Mike Kueber's Blog

October 12, 2015

More on Columbus Day

Filed under: Culture,Facebook,History — Mike Kueber @ 8:52 pm
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I rarely post anything political on my Facebook wall because I don’t want to annoy my apolitical friends. But this morning I couldn’t resist posting the following:

  • After getting tired of all the news articles supporting the movement from Columbus Day to Native American/Indigenous Peoples Day based on Native American contributions, I commented on an article in USA Today with the question, “What have Native Americans contributed to civilization?” One sage, noting the jersey in my Profile Picture, wryly responded, “Sports teams’ mascots.” Touché.

Not surprisingly, my veiled political comment elicited several substantive responses:

  • A progressive college friend living in Norway – “I’m not sure how long, if ever, it takes survivors of genocide to contribute meaningfully to the society who took over their land. The vanishing Indian is out-of-sight and out-of-mind through political and social manipulation.”

I responded, “Katie, I can’t think of a better example of ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.'” I was concerned that my response could be construed as an ad hominem, but went with it anyway.

  • My best friend in San Antonio – “Native Americans have made many contributions to America but I agree that this anger today toward Europeans for what happened 500 years ago and continued for another couple of hundred years is really not very beneficial to all concerned. Let’s work to make things better in America today while acknowledging that our past had some big mistakes…..I still love the Fighting Sioux, a name which centers on them being a fierce, hardworking people. and honors them….Somewhat like the “Fighting Irish” which I wear as a badge of honor.”

I responded, “Mike, I think you hit on the sticking point. Most people would not object to a Native American Day, except when the movement simultaneously repudiates the coming of Western Civilization to America. Can you imagine if Asia got here before Europe? Would the world still be looking for democracy? p.s., several articles refer generically to Native American contributions to our civilization, but uniformly fail to list any. You assert ‘many contributions.’ Go ahead, name them.” I’m still waiting for that list.

  • A progressive high school friend living in Minnesota – “Just to add to contributions, I have observed that the Native American Veterans group is very strong and proud to have served for our country.”

I responded, “Mary, I was referring to Native American culture, not to contributions of contemporary Native Americans. Surely, America has benefited immensely from Native American individuals.”

  • My progressive cousin who lives in Massachusetts – “My sense is that Native Americans seem to have showed profound respect for the land and its creatures. They lived in a sustainable way.  They warmly welcomed us, which, umm, in retrospect was quite the mistake.  I have read that at least some tribes did not believe in the concept of ownership of land. I find that highly admirable.  I am not an expert, though. And, there were many different cultures, with different values.”

I responded, “Pam, I agree with your points, but those attributes or values were not what was needed to survive those times. It reminds me of a scene in Downton Abbey where aristocrat Robert was bemoaning the fate of his kind to his rich mother-in-law from America and she responded that his kind must adapt to the new world or it would die.”

All in all, I found this exchange of viewpoints quite beneficial by suggesting facets I hadn’t considered. It reminds of the old writer who said he didn’t know what he thought about a specific subject because he hadn’t yet written about it. I would add to that saying by suggesting that it helps immeasurably to write about a subject, but just as importantly, the writing should be subject to peer review.

And even though the exchange was beneficial, I plan to continue being reluctant to post political stuff on my Facebook wall. For some walls it is OK, but for now I want my wall to be light and friendly.

October 9, 2015

Columbus Day

During yoga practice today, our teacher mentioned that there would be a modified schedule next Monday for the holiday. I had no idea which holiday occurred in mid-October, so afterwards I asked my yogi and she said Columbus Day. As an aside, she mentioned that Columbus Day was being replaced in Oklahoma by Native Americans Day.

As we discussed our rudimentary knowledge of Columbus, my yogi and I were joined by a mutual friend who had recently emigrated from Mexico, and I asked him how Mexicans felt about Columbus. Initially he said their feelings were mixed, but when he elaborated I quickly learned that “mixed” was a softer way of saying that Columbus was an unmitigated villain. He was less a great explorer and more a genocidal imperialist. My friend said he had once asked his American wife what American kids were taught about Columbus and she reported that they were taught that Columbus discovered America, but were taught nothing about atrocities. That certainly conforms to my recollection, too.

