeply that corporate interests were trying to sway their votes. I admit that some of the propaganda was bad, but not so awful as to make me vote against my own interests.

Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Californians, I thought, had a better reason to vote for taxes: their roads. I recall a stretch of interstate near Livermore a couple of years ago with so many potholes it looked like something from the Syrian civil war. Since then California’s gas tax has been raised by 12 cents, an increase Proposition 6 would have canceled. And the people voted not to cancel it. Well, I won’t argue with them.

Several states had things on ballots that were offers of free stuff, or almost-free stuff, of a welfare-state nature. One was an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state medical insurance for the poor. Basic Medicaid covers children, pregnant women, parents, and caretakers. Under Obamacare, states can opt to cover other adults under 65 if their incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. Some 33 states had opted to do this, but as of this year’s election the rest — mostly “red” states — had not.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it.

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion — the same percentage it paid states to build the interstate highways. It’s an irresistible offer, and Idaho (Proposition 2), Nebraska (Initiative 427), and Utah (Proposition 3) voted to accept it. In Montana, which had already decided to accept the federal money, Initiative 185 asked voters if they wanted to pay the state’s 10% share by increasing the cigarette tax by $2 a pack. That’s a different question, and as I write it looks as if their answer will be no.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it. For example, Arkansas has an $8.50 state minimum because of a ballot measure passed in 2014. Voters there were offered Issue 5 to raise the minimum to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020 and $11 in 2021. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was against it, as was the state chamber of commerce. And the conservative voters of Arkansas approved it overwhelmingly. In Missouri, where voters just flipped a Senate seat to the Republicans, they raised the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 in 2019, $9.45 in 2020, $10.30 in 2021, $11.15 in 2022, and $12 in 2023, indexing it thereafter to the Consumer Price Index for urban workers.

Occasionally some electorates do reject freebies. In California, Proposition 10 was a measure to allow local governments to impose rent controls on private housing. And it failed. The people of California voted it down.

Why, I don’t know. Maybe they understood the economics. Maybe it’s just that more homeowners vote than renters.

So much for the election of 2018. The Republic survived.




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Paul Allen, R.I.P.

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According to Forbes of March 5, 2016, the billionaires in my home state, Washington, had a combined wealth greater than that of the billionaires of Texas and one-third that of the billionaires of California. One of our signature tycoons, Paul Allen, reportedly worth $20.3 billion, has just died.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. At Lakeside, Seattle’s old private high school, Allen had a pal named Bill Gates. Together in 1975 they dropped out of college and founded Microsoft. Gates stayed on and built Microsoft into a global company. Allen left in 1982, four years before the company went public. He became rich because of what Gates and others did afterward.

Did he deserve his wealth? Unlike Gates, Allen appears to have worked for only a small part of it. He performed the initial role in a system that creates great wealth for people who start great things, and a bunch of that wealth fell in his lap. Seattle is full of people who made money on Microsoft stock, and I can’t argue that their capital gains are directly proportional to their value added. Still, it was his money.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. He became rich because of what Bill Gates and others did at Microsoft after he left.

Paul Allen had a fabulous life. He bought the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and the Seattle Seahawks football team. He funded a museum that collected the memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix and another that collected the aircraft of World War II. He spent money on rockets into space and on a telescope array to look for life on other planets.

He spent — I hesitate to say invested — in all manner of wonderful projects.

And some of them right where I live. Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton wrote that Allen “may be the last of the great moneyed stewards who invested deeply and with abiding person affection for the city of Seattle.”

I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself. For this, I was denounced by football fans.

One of his hometown projects was buying, restoring, and preserving Seattle’s curved-screen Cinerama Theater, which is where I watched the Lord of the Rings movies. Another was funding the Seattle Public Library’s purchase of thousands of DVDs, many of which I watch. Another was funding the Allen Library at the University of Washington, where I do historical research.

I have benefitted from this guy. I am sad to see him go.

