Thursday, September 29, 2016

Trickle Down Magic

The impression of what the first Presidential debate "means" or "meant" are as numerous as the snowflakes, or Hardee's Biscuits. It is surely true that people applying logic to what they heard, plus a modicum of their own non-lying eyes, will probably conclude that Mrs. Clinton "won." But like all the Presidential Debates of yore, there are really no rules, no clear presentations of policy or point of view. Mrs. Clinton surely did much better than Mr. Trump at.... something. I'd say that for sure I'd feel better with the country in her hands, than in the hands of a man who seems incapable of saying complete sentences, or of maintaining his personal composure in the face of almost any resistance at all, justified resistance or not. And Trump's post-debate remarks dig the hole deeper. The mic was bad? Really? I am around sound systems a good deal and I didn't notice any difference in the amplification quality of the two "debaters." Whenever Mr. Trump is questioned, on almost any subject, his default response, which he seems unable to gain mastery over, is 4th grade, hand in the cookie jar lies. It's obvious and really appalling, and it speaks, more than anything he says, to his Presidential abilities. And that is what the "debates" are also designed to showcase.

A parallel case would be Mr. McCain's exhibition of his own Presidential judgment in his first "presidential act," the nomination of the ridiculous Sarah Palin as his Vice-President. It is what it is. I was certainly going to vote for Mr. Obama in any event, but Mrs. Palin's patent incompetence was a necessary and sufficient reason to vote against the man who thought she was capable of being President of the United States. This is almost primarily what the "debates" are "about." The implicit question is, "so, if you're so presidential, what would you do about this." Over and over, Trump fails this existential test. Last week he was more or less starting a war with Iran over gestures Iran's sailors made to a U.S. warship. As this is in one way or another a fairly common test of both our military and our ability to maintain a cool hand, six months of Trump leadership is likely to yield a de facto world war, with the United States, going it alone, on the attack against quite a number of "uppity" countries here and there around the globe. The result of the United States adopting as official foreign policy a Trumpean attitude towards the world is likely to be, over a fairly short time, a world-wide coalition of countries aimed at stopping the United States. As Mrs. Clinton pointed out with regard to the trade discussion, which was one of the most cogent bits of debate as far as debate itself goes, we only have about five percent of the world's population. As long ago as 1864, U.S. Grant illustrated this bottom line military problem. Mr. Jeff Davis shortly found himself riding a train to nowhere. He allegedly was toting the Confederate gold.

But it's important to keep in view that Mr. Trump is not some weird outlier, not "really" a Republican in the mold of Mitt Romney or John McCain or George W. Bush. One of his minions notes this in the screen captured tweet above. The GOP believes in the trickle down magic lock, stock and barrel. Trump is just incapable of containing his real beliefs to the moments when he's ranting at the club, after 18 holes. It's always, for the GOP, those 47 "loser" "user" American citizens, rankling them to a bed sore the size of Jupiter.

The choice is between an incompetent, and a scream of exasperation that, once again, the "takers" are getting away with it. And for the rest of us. As usual it is just small increments, life at its petty pace. As I've said here before, the Germans didn't vote for a Berlin in rubble. But that's what they sure as hell got.

By the way, I see for the moment that all my links have vanished. I'm working on figuring out why. Sorry.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Kaepernick Versus the Police Unions

(stock photo)

Among far too many people the faith in law and fairness takes a distant second to a faith in force and power, when the chips are down. We saw this immediately after the events of 9/11. Before the fires were out the Congress was hard at work building a new “patriot act,” which overturned formerly accepted civil protections. Waterboarding, an interrogation tactic which had been ruled a kind of torture by international agreements since at least World War II, was suddenly accepted by top police and intelligence agencies if the threat was deemed too serious to worry about the legal niceties. By the end of 2003 or 2004 we were seeing the photos from Abu Graib prison in Iraq. CIA interrogators who argued that tactics like water-boarding yielded lies were pretty much ignored.

