Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The News Today Is More 'Exciting' Than It Was

I tell myself not to watch the news all the time. The news has always been depressing but it has become especally so in recent years.

I was born in the mid-1960s and started paying attention to the world around me during the 1970s. Back then, some group or other was always protesting something. Whether it was women with the Equal Rights Amendment, people wanting civil rights, or to end the war, in Vietnam or nuclear weapons or rights at work (be they white, black, latino, Native American, gay, straight or bi) or others wanting to save nature or animals or some particular animal (e.g. the manitee or whales), the news was not the news without someone protesting someone, some thing, some company, the government or some civil organization or other. Television watchers were conditioned to be OK with people protesting.

I liked watching protests, whatever they were. A part of me has always loved parades and a protest is a parade with a focus, which is fine. Back then, it was even patriotic to protest; it was an exercise of freedom of speech and good citizenship. There is a big difference between peaceful, acceptable and parade-like protests and violent protests. Violent protests amount to crime, in my opinion. There is nothing about good citizenship in crime. Crime is crime.

Nowdays, protests become violent more often than not. During the 'Good Old Days,' which I characterize as anything that happened during the time Johnny Carson was on television, the world was a different place. Yes, there were horrible atrocities being done to peoples' rights and there were wars and terrible things going on. But, people were nicer. The world was nicer.

During the 1970s, the presidents were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. They were all professional. Any of them came off as guys who might own an insurance brokerage. They were camera-ready, poised, gracious and said very little to the public about anything. And, I liked it that way. These guys were all sane and I never did see the big deal about the whole Nixon thing. Political parties spying on each other is like professional wrestlers snapping one another's tights in the locker room.

The local news in New Jersey and New York could put me to sleep. Some company wants to rezone someplace to build something, some governing body is raising taxes, someone was getting fired and someone was getting appointed to something. There was a "hot new toy" for kids coming out for Christmas. Whatever. Fine.

Nowadays, it's not the same. There are mass shootings in the news every month. People with guns shooting one another over nothing. Nothing at all. People called Liberals are trying to limit the guns in peoples' hands so there are fewer (hopefully, none) shootings. People called Conservatives are trying to arm absolutely everyone so, when shootings happen, there can be a larger firefight to repulse the mass shooters. It's insanity. This whole mass shootings thing makes the Cold War look downright reasonable. I don't want to 'weigh in' on this insanity, other than to say I do not and do not wish to own a gun and do not now, nor have I ever, wanted to get shot.

I hear about what is happening with President Trump in the White House and it's insanity. It's bad theater. He is nothing like the calm, reassuring (if not boring) presidents of yester-year. Boring is OK. Through the years, I have learned to love all things boring. I do not need anything that raises my blood pressure. Maybe that is why I am a Mets and Jets fan. I can always count on a reliable stream of under-achieving and disappointment among my sports teams. If the Mets win 100 games in a year it's exciting, but I don't know what to do. Thank goodness that doesn't happen much. As for the Jets, if they win eight games a season it's like we won the Super Bowl. If the team wins 10 or more games then everyone goes nuts about what happens next. First, that doesn't happen too often either and, second, I don't think that the players ever plan for a post-season on the team. It gets in the way of vacations and their home life.

Even horror movies have taken horror to never-before seen heights of frightening. In the warly '70s, the big thing was "The Exorcist." Actress Linda Blair spun her head once and puked pea soup and people were fainting in theater aisles. Nowadays...a lot more happens. People used to think zombie movies were terrifying. Now being a zombie is a career ambition for some kids.

I am in my 50s now, and I thank God for it. If I were a little older that would be fine too. People today are very interesting, even exciting. 'Interesting' and 'exciting' are catch-words for 'insane' and 'crazy.' When I was in my 20s through 40s, I was a journalist. And, I got involved with causes and wanted to help change things for the better. Such an attitude was ridiculous. Sure, things can change with enough people getting upset. Mostly, though, people are herd creatures and move that way. Trying to be a part of a cause is like being in a little herd that is trying to help motivate the larger herd to the hay instead of the water. In the end, who cares if a cow eats hay or drinks water? Well, maybe the cows. Everyone else...not so much.

