Beer, Bikes & Brexit

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“Ride left, die right!”

Our mantra, continuously repeated to each other, often as a cheerful, running admonition but sometimes shouted in panic, was mostly repeated as a silent meditation while pedaling our bikes from the toe of Cornwall to Scotland’s sagittal crest during June and parts of May and July. The Land’s End to John O’Groats quest has become something of an obsession not only in the UK but also to a cross-section of aficionados worldwide — a British version of the Way of St. James, if you like. Like the Via de Santiago, it has many alternates, with the shortest at 874 miles. Our choice, the National Cycle Trails’ Sustrans Route, is 1,200 miles long.

One aspirant, who with his wife runs a B&B in Bodmin, Cornwall (in which we overnighted) was leaving for John O’Groats the following day to run one variant. Yes, run. Or as the placard on the back of the ungainly plastic box that contained his essentials (including a sleeping-rough kit) and was duct-taped to a tiny day-pack he’d strap to his back proclaimed:

Colin is running for ShelterBox disaster relief charity
1 man 3 Peaks
1 ShelterBox
1,000 miles marathon a day

The 3 Peaks were Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest; Scafell Pike, England’s highest, and Brown Willy, a small hill atop Bodmin Moor, Cornwall’s highest point. (and one over which Tina, my wife and I biked on our adventure). The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon, as these inconceivably long long-distance runs are called.

He wasn’t the only eccentric adventurer we encountered. Another runner, whom we met at John O’Groats just as we were finishing, was just starting out. Unlike Colin, he’d packed his gear into a two-wheeled trailer attached to his chest with a harness. As we watched him start, he jogged into the arm swing and curious gait that ultra-marathoners affect to make it look as if they were running when in fact they proceed little faster than a fast walk, or about four miles per hour. We never found out his raison de run. One tiny, 73-year-old man with a backpack the size of a manatee and a pace that rivaled varve deposition in Loch Lomond (where we encountered him) was doing the walk to commemorate the Queen’s longevity. He presented us with his card. It requested donations to cover his expenses.

The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon.

Ian Stocks was bicycling a 20-day, 1,500 mile variant that included the UK’s eastern and westernmost salients, for Alzheimer’s Research UK. At a projected 75 mile-per-day pace he ought to have been much further south than where we met him. I noticed that his gear — bike, panniers, electronics — all looked new, and my BS antenna began to quiver. The received wisdom in the classic-liberal view is that as welfare programs take over the functions of private charities, the latter tend to atrophy. Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?

I’d once been solicited for a contribution to “raise awareness for breast cancer” by a group of women breast cancer survivors who were planning on skiing across the Greenland ice cap. They were all seasoned adventurers. I knew what they were up to. Contributions would pay for gear and transportation first; any money left over would go to the “raise awareness” bit.

At this point, let me clarify a popular misconception concerning folks who participate in extreme sports, objectives, deeds, adventures, and such for charity. Their shtick is to persuade the public that they are willing to undergo extreme exertion and privation for a good cause. But nothing could be further from the truth. They do what they are doing because they are addicted to adventure, unique accomplishments, firsts, personal challenges, transcendence of the quotidian, making their mark, even adrenaline or drama; in a word — they love what they do. But extreme adventures are costly, so many fund their objectives by invoking the charity label. I told Trish, the leader of the Greenland expedition (who, years before, had taught me to cross-country ski), that I needed my money to fund my own adventures and that I wished them luck. She didn’t take that well.

Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?

So I checked out Ian Stocks’ website. What a surprise! All contributions go directly to the charity; nothing passes through Ian’s hands. Ian’s motivation is his father’s dementia. As of this writing, Ian is still behind schedule, mile-wise, but he has raised over 100% of his targeted contributions.

To me the more fundamental question is why this whole charade is necessary. If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment? Perhaps, in a gladiatorial sort of way.

My wife Tina and I had decided to tackle the end-to-end ride for purely selfish reasons: beer — unlimited traditional cask ales (more on them later), single malt whiskies, and daily feasts of delicious UK food: the full breakfast fry — bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried mushrooms and tomato, black pudding, hash browns and fried toast; the best curry restaurants in the world (Kashmiri, Bengali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South Indian); fish and chips to die for; carveries featuring four roasts with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire pudding and meat pastries that defy counting; steak and ale and steak and kidney pies, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, shepherd’s and pork pies, and many local, flaky variants. And, of course, the chance to explore a country in low gear, meet the people — prone to extreme civility with a subtle but outrageous sense of humor — and get our fair share of exercise in order to continue such adventures well into our senility.

If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment?

Many end-to-end bikers from a variety of countries crossed our path. Unlike motorists, long-distance bikers always stop to pass the time of day, to inquire about one another’s journey, objectives, provenance, etc. Nearly all who were heading north targeted John O’Groats. Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow. Only the Brits got the joke.

Two separate couples had come all the way from New Zealand. I asked them why they’d come halfway around the world for this biking adventure, when they lived in a country famous for its natural beauty and low population density, a country that would seem to offer a biking paradise. Both couples shook their heads and looked at each other. They both — separately — responded that New Zealand was a relatively new country, and so did not have a well-developed network of old or secondary roads crisscrossing the two main islands. Only primary highways, mostly two-lane, bind the country together. These have narrow shoulders (when at all), and drivers are not sensitive to bikers.

The Road Less Traveled

The Sustrans route we chose uses traffic-free paths and quiet single-lane roads, hence its 1,200 mile length. Those quiet single-lane roads have their own quirks. Nearly all are bordered by 6–9’ hedges, perfectly vertical and maintained by vertical mowers. They are so narrow that planners have installed “passing places” and “lay-bys” about every 100 yards. The occasional oncoming or passing car encountering another car — or bike — must wait for one of these to get by. However, the Sustrans route also seems to go out of its way to stitch together every hill top, traverse watersheds cross-wise instead of following drainages, and generally adhere to Mae West’s observation that “the loveliest distance between two points is a curved line.”

Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow.

England’s myriad roads, in plan view, mimic the pattern formed by cracked tempered glass — an intricate grid twisted and crabbed beyond any recognizably geometric shape and resembling a Voronoi tessellation. They started out that way and only got more complex as time went on. When Rome conquered England, according to Nicholas Crane in The Making of the British Landscape, “the web of footpaths and tracks serving settlements were an ill-fitting jigsaw of local and regional networks which were difficult for outsiders to navigate.” The bends and salients in England’s roads had evolved over hundreds (or even thousands) of years to link settlements, sources of raw materials, strongholds, religious sites, and so on. These evolved organically before the invention of bulldozers and certainly of modern road engineering with road cuts and fills that reduce gradients and straighten out unnecessary curves. Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.

The Hills Are Afoot

Cornwall, the forgotten Celtic country, was a disheartening start to a very challenging ride. Not only does the Cornish section of the route gain little in a northerly direction — and sometimes even trends south — its ride profile resembles tightly clustered stalagmites with significant climbs over Bodmin Moor, the St. Burian and St. Columb Major summits, and a queue of lesser hills. Our old bodies required two rest days in quick succession — at Truro and Bude — if we were to have any chance of reaching Scotland pedaling.

Cornwall might seem forgotten because it’s bedeviled by an identity crisis. Although Celtic in origin, distinct in language and separate as an entity from England, with many unique cultural traits, it somehow missed Tony Blair’s devolution revolution in 1997. Rob, our host at the very modest Truro Lodge, told us that Truro, a cathedral city, was the capital of Cornwall. Since he’d been Truro’s last mayor, I asked him if that made him First Minister of Cornwall. He smiled wryly, admitting that Cornwall had had such an influx of English settlers that there wasn’t much enthusiasm for Cornish devolution, much less independence.

Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.

But there is some ambivalence. The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard. Outside Truro Cathedral, a couple of buskers with fiddle, guitar, and microphone played traditional tunes to an enthusiastic audience. And in Penzance, along the waterfront promenade, a Cornish band led by a baton-waving, tails-wearing drum major marched in front of our hotel evenings at dusk playing Cornish Morris-type music (I later found out that the all-volunteer ensemble was short on musicians and was soliciting participants).

In 2007, David Cameron promised to put Cornwall’s concerns "at the heart of Conservative thinking." However, the new coalition government established in 2010 under his leadership did not appoint a Minister for Cornwall. Although Cornwall only holds the status of a county in Great Britain, as recently as 2009 a Liberal Democrat MP presented a Cornwall devolution bill in Parliament (it got nowhere), and advocacy groups demanding greater autonomy from Westminster have been waxing and waning over the years.

On June 5 we left Cornwall and entered Devon, the heart of Thomas Hardy country, complete with irresistibly cute, white-washed thatched roof cottages. Though every bit as hilly as Cornwall (1,640’ Exmoor, the Mendip Hills and the Blackdown Hills to the fore), it welcomed us with a roadside sign declaring: Where there are flowers there is hope.

The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard.

“Oh, how much fun!” Tina declared — her enthusiastic response to any novelty, serendipitous triviality, unanchored excess of exuberance, or even the prospect of another 20% uphill grade. Up these our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress. To pass the time on the slow pedal I recounted the libertarian themes in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a novel she’d never read: his depiction of marriage as a crushing force, his belief that organized religion complicates and obstructs ambition, and his critique of the Victorian class system.

At Glastonbury (another rest day) our route finally turned resolutely north. The famous abbey town and final resting place of the legendary King Arthur has become a bit of a Wessex Sedona with crystal shops, goddess centers, metaphysical bookstores, vitamin, herb, and natural food shops, and a vibrant cast of street characters in a variety of stages of mendicancy, sanity, and hygiene exhibiting extremes of sartorial flourishes from total nakedness through purposeful dishevelment to natty eccentricity. Even our B&B hostess had a claim to fame. Sarah Chapman held the Guinness Book of World Records women’s record for walking five kilometers upright on her hands! But the ruins of the abbey, legendarily founded by Joseph of Arimathea in 63 AD and associated with Saints Columba, Patrick, and Bridget but sacked and burned by Henry VIII when he broke with Rome over its refusal to submit to him instead of the Pope, are the town’s saving grace.

By the time we reached Bristol we were deep in the bosom of Old England. Bristol, once England’s doorway to the world, is a thriving, lively, modern city. In its harbor, lovingly replicated, docks the Matthew, John Cabot’s ship. A plaque next to his oversize statue reads: In May 1497 John Cabot sailed from this harbour in the Matthew and discovered North America. The only drawback to being a port city is the seagulls, loud giant avian dive bombers. They are brazen and incorrigible in their quest for food. Early mornings reveal overturned trash bins throughout the city. Gulls have been reported snatching burgers out of hands and even whacking a pedestrian eating a snack on the back of the head so that he drops it and the gull steals the tidbit. One municipal mayor complained that gulls are a protected species.

On to the Midlands

Past the moors and fens, the landscape turned to rolling farm and toft landscape dotted with rhododendron copses. Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste. One evening at a pub, a morris troupe, performing traditional English music and dance dating from before the 17th century, enhanced our after-ride pints. The all-male troupe wearing bells — perhaps the original source of the phrase “with bells on their toes” — and accompanied by a squeeze box, was delighted to entertain foreigners familiar with morris dancing. We stayed in an old Tudor building with buckled floors, absurdly low pass-throughs, and narrow winding stairs whose commemorative plaque read: Crown Hotel: Rebuilt in 1585 on site of a much earlier inn destroyed by the fire of 1583. A coaching stop on the London-Chester run.

