Having just seen most of the debate, even a member of the younger generation is shocked at just how much of a simple shouting match it is. Trump is Trump, he interrupts way too much and isn't a particularly patient man. Biden is better at not interrupting, but also told the moderator that he would not answer a question on whether he would pack the Supreme Court. Both had the opportunity to appear statesman-like, and, failing that, civil, but neither did. This debate proved that the use of actual debate of issues is, as Obi-Wan Kenobi described the lightsaber, “A more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” This debate seems to prove that society is drifting away from civilization, not towards it. There was once a place for people to disagree but still act respectably to each other. Now, Trump calls Biden a “stupid person” and Biden calls Trump “evil” and “the worst president in history.” But it didn't start with the politicians, but with the populace.
When it becomes reasonable to insult one another on social media, do those same voters really want to watch people be civil to each other? Does the younger generation even have the attention span to watch people be civil to one another for an hour and a half? These debates are a symptom of the culture of the internet. What do I mean by the culture of the internet? That is to say that people now have the ability to communicate with people from all over the country. In the past, people haven't tended to spend much time caring about what is outside of their immediate surroundings. Why? Because they couldn't see what was going on there, and couldn't influence anyone outside of a certain area. When it becomes easier for a person to influence further afield, they often do so. With the internet, it can become intoxicating. I could go to the town meeting and speak there for a lower school budget, but then I would have to defend myself against people I can't ignore. I would suffer the consequences for whatever I said. If I have a social media argument with someone in California, who cares if they hate me? They are hardly likely to drive to New Hampshire. Thus, people become more extreme and derogatory to their opponents.
Why be moderate in your arguments when you can go to the logical extreme? In the past, people have had to be moderate so that they could cohabitate and be friendly with their family, extended family, and community. But with the ties of society like the family breaking down, so is the incentive to have a moderate opinion. Now that people have stronger ties over the internet than in their community, internet culture is becoming mainstream. So, now we have characters like Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They look for something to convince internet culture to come to their side, because they see that it is the future, and politicians always like to side with the future.
Of course, the internet is not a bad thing of itself, it is like anything from a car to a gun to a book. We can use it well, or we can choose not to. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this. Many, especially of the younger generation, have failed the test of how to use the internet responsibly. Rather than using it, it has used them. We'll see if they grow out of it or not.
Those of us who lived through what I think of as the "Carter Inflation" have a deep-seated fear of that economic disaster, and a greater fear that more recent generations don't take it seriously enough. (To be fair to President Carter, presidents get more blame and take more credit than they deserve for economic conditions. I think Carter, a good man, was a bad president with policies that made inflation worse, but it's far from exclusively his fault.)
Inflation under Carter was not a disaster for us, personally, since it was a time when salaries and investment income appeared to be increasing at a great rate. That felt good, though it only meant that we were barely keeping up with rising prices. It was not so merciful to people without good jobs and investments. We also knew enough history to fear the devastation inflation had caused in other times and places.
You might understand, then, why am frustrated when I hear reports of "inflation indices" that say we are experiencing little or no inflation—when I know darn well that prices in the grocery store have been rising steadily for a long time, most "half-gallon" ice cream packages now hold only three pints, and the price of automobiles has exploded through the roof.
I read with interest the article by John Mauldin called "Nose Blind to Inflation." It's long and gets complicated and I did start skimming as I neared the end, but it says a lot about the factors that go into determining a currency's inflation rate—and why it's so hard to come up with numbers that mean anything at all. As my economist husband says, it is important to understand that inflation is not a mathematically provable number, but rather a statistically, approximated number. Moreover, the numbers that are published are not immune to political pressure.
I'm not even going to try to guess what is going to happen to our currency now that the pandemic has encouraged us to hemorrhage money that we don't have and drive our national debt well beyond the stratosphere. Far more knowledgeable people than I haven't a clue.
But I can't resist one quote from the article, which begins the section on an inflation calculation factor called hedonic adjustment.
That’s where they modify the price change because the product you buy today is of higher quality than the one they measured in the past.
This is most evident in technology. The kind of computer I used back in the 1980s cost about $4,000. The one I have now, on which I do similar work (writing) was about $1,600. So, my computer costs dropped 40%. But no, today’s computer isn’t remotely comparable to my first one. It is easily a thousand times more powerful. So the price for that much computing power has dropped much more than 60%. It’s probably 99.9%.