Then there is the toughest six-letter word in existance: Family. It's rough. It's tough. It's not for the weak of heart. Heck, when I was a kid it was a blood sport. In the end, though, it teaches people the need to pick their battles and learn to love the mild sedative experience that is binge-watching television show seasons on Netflix. Thank God for Netflix. It's quiet. It kills time. It's boring. It's the 21st century's answer for comfort food.

Back in the 1970s, people got freaked out about the Vietnam War lasting 16 years (1959-1975). They protested night and day. These days, America has fought two wars for 16 years, are no closer to leaving either Iraq or Afghanistan than the first day U.S. troops arrived and no one cares. People are working very hard to ignore things like war today. Rather than get upset, I guess most people are just binge-watching their Netflix.

There is a ton of stuff wrong today, one thing more upsetting than the next. I am retired from work, retired from having a point-of-view and definitely retired from causes. Now, the most excitement I can handle is if and maybe when the Mets win 100 games and the Jets do better than win eight games. Aside from that, it's all about home improvement, sensible shoes and fighting off collecting weird 'old man' smells.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Some similarities between Washington and Grant

Ulysses Grant inherited the problems of Lincoln
The more I read about the presidency of Ulysses Grant (1869-1877), I cannot help but compare it in my mind to that of George Washington (1789-1797).

Both Washington and Grant grew up in middle-class environments (Washington higher middle-class and Grant lower middle-class). They both served as junior officers in terrible conflicts (Washington in the French and Indian War and Grant in the War in Mexico). Both men married women, who they loved, above their stations (For Washington Martha Custis and for Grant Julia Dent). During the Interwar years, for both, they were each sort of lost. Of course, Washington became a successful farmer, though Grant eventually established himself in the family tannery business.

During their wars, Washington led an improbable army to miraculous victory against an unbeatable force (in the British Crown); and Grant led a demoralized and weather-beaten force (Army and Navy) to victory over a valiant and frequently victorious army led by some of the brightest generals in the history of armed warfare.

In the case of both Washington and Grant, neither one could, in good conscience, walk away from their country in the wake of their wars. In the case of Washington, the newfound United States might well have fallen into civil war or a non-democratic form of government without his acceptance of the presidency. Without Grant accepting the presidency, and given outgoing President Andrew Johnson's inabiltiy to lead effectively after the Civil War, the newly reunited nation might well have fallen back into civil war, or back into slavery, or into war with Great Britain.

Neither Washington or Grant ever sought a nomination for the presidency, during any of their terms, and both men patently refused being nominated for third terms. For both of them, public service beyond their military experiences was an unwanted chore that was a mechanism of national need above personal.

When it came to Washington, he was paid through a complex forumula of GNP and other considerations of the new United States. Grant was paid $50,000 per year to be president, but he had to operate the White House with his pay.

Washington did not serve in Washington as the nation's seat of power: he served in New York. Grant served in Washington DC and his wife supervised substantial building of the presidential home.

There were differences during the tenures of office of the two men. The notion of 'strong executive' or 'weak executive' governments was not considered during Washington's time as president. He was Washington. After earlier turning down being an American monarch, and thereafter enforcing the construction of a democratic republic in America, Washington gave orders and most people just went along. Washington was not a unilateral 'decider.' He never was. Washington liked hearing all sides of any matter and then made an informed decision. Washington listened to people and made the best choice he could based on that advice.

Grant basically did business the way Washington did. He took in all sides of any question and made the best choice he saw from out of that counsel. Both men appointed trusted army subordinates in key govermental posts after their rise to office. Maybe Washington did it a little more than Grant.

So, where were the differences?

Grant inherited a 'weak president' role after taking the presidential reins from Andrew Johnson. Johnson did more to weaken the office of the presidency than any 19th century executive. He was a mess and going into Johnson's many sins would take a book (let alone an editorial). Moreover, Grant assumed office at a time when the Senate had become used to calling the shots on the national scene. Grant was second-guessed from the beginning of his tenure. Far from being listened to, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate of his time were more than happy to go about running the country without his interference. For good or bad (mostly bad in my opinion), Grant went from fighting the Civil War to taking part in the Political Wars immediately thereafter.

