Sunday, December 18, 2005

To Hell With Cliches

At this moment in time, it behooves each and every one of us to throw all cliches overboard, for they are, journalistically, a veritable blot on the landscape. However, it is often difficult to throw them away, but when push comes to shove they must be put on a back burner.

Only then can we create a level playing field for real writers to ply their trade, for only when cliches are as dead as the dodo will there be a quantum leap in the general quality of written prose. At the end of the day all readers will benefit, for, once we move the goalposts, cliche-free writing will establish itself as the cutting edge and become state-of-the-art. In fact it will become a whole new ballgame.

So we must get the idea of cliche-free writing up and running, but impress upon everyone that this is merely the tip of the iceberg impacting a wide range of issues and their parameters. Therefore we must become pro-active, and consign to oblivion the detritus of the past, and sweep it into the dustbin of history.

This will provide a golden opportunity for us all to become the movers and shakers of the future. Let us give a clean bill of health to the new way of thinking, and leave nothing off the table, and get to the nitty-gritty of the problem.

But we should also avoid overkill, and continue to take cognizance of the wide range of issues encompassing the conventional wisdom, and not become too simplistic. For, when the chips are down, this is all we can do.

Eliminating clichés in our writing will enable us better to think outside the box, and make each new day a meaningful learning experience. But in the last analysis there will have to be a utilization of all available resources to spread the word that clichés are the kiss of death to good writing.

Indeed, writers must be made to realize they will be skating on thin ice if they don’t make an effort to write in a user-friendly way, and that unless they pull up their socks, they will be sent back to the drawing board to learn that the difference between clichéd and cliché-free writing is not simply a difference between apples and oranges.

Needless to say, we must now all put our shoulders to the wheel, leaving no stone unturned to bring about a blessed cliche-free world.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Who Are We Really?

Who of us, in our meditative moments, hasn’t wondered what will become of us when we shuffle off this mortal coil. Are our short earthly lives all there is? Or will we continue in some other realm in some form or other? If we are Christian, will we go to Heaven or to Hell? Or to some place in between, like Purgatory? Or will we reincarnate?

The more I ponder all this, the more I think that our earthly lives aren’t all there is. This doesn’t come out of any religious doctrine but, rather, from accounts of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) whereby someone on an operating table or in a car crash suddenly finds himself floating outside his body and looking down on it. Then he goes through a tunnel towards a very bright light which he interprets as God. This bright light, or God, or whatever, shows the NDEer a run-through of his life as if he were watching a movie. He is made to realize the bad things he has done, and that his time to cross over permanently to the Other Side is not yet. Then he finds himself back in his body.

NDEers often return much changed, becoming more spiritual, more caring, feeling the pain of others, perhaps now more inclined to subscribe to Mother Jones than to the National Review. The returnees also have no further fear of death.

Since NDE-like experiences can be artificially induced when our senses are deprived, the question arises: Is the NDE merely a hallucination? The issue is one of quality, since the experiences of the genuine NDEers have a quality to them which the artificially induced don’t have. And the NDEers are able to describe things that happened in the operating room or wherever, during the time they were supposedly unconscious.

But the NDE isn’t always sweetness and light. Some NDEers don’t have a good experience, not liking it at all. Many encounter souls in torment, perhaps in a state of hell. Many NDEers also return with the conviction that we shouldn’t kill ourselves for no good reason.

But not all who are declared clinically dead and then revived have NDE experiences. Many had none at all.

Based on the NDE, it would appear that our lives in the hereafter will be predicated on how we live on earth. If we are nasty greedy and cruel in our present life, we will have a tough time of it in our next. This is probably what is meant by Hell. Adolf Hitler and the Boston Strangler, doubtless now living in Hell, may have been among the lost and unhappy souls which some of the NDEers encountered.

There are many other signs that there is more to us than meets the eye. Some signs come from psychics who appear to commune with the dead. I realize that many so-called psychics are charlatans, but some are truly amazing, and couldn’t be faking everything. They obviously have a gift which the Men-of-Science can’t explain.

Our everyday notions of reality are contradicted by stories of ghosts, UFOs, abductions by aliens, and the like. While many of these accounts may be faked, there have been so many, that at least some must be genuine. For instance photos of UFOs which no-one has proved are bogus. From this, we can reasonably conclude that photographic evidence of UFOs exists.

And what of the many thousands people who, in the dead of night, have been taken from their beds into waiting spacecraft by little stick-like creatures with large heads? The abductees come from all walks of life, and are genuinely confused and frightened by these experiences. Are they all deluded?

What about being re-incarnated to live another life on earth? I don’t like this idea at all, since having to live a life on earth all over again would be my idea of Hell. But I realize that some - like some of my yuppie friends - quite like the notion of being reincarnated. They imagine their next earthly life will be at least as pleasant as their present one.

How can they be so sure? Given that the lives of most of us on earth are nasty brutish and short, it is more likely than not that a yuppie - perhaps a young rising executive in a large tobacco company, owning a suburban house with white picket fence, driving an SUV, living off an expense account, and supporting the war in Iraq - will have to atone for all this in his next life by being reborn in a cave in Afghanistan, or in a hovel in Sadr City, getting his limbs blown off by a landmine or cluster bomb, thereafter to beg on the streets.

There is, unfortunately, evidence to support reincarnation. For instance there have been many reports of children who, knowing only their own language, are suddenly able to speak another language, like Greek, and fluently. Surely, say the reincarnationists, this is because the child in a previous life was Greek. Perhaps. But an alternative explanation is that there could be a universal mind, a sort of Jungian collective unconscious, containing all knowledge, including Greek, which particularly gifted people, including children, can tap into.

The reincarnationists also tell us of people under hypnosis recounting in graphic detail their previous lives in ancient Egypt or Elizabethan England or wherever. It turns out, however, that the human mind is quite promiscuous as to the sources it draws on under hypnosis. The hypnotized person will often unconsciously merely regurgitate what he has read in a history book. But does this explain all such instances?

There is, incidentally, a branch of psychology called Transpersonal Psychology, whose therapists use the patient’s past-life material to cure him of his malady. And the success rate is high. Surely, then, the patient must actually have lived these past-life events. Not necessarily. If the patient merely believed he had lived a previous life, the past events used in the therapy sessions may have been the psychological equivalent of a placebo.

* * *

Perhaps our next life won’t be exactly on this earth, but in a parallel universe nearby. Let me explain. Our Men-Of-Science have established there is no such thing as Matter. There is only energy. All so-called Matter – and this includes us – is energy vibrating at different frequencies. We are not designed to perceive anything vibrating outside these limits. Hence there are sounds we can’t hear, but a dog can.