By now Britain’s schizophrenic weights and measures standards were beginning to puzzle us. Road distances were in miles, temperatures in centigrade, beer and milk in pints, and folks gave their weight in “stone” with large weights measured in Imperial tons. While the metric system may be simpler in computation, the English system is ergonomic and evolved organically, thereby rendering it more intuitive. And, most curious of all to me, a northern country that in summer experiences 19 or 20 hours of daylight and invented standard time, which it measures from the Prime Meridian of the World at Greenwich, succumbs to the idiocy of Daylight Savings Time.

Refreshingly, the government has not been able — by and large — to impose metric mandates or force observance of DST throughout the realm. When the time changes, businesses readjust their opening and closing times to GMT. With barely four or five hours of total darkness, how much daylight needs to be “saved”? As to the other weights and measures, one informant told me that, except for centigrade temperatures, all new and traditional systems coexist peacefully, with only a handful of rigid requirements such as strong spirits in pubs, which must be sold in 25ml, 35ml, 50ml, and 70ml increments.

Up these hills our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress.

Worcester (pronounced Wooster), is the home of Worcestershire Sauce and site of the last battle of the Civil War, in which Cromwell decisively defeated the Royalists. Even more importantly, Worcester Cathedral holds the remains of King John, he of the Magna Carta. The mausoleum was extremely moving, not just for its considerable age and all the empty space surrounding it, but also for the immense significance of Magna Carta itself. For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty through the separation of powers and the recognition of the rights of a portion of the populace.

In keeping with Sustran’s objective of avoiding traffic, we bypassed Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. Not so for Manchester. Inevitably, we got lost there. Signage was poor, our map not detailed enough, and Google not up to the task. So, contrary to the clichéd stereotype of a male, I asked a passerby for directions. The lady responded, “You’re in luck, I’m a geographer. Where are you going?”

Now, asking passersby has its drawbacks — too many to detail here — but, in this instance, we weren’t going to a particular place but rather trying to find National Cycle Network Route 6 to get back on track. Never mind; an academic geographer informant — here was the gold standard! After detailing our trip to her I showed her our guidebook’s map. She was no biker and had never heard of the National Cycle Network. She wasn’t impressed by either our guidebook or our map, of which she couldn’t make sense. At once she launched into a tirade about computer generated maps and lectured us on the preeminence of British ordnance survey maps.

Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste.

I responded that she was absolutely correct, except that we would have needed over 100 ordnance survey maps to cover our entire route, at a prohibitive cost in space and pounds sterling. Then she and Tina, interrupting their on-again, off-again chitchat, in between attempting to solve the riddle at hand, pulled out their smartphones — the last resort of the self-unreliant — and sought guidance from Google.

By now I was losing patience. We’d eaten up precious time getting nowhere, so I resorted to a navigator’s last resort: bracketing. I thanked our geographer for her help, gently disengaged Tina from her, and explored four separate directional salients for a mile each, starting from the roundabout we’d stopped at in order, to ensure that one of those was or wasn’t where we were headed. Through the process of elimination, a compass, a closer examination of the clues in our guide, and not a little intuition, we found our route. Lo and behold, we were nigh on it! A block further along the last salient explored, we encountered a National Cycle Network Route 6 sign.

The lessons: Never mistake a geographer for a cartographer: the former specializes in the distribution of the human population over the surface of the land; the latter makes maps. And . . . have confidence in your own abilities.

North by Northwest

The Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, and the Lake District welcomed us with a smorgasbord of all-you-can-climb hills, appetizers to the Scottish Highlands. By now we’d talked to a lot of innkeepers, publicans, bikers, walkers, shopkeepers, and random strangers. With the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service (NHS) imminent on July 5, I sought infrequent opportunities to gather anecdotes about people’s experience with the service, especially now that Conservative governments had floated proposals to make the NHS financially more viable, most of which included increasing copays. I never brought up the subject but always managed to get folks to elaborate on offhand remarks. One lady mentioned that she’d recently broken her wrist playing cricket. So I asked her if the NHS had taken care of her (Britain has a dual — private and public — insurance and medical system).

For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty.

“Yes, they did,” she said. But then she backtracked, saying, “No, they didn’t.” So she explained. She went to the nearest hospital with her hand bent at an unnatural angle to her forearm. The staff said they had no room for her, to go to another hospital. So she did. The next hospital looked at her wrist and said it was broken. But they had no room for her. “Go home and wrap it up,” they said. Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.

Another B&B host, an elderly lady who had recently lost her husband and ran a very modest one-woman operation told us she’d had a hip replacement. I asked how well the NHS had treated her. She responded that it had taken a while to get the procedure done, but only because she didn’t understand and had difficulty navigating the bureaucratic requirements. Once she mastered them she was put in queue, awaited her turn, and was very happy with the results.

Of course, the other hot topic of conversation was Brexit. I wasn’t shy about soliciting opinions on that. Two issues determined the close vote: immigration and EU rules (trade, a third issue, was uncontentious: everyone favored trade. However, the first two are interpreted very differently along the political continuum.

Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.

In the course of our five-week traverse of the island we encountered numerous resident immigrants from a very broad array of countries working in sales, labor, and the service sector. I made a point of listing the countries they hailed from: Italy, Romania, Poland, Venezuela, Eritrea, Somalia, India, France, Pakistan, Greece, Spain, Bangladesh, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Thailand, Russia, Germany, Argentina, China, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium, Brazil, Philippines, Ukraine, Ireland, and the USA. These were not tourists or ethnic waiters at ethnic restaurants.

Left-leaning reportage attributes the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration vote to “racism,” or “little Englanders,” the British version of chauvinist rednecks. Right-wingers claim that immigrants are taking over jobs. Neither of these glib explanations stuck a chord with us or our informants. But all, regardless of whether they were “leavers” or “remainers,” expressed strong concern about Britain’s nearly limitless immigration. One Welsh AI entrepreneur — a remainer — averred that with an unemployment rate of 4.1% there was no employment problem in the UK. Gareth was so fixated on trade that he blithely dismissed any other concern as illusory.