Washington wouldn't have had any of that. During his presidency, New Jersey Representative Robert Morris recalled, in his memoirs, on one social occasion putting his hand, unsoicited, on Washington's shoulder. To paraphrase, Morris said he was immediately given a frozn stare by the stately president that informed Morris (without any words passing) that putting his hand on the president's shoulder was a mistake and that it would never happen again. I find it hard to think that anyone in the legislative branch of government considered shoving a bill down the president's throat when they could not even gain permission to touch him on the shoulder.

Washington and Grant were both soft-spoken and not 'talkers.' Both wrote extensively. Washington played a vital part in creating and defining all of the government agencies that would, some 72 years later, wage almost ceaseless war against Grant. If anything drew the ire of white men in Grant's day, it was the said (and often un-said) disagreement they held with him about the slavery issue. To put it plainly, most white men (of both the North and South) wanted blacks to be treated as 'less than' whites. Northerners generally believed that blacks should be free and treated as third-class citizens while Southerners believed they should still be enslaved and treated like third-class citizens.

Washington and his founding brothers consciously made the decision to put off the slavery discussion. Given that armistice of views, it made it possible for the North and South to come together and create a new nation. But, slavery had to be dealt with, and while official slavery ended under Abraham Lincoln, it was far harder work to create the legislation that would eventually lead to recognition and enforcement of black rights. Of course, this was a night and day fight and Grant (an abolishionist by the time he was president) would not surrender or get out of the way of those who would find new ways to enslave black people.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

General Impressions of Grant as President

I am far from done researching President Ulysses Grant. In general, Grant is an icon for me, whose life draws some parallels with that of George Washington and invites comparison. Up until Reconstruction, I think it can be argued Grant was an essential civilian leader. President Andrew Johnson had done so little to advance the cause of national re-unification and reconciliation that Grant's credibility and expertise was vital to the United States neither lapsing back into war or a state of much more chaos than it already  experienced.

With that said, Grant made some horrible mistakes as a politician. He allowed three or four homes to be bought for him and his family, around the country by supporters of his. One of these homes was purchased while he was a serving general and given under the auspices of '...from a grateful country.' I can almost understand that one. But for the subsequent homes I cannot understand this. Those homes were bought strictly during his tenure as a civilian leader. And, someone would have to think a lot of themsleves to think they deserved gaining a free house every few months or so.

Further, in allowing himself to be drawn into a gold speculation scandal dring his first administration, even if it was adriotly or without his conscience deliberation, I think he made a terrible mistake. And, at this point, I am not willing to say that he had no culpability in the "Gold Twins" controversy that led to America's first "Blak Friday" Wall Street market crash.

President Grant had absolutely no background in finance. In fact, his own finances were far from expertly handled. While U.S. Grant was a man of many skills: dependable leadership, complex military logistics management, integration of land and sea-borne forces in practical application, strategy and tactics, negotiations and civil administration, he had virtually no experience in high finance. What little he knew about any finances was constrained to whatever he might have picked up working at his family's tannery in Ohio. Yet, U.S. Grant was not a dope. He knew what he was good at and what he had no valuable knowledge about. So, by virtue of the mere fact that he associated, on a social basis, with gold and land speculators like Jay Gould, I am unconvinced that Grant had no idea that such speculators would try and turn a quick buck from insider information provided through his administration.

I cannot 100 percent say that Grant knowlingly did any misdeed. However, I can understand it if it happened. By and large, with the exception of the Civil War years, Grant had a midling military and business career. There were long periods of time when Grant's and his family were supported by hand-outs or jobs given him by relatives, of both his and his wife's. Though a good man, Grant was humbled many times by circumstance. His marriage to Julia Grant was hallmarked by long periods of separation and living hand-to-mouth more times than not. After he became a national hero and celebrity, as well as a coveted national leader, there is something almost reasonable about him wanting to do more for his wife and children than simply exist. Maybe he could have believed that a little inside information to the odd speculator or so was innocuous. But then, he didn't know what would come of it and the consequences such practices would have on the national scene.