The economists pull the same slight of hand with automobiles, and television sets, and any product in which it is claimed that you are getting more value for your money, and therefore it shouldn't count as a price increase. Which is utter nonsense. (I put the point a little more strongly when I first read about the concept.)
Sure, I often like the "improvements" that have supposedly added value to the item I am purchasing, but the real value of a car is that it gets me from A to B, and why must I pay for all the extra bells and whistles if that's all I want? It reminds me of a housing developer I know, who was chided for not providing more "affordable housing." "I could make housing affordable for everyone," he replied, "If people were willing to live in the kind of homes their grandparents did. But now that won't even begin to pass code."
So sure, go ahead and make things "new and improved." But if I can no longer buy the original version, don't try to sell me the bill of goods that when the price goes up it's really a price decrease.
I read and reviewed The Fall of Heaven in 2017, having no clue at the time how much closer America would come to this perilous situation in just three years. It's time to revisit that review.
Please read this book. It was recommended to me by two Iranian friends who suffered through, and escaped from, the Iranian Revolution. Thus I give it much higher credence than I would a random book off the library shelves. If they say the reporting accords with their own experiences, I believe them. They are highly intelligent and well-educated people.
I cannot overstate how important I think this book to be for here and now in America. Who our Ruhollah Khomeini might be I do not know, but I look at the news and am convinced that the stage set is a close copy of that in Iran 40 years ago, and the script is frighteningly similar.
Those who are fighting for change at any cost need to consider just how high that cost might be.
The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt, 2016)
People were excited at the prospect of "change."
That was the cry, "We want change."
You are living in a country that is one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. You enjoy freedom, education, and health care that was beyond the imagination of the generation before you, and the envy of most of the world. But all is not well. There is a large gap between the rich and the poor, and a widening psychological gulf between rural workers and urban elites. A growing number of people begin to look past the glitter and glitz of the cities and see the strip clubs, the indecent, avant-garde theatrical performances, offensive behavior in the streets, and the disintegration of family and tradition. Stories of greed and corruption at the highest corporate and governmental levels have shaken faith in the country's bedrock institutions. Rumors—with some truth—of police brutality stoke the fears of the population, and merciless criminals freely exploit attempts to restrain police action. The country is awash in information that is outdated, inaccurate, and being manipulated for wrongful ends; the misinformation is nowhere so egregious as at the upper levels of government, where leaders believe what they want to hear, and dismiss the few voices of truth as too negative. Random violence and senseless destruction are on the rise, along with incivility and intolerance. Extremists from both the Left and the Right profit from, and provoke, this disorder, knowing that a frightened and angry populace is easily manipulated. Foreign governments and terrorist organizations publish inflammatory information, fund angry demonstrations, foment riots, and train and arm revolutionaries. The general population hurtles to the point of believing the situation so bad that the country must change—without much consideration for what that change may turn out to bring.
It's 1978. You are in Iran.
I haven't felt so strongly about a book since Hold On to Your Kids. Read. This. Book. Not because it is a page-turning account of the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which it is, but because there is so much there that reminds me of America, today. Not that I can draw any neat conclusions about how to apply this information: the complexities of what happened to turn our second-best friend in the Middle East into one of our worst enemies have no easy unravelling. But time has a way of at least making the events clearer, and for that alone The Fall of Heaven is worth reading.
On the other hand, most people don't have the time and the energy to read a densely-packed, 500-page history book. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or work with children, I say your time would be better spent reading Hold On to Your Kids. But if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I strongly recommend reading the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.
A few brief take-aways:
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly an amazing, wonderful person; as my husband is fond of saying, the best ex-president we've ever had. But in the very moments he was winning his Nobel Peace Prize by brokering the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David, he—or his administration—was consigning Iran to the hell that endures today. Thanks to a complete failure of American (and British) Intelligence and a massive disinformation campaign with just enough truth to keep it from being dismissed out of hand, President Carter was led to believe that the Shah of Iran was a monster; America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, likened the Shah to Adolf Eichmann, and called Ruhollah Khomeini a saint. Perhaps the Iranian Revolution and its concomitant bloodbath would have happened without American incompetence, disingenuousness, and backstabbing, but that there is much innocent blood on the hands of our kindly, Peace Prize-winning President, I have no doubt.
- There's a reason spycraft is called intelligence. Lack of good information leads to stupid decisions.
- Bad advisers will bring down a good leader, be he President or Shah, and good advisers can't save him if he won't listen.