Allen has had a respectable send-off, but not from the Seattle Left. Kshama Sawant, our city councilwoman, posted on Facebook:

He spent $250 million on the biggest yacht in the world in 2003; he also owned two more yachts and a fleet of private jets, several sports teams. He paid to put the Qwest Field on the ballot so that working people picked up most of the $425M tab. He spent half a million dollars to defeat the I-1098 Tax the Rich statewide initiative in 2010.

This is posted above an image that says, “Remember the Greediest.”

Sawant is right about Allen paying to put a measure on the statewide ballot to subsidize a football stadium. I was a newspaper columnist at that time, and denounced the ballot measure vehemently, and the state lawmakers who voted for it. For this, I was denounced by football fans. I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself.

Sawant derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

But I never denounced Allen for what he was, which is what Sawant does. She doesn’t believe people like Paul Allen should exist. (He would be replaced by what? Workers’ committees?) I find her attitude distasteful — and I note that on my neighborhood blog, nextdoor.com, in this left-progressive town I am not the only one down on Sawant.

Some examples:

  • “She is repulsive and needs to be removed ASAP.”
  • “I am very eager to see her out of a $123k a year job.”
  • “I’m one of the misguided people who voted for her . . . She seemed so grounded, solid when I heard her speak in person. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong!”
  • “If it wasn’t for Paul Allen, she wouldn’t even be here. She came to the US after marrying a Microsoft engineer. Show a little gratitude, Kshama.”

Much of the annoyance is for disregarding the taboo against abusing the freshly dead. I hope that’s not all it is.

Sawant, who may be the only hard-socialist councilwoman of a major American city, was at the losing end of the big political battle of 2018 — the Seattle City Council’s “head tax” on large private employers. Her target was Amazon, the company founded and headed by Jeff Bezos, a man even richer than Paul Allen. After the tax passed with the support of Sawant and the council’s progressive Democrats, Amazon, the city’s #1 employer, donated money to an effort to put the ordinance up for a public vote. (We have the initiative and referendum in Washington, and you can do that.) When pollsters discovered that the people of Seattle didn’t support the head tax, the council reluctantly repealed it.

Sawant voted not to repeal it. She derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

Sawant demonized Bezos as the greedy rich, particularly when his company said that if the head tax passed, it would not build a planned office tower. When Sawant led a demonstration of her left-wing supporters in front of Amazon’s new headquarters, she faced a counter-demonstration from union ironworkers who wanted to build Amazon’s new tower.

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. Maybe voters will remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

Recalled one of the nextdoor.com bloggers:

“I do still get a kick out of seeing the footage of construction workers shouting ‘No Head Tax!’ when she was trying to speak in front of the Amazon spheres. Funny watching her getting completely drowned out by their chants.”

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. It’s a year from now, but I think people will remember the head tax. Maybe they will also remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

I think of it every time I get a DVD from the library.




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Still Amazing After All These Years

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Nearly 50 years ago I was a high school student working my first summer job as a maid-waitress-cook at a rustic lodge in the Trinity Alps of northern California. The lodge was owned and still under construction by one of my high school teachers. My sister had worked there for a week and gone home, saying it was too much for too little. I stuck it out for another three weeks, until one evening when a coworker badly mistreated me. I fled the lodge and walked three miles to the nearest phone to call my parents and ask them to come get me. I then trudged the three miles back to where I had been working so they would be able to find me (life before cellphones!). It was July 20, 1969. I looked up through the trees at the starry sky, totally unaware that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to touch down on the moon. Because of my call, my father missed the moon landing on TV. He never let me forget it.

Watching First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong making his way to that historic step onto the moon, I finally understood why my father was so upset. What a glorious, terrifying, awe-inspiring moment that was, and we sense it with more caution than elation as Armstrong hesitates on the final rung of the ladder before finally stepping down onto the dusty landscape. I don’t know whether Chazelle got it right, but he certainly got it impressively — the absolute quiet of space, the broad expanse and rugged terrain of the moon’s surface, the suspenseful risk of training, the view from the cockpit. And the musical score by Justin Hurwitz, who has worked with Chazelle on four award-winning films, works perfectly throughout the film.

So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way.

