Friday, September 25, 2015


September 23 was the birthday of the ruler of the world.
In his lifetime, he was called Imperator, the Greatest, and the Son of God.

He was born Gaius Octavius in the year 63 BC.  His mother was a niece of the most famous Roman of the day, indeed, according to many scholars and his contemporaries, the greatest Roman who ever lived - Gaius Julius Caesar.  Young Octavius - also called Octavian - caught the eye of his famous great-uncle when he was in his teens, and Caesar named him as his conterburnalis (junior military aid) when Octavian was 19.  By that time, Caesar had defeated the Gauls, conquered three new provinces for Rome, and defeated his enemies in the Senate.  What was left of that august body of legislators had proclaimed Julius Caesar as dictator for life.  Caesar had implemented a huge slate of reforms for the city of Rome and the Republic's government and was preparing to march east, to bring down Rome's last remaining rival, the mighty Parthian Empire.  His friend Crassus had died fighting the Parthians, and Caesar wanted to avenge his death and recover the seven Eagle standards the Parthians had taken from the legions they vanquished when Crassus fell at Carrhae.  Before he could depart, though, a jealous band of conspirators ended Caesar's life by stabbing him to death.

   To the surprise and shock of everyone - especially Caesar's cousin and chief military legate, Marcus Antonius - Caesar's will named young Octavian as his chief heir.  No one expected the frail, asthmatic lad to last long in the brutal world of Roman politics.  But within eleven years of his uncle's death, the self proclaimed "Son of the Divine Julius" had vanquished Antony and Cleopatra, driven his enemies from Rome, and united the squabbling Republic into a well-run, centralized Empire with himself as its head of state.  Wielding power with an iron fist concealed in a velvet glove, he restored peace and order and made Rome the greatest power in the world.  Of all his accomplishments, he took the most pride in the fact that he had extinguished the fires in the temple of Mars - which signified that Rome was at war - more often and for longer periods than anyone could ever remember.  The government that he founded would endure till Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 476 AD, and then it would transfer itself to Constantinople and endure for another thousand years as the Byzantine Empire.  Needless to say, his birthday was a great holiday in Rome.

   So why does it pass unnoticed except for a few history geeks like me?  Because of another birthday, one that took place around the thirtieth year of his forty-five year reign.  This baby was not born into a wealthy patrician family, nor was he adopted by a rich uncle.  His youth was so unremarkable that only one story about it survives.  He worked with his hands, supported a houseful of siblings after his father's death, and traveled on foot wherever he went.  He never held a sword, never wrote a book, never took a single life.  Yet today HE is the one we remember as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of God, and the most significant life in the history of the Western world.  There is no doubt that Caesar Augustus changed the world, and that those changes were generally for the better.  But it was not his birth that split history in half - it was a birth that took place in a humble barn, many miles from Rome.  That is a birthday that no one forgets!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

PIZZA AND POLITICS - Debate Watching With My Students

    I teach Senior Government every year at our little Christian School, and Government class is always more interesting when it happens in an election year . . . or in this case, during the election pre-season.  I had talked with my kids about the debate process, primaries, and the general election, and we've been tracking the average of national polls every week (as found on my favorite political website,  I asked them to watch the GOP debate this week as an assignment, and several of them said something to the effect that they wish they could watch it with me.  One thing led to another, our headmaster was consulted, and so it came to pass that, at 7 PM Wednesday evening, I streamed the debate live from the CNN website onto my projector screen, and some 18 students - mostly juniors and seniors - joined me to watch the festivities!