Well, I am sorry but I am not going to say that U.S, Grant was either dumb or naive. I find it hard to believe that the man, the only man, to ever whip General Robert E. Lee was either. I am going to have to research the heck out of this, but I am going to find it hard to argue myself into believing that U.S. Grant had no idea what he was doing with a gang of gold speculators over lunch on more than a few occasions. Further, he gave these men access to inside information, knowingly or not.

Of some note is that one of Grant's many strengths was etimating the characters of the people around him, and it would be strange that this virtue entirely abandoned him post the Civil War.

Doing Research on Ulysses Grant

I haven't posted for awhile because I am reading White's "American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant" and, after that, am going to read "Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman, Vol. 2." I want to write a multi-part piece about Grant's experience during the Mexican War, the Interwar Years, the Civil War and his presidency (perhaps the most controversial thing about his public life).

I like to write history but so much of of writing good history is doing good research before the writing. I don't want to rush the research but it is going to take two reads of White's book (and its 667 pages in addition to its 200 pages of bibliography) and Sherman's 448 pages. Hey, anything worth doing is worth doing right.

I'll be back after the researching and the writing. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Strengthening Borders Doesn't Mean Losing Humanity

Living in fear is a bad idea for Americans

As Americans, let us not allow our fears to rule us in how we collectively, and individually, view our nation, and each other. 

  In this column, I would specifically like to discuss immigration, which is as controversial a subject as any these days.

  I do not want to discuss the subject as a Republican or a Democrat, a Liberatarian or Conservative, a Liberal or whatever other label is popular out there for the moment. Instead, I would rather discuss immigration as an American taxpayer and voter.

  I am all for making the United States the most difficult nation in the world to emigrate to, attend college in, or event visit, for those not born in this land. I look out in the world, and there are more dangers out there than ever before, in my opinion. So, being extremely selective about who is offered citizenship or permanent residency is not such a bad thing. It is a good idea, in theory.
National paranoia doesn't advance prosperity

  With that said, our nation's immigration services and policies have excluded record numbers of immigrants in the past few years. And, it is right that illegal immigrants be stopped, detained and held for whatever period is needed to address the law enforcement penalities associated with any alleged unlawful immigration.

  However, it is wrong that families being detained for alleged illegal immigration are being separated. Chidren need parents. Without parents, children are traumatized and such traumatization has dire circumstances in their deveopment as these children mature.

  If a child is traumatized as a consequence of a government's direct action against their family, held by the state as some kind of poker chip in a question of national morality, then that child can grow to hate its oppressor. Of course, the average American is not separating these families in detention: it is the government. It is, however, the government sanctioned by the people in response to the fear (rightly or wrongly) that the people have about immigrants. So, the pain of children separatd from their families today can become the impetus for national hatred against the United States tomorrow. Consequently, the actions of today, with their flawed legal precedence, can become the incubator of terrorists and monsters of tomorrow. And, the United States will have itself to blame.

  How many Palestinian Arab children grew up in the shadow of Israel's imprisonment of their friends, parents and people only to deal with these children years later as the suicide bombers, terrorists and criminals who committed terrible acts against that nation. Well, America is sowing the same oats for itself tomorrow right now.

  If something feels as if it is humane and common sense then it usually is. Yes, alleged illegal immigrants, once captured, must be detained. However, that detainment should be done within family units and not under the harshest conditions possible. Meet the letter of the law, by all means, but do not change the opinion of the world as America as the stronghold of democracy to the notion of America as the divider of families.

  It would take relatively nothing for this policy to change nationwide, nothing more than a presidential executive order, which could be drafted in an afternoon. Such an order could save countless lives and dollars in the years to come, and is worthy for a nation that prides itself on Christian values and decency.

  America is writing its story for the next 30 years right now. I say that story should include some element of mercy, because in the end our nation and its people will receive as good as we gave.

(Jim Purcell is a retired journalist who resides in Western North Carolina with his wife, Lita.)