Monday, August 21, 2017

MECHANICAL APTITUDE (AKA That Thing I Don't Have!)

    There are guys who are born with a wrench in one hand.  They can change their own oil, rewire a trailer, diagnose mechanical problems, change spark plugs and "points" (whatever those are) - some of them can even take a thing apart and put them together again and the thing will still work!  These guys go on to become auto mechanics, aircraft technicians, lawn mower repairmen, architects, carpenters, and other occupations that make far more money than us history teachers.

    Then there are guys like me.  I am the reason those guys exist.  On a good day, if I take my time and am very careful, I can change a tire without setting the car on fire.  If I'm lucky.  And there my mechanical abilities come to a screeching halt, not unlike a Hefty garbage bag full of cream of tomato soup hitting the pavement after being dropped from the top of AT&T Stadium.  Seriously,  I'm not only the reason mechanics exist, I'm the reason they get paid so well.  I am a helpless hostage to their skills.  They can do by nature stuff that I could not do if you waved a million dollars under my nose and got Anne Hathaway to stand on the sideline and cheer me on in a French maid uniform . . . but I digress.

    One example:  Earlier this summer I was mowing my lawn (DON'T even get me started on mowing!  I am a sixth generation Texan, and I don't mind a hot dry summer. In fact, I look forward every year to the lawn turning brown and dying and the soil turning to concrete by mid-July, so I can put the mower in the shed till next spring and devote my time to far more important pursuits, like figuring out the next plot twist in GAME OF THRONES or waiting for the lake to drop far enough for my favorite arrowhead spots to come out of the water.  But this year we have had nearly a foot of rain in August - AUGUST, when it's supposed to be a hundred and six degrees outside!!!! - and my lawn was beginning to resemble the Amazon basin until I spent four hours cutting it down to size this afternoon.  Did I digress again?  I think I did.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah, I need to close these parentheses!)

    Anyway, I was mowing my lawn a month or so back, and my lawnmower threw a belt.  Where it threw the belt, I do not know - it looked like the belt was still there, just not doing its belty job, which was to make sure my blades turned rapidly and cut the nasty green stuff that just won't quit growing this year.  But my friends all said it had "thrown a belt," although none of them could tell me how far the throw was, who caught the belt and whether or not the runner was safe.  At any rate, with only a tiny amount of my vast yard actually mowed, my riding mower had been reduced to the world's slowest four-wheeler.  So I did what any red-blooded American male utterly devoid of mechanical aptitude would do: I went on Facebook and griped about it.

    Here's where one of my friends jumped in - I'll call him Dave because, well, his name IS Dave.  I was in mid-rant about having to take the mower to the shop and spend money I didn't have, and he said: "You don't have to take it to the shop, it's a simple fix."  I said: "For you, maybe.  I have a hard time figuring out which end of a hammer to use."

    He then adopted that tone (I presume, our communications were all written, but in my mind he was speaking in that slow, sonorous voice that a shepherd uses to persuade a particularly dense sheep that it can cross a trickle of water in the pasture without being eaten by crocodiles) which people with mechanical aptitude use to make guys like me feel particularly useless.

    "It's SIMPLE," he said, "you just loosen the thermo-weeble gasket with a sonic screwdriver until the particle flange detaches from the warp core.  Then you take your tricorder and use the basic principles of leverage to crawl through the Jeffreys tube and re-attach the belt to the servomotor, being sure not to unhook it from the router."

   Now Dave might argue that he said no such thing, and he might be right, because what he was telling me seemed to be written in a rare dialect of Sanskrit spoken by drunken Hindu monks who took language lessons from drunken monkeys.  In other words, I couldn't understand a word of it.  He went on to try and break it down into even simpler terms, using a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Hebrew folklore to show that to anyone with a shred of mechanical aptitude that changing a drive belt was a simple, five-minute job - a job that a moderately well-trained chimpanzee should be able to do.  In the end, I meekly shredded my man card and put the mower on a trailer and took it to the shop, where they ("they" being members of a sinister society of guys like Dave who understand how mechanical things work; it's a form of black magic) did mysterious mechanical things that made it work again.