As to racism, none of the immigrants we interviewed alluded to it; in fact, all expressed a great deal of affection and respect between themselves, the Brits, their neighbors, and their employers (ours was a very limited random sample). And none of the Brits expressed any — even the slightest — unfavorable sentiment about foreigners. Only when riding through Muslim enclaves did we sense any, admittedly vague, tension. So what was going on?

One waitress complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat.

My sense is that the Brexit vote was a continuation of a British exceptionalism that goes back to 1066 — it’s been nearly a millennium since the last invasion. Compared to the continental countries, Britain has been uniquely stable, especially — being an island — as to its borders. In that sense, there is a nebulous perception of continental countries as entities akin to banana republics, with feuds, invasions, and shifting boundaries. To Brits, joining that club has always cost some degree of sovereignty. Margaret Thatcher personified that sentiment when she was unwilling to sacrifice the pound sterling, the world’s oldest, most stable currency (except under Callahan and Wilson) to a committee of continental bureaucrats. Britain did not join the Euro currency; but it did join the European Union, a continuation of the aspiring free-trade policies of the earlier Common Market. The Brits want to trade but don’t want others to control them.

One Scots barmaid was in favor of leaving, but voted to remain for the sake of her children. She complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat. Gareth, our Welsh informant, thought this a red herring issue. But immigration rules are part of the broader EU rules: both require a surrender of sovereignty that the Brits have had enough of ceding.

Finally, there was a general concern that Britain was losing its identity — its culture, if you will — and becoming a nation of immigrants like the US. The August 11 issue of The Economist reports that “more than a third of London’s population was born abroad.”

Scotland the Heatwave

It was uncanny. As soon as we crossed the unmarked border into Scotland, the plaintive tones of a highland bagpipe filled the air. Around the corner we suddenly found ourselves in Gretna Green, once Britain’s answer to America’s Texas, where Scottish law allowed marriage between underage couples, but now a slightly pathetic tourist trap where couples with a romantic disposition to elopement still choose to tie the knot. Never mind, we were entranced and let the piper grab our souls, wrench our hearts, draw tears, and make us feel that we could transcend our limits. And, remarkably, accents turned on a penny from Yorkie to brogue.

As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!”

On the first day of summer hordes of embarrassingly (to us, anyway) scantily clad Scots crowded along the shores of every loch, river, canal, and estuary, suntanning their albescent flesh. The unusually hot and dry weather, which had started earlier, was the cause of much comment. Tina, ever one to engage anyone in friendly conversation, asked a middle-aged lady if the unusual circumstances might be caused by global warming. The lady replied that if they were, “Bring it on!” In the 20 days we spent in Scotland it never rained. On June 29 at Pitlochry, the temperature hit 89 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there — leading to a hot muggy night with little sleep in a land where air conditioners and fans are a waste of money.

We looked forward every day to a pint or two of “real ale,” available in participating pubs everywhere but sadly lacking in Gretna Green — another disappointing aspect of the little town. I’m an avid fan of British Real Ale, a beer nearly unavailable anywhere else, and a primary reason for our trip. Real or cask ales (cask-conditioned beer) are unfiltered (they still retain yeast, though that drops to the bottom of the cask) and unpasteurized beer, conditioned (by processes including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. They require pumping by hand to serve and give good head in spite of being lightly carbonated compared to bottled beers. There is nothing quite like them in spite of their being brewed as bitters, stouts, porters, and even IPAs.

Breweries are small and local, and mostly supply only a handful of establishments — until recently. We visited one brewery in Pitlochry, the Moulin Traditional Ale Brewery, that brews only 120 liters per day of four different ales and supplies only one pub and one hotel. In the latter half of the last century corporate brewers began buying up pubs, pushing their beers and sidelining — or even eliminating — cask ales. Brits were not amused. In response, the Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971, and managed to convince the corporates not to eliminate cask ales. Some, such as Adnams, Greene King, and Marston’s, now even brew their own cask ales.

Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.

While in Glasgow we managed to hit the Fifth Glasgow Real Ale Festival, offering over 150 different real ales from all over the realm. As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!” We’d barely finished our first pint when the 18-piece Caledonian Brewery Edinburgh Pipe Band marched in playing “Scotland the Brave,” forcing us to freeze in place and raising the hairs on the nape of our necks. We imbibed 105 different real ales during our ride. Only space prevents me from listing them all and their creative names. As of 2014 there were 738 real ale brewers or pubs in the US. There might even be one near you.

In Killin we took a rest day and visited the Clan McNab burial grounds on Inchbuie Island in the River Dochart, along with the associated Iron Age fort and even earlier stone circle. Here in Prescott, Arizona, my hometown, David McNab books Celtic musicians who come on tour to the US. Married to a Scots lassie, he treasures his heritage. We’d be a culturally poorer town without his concerts.

As we passed Loch Tay, the Scottish Crannog Centre, an outdoor museum with a restored lake dwelling dating from about 800 BC, beckoned. The crannogs were built on stilts or artificial rock islands on the water. Villages, consisting of three crannogs, each with about 90 inhabitants, were common in Scotland and Ireland as early as 5,000 years ago and as late as the early 18th century. While Scotland has only 350–500 crannog villages, Ireland — on a much larger land mass — boasts about 1,200. Doubtless, both countries have many more crannog villages, underwater archaeology presenting considerably more obstacles (in survey and excavation) than terrestrial.

This odd dwelling pattern was first glibly explained as being of a defensive nature (most 19th century archaeologists being retired military men), but few weapons or evidence of warfare associated with the crannogs exists. The new explanation is that the dense vegetation of the Celtic countries favored cleared land for agriculture, not for mere habitation, while the riparian location facilitated extensive trade networks, evidence for which — including networks all the way to mainland Europe — is abundant.