Our TVs pick up visual and sound waves which still pulsate through the room after we have turned our TVs off, only we can no longer see and hear them. Why, then, shouldn’t beings exist, but whom we can’t perceive because they exist only in ranges of energy vibration outside the limits we can perceive. Perhaps the room you are in right now is swarming with beings you can’t see or hear. Perhaps they are the spirits of the dead.

Those who are psychic may simply be able to perceive ranges of energy vibration greater than the rest of us can. However, we may all have been born with this perceptual gift and then have lost it. Small children, as well as animals, seem able to sense things which grownups can’t. Many children, for example, have imaginary friends who are real to them.

People in many primitive societies see ghosts and spirits all the time. Perhaps we modern urban adults can’t see what tribes people and children can because, being inculcated with the beliefs and values of an urban secular scientific society, we lost this gift of seeing.

* * *

Physical death is a function of time. But what if a part of us exists outside of time? There have been many instances of precognitive dreams where the dreamer dreams of an apocalyptic event like an earthquake or an assassination, and a few days later it actually happens. But why should precognitive dreams be only about newsworthy events? What about the ordinary and the everyday? You may have visited a particular shop for the first time, but felt you’d been there previously. Perhaps a few nights ago you had dreamed of visiting the shop, and when you actually did, you felt you’d entered it before.

Assuming the precognitive dream to be real, a part of us exists in a much slower time dimension, perhaps a timeless zone, from which we can observe that part of us which exists in normal corporeal time. Hence we can see our future. If there is a timeless dimension, we can make the case that we are all eternal beings, and it is only our bodies which die.

The concept of different time dimensions isn’t easy to grasp. But compare a dog, living normally only twelve years, with ourselves who live normally to three score years and ten, and longer. The dog therefore lives in a faster time dimension than do we. But its life would seem to it just as long as our lives seem to us. We are able to see the dog as a puppy, then growing to maturity, then getting old, then dying, all in quite a short space of our human time.

Imagine that instead of only living seventy or eighty years, we could live to a million years. The life of a dog would then pass in front of our eyes as fast as the twitch of an eyelid.

* * *

It is possible that our Men-Of-Science are right after all, when they say we are nothing more than a collocation of atoms in a meaningless universe. Therefore when we die, that would be it. Who can prove this wrong?

I only know the world around me exists because I experience it. It is, if you like, a function of my experience. Hence when I breathe my last the whole universe, as far as I'm concerned, will come to an end. But since I think it unlikely that the universe will snuff out when I die, this means I will in some way always experience it.

Or perhaps my current life is simply a dream. When I die I will begin to dream another dream, and so on and on. Perhaps this is what reincarnation really is.

These frustrating intellectual cul-de-sacs remind me once again that the riddle and meaning of life, of the universe, of existence, can never be answered through the intellect. To assert otherwise is mere arrogance born of ignorance. We have no idea who we really are.

Our Men-Of-Science have said we came up with after-life beliefs to comfort ourselves. This is merely what they think. I, however, think we intrinsically know we continue in some way or other when we die, and the world’s religions are merely expressions of this.

Monday, November 28, 2005

About Woody

Photo by jlmaral
Image from Wikipedia

What explains Woody Allen’s movie-making longevity? Perhaps because we are him and he is us, for he is Mr Everyman with his phobias, terrors, and insecurities. When we hear him talk of his silly fears, we realize we, too, have them, but, unlike the willingly vulnerable Woody, we, fearing ridicule, keep our guilty fears as tightly hidden as did Bob Woodward the identity of Deep Throat.

We, all of us, will at some time have identified ourselves with one or another of the gods of the silver screen, like with taciturn Clint Eastwood; or with swaggering John Wayne; or with suave Sean Connery; or with indomitable Bruce Willis; or with inscrutable Charles Bronson; or with invincible Jean-Paul Belmondo. But to have identified - at least openly - with babbling Woody Allen? No way.

When I emerge from a movie house and into the street having just seen Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars” or Sean Connery in “Goldfinger”, I transform my normal guilt-ridden shuffle into a self-confident swagger. I thrust out my chest and raise my chin. Instead of averting my gaze from passers-by I look them boldly in the eye. There seems nothing I can’t do, no-one I can’t beat to a pulp. But, all too soon, my shoulders begin again to sag, and my head to droop, the better to accommodate my eyes which have resumed staring unfocusedly on the sidewalk. I'm once again Woody Allen.

Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bruce Willis and their ilk portray characters larger than life who bob and weave through fusillades of bullets, leap off buildings and beat up roomfuls of thugs to rescue the damsel in distress or save our world from commies or terrorists or whoever. Woody Allen, on the other hand, battles not with malevolent others to save the world, but with his inner fears to save himself. By doing so he helps us save ourselves by giving us permission to accept who we really are through letting us see our inner fears mirrored in himself.

So we can secretly identify with an anxious Woody riding in a car whose driver tells him of his urge to drive it into an oncoming vehicle; with a humiliated Woody at a party slinking back across the dance floor, having been told to “get lost creep” by a young woman whom he’d requested a dance; with an ecstatic Woody waltzing out of a hospital having just learned he doesn’t have the brain tumour he thought he had, then stopping in mid-flight and creeping away silently when another fear invades his mind. Who of us hasn’t seen ourselves in such predicaments?

Woody Allen insists his screen characters are not him. He is being disingenuous for, in his films, he seldom strays from his native upper east-side New York; and he has perpetually the same phobias and anxieties; and is surrounded invariably by the same kinds of friends with the same existential angsts, who are usually playwrights, editors, artists, or therapists.

In “Play It Again Sam” Woody is a movie nut who, having seen “Casablanca” in darkened movie houses umpteen times, has so internalized Humphrey Bogart that he can conjure up Bogart’s ghost any time he chooses. How different is this Woody from the one who has revealed that when growing up in Brooklyn and wishing to escape its oppressive noise and muggy heat, he would retreat to the cool and quiet of a movie theatre and become lost in the characters on the screen? We can see this reflected in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” where Woody’s character gets out of his seat in a movie theatre and walks directly into the scene showing on the screen. In “Manhattan” Woody plays a forty-two year old man involved with a seventeen year-old girl still in high-school. How different is this Woody from the one currently married to someone forty years his junior?

Woody Allen has said that as an artist he has failed because he has produced nothing great, that he would like to have been another Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. He does himself a disservice for he is an original Woody Allen, not just another imitation O’Neill or Williams. Over the last forty years he has produced over forty films, a body of work still unfinished. As a writer and director he will take his place, if he hasn’t already done so, in the pantheon of cinematic giants.

Where does Woody Allen go from here? A pertinent question, for his films appear now to be imitating his earlier ones. His golden period was between 1977 and 1983 when he produced his masterpieces – “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, and “Hannah and Her Sisters”.