When I got home from class I attempted to confirm the Oklahoma switch from Columbus Day to Native Americans Day and learned that that was an exaggeration. Several cities in OK and elsewhere had made the switch, but no state in America had. And Columbus Day remains a federal holiday.

But as I delved further, I learned that the movement for Native American Day a/k/a Indigenous Peoples Day had found its way to San Antonio. According to the San Antonio Current, Bexar County has just passed a resolution naming October 12 as Indigenous Peoples Day.  Also, the San Antonio City Council was considering a similar move.

The Current reports that the movement in San Antonio is being led almost single-handedly by Antonio Diaz:

  • For at least a decade, Antonio Diaz has been on a mission: to convince county and city government to declare October 12 — the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere, leading to mass murder, slavery and the near-extinction of Native Americans in North America — as Indigenous Peoples Day.

Diaz makes a three-pronged argument in support of his cause:

  1. The World Heritage status of San Antonio’s missions is based significantly on their connection to indigenous people.
  2. Bexar Country recently came down heavily against the symbols of the evil Confederacy and acting similarly against Columbus would be consistent.
  3. The growing BlackLivesMatter movement symbolizes the rejection of mistreatment of the black and brown communities, which need to present a unified front against ongoing racism.

A few days ago I blogged about the Spurs and Gregg Popovich honoring John Carlos for his medal-ceremony protest, and wondered why he deserved to be honored. The same thought occurred to me when I read about honoring the Indigenous People instead of Columbus. Columbus may have been an evil colonizer, but he did lead Western Civilization to America. What about the Indigenous People? Fortunately, the article in the Current addressed my question head-on:

  • The least local government can do is acknowledge Native American contributions to the city.  “I feel like we’ve lacked [that], fallen short,” [Diaz] said. “We have a rich history that starts with the American Indians in founding San Antonio and to contributions being made today.”

Huh? If the indigenous people who preceded us in America made any lasting honor-deserving contributions to our current civilization, I don’t know what those are. This attack on Columbus reminds me of the ongoing movement in the Democratic Party to remove Jefferson and Jackson from their pantheon of heroes because their politics no longer conform to modern Democratic values.

I prefer leaving in place the honors that we have bestowed to our heroes and icons and legends without too much relitigation of their lives. I don’t need to know truly whether Davy Crockett went down swinging.

November 22, 2014

We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.

Filed under: Culture,History,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 10:43 pm
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One of my least favorite columnists with the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof, penned a column yesterday titled, “Immigration Enriches You and Me.” You can almost imagine the column without reading it, but, for the record, he described three myths about immigration:

  1. Immigrants threaten our way of life. Many Americans see foreigners moving into their towns, see signs in Spanish, and fret about changes to the traditional fabric of society. Yet just look around. Immigration has hugely enriched our country. For starters, unless you are a full-blooded American Indian, we have you.
  2. Immigrants today are different because they’re illegals. Look, people aren’t legal or illegal, behaviors are.  If an investment banker is convicted of insider trading, he doesn’t become an illegal. So let’s refer not to “illegal immigrants” but to “undocumented immigrants.”
  3. Immigration reform is an unconstitutional power grad by a dictator. It’s difficult for me to judge the legality of Obama’s executive action, because I’m not an expert on legal issues like prosecutorial discretion.

Immediately after reading the column, I vented by sending the following comment to the Times:

Nicholas, you are wrong on all three counts:

  1. Legal immigrants do not threaten our way of life; illegal immigrants do. Please refrain from treating two different groups as a single group.
  2. Investment bankers who are convicted of insider trading are not granted amnesty; rather they become forever known as criminal investment bankers.
  3. If you are ill equipped to discuss President Obama’s imperial power-grab, I suggest that you spend a little time learning the subject instead of claiming ignorance in your column.