- The Bible is 100% correct when it likens people to sheep. Whether by politicians, agitators, con men, charismatic religious leaders (note: small "c"), pop stars, advertisers, or our own peers, we are pathetically easy to manipulate.
- When the Shah imposed Western Culture on his people, it came with Western decadence and Hollywood immorality thrown in. Even salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people can only take so much of having their lives, their values, and their family integrity threatened. "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations."
- The Shah's education programs sent students by droves to Europe and the United States for university educations. This was an unprecedented opportunity, but the timing could have been better. The 1960's and 70's were not sane years on college campuses, as I can personally testify. Instead of being grateful for their educations, the students came home radicalized against their government. In this case, "the Man," the enemy, was the Shah and all that he stood for. Anxious to identify with the masses and their deprivations, these sons and daughters of privilege exchanged one set of drag for another, donning austere Muslim garb as a way of distancing themselves from everything their parents held dear. Few had ever opened a Quran, and fewer still had an in-depth knowledge of Shia theology, but in their rebellious naïveté they rushed to embrace the latest opiate.
- "Suicide bomber" was not a household word 40 years ago, but the concept was there. "If you give the order we are prepared to attach bombs to ourselves and throw ourselves at the Shah's car to blow him up," one local merchant told the Ayatollah.
- People with greatly differing viewpoints can find much in The Fall of Heaven to support their own ideas and fears. Those who see sinister influences behind the senseless, deliberate destruction during natural disasters and protest demonstrations will find justification for their suspicions in the brutal, calculated provocations perpetrated by Iran's revolutionaries. Others will find striking parallels between the rise of Radical Islam in Iran and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who have no use for deeply-held religious beliefs will find confirmation of their own belief that the only acceptable religions are those that their followers don't take too seriously. Some will look at the Iranian Revolution and see a prime example of how conciliation and compromise with evil will only end in disaster.
- I've read the Qur'an and know more about Islam than many Americans (credit not my knowledge but general American ignorance), but in this book I discovered something that surprised me. Two practices that I assumed marked every serious Muslim are five-times-a-day prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. Yet the Shah, an obviously devout man who "ruled in the fear of God" and always carried a Qur'an with him, did neither. Is this a legitimate and common variation, or the Muslim equivalent of the Christian who displays a Bible prominently on his coffee table but rarely cracks it open and prefers to sleep in on Sundays? Clearly, I have more to learn.
- Many of Iran's problems in the years before the Revolution seem remarkably similar to those of someone who wins a million dollar lottery. Government largess fueled by massive oil revenues thrust people suddenly into a new and unfamiliar world of wealth, in the end leaving them, not grateful, but resentful when falling oil prices dried up the flow of money.
- I totally understand why one country would want to influence another country that it views as strategically important; that may even be considered its duty to its own citizens. But for goodness' sake, if you're going to interfere, wait until you have a good knowledge of the country, its history, its customs, and its people. Our ignorance of Iran in general and the political and social situation in particular was appalling. We bought the carefully-orchestrated public façade of Khomeini hook, line, and sinker; an English translation of his inflammatory writings and blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran came nine years too late, after it was all over. In our ignorance we conferred political legitimacy on the radical Khomeini while ignoring the true leaders of the majority of Iran's Shiite Muslims. The American ambassador and his counterpart from the United Kingdom, on whom the Shah relied heavily in the last days, confidently gave him ignorant and disastrous advice. Not to mention that it was our manipulation of the oil market (with the aid of Saudi Arabia) that brought on the fall in oil prices that precipitated Iran's economic crisis.
- The bumbling actions of the United States, however, look positively beatific compared with the works of men like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, who funded, trained, and armed the revolutionaries.
I threw out the multitude of sticky notes with which I marked up the book in favor of one long quotation from the introduction. It matters to me because I heard and absorbed the accusations against the Shah, and even thought Khomeini was acting out of a legitimate complaint with regard to the immorality of some aspects of American culture. Not that I paid much attention to world events at the time of the Revolution, being more concerned with my job, our first house, a visit to my in-laws in Brazil, and the birth of our first child. But I was deceived by the fake news, and I'm glad to have a clearer picture at last.
The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah's human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women's rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi "oppression." But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that the could not match the victims' names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978-1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. that meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. [No, I can't make those numbers add up right either, but it's close enough.] The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi's revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. "The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made," observed historian Ali Ansari. ... Baghi's report exposed Khomeini's hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the vey moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah's fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure [instead of the rumored $25-$50 billion], hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.