Could Woody’s comparative decline be due to his having for several years been in psychoanalysis? Should he not have kept his demons coiled tightly inside him, the better to fertilize his genius? If, say, Mozart or Beethoven had undergone psychoanalysis, would the Requiem or Ninth Symphony have seen the light of day? Woody believes he used his therapy to his benefit in ways not intended by his psychoanalysts, and that, anyhow, it didn’t impede his creativity at all.

Whatever the truth, Woody, judging by his recent films like “Radio Days”, “Small Town Crooks”, and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” seems to be living more and more in the past, particularly the nineteen-forties when he largely grew up. Perhaps his retreat into nostalgia is because he finds the present troubling and the future terrifying, for he has talked often of his fear of death, and that life is ultimately meaningless. To keep these existential fears at bay he continues frenetically to write and produce.

Whether he will produce another masterpiece is doubtful. Even so, the current relatively diminished Woody Allen is still way up there among today’s cinematic luminaries.

Paradoxically, Woody Allen, USA born and raised, can’t be seen as a quintessentially American artist since his influences were almost totally European. In its subtlety, literateness, wryness, irony, and sense of tragedy, his artistry is distinctly un-American. We can see why when he tells of the films he considers the greatest and which influenced him most. They are those of Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Akira Kurasawa. There is nary a James Cameron among them.

As long as Woody Allen is still with us, let us be grateful for those crumbs under his table he still has to offer.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit

Imagine seeing George Washington being interviewed before he went out to fight the British, or watching the first performance ever of Hamlet. Indeed, up to the times as recently as one hundred years ago we can only imagine what our world was like, and how its people lived, looked and sounded.

Because of the DVD, our descendents a thousand years from now – probably no longer living on earth, since it will have been rendered uninhabitable, but living instead on Mars or whichever other planet they escaped to - will be able to see that video of the president of America landing on the aircraft carrier and declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Mesopotamia, and otherwise see us as we are now, and to see also the films we love today, like “Freddy Got Fingered” and those with Adam Sandler in them.

Although we will never be able to see our distant past as it actually was, we can at least now see our immediate past as portrayed in its classic films in their now restored form. The value of watching these old films is that they incorporate values and views of society as they were held in the times the films were made, since their directors and actors were themselves of those times which shaped their consciousnesses. So a film made now, but whose story is set in the past, will tell us as much about our world of today as about the time in which the film is set.

More and more of the old classics are being re-issued every day. So when we go out to buy a video, we needn’t feel restricted to “Freddy Got Fingered” or films with Adam Sandler in them. No, we can buy for example, “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, made in 1955, a seemingly wholesome tranquil time when the husband went out to work and the wife stayed home – solid Family Values; when we were ruled Ike and Dick – solid Family Men, the role models for the Family Men who on Saturday nights took their Families to the drive-in to see films like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” – solid Family Fare.

“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, being of its time, enables us to see the world through the eyes of the generation which Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation, which fought and won World War 2, then came home and created the prosperity of the nineteen-fifties, of which we baby-boomers and generation Xers are the legatees.

Who better to play the leading role in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” than Gregory Peck, always so hard put upon, always so decent – whether as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or as the upstanding small town lawyer menaced by Robert Mitchum in “Cape Fear”.

Gregory Peck, as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, plays an advertising man, a solid Family Man in the middle rung of a large corporation in New York City. Each morning he takes the train into the city while reading the Wall Street Journal in company with some of his fellow Men in Grey Flannel Suits, solid Family Men all – and uniformly White. As the train carries them to their offices they exchange gossip about job openings in the city. It is the quintessential Old Boys Network of the sort arguably not much different from how it still is in today’s corporate world.

One difference between the corporate world then, compared with now, is that it was then de rigeur for men to wear grey flannel suits to the office. Today, corporate head honchos like Bill Gates wear sweaters and no ties, and their male underlings in addition to no longer having to wear ties, can also wear coloured shirts, and on Fridays – dress-down day - can even wear jeans. However, the decorative sartorial freedom enjoyed by today’s corporate employees may simply be to compensate them for their lack of real freedom.

But there was one big difference between the Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, and their counterparts today. The Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, had all fought in World War 2. Only a few years before, they had been storming beaches killing Germans, and wading through jungles killing Japanese. This was the shared experience which bound all these Men in Grey Flannel Suits together.

Consequences from being overseas in the war sometimes came back to haunt them, such as letters from ladies asking for money to help raise a child they had fathered - the result of a brief encounter while taking R and R away from the front. Gregory Peck, our Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, gets such a letter. What to do? Should he tell his wife? He does. But instead of taking the news calmly, she goes hysterical. She throws crockery about and storms out of the house, driving off in the family station-wagon with which, in her overwrought state, she nearly kills herself. Later she comes to her senses, but it was a close thing.

How would a wife today, even in our cool and knowing times, react to such news? It is for those of you, of the female gender, to ponder. And be honest.

An issue explored in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” is how much time a Family Man should give to his Family, and how much to his job. The Boss of the company, for which our Man in the Grey Flannel suit works, had built the company from scratch. But the Boss lives alone in his big house, being separated from his wife who longer wishes even to speak to him. He is also estranged from his only daughter who has eloped with a ne’er-do-well. And to top it off, his only son had been killed in the war.

One evening the Boss gets a summons from an important client, which necessitates flying immediately across the country to Los Angeles. The Boss asks Gregory Peck to accompany him. But Gregory has already made an important family commitment for that evening, and says “no” to the Boss, explaining that he has to be with his Family. The Boss is angry, but later recognises there are two types of men. There is the man – like the Boss – with the pioneering spirit, who works night and day creating companies, getting rich, making things happen. But the downside is that he will be alone. And there is the other type of man who, in order to have a happy family life, works only from nine to five, so to spend more time with his Family.

The Boss, realizing he will have to fly alone to Los Angeles, says to Gregory Peck: “I suppose you’re a nine-to-five-man?”

And Gregory Peck, in his inimitable bass voice, says: ”Yes, I’m a nine-to-five man”.

So I ask those of you of the male gender: What sort of man are you? A pioneering mover and shaker? Or a nine-to-five man?

And be honest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Remembering Lloyd Bochner

Lloyd Bochner has recently died. He was eighty-one. But if you are now asking yourself: “Lloyd who?” and feel guilty you don’t know who he was, don’t beat up on yourself, for I’ve so far met no-one who knew who Lloyd Bochner was. But this may simply be a reflection on me, since, by a man’s friends, ye may know him.

For the record, Lloyd Bochner was a television and film actor who, in the words of the Guardian’s obituary
“……….played mostly suave villains and heroes for more than five decades, but one of his best-known appearances came in a 1962 episode of the Twilight Zone.