As I skimmed the hundreds of comments that the column drew, the following one from Ernest Velasquez caught my eye:

  • My great-great-great-grandfather was born in San Jose California in 1821. My grandfather was born in the Arizona territory in 1872 and my father was also born in the Arizona territory in 1911. My grandfather, grandmother, and some of the adult children, including my father moved to Chihuahua Mexico during the depression of 1917. Thus my brother and two sisters were born in Mexico. Based on the then existing immigration laws, my brother and I [males] were granted natural born citizenship at birth.
  • In the early 50’s we moved to Los Angeles where I went to school and upon graduation from High School, I joined the US Air Force and served four year in Germany which coincided with the building of The Berlin wall and the Cuban Missiles crisis. Just to make it clear, I love my country and served to protect our great democracy. My two favorite president: Jefferson and Lincoln.
  • Now to my point on current immigration. First: We Mexicans are not immigrants, we were conquered and lost the Southwest territory in the Mexican/American War of 1850 that included California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona New Mexico and Texas. Second: Many of us have the blood of Indigenous and European [Spanish] conquistadors running through our veins. Third: we were here first, so stop calling us immigrants. As the great union leader Dolores Huerta has stated, “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.”

Although I’d heard the Huerta slogan before, I’d never considered whether it was accurate. So….

According to SocialistWorker.org:

  • “WE DIDN’T cross the border, the border crossed us.” This slogan of the immigrant rights movement expresses an historical fact–that much of the Western U.S. was once part of Mexico. The U.S. seized half of Mexico–including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California–in the Mexican-American war of 1846-48. The war cost almost 14,000 U.S. and twice as many Mexican lives.

But what does that have to do with illegal immigration? According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 following the Mexican-American War, all heretofore Mexicans in the land ceded to America were eligible to be American citizens. This would have applied to Velasquez because his ancestors were already here, but it wouldn’t apply to many others.  According to Wikipedia:

  • The lands contained about 14,000 people in Alta California and fewer than 60,000 in Nuevo México, as well as large Native American nations such as the Navajo, Hopi, and dozens of others. A few relocated further south in Mexico. The great majority chose to remain in the U.S. and later became U.S. citizens.

My impression is that Mexico lost this mostly unpopulated territory to America because Americans were willing to settle it while Mexicans were not.  (Also, we were stronger and believed in Manifest Destiny.)  Only after America turned the territory into a wonderful place to live did vast numbers of Mexicans decide that they wanted to live here (and get out of Mexico). The fact that this part of America was a part of Mexico more than 150 years ago does nothing to support the argument that modern Mexicans have some special right to emigrate to America now.

p.s., I can find no information on the internet attributing the “border moved” slogan to Dolores Huerta, although upon further consideration, I noted that Velasquez simply said that she “stated” this.

October 21, 2014

Columbus Day

Filed under: History — Mike Kueber @ 9:30 pm
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Columbus Day came and went last week without much fanfare. Except on Facebook. Several of my friends posted posters attacking the guy. Apparently, he was a racist, a bigot, and a rapist who treated the indigenous people as sub-human. But I’m not sure how many white people back in those days showed adequate respect to blacks, homosexuals, women, or indigenous people. Further, America is not honoring Columbus for his political or social values; rather, we are honoring him for being a courageous explorer who went were no man had gone before (except for the Vikings or the indigenous people).

I commented to one Facebook friend that after these critics get done crucifying Columbus, I suppose they will want to scrutinize our Alamo heroes, too. She warned me not to get her started on the racist, bigoted rapists at the Alamo.

November 18, 2013

Seven facts about me

Filed under: Entertainment,History,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 11:04 pm

There is a chain letter on Facebook asking friends to list a number of facts about themselves that most people don’t know.  I received a request earlier today from my yoga friend Alexis for seven facts.  I responded with the following:

1.  My parents had four boys and no girls, and I had four boys and no girls, and that explains why I know so little about women.