For two hours the film builds to that moment when Armstrong steps onto the moon, demonstrating that it was more harrowing than glorious. So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way. The film opens with Armstrong fighting to control his X-15 supersonic jet and land it without crashing. Training requires astronauts to practice precision tasks while spinning at such dizzying speeds that it’s a race against the inevitable moment when they will pass out. As the men are strapped into the Gemini module before taking off to practice docking in space, we expect to see the excitement and jubilation of astronauts finally realizing their little-boy dreams. Instead, their faces are subdued, focused, and even a bit apprehensive. And with good reason: despite all their earthbound preparations, there was no guarantee that they would return successfully. Indeed, numerous pilots had died during the testing phase. The space race was a grim undertaking, punctuated by moments of exhilaration, performed against a backdrop of angry protestors chanting against the enormous financial and personal cost.

Armstrong is calm, almost emotionless, as he contends with the rigors of space travel, the tragedy of a child’s death, and the stoicism of his wife Janet (Claire Foy). He can roughhouse with his young sons, but he can’t tell them he loves them. As he leaves for the moon, he hugs one son but shakes hands with the other. Such passionless focus is a strength, not a weakness, for someone in his position; Armstrong’s ability to think and react impassively in an emergency is a primary reason for his success, and Gosling portrays him masterfully.

But as an audience we want our heroes to be exciting and outgoing. My husband happened to meet Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins a few months later during their victory tour around the world. He was in Colombia at the time, and called out Armstrong’s name in his strong American English. As Mark describes it, Armstrong turned with a broad, winning smile and shook his hand vigorously before rejoining the parade. The weighty burden of weightless space had lifted for a while, and he could enjoy the gravitas of what he and the others had accomplished.

Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.”

The quietness of Armstrong’s character makes the film less compelling and may explain the reason for poor turnout on opening weekend. It’s more likely that the poor turnout was owing to the controversy that preceded opening weekend. You’ve probably heard the disgruntled rumblings about the flag on the moon being left out of the movie, so let me address the controversy right here: yes, the American flag does appear on the moon in the film. It’s distant, and it’s small, but it’s there. Rumors about the flag’s absence began shortly after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, when audiences waited expectantly for that iconic moment. It didn’t happen, and social media exploded with boycott-laden outrage. (I don’t know whether the film was re-edited after the festival, or if audiences were simply expecting more, but the flag is definitely in the scene now.) Gosling explained in an interview that the moon landing “transcended countries and borders [and]… was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” so that’s why they didn’t include the flag-raising moment.

This is pure 21st-century poppycock, of course. Competition with the Russians was the driving force behind the space program, and the reason JFK dedicated so many billions of dollars for it. The Russians were ahead of the Americans nearly every step of the way. Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.” It was the reason we were there. Chazelle and company should not have minimized it into a kumbaya moment of one-world humanism. Moreover, in his zeal to turn American exceptionalism into ordinary human accomplishment, Chazelle missed a great opportunity to make his statement — with the flag. Armstrong’s biography recounts how the astronauts struggled to assemble the malfunctioning flagpole. That struggle could have been presented as a metaphor for 21st-century American politics and the difficulty of raising the flag today.

First Man is a good film with some great special effects and fine acting all around. Jason Clarke is especially good as Ed White, and Corey Stoll is feisty as Buzz Aldrin. Claire Foy, best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in the excellent Netflix series The Crown, is wonderful as the stoic yet passionate Janet Armstrong. And with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing just six months away, I’m happy that this film has been made.


Editor's Note: Review of "First Man," directed by Damien Chazelle. Universal Pictures, 2018, 141 minutes.



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Elizabeth Warren’s Comedy Act

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I thought that American politics couldn’t get any funnier, but of course I was wrong. And right now, the funniest politician is actually the sour, self-righteous Elizabeth Warren.

Long ridiculed by President Trump, and millions of other people, for claiming to be an American Indian, Warren has now triumphantly released a study of her DNA. According to the Stanford professor who analyzed the data, “the facts suggest that [she] absolutely [has] Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree.”

Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

“Pedigree”? Oh well. But the unwary reader may conclude, as Warren appears to have concluded, that her Native American “heritage” has now been authenticated. But that’s ridiculous — for two reasons.