In the episode of the sci-fi series entitled To Serve Man, Bochner played a government cryptographer, Michael Chambers, assigned to decipher the contents of an enigmatic book left behind by an alien. The aliens help mankind, and humans depart daily to their planet on spaceships. Chambers decides to visit, having abandoned the translation task. Before stepping aboard he is weighed, as are all passengers, when suddenly his assistant appears with devastating news of the aliens' culinary preferences: "It's a cook book!" But it's too late. Chambers is hustled inside.

The scene acquired almost a cult following over the decades, and was voted 11th in a TV Guide poll of the 100 best television episodes ever.

Bochner's next best-known role was in Dynasty. He appeared only in 1981-2 as scheming tycoon Cecil Colby, rival to Blake Carrington, who dies of a heart attack while making love to his tempestuous screen wife, played by Joan Collins.

It was on stage that Bochner first attracted attention in Canada, where he won two Liberty awards, the nation's highest acting honour. He was born into a middle-class Canadian Jewish family in Toronto, and as a young boy began acting in radio plays. During the war, he served with the Canadian navy before entering Toronto University, where he obtained a degree in sociology.

Bochner appeared at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario for six seasons, once playing Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, opposite James Mason. In 1951 he moved to New York and made his mark the following year playing a British army officer in the NBC serial drama, One Man's Family.

Bochner went to Hollywood in 1960 and obtained good television parts, usually as a supporting actor. He was in the adventure series Hong Kong as the island's police chief with Rod Taylor as the journalist hero, and turned up in other popular classics such as Dr Kildare, Perry Mason, The Man From Uncle, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, and Battlestar Galactica. He made regular appearances in NBC's Richard Boone Show.

His films provided useful parts but no big starring role. Among them were: The Night Walker (1964) with Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Rome (1967) and The Detective (1968), both with Frank Sinatra; Point Blank (1967), with Lee Marvin, The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) and the comedy The Naked Gun 2½; The Smell of Fear (1991), in which he parodied his Twilight Zone "cook book" scene. His last film was The Commission (2003)………………..”

Now that you know who Lloyd Bochner was, you can talk about him to someone you wish to impress with your arcane knowledge at the next wine-and-cheese party you attend.

While I did know who Lloyd Bochner was, I didn’t know much about him, and always thought him to be upper-class English because of the way he spoke. So I was surprised to learn he was of Canadian provenance.

So then, why did Lloyd Bochner sound so upper-class English? Perhaps it has to do with the generation of North Americans to which he belonged, and the generations of earlier. I think of actors like Ray Milland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Katherine Hepburn, who spoke in a manner very close to the English of the English upper classes - an English no longer heard in the cadences of today’s Hollywood luminaries.

And what of the English themselves - the ones of today? Whenever a citizen of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave tries to imitate an English person he will inevitably speak, like, la-di-da - in the way of Prince Charles or the Queen. And perhaps you, too, think the English speak like Prince Charles or the Queen, or, as did the English film eminances of old, like David Niven, John Mills, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness, and Richard Todd. But were you to visit England you’d find its denizens speak mostly in the proletarian tones of Jude Law, Clive Owen, or Michael Caine. This isn’t to say that all today’s English talk proletarian, for there are educated gents like Tony Blair who speak sort of upper-class, but not really, not the way his predecessors of past generations - like Winston Churchill or Harold Macmillan, unabashedly of the upper class - spoke.

The English language, like languages everywhere, as with everything else - perhaps even as with God - is constantly changing, and will reflect dissolving class barriers, evolving values, different technologies, and human migration. Expressions like “a furrowed brow” or “cultivating a friendship” reflect the times when agriculture was the main economic activity. Today, instead of talking with our colleagues, we “interface” with them, and rather than spending time with our friends, we prefer to “surf the net”, because, well, computers have taken over from agriculture as the main way we earn our daily crust. And think of computer-based words like “cyberspace”, “cybersickness”, “keypal”, or “screenager”. Our grandparents would never have heard of them. Think of……………well, you get the picture?

How, by the way, did the American accent, with its emphasised burring ”r”, get to be this way, seeing that the first migrants from Europe were English, and so would have stamped indelibly their imprimatur on the English language in the New World? Well, it is because those first English migrants pronounced similarly their “r”s , since that was the way English was spoken in England in the 1600s – the time of Shakespeare. Think also of quintessentially American words like “apartment”, “quit”, and “gotten”. You will find them sprinkled throughout the pages of Shakespeare’s plays. So, in many ways, American English is an older form of English, at least older than the English spoken in today’s England.

Incidentally, Lloyd Bochner was born on July 29 1924, and died October 29 2005.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On War

This coming November 11th we will remember the dead of the two world wars of the twentieth century. Stern-faced men will place wreaths of flowers at shrines throughout Europe and North America, and will declare that wars like those of 1914-18 and 1939-45, must never happen again. Then we'll forget all about it until November 11th comes around again.

November 11th is that day in 1918 when Germany - on its last legs - decided it was best to sign the armistice – unconditional surrender, really - offered by Britain, France, and the US. Thus we associate November 11th more with World War 1 (The Great War) than with any other war. But The Great War has, in our collective memory, largely disappeared into the mists of time, being shoved there prematurely by the subsequent horrific wars that have displaced it. However, The Great War was arguably the most sanguinary of wars, at least from the viewpoint of the soldiers who were slaughtered in their many millions in the trenches of the Western Front.

The Great War doesn’t figure much in the American imagination because the US, only entering the war in 1917, was a minor player, compared to Germany, France and Britain. However the US’s intervention was the straw that broke the back of the Germans. Absent the US, the war would probably have ended in stalemate. Both sides were losing too many men to go on much longer, and would have found a face saving pretext to stop fighting. Because Germany would have escaped defeat, Hitler wouldn’t have happened, and so subsequent history would have been much different. However, a Hitlerless world may be an actuality in another otherwise identical world out there somewhere – assuming an infinite universe.

In the matter of the ending of World War 1 it isn’t generally known that there was an agreed-upon elapsed time of six hours between the signing of the armistice agreement to end the fighting, and the time the guns were to stop firing. Despite the allied generals knowing they had won the war six hours before it was due to end, they kept ordering their men out of their fortified trenches to storm the German positions, simply to win some extra ground that might bring the generals last minute glory. The result was that in the last six hours of the war, 10,000 men were killed who needn’t have been. Who said that truth is stranger than fiction?

But has anything changed? Think about the two thousand American soldiers who have died so far in Iraq in a war cooked-up by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others, so they could pose as heroic warriors, the better to banish to a corner of their minds that they, none of them, had not only never fought in a war, but had found ingenious ways, when young, to avoid the draft at the time of Vietnam. It’s not for nothing that the only person in the Bush inner circle who urged caution about going into Iraq was Colin Powell, a general who had actually fought in a war – in Vietnam.