Baghi's research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi's reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi's estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.
This more recent (primary) election left me seriously wondering, for the first time in years, if I need to switch parties.
I picked up one candidate's material, which said (roughly) "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things." So I picked up the opponent's material, and saw "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things."
Hmm. So I dug deeper and looked at the positive side, what they had to say about themselves, what they were bragging about.
And concluded that each was correct in his assessment of the other.
For tomorrow's primary election, I voted by mail.
Rather against my better judgement, I admit, as I far prefer in-person voting and that only on the "real" election day. I did "early voting" once and it felt so false I never did it again.
I have voted absentee before, and felt okay with that. In fact, that's why I had a mail-in ballot for this election: given our schedule—or what used to be our schedule, pre-pandemic—I didn't want to find myself disenfranchised by being out of town. What I've done before when I have been at home on Election Day is to vote at my local polling place and have them nullify my mail-in ballot there.
I've voted in person once already during this COVIDtide, and felt at least as safe as I do grocery shopping. But this time, I figured it would be good to practice the new system when it barely mattered—the Democratic primary for a few local seats. I have to say it's more complicated and a whole lot less fun than going in person and chatting with the precinct workers, but it seems okay.
If people are honest.
I know mail-in voting somehow works well in Switzerland, but it still makes me nervous to rely on it here on a large scale. Election fraud is nothing new, and is possible no matter what system you use. My father used to tell stories of the days when votes were openly bought. But mail balloting does seem to me to be more open to fraud—particularly to coercion—than in-person voting. You can force or trick someone into voting a certain way a lot more easily when you can see what they're marking—or even mark it for them and force them to sign—and mail the ballot yourself, than in the privacy of a voting booth. How do we prevent that? Don't tell me there aren't plenty of unscrupulous people with that kind of power over others.
Our registration procedures have become very lax in recent years. According to a poll worker I know and trust, one person in his experience was mailed a ballot to vote in Florida, and was at the same time registered (and planning) to vote in New Hampshire. She had no idea she was even registered to vote in Florida; the best guess is that it happened automatically when she applied for a Florida driver's license. I see nothing in the process that would prevent her from voting twice, except her own honesty. I also don't see how it happened, since Daniel Webster (who is my favorite congressman because he was instrumental in making home education legal in Florida decades ago) assures us in this op-ed article that, unlike some states, Florida only sends mail-in ballots to those who request them. But something went wrong for this woman, and I foresee a lot going wrong all over the country, both by accident and by malicious intent.
Why, in some states, are people being mailed ballots who did not request them? All those extra ballots floating around is just asking for trouble. Really, if people are willing to go to work, and the grocery store, and doctor's offices, and restaurants, and bars, and parties—why are we pushing vote-by-mail instead of in-person?
In Florida, anyone who wants a mail ballot can request one, and I appreciate that service, but I am strongly convinced that the normal path for voting, the one that should be encouraged above all others, is in-person, on Election Day, where photo-identification and private booths do their best to ensure that a legitimate voter is casting a secret ballot.
Up front disclaimer: I write with little knowledge of the details of recent events in America. What I say comes from more than half a century of observation and analysis, including the intense conversations and scrutiny that came from being a high school student in the mid-to-late 1960's. The extent of my own, personal participation in physical, political activism was one political campaign demonstration and one anti-abortion event.
One of the most common questions I have heard coming from people observing riots and violence from the position of outsiders is, "Why are these people burning their own neighborhoods and destroying the very businesses they depend on?"
The answer, of course, is that "they" are doing no such thing.
Peaceful protests are turned into riots and looting when people get involved for whom riots and looting are IN THEIR OWN INTEREST. The community is not turning against itself: intentional agitators—those opposing the protesters along with those ostensibly supporting them—well-meaning but ignorant outsiders, and the guy who just wants that large screen TV, do not think of the neighborhood as "their community." They see civil disorder as opportunity, and don't hesitate to make opportunities happen for their own benefit.
That's the foundation for a riot. What happens next depends on how we react to those provocations. By "we" I mean anyone involved, from law enforcement to the original protesters to innocent friends and neighbors.
Unfortunately, it's all too easy for people who are scared, hurt, or angry to get pushed in a violent direction, or simply caught up in a mob, against what would be their better judgement in cooler times. Have you seen what cities look like after the home team wins a World Series or a World Cup? And those rioters are the HAPPY WINNERS.