The Loch Tay Crannog Centre, near Kenmore, Perth, and Kinross, isn’t just one reconstructed crannog with three dugouts. The staff has recreated the entire lifestyle of the inhabitants: foot-operated lathes; grain-grinding stones; wool spinning, dyeing, and weaving; and fire-starting by “rubbing two sticks together,” a practice often mentioned but seldom seen. It means using a fire drill. With the proper knowledge, preparation and materials, all things are possible. The demonstrator (even his shoes and clothing were authentic) started a fire in less than a minute.

The Braw Hielands

Somewhere beyond the Crannog Centre we crossed into the political subdivision known as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Trees and settlements became scarcer, midges and cleggs more numerous. Heather (purple), gorse (yellow), and bracken (green) gilded the landscape. Long-haired Highland cattle and Scottish Blackface, Wensleydale, Cheviot, and Shetland sheep predominated. It is here — not in Gretna Green — that the romance of Scotland kicks in: Rabbie Burns; Bonnie Prince Charlie; Nessie; Capercaillie and Old Blind Dogs; kilts, sporrans, and claymores; haggis; the Outlander miniseries; and even Mel Gibson berserking over the moors as William Wallace come to mind.

However, my own mind gravitated to those two giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. I’d not run across any memorials, statues, or even streets named for either in their homeland. That’s more understandable for Hume, whose somewhat counterintuitive, esoteric — albeit undogmatic — thinking isn’t readily accessible. But Adam Smith, the father of economics, the Charles Darwin (or Albert Einstein) of the dismal science, is a household name. His insights are readily accessible and intuitive.

In three separate trips to Scotland, I have been struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials.

Smith and Hume were drinking buddies (which is saying a lot in 18th century Scotland, where getting plastered to oblivion was a national pastime). One bit of Hume’s thought that was accessible — though still counterintuitive — is encapsulated in an exchange he had with Smith. The United States had failed to agree on an official religion for the new country: a first for its time. Smith, a man of indeterminate religious beliefs, bemoaned the fact, opining that the lack of an official faith would doom the country into irreligiosity. Hume, an agnostic, disagreed. He predicted that countries without official faiths would experience a flowering of religions, while the official religions of countries that had them would wither into irrelevance. Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.

The anecdotal Hume was right. America soon experienced the Second Great Awakening, the birth of a multiplicity of religious sects in the 1800s. Today, according to The Guardian (September 4, 2017), more than half the UK population has no religion; while nearly 76% of Americans identify as religious.

In three separate trips to Scotland (one where I walked across the country) I was struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials. One informant said the Scots had little affection for Smith. Public opinion inside Scotland holds Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, responsible for the Highland Clearances. And public opinion outside Scotland perceives the Scots as socialist. It’s not so simple.

In the 2017 UK elections, the Conservative Party received 28.6% of the vote and overtook the Labour Party, the real far-left socialists, who received 27.1%, as the main opposition party to the majority Scottish National Party, which got 36.9%. The Scots are nationalistic, thrifty, good businessmen who hate taxes — traits not often associated with socialism (though they abhor class and status pretensions).

But back to Smith and the Highland Clearances. Smith was a strong advocate of both private property and efficiency in production. When The Wealth of Nations came out, Scottish clan chiefs decided to reinterpret their position as not just clan heads, but also fee simple owners of clan lands, according to how they interpreted Smith’s concept of private property. They became lairds, owners of the clan lands instead of feudal lords. As feudal lords they’d had a complex set of rights and duties with their crofters. However, as lairds, they suddenly became absolute owners of what was now their private property. Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.

The crofters were subsistence farmers. Their part of the deal was to give a percentage of their harvest to the clan chief in return for protection, leadership, dispute resolution, and so on. Advances in agronomy and a booming market for wool indicated to the new self-declared lairds that sheep grazing would enrich them much more than a few bushels of oats. Most chose sheep over oats and evicted the crofters, hence the Clearances. (This is a simplified version.) Not all lairds ignored the crofters’ feudal rights. Lairds’ responses ran the gamut from keeping the crofters as tenant farmers, to buying them out, to cruel dispossession and eviction. There was no uniform formula; the greediest landlords made the headlines. Adam Smith got the blame. Finally, however, in 2008, an elegant ten-foot bronze Adam Smith statue on a massive stone plinth and financed by private donations was unveiled in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile within sight of a rare statue of his friend David Hume.

Outside Inverness, capital of the Highlands, the Culloden battlefield, site of the last battle (1746) fought on British soil, cast its spell. Supporters of the Stuart (Jacobite) dynasty fought the by-then established Hanoverian dynasty army of George II. The German Hanoverians had been installed as monarchs of the United Kingdom after Parliament tired of both Stuarts and civil wars. A common misconception holds that Jacobitism was a Scottish cause because the Stuarts, before being invited to rule over England had been kings of Scotland, and most of the Jacobites were Scots. Again, not so simple.

Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.

Monarchy has its own rules of succession. Under those rules, Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ought to have become king of the United Kingdom. The problem was that the Stuarts were Catholics and a Catholic, according to the Act of Settlement passed by Parliament in 1701 — the expedient to finally dump the Stuarts — could not rule over a Church of England realm, much less head that church. Adherents to the monarchy’s rules of succession did not accept Parliament’s power to overturn those rules, hence the Jacobite uprising. Scots, English, and Irish participated. The presumptive heir to the Jacobite crown today is Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria von Wittelsbach who, if he were on the throne, would be known as King Francis II.

We took a rest day in Inverness and got a dose of fire-and-brimstone Scottish Calvinism and attended a couple of ceilidhs — once both at the same time. A determined preacher in white shirt and tie stood on the Crown Road, Inverness’s high street, reading the Bible in thunderous and orotund sonority to the passersby while fiercely gesticulating with his free hand. We were entranced. Particularly when a young fellow in a t-shirt and a newsboy cap took a stance across the street, pulled a bagpipe out of its case, laid out the case to collect donations, and hit the chords of “MacPherson’s Lament.” He completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions. As to the other ceilidhs, one particular impromptu session at a pub included two fiddles, a guitar, uilleann pipes, and a saxophone — the last two instruments a particularly innovative and sonorous combination.