For decades in this country many police agencies have apparently believed that extreme force was justified when their authority was questioned by minority citizens. Questioning authority might mean a person running from a traffic stop for a broken tail light, or simply a person objecting to being stopped with vehemence. If a minority citizen was foolish enough to be impaired or mentally unstable, they might be killed on the spot even if they had no weapon, or if they were brandishing a knife at a distance. On too many occasions, citizens of color have been shot and killed because a particular policeman has been on a kind of “hair trigger,” expecting the worst kind of trouble as soon as the encounter with the citizen began. The child with the pellet gun in Cleveland comes to mind, and the man shopping in an Ohio Walmart and carrying a plastic toy rifle he was intending to purchase for his son. Meanwhile, white citizens in similar situations tend to be “talked down,” often never charged with anything. It's passing strange.

It is too many instances like John Crawford's killing at Walmart, or the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, which have led people like Colin Kaepernick to kneel when the National Anthem is played at games, or the flag displayed. The protest, which does no more that remind all of us that the flag actually stands for the best American values, has spread because the patent injustices keep coming, week after week, in the headlines. A lot of people think about it and find they agree with Mr. Kaepernick. Kneeling, by the way, is pretty respectful. No one is burning the flag, as they did during Vietnam for similar reasons. Now police unions are threatening to remove police protections from teams who join in the protests. This threat, while it may give immediate pleasure to people who do not want to hear anything from the downtrodden but “yessir,” is almost elegantly misguided.

If you think about it in the abstract, it is the removal of expected police behavior which underlies almost all the questionable actions of police against minorities. Everyone expects police to be restrained, since they hold the power of life and death. This expectation is overturned when a policeman rolls up and blasts a 12-year-old within literally seconds of their arrival. When such actions are then justified by grand juries, there is an overall loss of something we all expect. The police, after all, work for all of us.

If a particular force is needed at a particular football game, removing such force because someone on the field did something some of the policemen don't like (and actually don't understand) is arbitrary and in it's own way another example of the same thing being protested against in the first place. You'd think the police unions would get this. What they are suggesting instead is that since police have life and death power, they should be feared and whatever they might do in a particular circumstance must be accepted without question. Force and power, in other words, win out over fairness and justice.

This is fundamentally a racist or fascistic position. It's not what we want our civil servants to assert. Since Mr. Trump is asserting pretty much the same idea, it's also perhaps a dangerous harbinger of what life in the United States might well become under a Trump regime. When he talks about “getting tough,” what he means is ending legal niceties. The groups we fear for whatever reason will be targeted for rough justice. A naturalized Afgani-American is now a suspect in the New Jersey bombings over the weekend. Trump immediately suggests that all such Afgani-Americans should expect a knock in the night. This is a return to a dark world the United States is working to leave behind. If police unions endorse such a world they had best study up on how these things worked in the Soviet Union and East Germany. You don't have to be ethnic to become a suspect, you just have to be subject to an anonymous whisper campaign. Perhaps Kafka's The Trial would make for good weekend reading, before the boys in blue tune in the NFL.

In the 1950s here in the US our government denied J. Robert Oppenheimer a security clearance. It can happen here. It did, in fact, happen here. Tony Stewart says Kaepernick is an "idiot." Perhaps that's reassuring, in the sense that it illustrates the obliviousness of white privilege which connected white men usually exemplify. Mr. Stewart was generously given the benefits of many doubts a couple of years back. He probably didn't even notice. John Crawford: not even one.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Small Engine Repair

[the author on the Deere, some years back, mowing the orchard]