    But that was not this summer's only attempt to drive home the fact that I was born with less mechanical aptitude than Donald Trump has grace and good manners.  A couple weeks back, me and my friend Danny hooked up my faithful vessel, the Water Turkey, for a run down to Lake Limestone - only to find that my trailer lights were as dead as the tradition of wearing petticoats to Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. Now, I had actually wired the trailer myself originally - well, technically, me and my friend Ray wired it.  To be COMLETELY honest, Ray wired it while holding out his hand and asking me to give him the necessary tools, which I sometimes actually located in six tries or less!  When that set of lights went bad after two lake seasons, I took the boat trailer to a local shop and had it professionally rewired. That was over three years ago, but now the trailer had gone dark again.   Danny plugged and unplugged the connector that hooked the trailer's lights to my SUV's electrical system, studied it a moment, and said "Well, I think you've either got a short or a ground wire not doing its job."  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I nodded in solemn agreement that, yes, there was a short wire on the ground not doing its job, even though I looked on the ground and didn't see a wire anywhere.

    "Can you fix it?" I asked.  "Sure," he said, "but you should be able to do it yourself.  Just get a groundwire connector, a thermo-weeble gasket, a pair of seismic pliers, some eclipse glasses, and a proton generator.  Hook the trailer to a superconducting supercollider, give it a jolt of dilithium, and you should have lights in no time."

    I looked at him in astonishment, because he was speaking (apparently) the same dialect of Sanskrit that Dave had used when telling me how to fix the drive belt.  Finally, turning over those arcane phrases in my mind and wondering how on earth he had memorized so much of the Necronomicon, I said "Well, we could just drive it on down to the lake and work on it later, right?"

    "Sure," he said.  Despite my best attempts to turn the conversation to arrowheads, women, the Civil War, a recent uptick in dog hickeys, and the startling drop in the price of imported tarantulas from Brazil, Danny kept coming back to how easy it should be for me to fix those trailer lights when I got home.  Finally I broke down and admitted to him that, no matter how many times he repeated it, I still had NO idea what he was talking about.  He looked at me the way I look at 8th grade students who for the life of them cannot seem to recall that Grant fought for the Union and Lee for the Confederacy!  I was going to give him my man card, but then I remembered that I shredded it in shame when I took my mower to the shop.  So my boat trailer still has no lights!

   I think I'll invite Danny over, and offer to grill pork spare ribs if he'll rewire the trailer.  I might be mechanically illiterate, but I can do pretty good things with cut up pieces of dead pig - enough that I might even be issued a new man card.

    Mechanical aptitude.  I think it's a cult!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK SIGNING ETIQUETTE FOR DUMMIES (Because Writers Have Feelings Too!)

   As of this month - on August 14th to be precise - I have been a published novelist for three years.  During those years I have done about a hundred book signings, give or take a few.  I thoroughly enjoy getting out and presenting my works to the public, and if a store is busy I generally manage to have double digit sales.  I love meeting people, talking to people about my books, and above all, I love it when someone reads the back of the book blurb, and their face lights up and they say: "I love stories like this!"

   However, I must admit there are a few things people do that drive me nuts.  I really do believe that most people are decent and polite, given a chance.  But lots of folks have never actually met an author peddling his wares and aren't sure how to handle the situation.  SO, for all you non-writers out there, here are some things you can do to make sure an aspiring new novelist doesn't go home in tears from his or her first book signing!

   1.  GIVE THE WRITER A MINUTE OF YOUR TIME.  Chances are that slim novel lying on the table there (OK, OK, mine are not that slim, I know!) represents months, if not years, of effort.  Composing a story, writing it down, editing it, looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, wrangling over cover art, purchasing copies wholesale (which often represents a huge investment from a person who doesn't have a lot of cash) - none of this is easy.  Even if you have zero interest in the person's book, take a moment of your time, let them tell you about it, and congratulate them for getting this far!

  2.  DON'T THANK THEM FOR NOTHING.  When I see someone come into the store where I am signing, I have a standard line that I use (with minor variations): "Good morning!  Would you like to check out my new novel?  I'm doing a book signing today!"  I get all kinds of responses, but the one that drives me up a wall is when the person looks right through me and says: "Thank you!" without ever making eye contact - and then walks right past me!  Excuse me, but what on EARTH did you just thank me for?  Seriously, even "Sorry, I don't have time right now!" is better than that.  Writers are people, show them a little courtesy.