I don't agree with the adage, "any publicity is good publicity," but I understand the unfortunate situation that peaceful actions do not generate the same kind of media attention that anger and violence do. If the protest in Minneapolis against the death of George Floyd had stayed peaceful, how many media outlets would have covered it? Would it have remained headline news to this day and spread its message all over the country, and the world? Would we still be talking about George Floyd and why and how he died? Sadly, we know that would not be the case.
Even if you believe the destruction was acceptable collateral damage in the quest for justice—which, I hasten to add, I do not—the job of getting out the word is done. NOW STAY HOME. (Aren't we supposed to be doing that anyway?) It's time to stop the violence, to stop spreading COVID-19 in areas already especially vulnerable to the disease, to heal and to build up the devastated neighborhoods, and to take advantage of opened pathways of communication while people are still willing to listen.
I have plenty of opinions on just about any subject, and if you're reading my blog, you know I don't hesitate to make them known. However, I rarely like to discuss politics directly. I also believe strongly in the institution of the secret ballot. Sometimes I don't even tell myself whom I'm voting for until I actually put pen to ballot.
So you won't know for certain whether or not I've voted for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential primary, but I think he just said he doesn't want my vote, and who am I to deny him that privilege?
My Sanders-supporting friends can jump in here and tell me I've misunderstood him, or have heard only out-of-context quotes that aren't as bad as they seem.
But what I hear is Bernie Sanders, loud and clear, insisting that there is no such thing as a pro-life Democrat.
I've been a Democrat all my voting life, and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey even before I could vote. I vote my conscience—Democrat, Republican, sometimes parties you've never heard of—and let the chips fall where they may, but I've never seen any point in changing my party affiliation.
But I'm most definitely against abortion.
Actually, I'm pro-choice in most of life. Even in medical decisions, especially in those soul-wrenching decisions about when to withdraw life support. Our family has been there more than once, and I'm certain that loved ones are better equipped to make these choices than any doctor, judge, or regulation.
But the deliberate taking of the life of a healthy, innocent human being? That can't be anything other than murder. And, freedom-loving creature that I am, I acknowledge that laws against murder are a good thing.
Which, according to Mr. Sanders, is grounds for excommunicating me from the Democratic Party.
Fortunately, the Party is not a church, and he's not a priest. I'm still planning to vote in the primary.
I just don't know for whom.
I only know my choice is looking less and less like it will be Bernie Sanders, much as I think that if I actually knew him, I'd find enough reasons to like him as a person. Isn't politics depressing?
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I'm not here to define socialism. I'm here to point out that no discussion makes sense when we haven't defined our terms. Or worse, when we all think we have defined them, and don't realize how different our definitions are.
When you consider the merits and evils of socialism, it makes a great difference whether your image of a socialist country is Sweden or Venezuela. For example, I have recently seen these comments, and others like them, on Facebook:
I am too old to live under socialism. I am addicted to luxuries like toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes.
I don't understand why Bernie Sanders supporters are so upset about the Iowa caucus. You wanted more socialism. Last night, you got more socialism: Third world tech, missing vote counts, chaotic rules, rigged elections. The only thing missing: food shortages.
Clearly the people who have posted these are operating under the Venezuelan picture of socialism. Knowing someone who is from Venezuela and still has family there, I'm with them.
However, this is a completely ineffective way to reach anyone who is operating under the Swedish picture. Whatever the reality of life in the socialistic Scandinavian countries is, the image of that life in many American eyes is idyllic.
Not, I hasten to add, for me. The high-taxes, high-services model can, perhaps, work pretty well when you have little government corruption, and—most important—a strong monoculture. When one is even a little different from the majority, it can be disastrous. Sweden is now having to acknowledge that their system cannot seamlessly absorb large quantities of people who are culturally far from Swedish, but even before the current influx of refugees, socialism was crushing Swedes whose beliefs did not fall in with the majority.
For example, many people praise Sweden's approach to day care, education, and parental leave—but it greatly favors conformity to the two-income family model, passing the costs on to those who are already sacrificing to live on one income so that their children can be reared directly by their families instead of through state services. The system will even take children away from parents who dare to challenge the government's educational services model. This is an unacceptable, basic human rights violation, but largely invisible to those who benefit from conforming to the system's expectations.