2.  I am tone deaf and rhythm-free, and that explains why I avoid the dance floor.

3.  My hometown had only 300 people and my high school class had only nine kids, and that explains why I was able to play basketball for the mighty Wildcats and win the high school Ping-Pong championship.

4.  While in high school, I feel in love with “Gone with the Wind” and considered changing my name to Rhett Ezekiel Bayou (REB).

5.  While in college in the early 70s, I was an anti-war socialist.

6.  I spent the winter between college and law school in El Cajon, CA working as a Pinkerton night watchman, during which I wrote a steamy 90-page screenplay that was summarily rejected by two movie producers;

7.  I hate to travel, but love spending time in Manhattan (and the outer boroughs).

June 23, 2013

Paul Lee – reflections from another perspective

Filed under: Biography,Culture,History,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 4:04 am
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Paul Lee was an old friend from Aneta who died on April 13, 2013 at the age of 64.  While I was visiting Aneta last week for the city’s annual turkey bar-b-que, I came across a letter-to-the-editor in the Aneta Star reflecting on Paul’s life.  The letter was written by Paul’s younger cousin, Greg Lee, who grew up with Paul in Aneta before moving away while Paul stayed at home.

Greg’s letter seemed to have two themes – (1) Paul was an incredibly talented young athlete, and (2) because Paul clung to his youthful athletic stardom, he failed to realize his potential.  The letter concluded with a lengthy quote from Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 song, Glory Days.  The song’s lyrics describe a high school baseball star who wasted everyone’s time by incessantly telling boring stories of his glory days and who never amounted to anything.

According to Wikipedia, Springsteen wrote the lyrics to Glory Days based on a real-life encounter with a former high school friend.  Springsteen was not an accomplished athlete in high school (see the video on You Tube; he throws a baseball like a girl in the 60s) and he admits to hating high school, so the song seems an obvious attempt to mock the athletes who were popular and successful in high school.  Springsteen would do well to remember that Envy is one of the seven deadly sins.

As Greg’s letter indicated, Paul loved to talk about his glory days, and all of Paul’s friends will agree on that point.  But, although Springsteen was clearly mocking high school athletes, I’m sure Greg did not intend to be critical of Paul.  Rather, that part of the letter was probably intended to be a cautionary tale.

But if the letter contained cautionary words of wisdom for small-town kids, you might wonder if Paul would have agreed.  Fortunately, I know the answer.  A few years ago, while perched on a barstool in Aneta’s Whitetail Bar, I enjoyed a long conversation with Paul about glory days before I broached the subject of Springsteen’s song Glory Days.

Paul thought Springsteen’s song had it all wrong.  Most people, according to Paul, have a brief opportunity to do something really dramatic and memorable, and that opportunity is most likely to occur with high school sports.  That is when everyone’s attention is focused and everyone wants the same thing.  Paul mocked the frustrated high school athletes who later attempt to find glory by competitively running a 10k or endlessly practicing golf.  As he said, who cares then?

But everyone cares about athletic success in high school.  It is a defining moment that lasts forever.  I just watched a movie about high school football in Texas – Friday Night Lights – and the most inspirational point of the movie occurs near the end when the coach gives a stirring halftime speech – “I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes.”  Paul understood and appreciated the way Texans feel about high school football (Odessa Permian HS) and college football (UT Longhorns).

First Lady Barbara Bush once noted at a college commencement address that material success in life is relatively unimportant.  As evidence of that, she said you’ll never hear of individuals on their death bed lamenting that they failed to achieve one more promotion up the corporate ladder.  That would be chasing fool’s gold.  But you can’t say the same thing about making or missing an important free throw in a District Championship game.  That result will stick with you forever.