  3.  AT LEAST THINK ABOUT BUYING THE BOOK.  I get that not everyone is a reader (although that fact makes me very sad).  I realize that not everyone relishes historical fiction with a Biblical twist, which is what I write.  But still, everybody knows somebody who reads!  And, as I always say, a signed first edition makes a marvelous gift for Christmas or someone's birthday.  Besides, who's to say that the struggling young author sitting at that table might not be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?  Heck, that signed book might be WORTH something someday!  Nearly all writers start at the bottom, doing what I've been doing for three years now - sitting at a table trying to persuade total strangers to buy their books. Give'em a break and plunk down a twenty.  You won't miss the money in a week, and you may be the only sale they make that day!  (It doesn't happen often, but it has happened to me, and it's a real kick in the teeth to drive fifty miles and not make a sale!)

  4.  IF YOU BUY THE BOOK, REVIEW IT!  Writers LOVE feedback!  Negative or positive, Amazon and Goodreads reviews mean that people are actually reading and reacting to what we have written.  The only thing worse than looking at your book's Amazon page week after week and realizing that your sales rank hasn't budged is looking at your book's Amazon page and seeing that no one has reviewed it in weeks.  I've been fortunate - my books have generated 67 Amazon reviews and I have only ONE negative review.  Goodreads folks are a little more picky, but even there all four of my books are in the 4 point range out of 5 possible.  We love reading your comments, so go ahead and post a review.  Tell us what we did right.  Tell us what we did wrong.  Tell us you love us.  Tell us our writing is less comprehensible than moose drool.  Just tell us SOMETHING!

  5.  DON'T WASTE OUR TIME.  The only thing worse than having someone blow by you without a word is having someone sit and talk to you for thirty solid minutes, asking you all kinds of details about your book, reading the back and the prologue, and then NOT making a purchase!  We love visiting with you, but ultimately, a writer at a book signing is "on the clock."  We are there to make money for our selves and our families, and most of us are not rich.  So if you're going to take up a big chunk of our time, go ahead and make that purchase!


   There are probably some other things I could list, but these are the things that drive me nuts when I am sitting at a table trying to make a sale.  So please, follow these simple rules and you will make your local author a happy camper.  OH! - and speaking of making a sale:  Here is a link to my that will take you to all my books on Amazon.  Because online sales are important too!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Poem About Something We All Have in Common . . .

I never thought I would be one of these guys that freaked out over getting older - until I turned fifty.  Then, all of a sudden, my age and the realization that my time on this planet was, most likely, over half done just threw me for a loop.  I am still sorting out how I feel, and earlier this week this poem came to me.  It sums up my current feelings pretty well:


REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY

 

The photograph is faded and yellow, taken in my twentieth year.

When Reagan was President and I wore Navy whites,

And life seemed endless and I had no fear.

For I was slim and tan and young and nice to look upon – or so I’m told.

Years unnumbered lay before me, pages of life yet unwritten,

And if it occurred to me, I laughed at the thought of growing old.

 

Now the photo album has come unbound, pictures of my now-spent youth,

Lie tumbled and jumbled in a box full of memories –

And when I look in the mirror it tells me the truth.

For the man I once was has long since gone, his trim form but a memory.

Hair has greyed, waist has thickened, and though I’m still strong,

I see the old man I’ll soon become standing there, staring into me.

 

Too soon!  Not yet!  There is so much living I have not done!

Sensations unfelt, things untried, I feel that I must hasten quickly;

For more than half the sands in my hourglass have already run.

Youth was a blur, youth was an era; it felt like a short eternity.

Now my father is gone, my mother is old, my siblings about to retire,

And when girls smile at me, it seems like a cold act of charity.

 

I see with a clarity the young cannot know, I see the future that beckons;

The slow decline of my body, the withering of my mind,

As all the choices I have made demand to be reckoned.

A decade, perhaps, maybe two or three, is all that I have remaining.

Will I be hale and strong til the end?  Or an invalid,

Helpless, lying in bed, demanding and complaining?

 

This cannot be!  I won’t allow it!  I refuse to grow any older!

How many before me have screamed at the clock thus,

Their demands growing louder and bolder?

But time, the great teacher, instructs us all in reality,

For no matter how much we scream and rage,

We cannot outrun our mortality.

So what can we do, but live, and live large, seizing each day as it comes!

We know not how many we have, or how few –

As we march to the beat of our own set of drums.

From this day forth I shout from the ramparts a new battle cry;

Let all who hear take note and take heed,

If nothing else I will live ere I die!