The week started out with one of the recurring chores, mowing the field that abuts the driveway and the flower garden. We used to call this the orchard. There were once three apple trees. Below the orchard there was once a pasture which even fed some young cows. Back when Anna was little she named the herd: there was Leon and there was Kathy. I kept them for about a year and a half, then sent them back to the stock market. It was a way of keeping the pasture up. I didn't want to butcher them myself. We always said, well they probably went to a good home. It always turned out that the hauling fees plus the sweet feed and the supplemental hay in the winter turned out to equal the weight gain. Funny how that works. Buy high, sell low. The pasture grew back to woods during a couple of years when I was too busy to run the bush hog over the whole thing, after I'd dropped the idea of keeping it mowed with livestock. It doesn't take long. The tractor's more or less deceased now, and I'm running an old MD mower my father-in-law, the old vet, used to drive down in Tarboro where he was born and lived most of his life. One of the last things he did with it was accidentally run it over a pretty good sized cliff, which was his property boundary and the bank of a little stream. He got distracted somehow. The plastic hood on the machine was busted up pretty good, but he survived ok, some bruises and aches. Not too long after that he decided to move into assisted living at the Albemarle, a nice facility in Tarboro, and sold his home. We ended up with the mower, which his brother-in-law, a small engine genius, had fixed up after the accident.

It keeps on running. It started out this spring sputtering and I figured out with the help of the Western Auto folks in Siler and Mr. Google that there was gas getting into the oil, so I put an on-off valve in the gas line, changed out the air filter and the oil and the spark plug, and she started being dependable again, for the duration of the summer. But this week I ran through some higher than usual grass and weeds and that choked up one of the blades, which then caused the pulley to burn the blade belt. I have had this happen before. I disengaged the mower deck and drove the mower out of the way and cut it off. But then it wouldn't start. The grass kept growing.

Later on Monday I went into town and even looked at a couple of used mowers a guy who repairs them had sitting out near highway 64, two olive green Craftsman mowers, made I think by Poulan. The guy was actually riding one of them, proving to any and all that it definitely ran. He had a decent price on them, and they looked a lot less beat up than the MD that went over the cliff, so I was tempted. But Libby quite correctly pointed out that getting the MD fixed still might be a lot cheaper. So yesterday, Tuesday, I drove down the road a couple of miles to a neighbor's, who has a sign out at his driveway for small engine repairs and chain sharpening. He's been there for many years. With the chain sharpening deal, you can just put a chain in his mailbox and leave your phone number, he'll run it sharp on a jig and give you a holler.

He's a guy who's had time—decades--to set up a good shop for lawn mowers and other such stuff. You can see the shop from the road, which is a good distance but still a nice clear view. He has an asphalt driveway, which is worth appreciating as much as you want. If he's there the shop door's open and usually he's sitting down and working on something or other. He also enjoys keeping a kind of humorous display, yard art you might say, or even outsider art if you're a curator, up by his pond. The art has become more elaborate over time. It features these days a big fan that moves, suggesting mobility if there's a breeze, and some sort of wagon with creatures aboard. Often there's a sign with a wry comment about the times and the political scene. At one time a few years back he had a space ship, which is actually still there, but now somewhat eclipsed by the other more elaborate features.

I drove down the asphalt and said howdy. He turned out to have time for my poor machine. He was in the process of building a “cannon,” using 4 inch plastic drain pipe and some old steel wagon wheels. It was headed for the pond display once it got a coat of flat black. I went back and got the MD and Libby and I pushed it up some planks onto the truck. When I got back to the shop the small engine guy came up with some spiffy aluminum ramps—far better than my over long treated-wood scaffold boards—and we rolled the mower over to the shop. Once situated, he reached up and hit a switch, and from the ceiling here comes a little chain hoist. Quickly the hoist stood the MD up vertical on its back wheels, and we could look at the underside without lying on the ground with the dust and the ticks. As I said earlier, the blades were choked with weeds. Out came a power socket wrench, and off came the blades. Hell of a lot nicer than trying to pull the grass out a stem at a time, or busting loose a bolt with a hand wrench and a hammer. While the blades were off I asked him to sharpen them, something that hadn't happened since I loaded the mower on the truck in Tarboro five or six years ago, or maybe it's been ten by now. He also looked at the mower belt. It was frayed from the pulley, so he sent me off to town to get a new one. He was also able to jump start the mower with a jump machine, which proved it wasn't seized up at least. The option of buying that used Craftsman was receding over the event horizon.