On a different level, Springsteen’s criticism of nostalgic reminiscences seems petty.  I am reminded of the sage advice given by cowboy philosopher Gus McCrae to Lorena Wood in Lonesome Dove:

  • “Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”

Nostalgic reminiscing provides a simple, accessible joy to people who are not preoccupied with future objectives.  Intense, never-ending ambition is fine for some people, but it is not for everyone.  The crux of the matter is whether reminiscing prevents an individual from achieving things in life.  People who believe that are guilty, I believe, of the logical fallacy that correlation implies causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc, which is Latin for “with this, therefore because of this.”)  I think it is more accurate to conclude that individuals who aren’t predisposed to forward thinking are more likely to enjoy looking back.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

The solution is simple – Glory Days are worth remembering, but shouldn’t be shared with those who aren’t interested in them.

Returning to Greg Lee’s letter, he said that Paul had big ideas and plans that went beyond Aneta and North Dakota, and that, although Paul failed to leave Aneta, Greg was inspired by Paul’s dreams and left Aneta.  This comment reminds me of some additional wisdom by Gus McCrae, who scolded Woodrow Call for disparaging a woman who didn’t get out of Lonesome Dove and instead died there:

  • It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”

Gus’s point was that an individual can lead a satisfying life, regardless of where.  I believe Paul’s life in Aneta, not in San Francisco or New York, was satisfying.  He managed the family farm and started three successful businesses, even though he never made it to Yankee Stadium.  He once told me that if my brother Kelly, Jim Kleven, and he could attend a game in Yankee Stadium, they might as well die and go directly to heaven because they would have nothing more to look forward to in this life.  That sounds like a man with sound priorities and one who is comfortable in his own skin.  He lived his dream, not someone else’s.

Coincidentally, Time magazine had an article this week on the exploding interest in cremation, with almost 50% of the deceased people in America currently being cremated.  One of the explanations proffered by the article is that, because of the baby boomers’ geographical mobility, they don’t have a single hometown to be buried in.  Rather, they are born in one place, educated in another, work in several, and finally retire to die somewhere else.  That is not true of Paul.  He was a son of Aneta, and the people of Aneta will favorably remember him for many ears.

RIP, Paul.

p.s., although Paul didn’t agree with the Glory Days lyrics, he was a Springsteen fan.  My brother Kelly informed me that Paul’s three favorite songs were Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark (1984) along with the Doors’ Light My Fire (1967) and Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love (1967).

I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school

He could throw that speedball by you

Make you look like a fool boy

Saw him the other night at this roadside bar

I was walking in, he was walking out

We went back inside sat down had a few drinks

but all he kept talking about was


Glory days well they’ll pass you by

Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory days, glory days

Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight

and I’m going to drink till I get my fill

And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it

but I probably will

Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture

a little of the glory of, well time slips away

and leaves you with nothing mister but

boring stories of glory days

February 10, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #61 – John Adams (miniseries)

Filed under: History,Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 3:30 pm
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A current fad is to consume an entire miniseries or TV season in one big gulp via the convenience of a DVD.  I once had a girlfriend who did this several times with the TV series “24” and later with “Dexter.”  But I was never interested until a friend suggested to me several options on Netflix – The Killing, Luck, and Homeland – that I found highly enjoyable and almost addictive.  That old expression about not being able to put the book down applies, except that with Netflix DVDs, you may have to wait a couple of days for the next DVD.

Yesterday, I finished the seven-part (three DVDs) HBO miniseries called John Adams.  Although the book is based on David McCullough’s book of the same title, I’ve got to question the outsize prominence the miniseries gives to John Adams in the founding of our country.  If this miniseries is accurate, George Washington was mostly a dull-witted, empty-suit figurehead used by Adams to accomplish Adams’s nation-building objectives.  By contrast, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were bright, articulate proponents of competing extreme political ideologies, both of which would result in the destruction of our fledgling republic.  Only the deft involvement of Adams saved us.  Adams was a one-term president only because he insisted on keeping America out of an unnecessary war even though he knew that getting into the war would ensure his reelection.  And finally, despite Adams’s brilliance, his wife Abigail seems doubly so.