This is the last third of my life’s brand-new creed.

 

 

Lewis Smith

Age 53

July 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A TRIBUTE TO MY MOM . . . .

   I have written a lot about my Dad in this blog over the last six months.  His final bout with illness, followed by his passing away in May, brought forth a flood of fond memories of happy times that helped stave off some of our deep sadness at his death.  But, looking back, I do wish now that I had written some of those things when he was still alive and of sound enough mind to read and appreciate them. I resolved that I would not make that mistake twice.

   Today my extended family gathered to celebrate my Mom's 85th birthday.  The actual date was back in May, only a few days after my Dad's funeral.  None of us felt quite like a party so soon after such a sad occasion, so we decided to wait and celebrate a bit later in the summer.  It was quite a gathering - my three siblings and their spouses were there, and seven out of ten of mom's grandchildren, as well as four out of ten great-grandchildren, plus two of my three first cousins - the son and daughter of mom's sister Bobbie (now deceased), plus assorted in-laws and one boyfriend.  We had plenty of food, laughs, and stories (including a rare opportunity for me to embarrass my big brother instead of vice versa!), and Mom was showered with gifts, cards, hugs, and wishes for many more happy and healthy years to come.

    Laura Smith is one of the most remarkable ladies I know. She and my Dad were married in 1950, right before he was recalled to military service during the Korean War.  My sister Clinta was born not long after that, then my brother Dwain, my sister Jo, and finally me - a bit of a surprise, in 1963.  Mom was a military wife briefly, but she spent over fifty years as a preacher's wife, in a time when pastors and their families were both looked up to and held to a very high standard.  She raised four kids who all grew up to be good and reputable adults (my Dad used to say with a wink: "Ain't one of my kids been in jail!") despite a few bumps along the way, including my oldest sister's "Flower Child" phase and my repeated attempts to talk her into letting me keep a pet snake.

   Mom was a teacher by profession, high school English to be precise.  She was strict but fun, demanding high quality work from her students but also investing in their lives and reminding them that she cared about them as people, not just as numbers in a grade book.  All of us had her as our classroom teacher at one point or another, I think, and she made a point of showing no favoritism and accepting no excuses when it came to our schoolwork!  But let someone treat one of us unfairly and she would sail into battle with all guns blazing, as evinced the time I got kicked out of Mr. S---------'s class after spending one period as "Teacher for a Day" my senior year.  I said (erroneously, as it turned out, but in good faith) that Hitler had been born out of wedlock, and the history teacher flew into a rage and booted me from his room!  Mom was NOT happy and let him know in no uncertain terms.  (I think Mr. S--------- may have been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, but that is pure conjecture on my part.)

   Mom loved her students, and they loved her back.  In the mid-70's, when the "Pet Rock" craze was at it height, all her students started bringing her pet rocks.  She named each one, stone by stone, and one kid even built her a little house for them!  She displayed them at the front of her room and referred to each rock by name.  (I think she was just grateful to have the most maintenance-free classroom pets of all time!)  She was sponsor for the Future Teachers of America for many years, and after I graduated she switched career tracks and ended her time in the public schools as a high school counselor.

    Mom was a perfect match for my Dad.  He adored her and delighted in giving her gifts on special occasions, and their love was evident, not just in the way they spoke to each other in public, but in the way they treated each other at home.  She was Dad's best friend, his refuge in time of stress, and his constant companion.  I remember one time when I was about 14 or so, and we were trying to find our way to an obscure Dallas hospital to visit a sick church member.  Dad got turned around and simply could not locate the place, and was getting more and more frustrated.  Now, my Dad VERY rarely swore (I think I maybe heard him cuss 3 times in my entire life!), but he did have a number of colorful East Texas-isms that came out when he was mad, and one of them was the adjective "frazzlin' ".  He must have said it a dozen times during that drive, and finally my dear mother leaned over and put her hand on his arm and said "Honey, I think you are frazzlin' your vocabulary tonight!"  Dad burst out laughing, his anger dissipated, and I think we even eventually found the hospital.

    Mom loved church - she sang in the choir, played the piano, performed solos (or "special music" as we call it in Baptist churches), and taught Sunday School classes.  She stood by my Dad through some of the difficult times in his ministry, through combative business meetings, irate deacon interviews, and tragedies within the church family.  She was his partner in ministry and his refuge from its storms.  She was a role model to the younger women in the church, and to some of the older ones too, and how they all loved her!