I picked up the belt. The things have gotten dear. Last one was, I think I recall, about $18.00. This one was $40. Stuff wears out. The small engine guy told me later that he'd just replaced a starter on a Deere. The part cost $400. When I got back with the belt he had the battery out and was working under the back fender. The thing needed a solenoid and he fortunately had one on hand, so I didn't have to go right back to town. This explained the no start situation. The jump showed the engine wasn't seized, but had bypassed the battery and ignition, which includes a solenoid. When he'd finished installing the new solenoid she cranked right up. My mower was back in business, and he even gave me a little lesson on how to jump a mower using just a car battery. No extra charge for that. I told him about replacing the solenoid on the old F-150 this spring. This was just to establish to him that I knew something or other about internal combustion engines.

We got it back on the truck and I got the “orchard” mowed before supper. There's a little area I'll finish up in a few minutes, where I needed to rake out some long weed tendrils so they wouldn't gum up the works again. Then it's on to the next thing. It's starting to feel like fall a little. There's a new tropical storm down in Georgia that might or might not meander up here for the weekend. If we get some rain it'd be a good thing at this point.

It's a nice thing to spend a few decades working on small engines. Do that and you know small engines, and all sorts of things come to mind in a helpful sequence, and you end up figuring out that, for example, a solenoid needs replacing. I replaced the solenoid on my old F-150 back in May. It's the second time I've done that. The first time I learned the symptoms, and where the thing is. It's an easy job on the Ford. You can see it and get to the bolts that hold it onto the fender. I didn't even know the mower had a solenoid, and to pull it you kind of have to do it blind, feeling for the nuts and using a long socket wrench extender. The small engine man had the extender, and the right socket, and knew where the part was located. He'd checked other possibilities for why the engine wouldn't crank while I was buying the belt. It came down to the solenoid, and he was already putting the new one back on when I drove up with the belt. Plus—as I said—he even had the part on hand! Sweet.

They used to write songs about this, with titles like you don't miss your water till the well runs dry. Until a couple of years ago there was a great auto mechanic just down the road, even closer than the small engine man. When he finished up he'd drive the vehicle back to my house, then I'd ride him back. His motto was, “you can probably fix this yourself.” He'd had some heart trouble after working a lifetime in the shop. He'd done decades with his dad, who probably started as a kid with his dad. I always meant to take photos of all the old signs and cans of stuff he had on the walls. One day last year I drove down there to get the truck inspected and he was closed. I see him now and then on his tractor. We wave. There are still some ok mechanics around, but they're farther, and mostly Spanish is their first language.

After I got the mowing done I went to the Food Lion. If you looked around there you'd think tomato season was over and done. You can still buy sort of ok tomatoes, particularly if you're tossing them into a stir-fry. This year we had about six weeks where people were giving anyone they saw a handful of garden tomatoes worthy of a mater sandwich, just mayo, pepper, and all the slices that will fit. The last bag of those I got from another small engine guy, who tested my chain saw and agreed with the dealer that it had no compression. He's got a fantastic garden of tomatoes growing beside his backyard shop every summer, way more than he can eat or even can. He's a very generous guy. “Take you some of those,” he'll say without fail. “No, get some more.” He adjusted my weed eater one time after it'd stopped. Gave me some maters, no charge. I gave him a CD, which I think he liked. He definitely likes bluegrass music, and the CD could be mistaken for bluegrass.

You'd think that with all the great garden maters growing around here every summer, the Food Lion would always have some in the store. Hit don't work that way. Supply Chains. Logistics. Computers. Stock holders for that matter. There's probably somebody who'll pull the lever for Trump because their chainsaw broke, and they couldn't buy a real tomato any more. They blame it all on Obama. But I tell you what, if they deport all the Mescans ain't nobody left to fix your old truck. The Trumps of the world wouldn't know about that part of reality if it was a rattler coiled up and rattling next to their shiny Gucci's.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mendacity, the Human Trait

Well of course chimps are surely mendacious, and I also suspect the kitties, who profess to love us dearly but possibly love the fact that we love them more. Mokey, who is the most straightforward, will lovingly climb into your plate if there's chicken aboard, and makes a habit of flicking Libby on the lip with a claw if he would really like his bit bowl filled right now please. But then perhaps they've learned this particular behavior from us, as part of weaving of the bond between us.