One is that the purported percentage of her Indian ancestry is a whopping 1/1024th. That’s right — one part in a thousand.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, please!”

“Fill it up?”

“Not quite. Just make it 1/1024th full.”

All right, I distorted the hard, scientific “data.” Warren could have as much as 1/64th Indian ancestry. So just make that cup 1/64th full.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator.

The second ridiculosity is the whole notion of “heritage” based on genes. Culture has nothing to do with your body. But suppose it did. If you need to have your DNA analyzed to find out whether you’ve inherited some cultural characteristic, then you haven’t.

Even the TV actors who burble about “discovering their Swedish heritage” by taking a DNA test and learning that they’re 40% Swedish aren’t as absurd as this US Senator. But given her total lack of self-awareness (which is nothing unusual, given her occupation), I suppose it won’t take her long to appear on television to inform the other hundred million Americans who are at least 1/1000th Indian that now, because of the wonders of science, they too can discover who they really are — and prove it, by ending their long night of discrimination and electing one of their own (guess who?) as president.

We are all Indians now.




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Unite and Conquer

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October 8. Gavin Newsom, “progressive” candidate for governor of California, in debate with his Republican opponent, said this about President Trump’s proposed border wall: “The wall is intended to divide this country.”

October 8. Tucker Carlson, conservative pundit, said this about the attitudes of “progressive” Democrats, who, he asserted, wished to divide the nation: “Only a nation divided between warring tribes can be ruled effectively.”

The root concept is “divide and conquer” — a phrase frequently heard on both sides of the recent Kavanaugh-Ford slugfest.

How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them?

I first encountered that cliché when I was in high school. It appeared in discussions of political strategy, and it seemed to make sense. If you were the emperor of Russia, you would naturally be looking for ways to divide the Austrians from the Prussians, so you could, if you wished, conquer them one at a time, or let them try to conquer each other. Books told me that “divide and conquer” was what Napoleon set out to do, and sometimes did, to the powers of Europe. And the “divide and conquer” idea often came up in comments about American political affairs.

But I always had a bad feeling about it. How exactly did it work? If you were a Republican, you divided the Democrats, and then you conquered them? How did you do that? What happened to the various pieces of the Democrats? Did some of them vote for you? Maybe. But wasn’t that just another way of saying that some of them liked you better than their own party?

The best example appeared to be the election of 1860, when the Democratic Party came apart and nominated two rival candidates, producing a contest in which the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency with less than 40% of the vote. Yet there was still a problem with the concept. Lincoln hadn’t divided the Democrats; they had divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Another possible divide-and-conquer situation was the election of 1968, when disaffected Democrats allegedly elected Richard Nixon by not showing up to vote for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. But Nixon hadn’t concocted some scheme to fund Vietnam War protestors while encouraging Humphrey to maintain his fatal support of the war. Nixon simply continued to support the war himself, while promising that he had a secret plan to end it. He didn’t divide his opponents and conquer them; he just got more votes than they did.

Lincoln didn't divide the Democrats; they divided and conquered one another, and he was happy to pick up whatever votes he could get out of the mess.

Now, imagine that you are Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon or any current, down-at-the-heels partisan politician, the kind of person of whom Tucker Carlson spoke in his October 8 TV program, calling them “hacks and joiners and drones.” If that’s you, would you rather “divide and conquer” your opponents, or simply get them to join your side and vote for you? The latter, surely. Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another. That’s why the European powers contracted holy alliances. They would rather be allies than competitors, so long as they could maintain their power. This is human nature.

Coming down to the present, and Newsom and Carlson’s comments: why would Trump want to divide the country, instead of getting most of it to support him? Why would the Democrats find it easier to rule a nation “divided between warring tribes”? Does this make sense?

Suppose that you’re a modern “intersectional” foe of Republicans, and you’re trying to arouse antagonism to them by asserting that because they are “opposed to women,” they are also opposed to “senior citizens,” “people of color,” “the LGBTQ community,” “undocumented immigrants,” “working people,” and, for all I know, Finnish-Americans. Your goal may be to conquer, but it certainly isn’t to set the Finnish-Americans against the African-Americans, and the African-Americans against the immigrants. It’s to get as many groups as possible onto your side. You may call your opponents racists and sexists and so on, but that’s not because you want to divide the racists from the sexists; it’s because you want to shame, scare, and neutralize people who, you think, will never vote for you anyway. But this is not “divide and conquer”; it’s just denouncing your opponents.