    But above all, my Mom was a loyal and devoted spouse to my Dad.  During their retirement, they traveled together around the country, sometimes driving and sometimes going on tour buses.  Later they got an RV and spent months at a time at places like Cooper Lake Park and Lake Wright Patman.  But the place that truly captured their hearts was Mountain View, Arkansas.  They wound up leaving their RV there full time and driving back and forth several times a year, staying for two or three months at a time in the "Folk Music Capitol of America," where they made many friends.

    When Dad fell and broke his hip, that was the end of their traveling days.  His health went downhill after that - within a year he was a permanent resident at a local nursing home.  Mom continued to see him every day - unless it was raining, for she will not drive in bad weather.  But for five years, she would get up, get dressed, go to the nursing home, and sit with Dad till lunchtime.  They would eat together, visit with the other residents, and then she would take him back to his room.  Only when he went down for the inevitable after-dinner nap would she leave, running her personal errands in the early afternoon, then driving back to her apartment and doing it all again the next day.  Even though Dad was sadly reduced by dementia during his final two years, he always recognized her, always thought of her, and always worried about her.  "Take care of your momma!" he admonished me at the end of nearly every visit.

   Mom showed us all that "Love Wins."  When Dad was in his final illness, she stayed with him every day, only going home at night because we kids insisted.  She never left without kissing him goodbye and telling him she loved him.  Her devotion never wavered, she never grumbled or complained about her lot, and in the end, she said her goodbyes with dignity and love, one last lesson for us all.  The day after Dad's funeral, she told me: "I took a vow - 'in sickness and in health, till death do  us part' - and I kept it as well as I could."  That was very well indeed.

    Now, for the first time in 67 years, she is on her own.  She attends church every Sunday, goes to events with her Sunday School class, reads books, watches her beloved Texas Rangers, and has dinner with whichever one of us kids is free to take her as often as we ask.  She told me her new policy is to refuse no invitation, so her days and evenings are often taken up with concerts, dinners, and even stage plays.  She came to our house for the Fourth and enjoyed dinner and time with our family and friends.  The joy in her face at the party today, seeing so many familiar and much-loved faces, was a reminder that she is far from done with living yet!

   My Mom was always a good teacher - and I think she has many lessons yet to impart to us all. May she keep teaching them for many years to come!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I THINK I AM ADDICTED TO DEBATE . . .

    Actually, I know I am.  I used to love discussing politics, but the subject has become so ugly of late, with so much bitterness on both sides, that I tend to shy away from that these.  You can look back on some of my posts here from last year if you want to see how I felt about the election, or simply take my word that, for the first time in my life, I saw it as a true no-win scenario.  But despite stepping away from that particular area, I still love taking any complex issue and going back and forth, point by point.

    Religious debate is a favorite of mine.  I am a Christian and make no bones about it, and I believe that the claims of Christianity have far more historical credibility than those of any other faith.  I love engaging atheists and agnostics and discussing the historical evidence that underlies the Bible, especially the Gospels.  I have studied the issue enough that I am able to counter a lot of their arguments and counterclaims, and I feel as if the whole process of engaging people who don't share my beliefs actually strengthens my faith rather than undermines it.  And, every so often, I actually manage to change someone's mind.  One of the proudest moments of my life was about seven years ago, when a longtime agnostic friend sent me this email:  "You know, I've been thinking about it, and I have decided that the single best explanation for all those stories about Jesus rising from the dead is that He really did!"  Walking that person into the path of belief remains one of my very proudest achievements.

   I also like debating historical issues.  I have very little patience for those who say the Civil War was not about slavery.  This comes as a surprise to many, since I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner.  All my ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the Stars and Bars - but I do believe they were on the wrong side of history, and that the whole "State's Rights" argument was largely created after the war to enshrine the Lost Cause in something more noble than the auction block and the whip.  A lot of people simply don't want to hear that, especially Southerners, but the historical facts are in my favor - and MOST people can discuss this one without getting too angry.

   Presidents?  Oh, I love discussing their merits and demerits, who is overrated (Jefferson, Kennedy)  and who is underrated (Grant, Cleveland).  I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, and I thoroughly enjoy discussing the lives of our nation's leaders in the past.  I also recognize that it takes about twenty to thirty years to truly pass historical judgment on a Presidency; before that political passions are still too strong. 