Several critics have criticized the selection of character-actor Paul Giamatti to play such a heroic figure, but his physical resemblance to Adams is striking.  Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, Adams was not a charismatic guy – “Adams was not a popular leader like his second cousin, Samuel Adams.  Instead, his influence emerged through his work as a constitutional lawyer and his intense analysis of historical examples, together with his thorough knowledge of the law and his dedication to the principles of republicanism. Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a constraint in his political career.”  So, Giamatti is fine, and Laura Linney as Abigail is even better.

The miniseries ends with the grumpy, 90-year-old Adams grousing that he hopes his posterity appreciates all of the sacrifices that he made in securing their liberty.  Anyone who watches the miniseries can’t help but feeling a debt of gratitude to our Founders.

June 25, 2012

Is America the greatest country in the world?

Filed under: Culture,Education,History,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:11 pm
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HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, premiered last night.  In its opening scene at a college lecture, a jaded, politically-correct anchorman (the show’s hero, Jeff Daniels) and two caricatured talking heads (one liberal and one conservative), are asked by a ditzy co-ed to describe “in one sentence or less” why America is the greatest country in the world.  The liberal answers, “diversity and opportunity,” and the conservative responds with “freedom and freedom.”  When the moderator refuses to accept the anchorman’s cynically trite responses, the anchorman eventually explodes with a long speech that first provides statistics that strongly suggest America is not the greatest country in the world and that finishes by nostalgically describing how America acted in the past when it was the greatest nation in the world.

Interestingly, the anchorman does not use the same standards for the past-great America (doing the right thing, doing the big things) and the current-mediocre America (low student scoring, income inequality, high infant mortality).  And the show never gets around to elaborating on what should be the criteria in determining the quality of a country.   Thus, if The Newsroom prompts a viewer to think about what the right answer is, that viewer will have to first need to select the appropriate criteria.

To get some other perspective, I surfed the internet and found a variety of opinions.

  • A composite indexNewsweek in a 2010 article proposed the following for identifying the “best” countries in the world – “Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life.”  Based on those metrics, Finland is #1, followed by Switzerland as #2 and Sweden as #3.  America was ranked #11.  A wit commented as follows about the Newsweek rankings – “The world’s “best countries” seem to have this in common: they avoid war, they live in the dark, and they maintain a steady state of depressive and productive activity.
  • Happiness.  The people at World Database of Happiness take into account a number of different things such as average life expectancy and most importantly the answer to the following multiple choice question ‘How happy are you?’”  Based on that criteria, it found Denmark as #1, followed by Switzerland and Austria.  Finland was #5, Sweden was #7, and America was in the rear at #17.  But other worldly powers were even worse – Great Britain – #22; France – #39; China – #44; India – #45; and Japan #46.
  • Another composite index.  The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic used to rank countries by level of “human development,” taken as a synonym of the older terms (the standard of living and/or quality of life).  The HDI is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living of a country.  Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands lead the list, but America is 4th.  The next powerful country on the list is Germany at #9 and Japan at #12.  Milquetoasts Finland is #22, Switzerland is #11, and Sweden is #10.

What do I think makes a country great?  My first reaction is to think that a country is great to the extent that its people are able to flourish.  That pretty much eliminates consideration of America’s unparalleled economic and military power.  (It might be more accurate to revise the question to ask for the best county, not the greatest country.)  Unlike the anchorman on The Newsroom, I don’t think the greatest nation necessarily has the smartest students or longest life expectancy. 

Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart argues the self-reliance and freedom are essential for an individual to flourish and that rings true to me.  That also sounds a lot like a combination of the caricatured liberal (opportunity) and conservative (freedom) in the opening scene of The Newsroom. 