North of Inverness nearly all the trees disappeared, as did fences, buildings, and power poles; even the livestock thinned. It was a magical, surreal landscape with the odd abandoned stone sheep enclosure. At Tongue, the North Sea finally came into view. When the Orkneys appeared on the horizon, our hearts skipped a beat: we knew we were nearly done. Stroma, the nearest Orkney, presented a spectral appearance. It had been abandoned in 1962. A scattering of old stone cottages, unconnected by roads, eerily dotted its landscape. Soon John O’Groats, little more than an inn and tourist shops, materialized out of the grassy plain. We’d covered 1,291 miles — according to our bike odometers — in 29 days, with an additional eight rest days.

The piper completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions.

After a shuttle to Inverness and an overnight ride on the Caledonian Sleeper we arrived at Euston Station, London. During the ride — both of them — we reflected on Britain’s virtues. It’s a country with no earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, or mudslides; having an ideal climate with no extremes of heat or cold, aridity or rain; a varied and undulating topography of grasslands, moorland, woodland, glades, estuaries, highlands, and lowlands; hamlets, villages, towns, and cities with a minimum of sprawl; little crime, few slums or homelessness; a cultured people with a generally sensible disposition (and oodles of book stores); and enjoying separation of head of state from head of government. Finally, it’s always been Great, and, best of all — has unsurpassed beer and whisky. What more can you ask for? Lower taxes?




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The Civic Sacred Cow

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Recently someone left a pile of human shit on the back steps of my building. A neighbor was assaulted by a homeless person in the alley. A clerk at the 7-Eleven tried to get a beggar off the property and was slammed against the wall and threatened; the police said, “Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?” The secretary of a neighborhood church told me she was getting afraid to go to work, since there was always at least one drugged-out man camping on the steps. The front yard of another church was filled with homeless every day and night, often blocking the sidewalks. Fires repeatedly swept through the city property next to the freeway, site of homeless encampments and cookouts. A friend who plays in a women’s softball league complained that the restroom they formerly used in the city park was always occupied by homeless men. At that point, finally, I resolved to do something. The park is in my city council district, not hers.

There began a series of calls and emails between me and numerous city and police officials, in which I mentioned to everyone on the other end of the conversation that cops patrol the neighborhood but do nothing about its obvious problems. The result, finally, was that the invaders were out of the women’s restroom and the church secretary got some temporary assistance in evicting permanent transients from the property. The other problems have not been touched.

If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.”

My experience can stand for that of thousands of others who have tried to do something about the growing Problem of Homelessness, which in many cities of America is making life miserable for all classes except the rich. The interesting thing to me is that when people call public officials to complain, they are invariably admonished that “homelessness is not a crime.” I was told that too, right off the bat, in every conversation I had.

This seems increasingly peculiar to me. If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.” Now let’s try it the other way. If you threaten your neighbor, assault him, shit on his steps, camp in his doorway, and occupy, in your nakedness, the restroom of the opposite sex, what will happen to you? You will be arrested, forthwith.

So what’s the difference? The difference is that you are a lowly taxpayer, bound by every rule that anyone can think of; whereas the people who are making your environment annoying, tough, dangerous, or merely sickening are “homeless” and therefore above the law. In fact, they are some of the largest beneficiaries of the law; every community I know of gives them tax-supported aid in innumerable forms. In San Francisco it is about $37,000 per year, per vagrant.

If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

As a human being, I feel pity for most of these people, because they are crazy, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. True, many could kick their addictions and submit to treatment for their craziness; they could “take their meds.” But they won’t, and for that I also feel sorry for them, though not nearly as sorry as I feel for the people they happen to rob, kill, and infect with disease. My city has a very large and very good Catholic charity that is able and willing to shelter any homeless person who agrees, essentially, not to be disruptive; the charity’s beds are never fully occupied.

I don’t know how to solve this problem; I wish I could solve all of my own problems. As a libertarian, I would defend anyone’s right to wander on whatever streets he chooses, to drink and smoke and shoot up as much as he wants; all I insist is that he not impose himself on others, occupy their property, ruin their businesses, insult their houses of worship, rob them, threaten them, and appropriate for his own use the things that other people, many of them poor people, have paid for. If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that city authorities sympathize with me in this dispute. The fact that their default position is that I’m wrong and the “homeless” are right and fully justified by the “law” can hardly be explained on rational grounds, even if we extend “rationality” to mean “honey up to the voters, or they may toss you out on the street.” To insult the voters with moral lectures or sham economic theories (“if housing weren’t so expensive, people wouldn’t need to live on the streets”) is an act of irrationality that can only be explained by the assumption that some mystical, religious value is at stake.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness.

And so it is. Our officials now believe that they have a higher obligation to the homeless than to everyone else, the kind of obligation that leads some people to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of God or the Bible. One of the two major political parties now proclaims, by its every word and action, and particularly in parts of the country where “the homeless” abound, that in any conflict between the voters and the homeless (who do not vote), it will side with the homeless.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness. But it has the same effect as certain customs of the great religions. I believe that in some parts of India, cows are still permitted to wander at will through the people’s markets, eating what they will from the merchants’ produce, and, of course, shitting where they will. And why? Those cows are sacred.




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Advance Notice

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With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.

It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.

The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.

For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?

Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.

Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).

Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.

Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.

Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.

Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.

The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.

William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.

Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.

One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”

Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.

Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.

Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.

How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.

Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.

The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.

This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.

Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)

Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.

Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.

Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.

Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.

Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.

I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.




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Farmers of Men

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When people use the term “the homeless,” they make them sound like a leper colony of the damned, invaders from outer space, or some sort of creeping fungus. This attitude dehumanizes homeless people. Which is highly ironic, since those most likely to use the term see themselves as brimming with compassion. How can people be recognized as human beings if they aren’t viewed as individuals? Yet almost never do I get the sense, from those who decry the plight of “the homeless,” that they visualize real faces or remember actual names.