I personally fear Swedish socialism more than I fear the Venezuelan model, largely because I think it more likely to be implemented here. Certainly we are already well on that road. Even the socialist systems that work well enough—as long as one conforms to a certain culture—rely on a set of circumstances not easily duplicated. The Scandinavian socialist countries are wealthy, their governments are stable and relatively honest, and their culture has a strong history of Protestant-work-ethic values. There are many more countries and societies in which socialism has failed spectacularly than in which it has succeeded. For Sweden, or the United States, to descend into a Venezuela-like disaster is not impossible.
Be that as it may, when we try to argue with those who are pushing for more socialism in the United States, it's counter-productive to bring up Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, or the former Soviet Union. They will only see that as a straw man fallacy. That's not what they mean by socialism, only perhaps failed socialism. What they want is what they see as successful socialism, and the only meaningful arguments can be to show where socialism is failing in the countries Americans admire. Most Swedes have toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes. What they lack is freedom.
Similarly, if you wish to argue that socialistic policies are a great idea, you must take into account all the places where it has failed and explain how that can be avoided. Otherwise you will be written off as simply ignorant.
No matter how good an argument may be, if it doesn't address what the other side sees as the real issues, it won't be effective.
Ramblings inspired by a glass of milk:
America, the land of Liberty. New Hampshire, the state with the motto, Live Free or Die. Sometimes I wonder what our Founders would think of our current willingness, even eagerness, to give up essential freedoms for (supposed) safety. But then I realize that people are much the same in every generation, so I'm sure they had to deal with plenty of the same kind of opposition.
Am I going to complain about the current attacks on our Second Amendment? Not now, even though I—with a lifelong dislike of guns—find the attempts to disarm American citizens appalling and frightening.
Not this time. Right now I'm standing up, as I have before, for the freedom to enjoy flavorful foods.
I insist that one culprit in our "obesity crisis" is that Americans are unconsciously craving the flavor of normal, healthy food. Food such as the "farm milk" we drink when we are in Switzerland: fresh from the cow, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, just real milk. Real milk that bears only a superficial resemblance to that of the same name purchased in an American grocery store.
At home, I love milk, and drink a lot of it. But I can only drink skim; whole milk sticks in my throat. Except in the form of hot chocolate, which is best with whole milk, even in America. In Switzerland, farm-fresh whole milk is absolutely delicious without any chocolate at all. (Granted, with a piece of dark Toblerone on the side, it is even better.)
There's no comparison between "real food" and that which comes from the average grocery store. Not only is grocery store food highly processed, but it is also deliberately homogeneous, so that there's no variation in flavor—milk is milk, orange juice is orange juice, apple juice is apple juice, chicken is chicken—instead of celebrating and enjoying nature's bountiful variety.
Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of benefit that comes from our mass-produced food, including lower prices. It is, indeed, what they call a First World problem. My objection is not to the availability of such food, but that it is crowding out the small, the local, the variety, the food of tremendous flavors. Worse, the awesome food—food that was plentiful as recently as 30 years ago—is now often illegal in America.
As with many roads to hell, this one is paved with good intentions. Safety is not the only issue—profit is another, as is the fickle American public—and safe food is important. But our approach to safe food reminds me of that old Chinese proverb, Do not remove a fly from your friend's head with a hatchet.
The school lunchbox is dead in Italy.
The Italian Supreme Court has ruled against parents who want to send lunch to school with their children. Their logic? Not eating the school-provided lunch is "a possible violation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination based on economic circumstances."
Even the United States isn't that crazy—yet—despite pushes in that direction by busybodies experts who worry that food from home might not be "good enough," and school-lunch providers who have a deep financial stake in forcing parents to buy their product.
Parents, naturally, are not happy.
Lorenza, who has two children at a Turin school, told a local TV station she spent more than €2,000 (£1,823) on school meals, more than her monthly salary. "My older daughter was not happy because the quality of the food didn't justify the cost, and also because of the hygiene issues with the canteen. "She would often complain that the cutlery was dirty, that the glasses were not particularly clean, or that there would be hairs on the plates," she said.
As with many news reports, this paragraph does not give enough information for us to know just how outraged we should be. Over what time period did this mother spend $2200 dollars? One month, as implied by the comment that the cost was "more than her monthly salary"? Annually per child? Over the entire school experience of all of her (possibly, though not likely, many) children?
Never mind. It doesn't matter. Even if the meals were totally free (where by "free" we mean paid for by other people, of course), it would still be an outrage.