So maybe Jeff Daniels wasn’t the smartest man in the room at that college lecture, but, based on freedom and opportunity, is America the greatest country in the world.  Anchorman Daniels doesn’t think so.  In fact, during his outburst, he specifically stated that America doesn’t have a monopoly on freedom – i.e., more than 180 of the 210 sovereign countries are free.  That sounds like a remarkable broad, almost indefensible statement.  There are certainly variations of freedom.  In fact, there are composite indexes that focus solely on freedom that I will save for another posting.  But the following is an example:

  • None of the well-regarded rankings seem to concur with Clinton and Kern about America’s standing. One widely cited annual study, the Freedom of the World report, encompasses 194 countries and 14 territories, each of which gets a score on a scale from 1 (Free) to 7 (Not Free), based on the prevalence of political rights (e.g. fair elections) and civil liberties (e.g. freedom of association). For 2010, the United States was one of 48 nations to receive a 1 in both the political rights (PR) and civil liberties (CL) categories. But within that elite cohort, it fell behind countries such as Barbados, Portugal, and Uruguay. Failure to root out government corruption, technical glitches in voting machinery, and a reliance on congressional gerrymandering damaged our showing. We also got docked for having a higher incarceration rate than any other democracy—and because our justice system is broadly perceived as racist in practice, since a disproportionate number of black and Latino males fill our jails. Freedom House’s winners? Norway, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Finland, and Sweden.”

I am concerned, however, that in America opportunity is decreasing and economic inequality is increasing and that these trends threaten America to its core.  It is shocking to hear that there is more economic-social mobility for individuals in some European countries like France than in America.  Unfortunately, there are not any known levers for reversing these trends without doing even more damage to freedom in America.

Like Charles Murray, who spoke about these trends in his book, I am cautiously optimistic that Americans will not be satisfied until we have a meritocracy where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. 



March 25, 2012

Sunday Book Review #68 – Grant’s Final Victory

Filed under: Book reviews,History — Mike Kueber @ 5:42 pm
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The first book in my to-do queue list this week was On What Matters, a book with in-depth discussions of various philosophical issues.  The book’s table of contents was irresistible – rationality, morality, values, universal laws, etc.  A few hours into the book, however, I realized that it contained much more depth than I was able to handle, and I pushed it aside.  Part of the ease in doing this probably had to do with the next book in queue – Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood.  After recently reading and greatly enjoying Bill O’Reilly’s book on Lincoln and Glenn Beck’s book on Washington, the Grant book promised to be a lot lighter than a dense 500-page book on philosophy.

Grant’s Final Victory was incredibly light.  Although I don’t know enough about Grant to challenge the author’s credibility, I am highly skeptical that Grant walked on water like this book suggests he did.  The book focuses on the last year of Grant’s life, when he was afflicted with tongue and throat cancer shortly after his betrayal by two financial criminals had left him penniless.  That story arch reminds me of Texas governor John Connally. 

Like Connally, Grant faced his financial and health crisis with courage and dignity.  During his last year, while under great pain, Grant wrote his Memoirs, which provided for his family’s financial salvation and is sometimes recognized as one of the best American memoirs every written.  As Grant himself sardonically noted shortly before he died, his writing skills had greatly exceeded expectations, just as his soldiering and political skills had done.      

But the book does not focus exclusively on the final year of Grant’s life.  Instead it often refers back to earlier times in Grant’s life.  And although it does not completely over-look Grant’s failures, such as his early military-career setbacks or his dismal business career just prior to the Civil War, these items are given only a few sentences.  Even the financial incident that left him penniless after the presidency is depicted as Grant having reasonable faith in two close associates who betrayed him.  By contrast, most facts in the book suggest that Grant was nearly a saint with respect to his character. 

Grant’s Final Victory was an enjoyable read, but I suspect the author did as much spinning as Beck and O’Reilly do.




February 10, 2012

Sunday Book Review #63 – Great Soul, Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld

Filed under: Culture,History — Mike Kueber @ 6:38 pm
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One of my best friends emigrated from India to America when she was 13-years old.  Because of my affection for her, I have read some Indian history and a biography of the nation’s first president, Jawaharlal Nehru.  But I didn’t really know much about the “father of India,” so when this new biography on Mahatma Gandhi came out, I decided to read it. 