We’ve been getting a number of homeless people at church. The sudden influx is startling. One lady brings her four little dogs. She has nowhere to leave them except in the yard of our parish house, next door to the sanctuary. She sits in a pew, slightly off by herself, and soaks up the liturgy the way a flower soaks up sunshine. We are a progressive church — we Care About The Homeless. But nobody seems to know quite what to do with her.

When we hand over to the government the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands.

Some are baffled that she’s got four dogs, when she probably struggles daily just to feed herself. They evidently fail to realize that the dogs may be the only living souls that show her unconditional affection, or perhaps any affection at all. Being one of those annoying people who get big ideas, I have several times wondered aloud what we might do to help our homeless guests. And I mean, really help them — not just go through a few motions to make ourselves feel better. Every time I do this, I get looks of horror.

Then comes the inevitable litany of “we can’ts.” We can’t give them hot meals, baskets of groceries, job referrals, or affordable housing. We are not, after all, a soup kitchen, a food bank, or a social service agency. But I’m pretty sure that though they may not know this the first time they come, it doesn’t take long for them to figure it out. If they keep coming back — as some do — they may actually want the same things out of the experience as the rest of us.

The homeless aren’t as different from us as I suspect we want to think they are. How did we ever come to think of them as a different species? As something alien, strange, and potentially dangerous?

I suspect it began to happen about the time we decided to hand all responsibility for the care of the unfortunate over to the government. It became Someone Else’s Problem — not our own. We tell ourselves we’ve done this because we’re so compassionate, but actually it has made us considerably less so. We have merely pushed the needy out of sight and out of mind, lulling our consciences to sleep with the narcotic delusion that Someone Else can do our caring for us.

We have no evidence, however, that the government overflows with compassion. And when we hand over to it the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands. Once we surrender anything to the state, it never wants to give it back, and certainly resents having to share it.

Much ado is currently being made about how persecuted conservative Christians are when the state does not mandate mass compliance with their beliefs. That this seems to be the highest purpose to which they think the Gospel calls them does not strike them as the least bit odd. But the same government they want to enforce their dictates has taken away much of their ability to minister to the needy. A duty they have surrendered, for the most part, without a whimper.

This past winter, when much of the country was gripped with arctic cold, a number of churches brought homeless people into their buildings to keep them from freezing. In more than a few cases, this may have made the difference between life and death. Now, one might think this was exactly what churches are supposed to do. But several municipal governments thought otherwise.

When we farm the homeless out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human.

Where were the cries of religious persecution, from the Right-wing Umbrage Industry, when these cities ordered churches that were sheltering homeless people to turn them out into the streets, threatening them with hefty fines if they refused to comply? I certainly didn’t hear any, and since I pay close attention to such matters, I listened for them.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for the homeless among us is really to see them as people — and I mean, before they turn into blocks of ice we must step over on the sidewalk. When we farm them out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human. Given the fact that it’s more likely to care for stray dogs or cats than for homeless people, it treats them as even less than animals.

The only way we can treat homeless people as people is to take back our responsibility to care what happens to them. When they come through the doors of our churches, we can recognize them as spiritual beings, who hunger for more than food. They need to know that they are valuable. That it matters whether they find a warm place to belong, or rot into oblivion in a gutter. This, no government can give them, and when we farmed out the responsibility for their care, all understanding of their deeper needs got lost.

Today we clamor, like baby birds, for the government to give us goodies. Our dependence has bred a malignant narcissism, in which we identify primarily as members of some grievance group to be appeased. The very convictions that form our core we see as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure. But the government cannot give us our souls; it can only take them. It’s high time we took them back.




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Mittimal Damage

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After being badgered incessantly by Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, “vulture capitalist” Romney finally released his tax filings. We finally got to see what dirt was being covered up in his returns.

And the dirt was — nothing!

The press sifted through the 500 plus pages of Romney’s 2010 filing (and his projected filing for 2011), desperately looking for something to hit him with, and Romney came out totally clean. The media mission was to find new material that their guy Obama could use to bash Romney, but the mission was an abject failure.

True, the released material shows Romney to be a very rich man. But the filings only confirm what anybody could have found by Google-searching the dude and reading his Wiki entry, to wit, that he is worth around a quarter of a billion bucks. Listen, don’t get me wrong: I would love to have that kind of scratch. But it doesn’t put the man on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list — he’s nowhere as wealthy as such media-darling leftist billionaires as Warren Buffett and George Soros.

Progressives are cheap when it comes to spending their own money to help others. They are generous only with other people’s money.

To be precise, in 2010 Romney earned $21.7 million, of which $12.6 million was capital gains, $3.3 million taxable interest, $4.9 million dividend income, and the remaining million or so money coming from various business gains, refunds, and speaking fees. Romney gave a whopping $3 million to charity — about 14% of his income.

Taxes on cap gains, dividends, and interest rates are a flat 15%, and charitable donations are quite legally deductible — which explains why he “only” paid about $3 million in taxes (about a 14% effective tax rate).

In short, he legitimately minimized his taxes, and paid no more than he was legally required to. This puts him in the same boat as the rest of us, Obama and Biden (and Buffett and Soros) included. I confess that I try to minimize my taxes legally. I never — repeat, never — pay more than the law requires, and I have nowhere near Romney’s tax burden.

The mainstream media was reduced to nitpicking. It turns out, for example, that Romney — whose portfolio is in a blind trust, please note, so invests without his knowledge or control — had small investments in Swiss and Cayman Island accounts. All quite legal if declared to the government — and it was.

Of his generous charitable giving, half of it went to the Mormon church, and the rest to a variety of charities, including one for researching MS (an ailment that afflicts his wife).