Even a Russian emperor would have preferred his opponents to join him instead of opposing either him or one another.

If you want to understand how things really work, picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down. There isn’t any vote that they don’t want. Republicans can and do actively court gay and black voters; Democrats court evangelicals and conservative Catholics by quoting fondly from the Bible. This is not divide and conquer. This is unite and conquer. Each party dotes on the idea of “uniting this great country.” And neither is kidding about that. They want the whole thing, if they can get it.

I can’t picture Hillary Clinton holding a meeting in which she said, “To defeat Trump, we have to set the women against the gays, and the blacks against the Hispanics. It’s divide and conquer!” But I can picture her holding a meeting in which she said, “How can we ensure that all gays, blacks, Hispanics, soccer moms, overpaid executives, mainline pastors, police unions, publishers of provincial newspapers, Medicare patients, millennials, techies, former prison inmates, police unions, farmers, professors of Harvard college, and did I mention soccer moms, will support me? How can we unite them all behind us?” Again, this is not divide and conquer.

Akin to “divide and conquer” is the idea that politicians willfully create enemies so that they can unify their followers in opposition to the hated foes whom they have conceptually divided from the rest of the populace. This also is a strange idea, when you think about it. Yes, politicians are always attacking “enemies”; they blame things on “enemies”; and “enemies” are sometimes politically useful. But I can hardly think of a case in which politicians have simply created enemies in order to oppose them. Hillary Clinton denounced the “deplorables,” doubtless intending to inspire the non-deplorables to more fervent efforts on her behalf. But she wasn’t trying to manufacture an enemy; she was identifying enemies that she thought she already had.

Picture the two great American political parties as a pair of vacuum cleaners, roaring back and forth across the continent, sweeping up every vote and dollar that’s not nailed down.

Perhaps — and this is a big perhaps — Hitler gained massive political support by attacking the Jews. But he didn’t attack the Jews just because he thought that by doing so he would unite the other Germans. He attacked the Jews because he had a maniacal hatred of them. (And no, I am not — I repeat, not — making a moral equation between Adolf Hitler and Hillary Clinton.)

The current American antifa orgs are not attacking speakers who disagree with them in college forums, or people who happen to drive down the streets of Portland while they are showing off, because they want to arouse support by creating common enemies. They attack people who disagree with them because they don’t like people who disagree with them. They attack random motorists because they are in the way, and because they themselves are angry. This is not the arbitrary creation of enemies. This is self-expression, of a peculiarly non-strategic kind.

I suppose — indeed, I know — that I should now try to account for the fact that many intelligent people think that “divide and conquer” and “make up enemies” are profound and potent concepts, crucial to the understanding of political processes. But I can’t.




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By the Sword

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We’re a society that worships brute force. We distrust peaceful and reasonable persuasion. The Brett Kavanaugh mess really brings that home.

The judicial nominating process overemphasizes abortion. Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society. That we’ll go right on obsessing over what the government will permit us to do, or force us not to do.

As a Christian, I believe that abortion is wrong — except when, to save the life of the mother, it becomes a sad necessity. But were I to decide against having an abortion, it would make a tremendous difference to me whether I was free to make my decision on conviction or under compulsion. By making the repeal of Roe v. Wade the holy grail of the pro-life movement, we who do oppose abortion are behaving not like those who trust in Ultimate Truth, but like those who depend on brute force.

Concentrating on Roe v. Wade — whether for or against it — only guarantees that we’ll continue to be a force-based society.

The idea of being bullied into sex is so abhorrent to most women that we flinch at the testimony of Dr. Ford — regardless of whether we’re certain we believe her or not. But we’re being manipulated, and not very artfully. I’m used to this game — as a woman, and as a gay woman especially. I see through it, and I’m tired of it. Americans need to grow up and stop permitting themselves to be jerked around by raw emotional appeals.