When we consider the major wars of history, we think the side that won, did so, because its soldiers were braver, or its generals were smarter, or its peoples more resilient, than those of the side that lost. However, Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” found that in all the major wars over the last 500 years, the victors had bigger economies and greater industrial productive capacities than those of the vanquished. Therefore, because of these non-military factors, it could have been predicted that for instance, in the American Civil War, the north would prevail, and that in both the world wars of the twentieth century, the allied powers would win. It follows that had the Soviet Union gone to war with the US, the Soviets, having the smaller economy and industrial capacity, would certainly have lost.

Think of all the hundreds of millions of people around the word who were killed and maimed, or whose lives were otherwise destroyed, who needn’t have been, if only their leaders had known that the outcomes of the wars they were planning were fore-ordained because of the decisive non-military factors that Paul Kennedy later discovered.

Do I hear the sounds of sobbing?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Harold Macmillan

On November 11th, 2005 it will be eighty-seven years to the day when Germany and the allied powers signed the armistice that ended World War 1, the Great War, The-War-To-End-All- Wars.

From the viewpoint of the ordinary foot soldier it was the most terrible of wars, for, if he went into the trenches at the war’s beginning in August 1914, his chances of emerging alive at its end in November 1918 were, to all intents and purposes, nil. This war wiped out almost an entire generation of young men in Britain, France, and Germany, who were poured into the trenches like molten steel into a vat.

But not all the soldiers of 1914 died. A relative handful did survive, if only because, while in the trenches, they were wounded, and so could spend time in the safety of a hospital – an interval when a bomb or bullet may otherwise have killed them

Harold Macmillan was one of the few young men of 1914 fortunate to emerge alive. In later life he became one of the best known of British prime ministers. He was a scion of the Macmillan family which founded the renowned book publishing house of Macmillan - the family which the book, “The Macmillans”, by Richard Davenport-Hines, tells about.

But I want to talk only of what the book says about Harold, the most famous of the Macmillans. He was born in 1894 and, as a boy, was much influenced by his domineering American-born mother, Nellie. Harold went to Eton where he was dreadfully unhappy, so that he was mysteriously removed from there after a couple of years. He completed school elsewhere, then studied classics at Oxford.

When the guns of August 1914 began firing, Harold joined up, became a subaltern, and soon found himself in France, in the trenches which stretched like a hideous gash across much of Europe. He was wounded severely and, while lying in a shell-hole waiting for help, he pulled a copy of Aeschylus’s play ‘Prometheus’ from his back pocket to read during the long wait for a rescue party. So severe were Harold’s wounds that he didn’t recover from them until 1921.

The Great War was the defining experience of Harold’s life. The brutality of life in the trenches was particularly traumatic for the shy bookish Harold, who epitomised the entire generation of young men who came of age in 1914 and were slaughtered. That Harold survived was a miracle, and so, like all the survivors of the carnage, he had many friends and acquaintances who never came back. The list of his Eton and Oxford contemporaries who perished was so long, it read like a veritable necrology.

Harold was moved profoundly by the letters ordinary soldiers under his command wrote home which, as an officer, he had to read and censor. Reading the letters enabled him to see how men of the labouring classes lived, thus making Harold more sensitive to the domestic and financial problems they had to confront. It was an experience that influenced his social policies when he achieved high office.

Harold Macmillan was also a superb actor, having a false self. His public persona was that of an unflappable English gentleman, but inside he was anything but. He suffered nervous breakdowns more than once in his life. Indeed, a nervous breakdown in the form of a panic attack may have been the cause of the famous “Night of the Long Knives” when, as prime minister, Harold fired nearly half his cabinet in the course of one evening.

Given all he went through at the various stages of his life, we shouldn’t wonder that Harold Macmillan developed a false self. It was as good a way as any to deal with a domineering mother, with the horrors of the trenches of the Great War, with his severe shrapnel wounds, and with, later on, being cuckolded by his wife, who had an affair with Lord Boothby over many years, which Harold knew about but said nothing. Only someone with a false self could have been as servile as was Harold to his superiors when climbing up the political ladder, or as manipulative, or as ambitious.

Harold Macmillan may have been the most literate of British prime ministers over the last century, being always a voracious reader, although mostly of works written in the nineteenth century or earlier. Indeed, Harold was very much a nineteenth-century man, being the last British prime minister born in that century, when Britain’s power throughout the world was at its zenith. One could say, Tony Blair notwithstanding, that Harold Macmillan was the last British world statesman. He was, at any rate, the last of the Victorians, or could it be Edwardians?

Harold Macmillan’s legacy will always be shrouded by a cloud from the time, in 1945, when he had ministerial responsibility for the British army in occupied Europe. What did he know, and how much was he responsible for handing back to the tender hands of Stalin, at Stalin’s insistence, many thousands of ethnic Russians who, having escaped the prison that was Stalin’s Russia, and having fought the Germans, found themselves at war’s end herded, as displaced persons, into camps administered by the British army? On being forcibly repatriated to Russia, most of the internees were corralled into Stalin’s Gulag where most died. Harold Macmillan must have known about the repatriations, and so could have stopped them. But he chose not to see, as part of Britain’s policy of keeping Stalin happy.

Harold Macmillan became prime minister in 1957, when Britain’s relations with its former colony, the USA, were distinctly frosty. His immediate predecessor, Anthony Eden, had ordered British troops to seize and occupy the Suez Canal after Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized it and sent its British owners packing. President Dwight Eisenhower, not seeing Britain’s precipitous action to be in the US’s interests, told the British to get the hell out of the Suez Canal or there would be, like, consequences. Britain, seeing on which side its bread was buttered, got the hell out. But Anthony Eden was, thereafter, politically dead meat, and so resigned to make way for Harold Macmillan.

Despite that the Suez Crisis was a reminder that Britain was no longer the big fish in the world’s pond it thought it was, the Britain over which Harold Macmillan began to preside was still somewhat of a big fish, still ruling over considerable swathes of Africa, dabs of the Caribbean, slivers of South America, and soupcons of Asia. However, Britain was trying to shed its empire as fast as it could, no longer having the appetite or wealth to rule it.

So Harold, despite being a product of the Britannia that still ruled the world’s waves, presided over much of the empire’s dismantling, having the sense of history to know that a three-hundred-year era had come to an end. He coined the phrase “The Winds of Change”, now in general circulation, which he incorporated in a famous speech he made to the South African parliament in 1960 during a visit there, a speech that didn’t sit well with that country's white rulers. But the prescience of Harold's speech, which said that the days of colonial white rule in Africa were numbered, was borne out over the subsequent two decades. When Harold went out to pasture in 1963, even the most jingoistic Briton could no longer cherish the illusion that his country was still a Great Power.