   What else to I enjoy debating?  Well, movies and such - although that is largely a matter of taste, I will still defend SUCKER PUNCH against all detractors, and insist that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN got totally ripped off for Best Picture in 1998.  "Shakespeare in Love"??? Really?    I l also love discussing what portrayals of well-known historical figures are best, and which are worst.  I follow some sports, mainly Dallas Cowboys football, and I will go to my grave saying that Dez CAUGHT THAT DARNED BALL in the playoff game against Green Bay a couple years back.

   I always try to be civil and friendly during these discussions.  If someone cannot debate an issue without getting their feelings hurt or becoming abusive, I simply won't debate them.  And one of the few things I will absolutely "unfriend" someone over on social media is if they are rude and ugly to other people in the discussion.  I have many friends and family members whose political and religious beliefs are different from mine, and we bat stuff back and forth all the time.  But if someone jumps into the discussion and starts being abusive and nasty, they are gone!

    There are a few topics that I simply hate getting into, and both of them involve conspiracy theories. A few years back I tangled with a Holocaust denier.  He wasn't a knuckle-dragging skinhead, but a man with some education and an array of websites and literature at his disposal.  But there was a nasty undercurrent of anti-Semitism that pervaded his arguments.  Once I commented that it was difficult for me to believe that the testimony of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors was all a fabrication, and his response was a snarling: "They've gotten away with this for way too long!"  I was kind of glad when the forum where this off and on conversation had gone on for over a year shut down, because that guy made me feel like I needed a hot shower after I read his posts.

   The other thing that drives me nuts is the whole 9/11 "Truther" movement. I've had the privilege of being friends with several people, over the years, in the intelligence community.  They are good, decent people, patriotic Americans all, who love this country and defend it at great cost.  I find the idea that these same people, my friends and their co-workers, would willingly murder 3000 American citizens to achieve some sinister foreign policy goal, to be deeply offensive.  Plus the whole idea is just plain silly.  The stuff these nuts come up with - drone airplanes, crisis actors, tons and tons of high explosive somehow smuggled into one of the busiest workplaces in the whole world under the noses of 50,000 employees, it just staggers the imagination.  Not to mention the whole concept of "the secret too big to keep" - it would have taken a minimum of a couple thousand people to carry off a conspiracy of that magnitude, and there is simply no way that it could have happened. A covert op with a dozen agents is incredibly difficult; a covert op involving several thousand operatives that STAYS covert - no way!  But facts and logic never get in the way of conspiracy theorists, and any credible study or published report that contradicts their narrative is "part of the whitewash."  I sometimes try to point out stuff like this, but honestly, these people are not worth the effort.

   So there it is, the confession of a junkie.  I am addicted to debate - point by point, hopefully polite and civil, you take your side and I take mine and may the best mind win.

   GO!

  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE FOURTH . . .

Happy Fourth of July.
No silly memes or cute cat pictures this post. I want to talk about what it means to be an American Patriot on our nation's birthday. America is a nation of astonishing diversity, both in ideas and in cultures. Yet our one of our national mottos is this: "E Pluribus Unum" - Out of many, one. We are ALL Americans, with all our different ideas, skin colors, and religious beliefs.
It disturbs me when I see some people on the far right or far left saying it is time for a second Civil War. Patriotic Americans do not wish their fellow citizens dead and maimed; patriotic Americans have no desire to see American cities in flames, America's beautiful countryside turned into a battleground, America's wives widowed and her children orphaned. The last Civil War killed 750,000 Americans - a second one, with the brutal technologies of war that exist in the modern world, would leave millions dead.
Right and left, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, we are all Americans. We may have very different ideas about how to run the country, about what candidates to support, about what rulings our courts should make. But in the end, we live in one country, we salute the same flag, we are governed by the same Constitution. On this Fourth of July, let us remember the words of a great American, at a time when the country was almost as bitterly polarized as it is today. It was 1801, and Thomas Jefferson had just emerged as the victor in a bitterly contested Presidential election that was thrown to the House after the electoral votes ended in a tie. This is what he said:
"During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. . . . . But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
Happy Birthday, America.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CIVILITY: A Post-Mortem

  Civility is dead.  This has been commented on repeatedly in the media, and repeated on various social networking platforms.  The brutal political cycle of the last couple of years drove a stake through the heart of decency, to the point that I think we can honestly say the idea of principled, polite disagreement has becoming increasingly foreign in Americas' public discourse.  There have been times in the past when we have been almost as polarized as we are today, and there have been times when we have been almost as rude as we are today, but barring the restoration of dueling, I don't see how we can get much worse than we are now when it comes to public discourse.  I mean, even Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton wrote each other respectful letters about their disagreements before they strapped on their pistols and shot at each other!