His projected 2011 filing, which he has promised to release in April when it is filed, shows similar income, charitable outlays, and tax rate.

There is no doubt that Obama will use as much of this as he can to hammer Romney in the fall, assuming that Romney is the Republican nominee, which I regard as virtually certain. But there is little ammo here.

Indeed, Romney’s lavish charitable giving actually underscores Obama’s cheapness when it comes to charitable giving. Compare the nearly 14% of his income ($3,000,000) that Romney gave, to what the Obamas did: from 2000 through 2004, they gave about 1% to charity (or less than $11,000), and in 2007 they gave 5.7% (or about $240,000). Even more tight-fisted was VP Joe Biden, who averaged a pathetic 0.3% (a truly risible $349) in annual charitable giving in the decade before he became vice president, and not much more since. Last year, Biden gave 1.4% ($5,300) to charity. Truly nothing compared to Romney.

The national average for giving is about 5%.

This illustrates the thesis of Arthur Brook’s estimable Who Really Cares?, a book I reviewed for these pages some time back (March 2009, 43–6): the progressives are cheap when it comes to spending their own money to help others. They are generous only with other people’s money.

Even the 14% tax rate that Romney enjoys is hard to use against him. Remember, the John Kerry household paid 13%, and the Democrats had no problem voting for him as their nominee. And for Obama to push the capital gains and dividend rates back up is for him to risk a major downturn on the stock market, as well as in the lavish support he is getting from his billionaire buddies. That could cost him the election.

In the end, after relentless attacks by Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, all that has been revealed about Romney is that he legally and ethically earned a large amount of money, paid his taxes, and is a devout member of his church. In short, what is known now is what everybody knew all along.

Given that Obama has few accomplishments he can run on, we can also expect from him what we knew all along. His likely $2 billion reelection campaign (the $1 billion his campaign will have to spend, and the $1 billion that will be spent by groups that support him) will be entirely negative. And it will be as repetitive as it will be negative. It will simply repeat that Romney is rich, rich, rich! And he is white, white, white! And he is Mormon, Mormon, Mormon!

I am weary already.




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Easy Money

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Not too long ago I received an email solicitation for money from an old acquaintance. A breast cancer survivor, Patty (her real alias) proposed to ski across the middle of the Greenland ice cap with three other female cancer survivors to "raise breast cancer awareness."

Though it was easy to see how the proposition might work — give me money and the cure for cancer will be one step closer — I couldn’t connect the "awareness" dots.

How does "awareness" actually help the struggle against cancer? Those who have it are already aware, and those who don’t have it know someone who’s had it, and are, therefore, also aware. That covers pretty much everyone. I know, the reasoning goes something like this: the more people are aware that cancer exists, the more they are likely to donate money for research, so cancer will be cured sooner. But this is tenuous and specious sophistry at best. If cancer research is the objective, why not just solicit funds for that, and skip the arctic junket? What Patty really wanted was one more great adventure in her life, and she didn’t want to pay for it.

Actually, I was envious. Adventure junkies (of whom I am one) are driven to ever more outrageous accomplishments. It gives meaning to our lives. It’s what we live for. Transcending our own abilities doesn’t always put food on the table, but it builds “human capital” (in the words of Thomas Sowell) — capital that recharges our energy and creativity, capital that can be invested in future endeavors. But these adventures cost money. Last time I checked, climbing Mount Everest cost over $70,000. Put that on your resume.

I’d faced this before. Contemplating crossing sub-arctic Canada from Great Slave Lake to Hudson Bay along the Thelon River in kayaks, my partner (a journalist) suggested we raise funds by "doing it for charity" — any charity that deigned to associate itself with us. I asked her how the accounting would work. She responded that the funds would first be used to pay for our expedition; then whatever money was left over would go to the good cause. We’d solicit media coverage, write up our trip account, get it published, and donate the receipts (if any) to our charity.

Yeah, right.

Our incentives didn’t align with the still-unchosen charity’s. Our primary objective was crossing Canada above the 60th parallel: raising money and awareness for a generic "good cause" was just a way to finance our trip. To me, it seemed dishonest to flip the two and pretend that our charity was our primary objective while our trip was a self-imposed hair shirt to show dedication to the cause. So, in a spirit of greater transparency, I suggested soliciting commercial sponsorship from companies whose products we could use and who would actually benefit from supporting our venture through ads and testimonials. After all, I couldn’t — with a straight face — declare that I was kayaking the Thelon for Jerry’s Kids when I was actually doing it for Miller’s Adult: me.

Kelty, Hormel, and L’Oreal responded. They sent a tent, two cases of tinned meat, and assorted cosmetics. (Our pitch to L’Oreal had been that outdoorsy women also use cosmetics. They bought it.) In the big scheme of expedition funding, this was chump — albeit honest — change: we were very grateful and never failed to mention them.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against charity (with the caveat that charity, either with someone else’s money or at the expense of one’s own needs, is no virtue [while stinginess with one’s own property is no vice]). And I’m a firm believer in the libertarian value of uncoerced, private funding. Additionally, my heart always skips a beat whenever I think of Terry Fox, the cancer amputee who attempted to run across Canada with a 1970’s-era prosthetic leg, in unimaginable pain, come rain or shine, and in a constantly deteriorating condition, to inspire people to donate funds for cancer research. Fox’s only motivation was to cure cancer: he literally ran himself into the grave in a heroic act of total dedication. It was about the only thing left he could do.

I turned Patty down, telling her I needed my money for my own inspiring adventures, wished her luck, and congratulated her on her gambit.

She responded that I was small-minded, and that it was people like me who were what’s wrong with modern society.

Patty’s expedition succeeded in crossing a notable portion of Greenland’s ice cap but met with defeat for the usual reasons: weather, personal conflicts, equipment failure, less-than-perfect conditions, etc. — all understandable. Still, I can’t help but think that perhaps a bit of the wrong motivation had something to do with the failure.




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