The Kavanaugh proceedings degeneratedinto a circus. We were inundated with high school hijinks — real or imagined — from the early ’80s. The spectacle was degrading to everyone who got dragged into it. And we’ve all been in it up to our eyeballs.

For the record, I believe Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t find Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony the least bit credible. I can believe that she may have been assaulted, but she’s done nothing to prove that Kavanaugh was the culprit. Her motivation in fingering him seems, to me, blatantly political.

We’re being manipulated, and not very artfully.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate. The political competition has been tit for tat for so long that each side feels justified in being aggrieved by the aggression of the other. It no longer matters who started it, because no one wants to finish it.

Each side’s aggression is actually necessary, and even welcome, to its opponents. It provides the excuse for continuing to aggress. Where the abortion issue is concerned, the unborn are aggressed against — so others must aggress to defend them.

As far from them as I am on many issues, I can easily enter into progressive women’s minds. Under those funny pink hats, when it comes to the abortion wars they have a real concern. They think that with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, they’ll be pushed around.

The proceedings have been violent because the minds driving them are violent. They’re dominated by a toddlerish desire to dominate.

The sexual assault he is alleged to have attempted is a metaphor for what they believe he wants to do to them. If government force is brought to bear — no matter how justifiable its advocates think it will be — those against whom it would be used are going to see it as violence. And violence is exactly what it is.

I believe the abortion debate is winnable by the pro-life side. But its affinity for government brawn gives the distinct impression that it doesn’t trust its own argument. Yet until that argument is won, its dependence on force will only continue to work against it. If all nine Supreme Court justices were pro-life, that would not change.

Many people are surprised at the vehemence with which Kavanaugh’s nomination was opposed. Frankly, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” is an adage that used to be clearly understood. The political powers-that-be are forgetting it at everyone’s peril.




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Locked with a Hundred Keys

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Nothing makes me laugh harder than the falling out between Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, and Rod Rosenstein, deputy head of the Justice Department. McCabe apparently released government-owned memos to the press, indicating that Rosenstein wanted to tape President Trump’s conversations and oust him from office by means of the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of insane potentates. Who would have thought that such grimly determined stereotypes of justice would make such public fools of themselves?

The funniest thing is the public nature of this conflict. Big men in Washington dwell in a castle surrounded by a mile-thick dead zone of official secrecy. Where there’s a secrecy rule, they use it; where there isn’t one, they make it up; where they want to violate it, they do. Now, however, it seems that every second member of the Party of Management and Control is spilling data for his own advantage.

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state.

It’s happened before, of course. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page happily discussed leaks to the press. James Comey bragged about using a friend to leak classified material. The IRS leaked information about groups it didn’t like. Et cetera. Meanwhile, the nation at large awaits the “release,” as if from penal servitude, of material legally supposed to be free to the public — about Benghazi, about the FBI attack on conservative and libertarian groups, about the aforementioned conversations of Strzok, Page, and the other members of their coven, and about the FISA procedures used to spy on Trump and his campaign (as well as other persons and entities). Freedom of Information Act suits are won, court orders are issued, even the president orders the release of documents, but official after official still manages to sequester, slow-walk, and block for “review” and “clearance” thousands of documents that the people have a right to see. The excuse is that allowing this information to escape would reveal the methods of the government employees involved. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

It’s maddening, neverending, Kafkaesque — a sickening emblem of life within the modern state. It reminds me of the horrifying conditions of slavery, as portrayed by Abraham Lincoln. In a speech delivered on June 12, 1857 (I am not a worshiper of Lincoln, but this is one of his best speeches), he discussed the eagerness of Southerners to prevent the slave from ever, on any account, becoming free:

They have him in his prison-house; they have searched his person and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key — the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they have scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more difficult than it is.

Substitute truth for slave and the description fits the present case.

Even Trump is imprisoned. What he should do is take the FISA file, and any other file he wants to liberate, xerox it with his own hands, and throw it out to whoever wants it. But he doesn’t. Even he appears to be frightened of the torrent of truth he might unleash against our secret masters.




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