Today we learn that Mother Teresa is now a Saint. This is a fact of culture, nothing more. A large group of people with like beliefs have had a ceremony. It's just one of those things. Mostly in the spirit of live and let live we just let it go. We likewise let go the dubious beliefs of other cultural entities, short of certain things we simply do not let pass, because they go "too far." The Taliban did itself no favors by executing women in soccer stadiums for alleged adultery. The Filipino President does himself no favors by executing drug dealers without trial. But mostly, things just go on, because we can't really be the world's policeman. There is no answer for Syria, but alternative strategies of death.

Still, Mr. Hitchens has a point:

I found the video on this very fine web page:

(It might play better if you go directly to Youtube.)

In other news of mendacity, Phyllis Schlafly died. Corey Robin has a nice piece on her at Crooked Timber:

He quotes a very elegant argument against Schlafly made by Catharine MacKinnon back in the early '80s, as the two debated about the ERA Amendment, namely that Schlafly's own anti-feminism actually worked against her personally by upholding the implicit sexism of the age. It's too bad mendacity can be so effective as a tactic. Would that the world were like chess.

In 1976 a genius chess player named Judit Polgar was born in Hungary. She had two older sisters, and all three were raised to be chess masters by their father Lazlo. He in fact succeeeded to a remarkable degree. When Judit retired from competitive chess at the age of 40 she was viewed as the greatest woman chess player ever, and one of the greatest chess players of all time. Judit and her sisters refused to compete in women's only matches, and faced through much of their rise in the sport the sexist criticism of noted masters such as Garry Kasparov, who believed that women by their very "nature" could not achieve the chess prowess of men. Something or other about not being aggressive enough. Ms Polgar defeated Kasparov in the late '90s, and there is some question of an earlier victory he posted against her being tainted by a move he made after briefly releasing a piece. I'll include a youtube of one her Judit's beautiful chess games, nicely annotated so you can understand her thinking.

In the case of Ms Polgar and her sisters, the argument is quite settled on the field of play, where the stench of mendacity is blown away by the sea breeze. A lot of folks could learn something. But it's not what Tom Wolfe apparently thought he learned when he wrote in his new book that human kind is likely not evolved out of the genus of mammalia, or at least that language suggests non-evolutionary explanations.

But see, as well:

As ever, the principle of Occam's Razor is a good one. Or as Polgar's annotator says, "she's not after the Queen, she's after the King, because that is the game." Not that language doesn't raise deep questions well worth a lot of thought.

Locally, Libby and I were over in the next county, in Liberty, last night. A trip to the laundro. There we found stacks of a little town paper called the Liberty Leader. It had, on page 2, an explanation of a mystery I've been noticing around these parts for some months. More and more homes are sporting a yellow and black yard sign which proclaims, in large type, "Thank You Jesus." It's a free country of course. But it's also felt a little like a modern Passover. There's a broad message in such signs, as well as the obvious one. Or maybe several messages, some friendly, some not so. There might even be a tipping point somewhere, if, say, nine out of ten driveways are sporting their sign. What's that tenth guy going to do? It reminds me of the old controversy about the the avocado mailbox on Randolph Road. Bobbie Thompson didn't want to paint her's avocado, even though the road as a whole somehow "decided" that was a mark of respectability and taste. As it turned out of course, Bobbie, a trained fine artist who taught intaglio print making at Duke, was right. Seen any avocado stoves lately?

Anyways, the Liberty Leader offers something of an explanation. Here it is. I photographed the story.

Prosperity Gospel, that's for sure.