     Many of them had never seen a political debate before, while others are hard-core political junkies like me.  No one really cared for Donald Trump much, while everyone seemed to enjoy Carly Fiorina's quick wit, Marco Rubio's polished eloquence, and Chris Christie's earnest good humor.  We hung around together for about two hours, but the kids' patience wore out around 9:15, so they filed out one by one while I waited for a commercial break to log off the PC, lock up the building, and drive home, where I was able to catch the finale (Over three hours?  This was the TITANIC of political debates!).  I had also been able to catch the last hour or so of the early debate between the junior league candidates, so by the end of the evening I was politically sated, happy, and ready for bed.  Today I got to listen to the students' impressions in class, and I look forward to reading their post-debate essays Monday morning.  In the meantime, since this is my blog, I'll share my own impressions.  First of all, the "Happy Hour" debate -

    The candidates got a LOT of speaking time, because there were only four of them.  Rick Perry has officially dropped out, and I don't know what happened to Jim Gilmore, but he's been polling less than .1% pretty much from the get-go, so I guess he's given up too.  That left the stage to Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki.  Bearing in mind that I only heard about half of the debate, here are my rankings -

LINDSEY GRAHAM -  Winner!  The man's knowledge of foreign policy is impressive, and his grasp of the nature of the threat we face is solid.  He also has the advantage of experience, and his comments about working together with Democrats a la Reagan and O'Neill were a welcome break from the constant demonization of the opposition so current in Tea Party circles. Plus, how can you not like a guy who says that, in his White House, "we'll do more drinkin'!!"  Can he be elected President?  Not a chance!  But would he make an incredible Secretary of State or Defense?  You betcha!

RICK SANTORUM - A great performance, eloquent, heartfelt, and inspiring.  He's another who will never be President, but he has many of the qualities that would make him a great one.  Maybe if there was a freak KING RALPH-style accident (1990's comedy with John Goodman.  Check it out!) he'll get the chance.  Otherwise, he may not last much longer.

BOBBY JINDAL - Not that great.  A few good points, and an inspiring biography, but he's desperate and it shows.

GEORGE PATAKI - He really ought to go run as a Democrat.  He would get more support in their party, and he might even get the nomination.

   On to the main event - this was more a WWE brawl than a debate.  The moderators made it clear from the outset that they intended to promote sparring between the candidates, and boy did they!  From Donald Trump's tasteless assault on Rand Paul to Carly Fiorina's magnificent contempt for his shallow compliments, it was "open season on Donald" all night long!  Frankly, I was happy to see it.  The man is a world-class boor in my opinion, and he's been throwing down some pretty ugly rhetoric from Day One.  Obviously, in a debate with 11 people, no one person "wins," so here is my evaluation of the candidates' overall performance.  First of all -


CARLY FIORINA:  If I were to name any one person as the winner last night, it would be the lady from Hewlett-Packard.  She dominated the Junior League debate last time, and she pretty effectively dominated the debate last night.  From her initial head-to-head with Donald Trump to her beautiful and eloquent closing remarks, she was cool as a cucumber and smart as a whip throughout.  I've been thinking of her as a great running mate for someone; now I am thinking of her as a viable - indeed a formidable - Presidential candidate.  Well done, milady!

MARCO RUBIO - I have always admired this man.   He is thoughtful, eloquent, with an inspiring biography and some excellent policy ideas.  He avoids the extreme rhetoric and borderline racism that the Donald and his minions have embraced, and he also looked Presidential - poised, calm, and unflappable.  He has been my first choice from the get-go, and while I am also considering supporting Mrs. Fiorina, Rubio would certainly be a fine standard-bearer.

CHRIS CHRISTIE - I am not a huge fan of Governor Christie, but he needed to bring his A-game last night and he did.  Alternating between self-deprecating humor and earnest populism, his performance may well have taken him from the brink of elimination and vaulted him back up to the middle of the pack.


DONALD TRUMP:  I don't like this man and never will like him.  The fact that he was polling at 30% going into this debate is a discredit to the party.  He is a bloviating, narcissistic windbag with no concrete policy ideas, just cheap shots at his opponents and rhetoric that sells well to angry, low-information voters.  That being said, he handled himself with aplomb, reserving his sole childish cheap shot of the evening for Rand Paul.  Otherwise, he listened, gave decent answers, and managed to not look like a buffoon most of the time.  I'm still hoping he'll have a "Howard Dean moment" at some point and go away for good, but it didn't come last night, and may not come anytime soon.  He's learning how the game is played.