Harold Macmillan was British prime minister in the time I grew up in a small British colony in the tropics and was becoming interested in the goings-on in the big outside world. I remember, as if yesterday, avidly reading each day in the local newspaper the very latest revelations in the Profumo scandal that brought down Harold’s government. I remember, too, his visit to the little town where I lived, and listening on the radio (“the wireless”) to a speech Harold gave to some local dignitaries in the town hall, where he spoke for over an hour. He was most eloquent, and it was only after he finished that I realized he’d said nothing at all. It was my introduction to the art of speaking but saying nothing, an art in which Harold was a master.

“The past is another country, they do things differently there”, go the opening lines of LP Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between”. Harold Macmillan, too, came from the past, and, as such, was from another country. He seems light-years removed from our George Bush-Tony Blair present, but he left office only forty-something years ago.

He was prime minister a mere seven years, not even as long as for the hapless Tony Blair. But, somehow, Harold Macmillan’s reign seems to have been longer.

Friday, October 21, 2005

On Drugs

I want to talk today about Drugs, mainly of the consciousness-altering sort we inhale, snort, or inject into our veins – which is to say the Drugs we outlaw. The essence of our War on Drugs is captured in the now-famous photo of the late Fat Elvis – hollowed-eyed and bloated from gobbling down huge mouthfuls daily of Valium, Dexedrene, Placidyl, Percodan, Seconal, and the whole family of tranquillizers – being made an honorary narcotics agent by the late Richard Nixon.

Most Real Americans support the War on Drugs, notwithstanding the bleating of the pusillanimous pussyfooters who say our drug policies infringe on individual rights and freedoms. These nattering nabobs of negativism say that the right to consume any narcotic is something that has been taken away from us. They are indeed correct, for until the turn of the twentieth century there were no proscriptions on narcotics. In that sense, we are less free than were our grandparents and great-grandparents. But how free are we anyway, and have we ever truly been free?

* * *

In 1963 the British film director Michael Apted went to a school playground and interviewed on camera a number of seven-year-olds whom he’d randomly selected. He asked them about their lives and recorded their answers, incorporating them into a documentary called 7 Up. Every seven years thereafter, he tracked down those same children and put them again on camera while they talked about how their lives were progressing. The resulting documentaries – 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, and 42 Up - showed the children talking at the different stages of their lives, enabling the viewer to compare each child with the teenager, then adult he or she was turning into.

The theme of Apted’s lifelong project was whether the child portends the sort of adult he or she will turn into. Looking at all the children in this cinematic project, we can see why they turned into the adults they became. They show that the future adult is adumbrated in the seven-year-old child. Also, none of the children moved out of the social and economic class they were born into. Working-class children became working class adults, and upper class children became upper-class adults, but all thought they’d been the authors of their lives, that they’d become the people they wanted to become.

Admittedly, Britain has a more rigid class structure than does the US of A. But even in the US of A are things much different, given that the gap between rich and poor has been steadily growing over the last twenty years? Apted’s documentaries show that who we become is determined more by our heredity and environment than anything else. So then, how free are any of us to become all we can be?

If we, as individuals, are mostly un-free, how free is the society which shaped us, and of which we are indelibly a part? Can a society made up of un-free people be free? And judging by how conformist we are in speech, mannerisms, dress, habits, and values, are we not un-free? And do we really want to be free? If we do, why is it that as soon as we are through with school or university and are finally earning enough money to live freely, we almost immediately set about becoming un-free through getting married, buying a house, taking out a morgage, then having children, thereby embarking on a life of unremitting loveless drudgery? Perhaps a free society is one in which each person is free to choose their own form of slavery.

* * *

You may be asking: What has all this to do with Drugs? Well, if our society is free, then each person would be free to consume whatever drug they want, whether marijuana, hashish, cocaine, LSD, heroin or whatever. However, if we accept that we, as individuals, are un-free, and that our society is, as a consequence, also un-free, then our drug laws which render conscious-changing drugs illegal make absolute sense.

Why only conscious-changing drugs? Because if enough people consumed conscious-changing drugs, like LSD, marijuana, hashish and all the rest, they might start questioning the status quo that legitimizes the power of those set in authority over us, and all they pronounce. Do you think George Bush could have gotten away with all he has gotten away with if the American people imbibed consciousness-changing drugs en-masse? It’s important to understand that outlawing consciousness-changing drugs preserves the status quo, and thus serves the interests of the ruling class.

* * *

Our drug laws and the War on Drugs they’ve spawned have a certain beauty to them because they give us the best of all worlds. Listen, if you need to imbibe the narcotic of your choice you can always get it because Market Forces rule, whereby demand creates supply. Most of the world’s conscious-changing drugs are consumed in the US of A, which is consequently the main market for the drug producers in Colombia where cocaine production has more than doubled since 1990.

The War on Drugs has also helped keep unemployment down at levels that won’t cause the people to become restless, since we are throwing more and more drug offenders into jail, and therefore out of the job market. Each year the numbers of jailbirds in the US of A rises healthily, so there are now more than two million of them. That’s right, two million. Now, this may not mean much to you, given that Smart Young Men with gelled hair and designer stubble, like to bamboozle us with numbers. But how about if I tell you that the numbers of jailbirds per head of population in the US of A are the highest in the entire world, and are over five times what they are in the other industrialized nations.

The US of A, with just 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s jailbirds – one in four, thanks in large part to the War on Drugs. If we legalized all drugs we would have to let out large numbers of jailbirds who would forthwith have to look for work, thus crowding out nice folks like me and you.

The War on Drugs and the jailbirds it has spawned have been good for those who are building the jails to house them. Jail building has in fact been one of the fastest growing sectors in the US economy. Other beneficiaries of the War on Drugs have been those who make guns and helicopters which the US government buys in large quantities to give to Colombia – now the third largest recipient of US military largesse – so that the Colombian army can persuade the cultivators of cocaine to cultivate something else.

But it doesn’t quite happen this way, since the cultivators of cocaine are doing quite nicely thank-you, and have money to persuade the Colombian army to look the other way and even safeguard the cultivators. Some of the Colombian army’s higher-ups have even gone into the drug business themselves, and so a sort of spiraling circle has begun to form, whereby providing more guns and helicopters begets more growing of cocaine, which begets more guns and helicopters to eradicate it, which begets more profits for the makers of the guns and helicopters. The American taxpayer’s money is being put to good use.