   I'm a historian by temperament and training.  As such, I've always tried to look at the big picture and not fall into the "things are worse now than they have ever been" trap.  In many ways, we live in better times today than our ancestors did.  People aren't routinely lynched for the crime of being black, people with mental, sexual, or socially "different" lifestyles are no longer stoned, burned at the stake, or sentenced to years of electroshock therapy.  Slavery has been legally abolished throughout the civilized world. Women can vote.  We have air conditioning (and it Texas summers, that is a HUGE technological blessing!). In so many marvelous ways, we in the Western world live better than human beings have been able to since the dawn of time.

    So why can't we be nicer to each other?

    For years I have drawn cartoons and pasted them to the whiteboard in my classroom for my students to read.  Some are just plain silly, and some are me trying to make a point with a dollop of humor.  Last fall I drew one showing three men having a debate.  The two on each side were shouting at each other.  One said: "You're a commie liberal Muslim-hugging snowflake!" while the other shouted: "You're a racist, homophobic right-wing teabagger!"  Then the guy in the middle spoke up and said:  "Can't you see that you are both loyal Americans who love this country but have different ideas about how it ought to be run?"  At that, the other two looked at him and screamed in chorus:  "What's wrong with you???"

    That sums up a lot of it.  We have slanted "fake news" websites right and left, the complete marginalization of the traditional media, and the constant self-affirmation that comes from social media circles whose members all share the same political beliefs. This is compounded by the number of complete nutjobs from all fringes of the political spectrum who bog down serious consideration of issues with conspiracy theories so ridiculous that no one should give them the time of day. The result is that real truth is more elusive now than ever.  So otherwise rational human beings are convinced that Bush and Cheney conspired with Israel and "big oil" to murder 3000 people on 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who deliberately weakened America to help groups like ISIS establish a global caliphate, or that "Big Pharma"  (Rule number one of demonization: reduce a vast, complex industry owned by multiple interests to one word, then put "Big" in front of it!) is hiding dozens of "cures" for cancer in order to make more money by keeping people sick.  Put all this together, throw in a healthy dose of pure ignorance, mix in generational anxiety over America's ever-changing social mores, and what do you wind up with?  Tens of thousands of people whose minds are completely closed to any explanation of events that does not suit their world view; who have lost all sense of nuance and complexity and embrace a simplistic, black-and-white view of the universe which is populated only be true-believing Patriots and The Others - an evil, vast group of villains conspiring to destroy Mom, apple pie, baseball, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

   Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could go at each other hammer and tongs from nine to five on Capitol Hill and then have cocktails at the White House that evening, when Bill Clinton could bash the Republican Congress on the campaign trail and still poach their best ideas, sign them into law, and then take credit for them when they worked.  Now we are so polarized that ANY effort by people on either side of the political aisle attempt to work out some form of compromise to actually get something done, they are demonized as an "establishment sellout."

    Well, as a historian, I can tell every one of you, both left and right - America as a nation was built on compromise! Our Constitution itself is nothing more than a bundle of compromises arrived at by a group of men deeply divided on the fundamental nature of our country - were we a confederation of sovereign states or a single nation made up of locally autonomous political districts? They couldn't agree on everything, so the document our nation is built on deliberately left many questions to be worked out in the future, by practice, trial, and error.

   Can we bring civility back?  Maybe.  The best way to start is by us as individuals being civil to each other.  Don't call people names because they disagree with you.  Don't post inflammatory political articles until you verify whether or not they are factual - and even then, consider whether or not repeating this material will do anything to improve the situation it complains about.  If someone posts something derogatory of offensive about a position you embrace, or a politician you admire, instead of shooting back with hateful invective, read it carefully. Research it to see if the claims it makes are true or not. Ask the person if they have ever considered the opposite point of view.  TALK, don't yell.  We've yelled at each other enough.

   Civility may be dead in America today.  But it doesn't have to stay that way.