School lunches may be a necessity for some children, who would otherwise not eat—though I've never been able to answer satisfactorily a friend's question, "Isn't that what SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and WIC programs are all about? Why do we also need free school lunches?"
School lunches are certainly a convenience for busy parents—though there is no reason why a child of school age shouldn't be able to pack his own lunch.
But there was never any doubt in my mind that my own packed lunch was vastly superior to what was offered in the school cafeteria, and apparently our children thought so, too. Even if they often traded their carrot sticks to other children for cookies—at least some child was eating healthful food. I'm reminded of one family I know who qualified for free meals for their children. The children gave it a try, determined that the food at home was better tasting, more nutritious, and even more plentiful—and wisely opted out. At least here they had that option.
More to the point: whatever the Italian Supreme Court may say, being able to feed our children as we think best is a basic, human, family right—right up there with being able to birth, educate, and otherwise rear our children as we think best. As all totalitarian governments know, once you come between parents and their children, most other freedoms become meaningless.
For those families who cannot or will not handle these responsibilities on their own, we rightly make assistance available. That's called charity. But forcing that "assistance" on those who do not want it? That's called tyranny.
And the "principles of equality" the court found so important? Should we make everyone feed their babies formula because some mothers can't or won't breastfeed? Dumb down the school curriculum to the lowest common denominator? Put every child in daycare because some families need that service? Force every child into public school because some parents can't or won't provide private or home education? Make every woman give birth in a hospital because some babies need a doctor's care? Ban unpasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider because not everyone has access to safe sources of these delicious drinks? Forbid handmade clothing because not every mother can sew? Put handicapping weights on the feet of the best dancers to eliminate their advantage over the klutzes?
Oh, wait. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
It's been a while since I posted in my Conservationist Living category, which is this post's primary classification, though I've assigned it to several others as well.
America is going to hell, right? Everybody says so. Including a whole lot of people who fervently believe there is no such place as hell, which is an interesting conundrum. But they all believe with equal fervor that we are going there rapidly. Believer or non-believer, left-wing or right-wing, we are convinced that we're in bad shape and on course to get much, much worse. What we disagree on is the attitudes, events, actions, and pathways that are taking us hell-ward.
Believe me, I'm not immune to such pessimism. Neither are you, so I'm going to tell you a small part of the story of Dave Anderson.
The Andersons are friends of our daughter's family, from their Pittsburgh days. Dave's success at building a good life for his family while reclaiming a worn-out strip mine and putting to good use many hundreds of tons of refuse every year was featured last month in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
I made the 45-minute drive to Echo Valley Farm this week because I wanted to meet the man who’d turned strip-mined land in northwest Beaver County into 26 grassy acres on which beef cattle thrive. Mr. Anderson had told me he revived his land by mixing hundreds of thousands of used paper cups from the Pittsburgh Marathon with manure, hay, banana peels and restaurant refuse.
You'll want to read the whole article to learn about the symbiotic relationship between the farm, needing nourisment, and both private businesses and local governments, needing waste disposal, that's a win for everyone involved.
It all works because there’s something in it for everyone. Mr. Anderson said that 14 years ago, the field over my shoulder produced 6,000 pounds of hay at the first cutting. The cutting in [the] same field last year brought 37,000 pounds.
Plus, the farm is a great place to raise kids.
I ask if it’s just the two of them and he says, no, he and his wife, Elaine, have six girls and a boy. They range in age from 10 to 24. All seven of them comprise Echo Valley, a bluegrass/gospel/Celtic band, that just played in Harrodsburg, Ky., Saturday night.
Several years ago—it was probably more than ten, though I'm finding that hard to believe—we visited the budding farm for one of their many social gatherings of food, music, and fun. Kids and animals were everywhere. The children were much younger then, of course, but they were already solid musicians. Here is a more recent video of the group.
and one of my favorites from earlier, just for fun.
Mr. Anderson, an inveterate reader who doesn’t own a TV, and who also was an air traffic manager until he retired last Friday, figured out how to turn desolate land into a lush farm that supports a family of nine with 30 head of beef cattle, six miniature donkeys, 40 laying hens, two turkeys, four guinea fowl, three geese, three ducks, two Australian cattle dogs and six pups.
Not to mention a number of cats, as I recall.
I hope this brightened your day. If America is, indeed, going to hell, people like the Andersons are pulling mightily in the other direction.