The War on Drugs, by inflating the selling price and thereby the profit margin of drugs, has opened up opportunities for young men from under-privileged backgrounds to get rich quick through providing drugs to those who want them. By so doing, they follow in the footsteps of Horatio Alger and his pursuit of the American Dream. So, to any young man who has grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and can’t get a job, I say: Go into the narcotics business. Sure, it could land you in jail, but the essence of entrepreneurship is the willingness to risk. If you succeed you will find yourself awash in riches undreamed.

Isn’t this so ineffably beautiful you could cry?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Mother Earth Strikes Back

A tsunami which killed over 200,000 in south east Asia; hurricanes in the southern USA which temporarily put New Orleans out of commission; and now an earthquake in Pakistan which may have killed upwards of 40,000. Are these furies nature’s revenge for the environmental depredations carried out by the human animal?

Whether this has been the worst year in the history of the globe for natural disasters is arguable, but it may well have been among the worst of years, and there are still ten weeks to go in this one. So, does all that’s happened so far this year arise out of what we’ve perpetrated on Mother Earth and her environment? It would seem that the recent hurricanes in the southern USA came out of global warming, since scientists warned some time ago that a warning sign of it would manifest in the Caribbean basin. Now it has, since the number of hurricanes has doubled in this area over the last thirty-five years.

Is the current warming of our globe merely an impersonal cyclical phenomenon that occurs every few hundred or thousand years as some of our men of science assert, or is it because we are spewing too much guck into the air and chopping down too many trees? And if the current global warming is the sole result of us spewing too much guck into the air and chopping down too many trees, will the problem be ameliorated sufficiently and in enough time if we merely spew less guck into the air and chop down less trees as proposed under the Kyoto treaty?

Environmental despoliation is a function of economic poverty. The billions of people who live in fetid slums and otherwise exist on the proverbial smell of an oilrag merely to survive yet one more day, are not in frames of mind to worry about global warming – an issue of concern mainly to well-fed urban yuppies fortunate enough to live in the industrial democracies whose denizens account for merely 10% of humanity.

So unless we eliminate the poverty of these billions, and do it quick, we are certainly doomed, for governments will only be disposed to change their environmental policies if their subjects demand that they do so. And even were this to happen, we would only change from being certainly doomed to almost-certainly doomed, since our numbers are still increasing although now at a slower rate. So there will still be ever more of us in future generations to spew ever more guck into the air and chop down ever more trees.

What, then, about the shifting of subterranean tectonic plates which caused the south-east Asian tsunami, and earthquakes like the recent one in Pakistan? How about that they express Mother Earth’s protest at what we’re doing to her? What if Mother Earth has a consciousness of her own, and is furious at what's being done to her, and so, through causing earthquakes and tectonic plate-shifts, is expressing her displeasure in the only way possible?

This may sound bizarre to you who have swallowed wholesale the official received wisdom that the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm of a dualistic mechanical clockwork universe is infallibly true, despite a plethora of evidence that it isn’t. Since this paradigm would reject Mother Earth having a mind of her own, you will, if you’re normal, be chortling into your beer at the very suggestion that what you were told in school may not be true. So, go on and laugh.

But remember, it is the fools who laugh.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


It is more than a year now, since Ronald “Dutch” Reagan passed over to the Other Side. Who of us, glued to our TV sets, will ever forget the images of Dutch’s casket being lowered into the ground, against a backdrop of the California sun setting behind the darkening mountains, while a lone Marine Corps bugler played the Last Post. It was pristine theatre, befitting perfectly the consummate actor that Dutch was throughout his long life.

It was the finale to a week of an extraordinary display of America-wide national grief. One thinks of the deaths of previous presidents of living memory, like those of Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover. The public wailing on their passing was as nothing compared with that for Dutch. I’ve not included Roosevelt or Kennedy in this pantheon of deceased presidents because their deaths, which unleashed public mourning on a scale at least equal to that for Dutch, were under nonpareil circumstances – Roosevelt’s during a world war, and Kennedy’s through assassination.

What, then, was so unique about Dutch Reagan? Was it that, by remembering him, Americans could once again feel good about being Americans? What does this say, then, about George W Bush, who supposedly is again making Americans feel good about being Americans, or at least was doing so until quite recently?

Perhaps you will find the answer if you read the eponymous “Dutch”, Edmund Morris’s idiosyncratic biography of Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, which I’ve recently re-read.

* * *

On its initial publication in 1995, “Dutch” was much argued about by the political cognoscenti because, in order to figure out the enigma that was Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, Morris told Dutch’s story through the eyes of a fictional character who followed Dutch around throughout his life, occasionally crossing his path. I’m informed by certain literati that Morris’s technique, blending reality with the fictional, is post-modernist. Not being one of the literati, being merely a knock-about beer-swilling two-fisted regular guy who wasn’t privileged to attend the University, I will take the literati at their word.

Edmund Morris tells Dutch Reagan’s story from many oblique and subjective angles. He uses, among other things, newspaper articles, verbatim conversations, streams-of-consciousness, fictional scenes, juxtapositions of different times, as well as straight narrative. If we think about it, this would be the logical way to approach Dutch Reagan who, himself, was notorious for confusing the imaginary with the real.

The story of Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, born a handful of years after the turn of the twentieth century was, in many respects, the story of America in the twentieth century. The son of an alcoholic father who stumbled from job to job, Dutch spent a peripatetic childhood in various small towns in Illinois. Psychologists have said his lifelong habit of blocking out unpleasant realities by going into an imaginary world was a legacy of his being the child of an alcoholic.

Otherwise, Dutch’s early years were much the same as for most other boys growing up in the small towns of the American mid-west of eighty and ninety years ago. He was quite a good student who supported himself through college by working as a lifeguard during his summers. In his first few years after college, which coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression, Dutch became a radio announcer and put to good use his ability to enter imaginary worlds by conjuring up in his mind, out of telegraphed wire service reports received of ongoing baseball games taking place in far-away areas of the country, descriptions of the games and imparting them to his listeners who were oblivious he was making it all up from inside a studio.

After a few years of this, Dutch loaded up his chattels and drove across country to California where he metamorphosed into one of the Leading Men of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and won the hand of the up-and-coming actress, Jane Wyman. The book includes a black-and-white photograph, taken around 1937, of Dutch Reagan and Jane Wyman picnicking atop a cliff. They sit on a rug spread on the grass. Two bicycles lean against a tree just to the side. The Pacific Ocean far below stretches endlessly into the background. Dutch Reagan and Jane Wyman, so youthful, healthy, and vital, smile confidently into the camera. As they look out at us from all those many years ago, they evoke the promise, hope, and innocence of the America of that time.