BEN CARSON:  All my students were saying today: "He's so nice."  That is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.  In a field where hardball politics is the rule of the day, he has gained a strong following by being courteous, deferential, and humble while still projecting intelligence and competence.  It's an impressive feat that he carried forward last night, but I just don't think he is aggressive enough to secure the nomination, much less be elected.  They're right, though - he surely is a nice man.

JEB BUSH - He really needed to come out swinging after his boring and lackluster performance in the previous debate, and that he did.  Most of his swings were strikes, with a couple of singles scattered through.  He definitely improved on his last showing, but despite his skills at fund-raising, he is a long way from securing the nomination.  His spirited defense of his brother was the high point of his remarks.

TED CRUZ - While I don't have the visceral hatred for this man that all liberals and many mainstream Republicans do, his brand of confrontational, burn-the-bridges and take-no-prisoners politics, as well as his saber-rattling foreign policy, is a turnoff to me.  I don't doubt his sincerity, but he forgets too easily that in our Constitutional Republic, compromise is a necessity to keep the will of the majority from turning to tyranny.

MIKE HUCKABEE - I have always loved this man and still love him, but his grasp of basic civics is pretty weak at times.  The power of judicial review has rested with the Supreme Court for over 200 years, and belongs there.  We can't ignore rulings just because we disagree with them.  That being said, his essential goodness and decency combined with his excellent debate skills made him a strong performer.  He'll continue at the middle of the pack for a while longer, I think.

JOHN KASICH - What an impressive resume this man has!  He took a very active role in balancing the Federal budget for the only time in my life, and then did the same with the State budget as Governor of Ohio.  He also balances Christian compassion with political realism in a way many in the GOP do not.  However, the problem with all of those qualities is that they scream "establishment" in what is almost certainly going to be an anti-establishment year.

Now, finally:

SCOTT WALKER - I like this man and I wanted to see him do well.  While he definitely tried, the fact is that he came across as flat and rather insipid - a pale shadow of Marco Rubio in more ways than one.  He's a young man and I hope he'll be back at some point in the future, because he has great promise.  But tonight was not his night.

RAND PAUL - For once, The Donald was right.  Paul didn't belong on the big boy stage.  I could not help but be reminded of a ten year old tagging along with his teenage brother's gang of friends.  His desperate bids for attention and relevance screamed:  "Me too!  Me too!!"  Go away, Rand, and try again another day.  This one's gotten past you.

   All in all, I enjoyed this debate a great deal.  The biggest missed opportunity of the night:  Given the location of the debate and the mementoes of the last truly great Republican president that were hanging all around, someone, at some point, should have looked at Donald Trump and said:

"There you go again!"

     But for me, the most satisfying moment of all came this morning, when one of my students came up to me and said:  "Mr. Smith, I've never cared about politics before.  But last night's debate party was so much fun, and I'm really interested now."

    My work here is done.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Of Personal Pronouns and Perennial Pronouncements . . ."

    Is it any wonder that so many Americans hold higher education in contempt these days?

    The University of Tennessee has announced that its faculty and students should stop using traditional, gender-based pronouns in order to "create a more inclusive campus."  Seriously, it's no longer enough that men can call themselves women and can have themselves surgically altered in order to resemble women, now the King's English itself must be modified in order to accommodate the deification of their delusions!  I can't make up something this silly, so here it is in its entirety from the official "Tennesseean" website:

University of Tennessee students have been asked to use gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze."
The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus, multiple media outlets report.
"Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth," the University of Tennessee's Pride Center Director, Donna Braquet, wrote on the university's website Wednesday.
Braquet requested that teachers, rather than calling roll, will instead ask each student to provide the name and pronoun he or she — or ze — wishes to be referred by. She says it relieves a burden for people expressing different genders or identities.
"The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses," Braquet wrote.
University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen said there is no mandate or official policy to use the language.
"The information provided in the newsletter was offered as a resource for our campus community on inclusive practices," Simsen said.
Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask.
"'Oh, nice to meet you ... What pronouns should I use?' is a perfectly fine question to ask," Braquet said.