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When I lamented my love/hate relationship with Penzeys Spices, one of my readers pointed me to an alternative spice source. I wasn't particularly looking for a new source at the time, having resigned myself to making do with grocery store spices except when Penzeys had a very, very special sale—which they seem to do every time Bill Penzey wants to point to a spike in sales as evidence that his customers support a particular political position.
But I checked out The Spice House and was blown away. I had not known the greater Penzeys story: It was Bill Penzey, Sr. who started the original Spice House company. His daughter took over the business, while his son, Bill Penzey, Jr., started his own spice company. Both companies have access to the old family recipes. The Spice House is smaller and more local than Penzeys, which they count to their advantage, all their spices still being prepared by hand in small batches, at their store.
The biggest difference between Penzeys and The Spice House is in politics. For all I know, the owners of the two stores share the same exact political views—or perhaps they are poles apart. I wouldn't know, because, unlike Penzeys, The Spice House makes a point of welcoming customers of all political persuasions, and keeping a very low profile themselves.
Here at The Spice House we are strictly a community of folks who like to cook; you will never get any lectures from us that include our personal agenda. We are just about the love of cooking and getting you the best possible ingredients to produce the most flavorful results!
Penzeys-quality seasonings without the side order of vituperation? I'm in!
My first order with The Spice House was just large enough to qualify for free shipping, because I'm trying to draw down my current spice stockpile, but what I've seen so far, I like very much. Here's a new blend that quickly became a favorite: Lake Shore Drive Seasoning: Gently hand mixed from salt, shallots, garlic, onion, chives, ground green peppercorns, scallions. My favorite alliums all together! I could only be happier if they had—without replacing this one—a blend that included all of the above except the salt, so I could add still more of the flavor to a dish.
I doubt The Spice House will totally replace Penzeys for me, as not all blends are available in both places. But it has certainly become the go-to store for my regular seasoning purchases.
I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.
You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.
Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.
Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.
Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.
And then Penzeys closed our store.
I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.
You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed jobs. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.
They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.
On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!
Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.
The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes. Here's one of the latter that came this time:
It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.
For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?
Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!
But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.
Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.
I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.
Update 10/16/19: Note that this post has garnered enough comments to spill over past the first page. Click on the Next link to see the more recent ones.
I'd say the President and the Speaker of the House are acting like two-year-olds, but I have more respect for two-year-olds than that. That said, in their recent spat—in which the Speaker told the President that in light of the partial government shutdown he should postpone his State of the Union Speech or submit it in writing, and the President told the Speaker that in light of the same she couldn't use a military jet for her planned foreign travel but was welcome to fly a commercial airline—each made an excellent point.
The subject, "As Go the People, so Go the Leaders" has two meanings. One, that while we should be able to expect our leaders to be better in every way than the rest of us, that never happens, and can not realistically be expected in a democracy. For the record, I believe democracy to be the best form of government, and do not believe that our political system is broken, as so many are fond of saying. What is broken is our culture, especially our culture as seen through our media—and all too often we deserve what we get.
The second meaning is more to the point here. I'll give the Executive their Air Force One. But the Legislative Branch? The branch that is supposed to be made up of representatives of the American people? I'm sick of Congress exempting itself from the rules it imposes on the rest of the country, and the practices that further divide our representatives from the reality of American life. Let them fly the way the rest of us do. Preferably coach class.
And having a written State of the Union speech instead of a political grandstanding media circus? Sounds great to me!
Some of my friends predicted a Blue Wave. Some of my friends predicted a Red Wave. Instead, I awoke this morning to a sea of purple.
I'm good with that. I'm a purple kind of person, politically. I belong to a particular party only so that I can participate in the primary elections. Yesterday I voted for some Democrats and some Republicans. I won some races and lost others. Of one thing only am I certain: the victors will be neither as bad as I fear nor as good as I hope.
I'm also fine with what they're calling a "mixed government." No party should have an easy time pushing its own agenda: we lose the checks and balances that allow the voices of the rest of the country to be heard.
However, I do have a few words for the winners:
- If you won your race by a 51/49 margin, do not intone, "The people have spoken" and think you have a mandate for your ideas. Never forget that half your constituency do not want you as their leader.
- If you won by a landslide, I say the same thing. A rare 60/40 victory, or even an unheard of 90/10, does not mean you have the right to ignore the minority. Never forget that you are now as responsible for looking after their interests and considering their needs and values as you are those of the people who voted for you.
- Remember that you were elected to serve, not to be served.
That would make American great.