During the war (the 1941-45 war, that is) Dutch served heroically, while decked out in a military uniform, in Hollywood as a commissioned officer, acting in patriotic movies to buttress the nation’s morale. All the while his political consciousness was growing (he was already a Roosevelt Democrat, the result of he and his father and mother being beneficiaries of the New Deal’s public largesse) as he participated in the activities of the unions and guilds to which the actors, writers, and the technical people in Hollywood belonged. Dutch later became for several years president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was during this time that Jane Wyman, bored to tears by Dutch’s unending political monologues, left him. Then along came Nancy.

It was also the time of the Hollywood witch-hunts to root out those who were Red sympathizers and Fellow-Travellers. Dutch, growing dismal at the extent Fellow Travellers were infiltrating the Hollywood unions, turned politically rightward and co-operated with Tail-Gunner Joe McCarthy, naming names.

* * *

In the nineteen fifties, and in fitting with his new conservative persona, Dutch became the public spokesman for General Electric. He introduced the weekly General Electric Theatre on television, and travelled all over America on behalf of GE, visiting its factories and offices, shaking hands with its workers, and making speeches on any topic he chose. In return GE provided him a house, equipped with all the latest GE gadgetry.

There is a photograph taken during this time, of Dutch and Nancy and their two small children in the sitting-room of their model GE home. They look front-sideways into the camera, the better to accentuate their finely etched and chiselled features. Nancy looks serene, and Dutch wears a rugged film-star grin. He sports a cravat, white jacket, white socks, and a pair of two-toned black-and-white shoes. It is a picture of the quintessential American family of the Eisenhower ‘fifties.

Dutch’s walk with twentieth-century America continued in the nineteen-sixties when he was elected governor of California. But his walk had turned adversarial, since he was a conservative in a state that spawned and nurtured the protest movements of that time. However, Dutch faced down his foes, cutting social programs, balancing the state’s budget, and sending in the National Guard to quell student disturbances at various university campuses.

After eight years as governor, Dutch spent the nineteen seventies preparing the ground for his ascent in 1980 to the highest office in the land, his walk with American history now becoming, as well, a walk upon the world’s stage. Eight years later he finally stepped off the stage, his rendezvous with history now ended.

* * *

Dutch is today regarded as one of the most successful presidents of these United States, despite presiding over a double-digit unemployment rate, at least for a time, and over fiscal policies that created the largest budget deficits in US history. And so many looked down their noses at Dutch, saying disdainfully to each other at cocktail parties that he wasn’t too bright, was intellectually incurious, and lazy (it was said that the Iran-Contra Arms for Hostages crisis caused him sleepless afternoons). Perhaps Dutch’s detractors, doubtless liberal intellectuals, were jealous that someone not as bright as they were had out-achieved them.

So how did Dutch do it? Well, he had, over the years, beginning in his GE days, developed a handful of simple ideas about America and the world, articulated them eloquently and persuasively, actually believed what he said – most unusual in a politician – and kept repeating the same things over and over: that America was a shining City on a Hill; that Big Government stifled the creativity of the American people; that the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire; that America’s best days were yet to come; that it would be Morning Again in America. After the malaise of the Carter years, Dutch radiated optimism and hope, which sprang out of his artistic feel for what ordinary people respond to. As president he concentrated only on the Big Picture, leaving others to look after tiresome details, which interested him not a whit.

Dutch’s simplicity was an asset. He wasn’t intelligent enough to see the obstacles which could derail his dreams, and so wasn’t paralyzed by them. His world-view was quite childlike, an imaginary world without the harsh realities, a world befitting a child of an alcoholic, which Dutch had been.

Dutch was, on the surface, gregarious. He appeared to like everyone, and everyone liked him. So he was forgiven his inattention and serious errors of judgement during his second term as president. He was known as the Teflon president, since political unpleasantnesses didn’t stick to him personally. But Dutch was a paradox since, while everyone’s buddy, he had no close friends other than Nancy to whom he was devoted, and she to him. All Dutch’s children remarked that he was a distant father, that they didn’t know who he really was – a characteristic also remarked upon by all his friends and, not least, by Edmund Morris, who, as Dutch's official biographer, was so frustrated by his subject's inscrutability that he felt forced to invent characters in the biography, and mix in some fiction, as the best way to approach the mystery that was Dutch.

* * *

The middle of September is here, the leaves are starting to turn, and the winds to blow chill. It is time to think of cosy evenings in front of a fire, with hot cocoa and a good book. And for a good book, what better than “Dutch”, for it is a thumping good read.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Free At Last

This is my first posting to this blog, and it is as if I’m a brand new being embarking on a new life since I’m, like, so repressed, and am not used to speaking my mind, because I’ve always feared retribution, whether from God, society, family, or whatever.

I feel like Lester Burnham in “American Beauty” who decided to be his own man for the first time in his life. He told his boss to go take a hike, got fired because of this, bought the car he always wanted, and just generally let go.

Being suddenly free in an unfree society, it was inevitable that Lester would not live long, and he didn’t, courtesy of a bullet fired from the gun of a red-blooded fightin’ Marine of a neighbour. And Lester didn’t seem surprised when he was dying, saying that everything had been perfect.

Do you remember the film “Easy Rider”? If so, you may recall the scene when the three riders, Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper) and George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) are on the road in the Deep South, and stop in at a café in a small town. Because they look like hippies - and so are everything real Americans shouldn’t be – the waiter ignores them, and they are the objects of hostile remarks coming from a group of locals sitting at a near-by table.

The three riders get the message and, with stomachs still empty, depart the town quickly. When they are preparing to sleep at the roadside later that evening, they talk about what happened in the café, and wonder why they should have evoked so much hostility. George says that because most people are unfree, they will automatically hate anyone who represents freedom to them.

Which raises the question: Are today’s Americans a free people, the ones who live in the suburbs, who fight the good fight and run the straight race in their daily lives of quiet despair, who click their heels each time their Dear Leader, George Bush, decides he wants to invade somewhere else, who spit out their inchoate rage at all that is un-American?

Are they the true descendents of the Americans of the nineteenth century, the ones who couldn’t settle down, and so headed west and opened up the frontier? Perhaps the true descendents of the pioneers are the ones now living on the edge of society, the vagrants who just can’t fit in to modern bourgeois America. Unfortunately for them, there is no more frontier, so they must drink away their lives in gin-joints, and die alone amid the garbage in the back-alleys in all the towns in Nowhere USA.

In the spirit of the pioneers, I’m raising the flag of freedom, but I will have to become a non-person to do so. So you won’t know who I am, but I’ll be all around wherever you look. I may be the guy playing the guitar on the sidewalk. I may be the bum asking you for spare change. I may be the dog scavenging among garbage cans in an alley on a Saturday night. I may be the breeze you hear sighing in the trees. I may be in the restless thoughts which keep you awake at night. I may be anyone anything anywhere.

Wherever you will be, I will be also.