   So instead of perfectly good words that have been standard practice in the English language for as long as there has been an English language, we get a jumble of letters created by some bureaucrat that mean absolutely nothing! And for what purpose?  Darned if I can tell.  Even if you are a transsexual, don't you want to be referred to by the gender pronoun that you "identify with"?  What is 'ze' anyway?  A straight man who dresses like a woman, a gay man who dresses like a woman, a straight woman who dresses like a man, or someone like my friend Josh who fervently claims he is a dolphin trapped in a man's body?  And what if someone whose personal bent is different from yours steals your pronoun of choice?  Do you fight a duel with rolled up copies of The San Francisco Chronicle on the college green for who gets to be 'ze' and who gets to be 'xe'?

   Bear in mind, according to Google, parents are paying $45,000 per semester for their kids to attend this university.  Is this what they want them to learn?  What, after all, is the purpose of college? At one time, it was to learn a valuable skill that you could then use to earn a better living for yourself than you could get without the degree.  Or perhaps just to explore a scientific or academic discipline that has always fascinated you, and try to do something practical with it.  But now it seems as if the purpose of many institutes of higher learning is simply to indoctrinate students with a boatload of leftist nonsense that has no practical application anywhere in life.  What's going to happen when these earnest young graduates go to their first job interview and ask the manager to refer to them as 'xim' rather than 'him'?  I doubt the result will be this young applicant being forwarded to the management fast track!

    Once upon a time, I got out of the Navy and attended a fine independent university in East Texas, earning a Bachelor's Degree, a teaching certificate, and a Master's Degree.  I was exposed to every conceivable point of view during that time.  I had professors who were Marxists and one who was an avowed monarchist (he had framed portraits of Louis XIV and Catherine the Great in his apartment!).  I had classmates who were gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, liberal, conservative, communist, and borderline fascist.  The beauty of the place is that we all sounded off on a regular basis, in the classroom and in the coffee shops, in our professors' presence and in their absence, about whatever came to mind.  We debated God and Darwin, Marx and Montesquieu, Locke and Lenin, with passion and force and silliness and all the earnestness that twentysomething adults can muster at that marvelous age when they know the exact solution to all the world's problems, if only someone would put them in charge.

   But today's college campuses have become a wasteland of soul-stifling political correctness and liberal intolerance.  While the movie GOD'S NOT DEAD is indeed fiction, look up the thirty or so lawsuits listed in the credits to see how those who hold traditionalist or Christian perspectives on almost any issue have been hounded, persecuted, and expelled for refusing to toe the line. All opinions are welcome in academia - unless they come from a traditional or religious perspective.  Then they must be shamed into a different way of thinking!

   One of the first things I teach in my government class is that free speech means FREE speech.  That includes speech that we disagree with, speech that disgusts us, speech that offends us.  If the most vile and obnoxious verbal expressions we can imagine are not just as protected as the most innocuous statements, then we are not a free society at all.  I may despise the hate-spewing idiots of Westboro Baptist Church, but I support their right to speak their minds.  Otherwise, the whole concept of freedom of speech is meaningless.  But more and more, our college campuses seem to be dominated by moronic thought police whose sole goal is to shame everyone who doesn't share their "enlightened" view of humanity into compliance.  Sorry, that's not what we are paying $45,000 a semester for our children to learn!

  At any rate, that's all I can make myself write about this nonsense for now.  Excuse me . . . no, sorry!