I’m not an expert on types of biographies, but my impression is that Great Soul is a psychological biography.  As the author notes:

  • This is not intended to be a retelling of the standard Gandhi narrative.  I merely touch on or leave out crucial periods and episodes – Gandhi’s childhood…., his coming-of-age in nearly three formative years in London, his later interactions with British officials on three continents, the political ins and outs of the movement, the details and context of his seventeen fasts – in order to hew in this essay to a specific narrative that I’ve chosen.  These have to do with Gandhi the social reformer, with his evolving sense of his consistency and social vision, a narrative that’s usually subordinated to that of the struggle for independence.

Gandhi’s “evolving sense of his consistency and social vision” is what most impressed me.  Like Nelson Mandela in Africa, Gandhi was treated almost like a god by his constituents, yet he remained humble about himself and his views.  His continually evolving positions reminded me of the famous quote from philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.  He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.  Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

Incidentally, Gandhi’s first name was actually Mohandas; “Mahatma” is an honorific Hinduism that literally means “great soul.”  Traditionally, it is given to a person regarded with reverence or loving respect.  Of course, it’s only coincidental that Emerson referred to a “great soul” in this quote that he authored in the 1800s before Gandhi was born. 

Gandhi once established an ashram (a religious retreat for Hindus) with the following rules:

  • Celibacy (even if married);
  • Minimal eating (only enough to sustain the body);
  • Non-possession of material things (if you don’t need a chair, don’t use one); 
  • Vow against untouchability (and eventually the entire caste system); and
  • Take up spinning (to become self-sufficient and financially independent, a precursor to micro-loans).

The cornerstone of Gandhi’s philosophy is called “swaraj,” a term that generally means self-governance or self-rule.  According to Gandhi, swaraj would have four pillars – (1) forming an alliance of Muslims and Hindus, (2) wiping out untouchability (the so-called Dalits), (3) accepting the discipline of nonviolence as more than a tactic, rather as a way of life, and (4) promoting spinning as self-sustaining cottage industries.

Because of Gandhi’s constantly evolving positions, he often frustrated his allies and disciples because they couldn’t predict his course.  Among the most frustrated were not only his political heir who became India’s first president, Jawaharlal Nehru, but also Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was the modern leader of the untouchable Dalits, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the first president and “father of Pakistan.”

India finally achieved self-governance from Great Britain in 1947, but the achievement was diminished because the nation was partitioned into two states – Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.  Although untouchability and discrimination based on caste were prohibited in 1950 by India’s new constitution, some of the country’s caste system appears to have survived to this day, especially with respect to marriage between classes.  Untouchable Dalits comprise almost 20% of India’s population and workforce and are affirmatively protected by law. 

Following India’s independence, Gandhi continued to work for an accommodation of Hindus and Muslims, and ironically he was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu who thought Gandhi was too pro-Muslim.

p.s., toward the end of his life (at age 80), Gandhi became concerned when he would occasionally get an erection or have a wet dream, so he decided to subject himself to a test of  brahmacharya – the practice of sexual continence or celibacy.  According to Wikipedia, “At its most basic level, brahmacharya means abstinence from sexual intercourse, by eight types of sexual contact. For a male practitioner of Buddhist, Jain or Hindu monasticism, it refers more specifically to refraining from voluntary loss of semen. At more subtle levels, brahmacharya includes greater physical and mental sexual discipline, until ultimately the practitioner experiences complete absence of sexual desire despite the most alluring stimuli.”  To test himself, Gandhi took on as his personal assistant a nephew’s young daughter, Manu Gandhi.  In addition to attending to his daily personal needs, including a one-hour daily massage, Manu slept naked with Gandhi and cuddled with him.  Apparently, Gandhi passed the test, but he decided to continue testing himself up to his death. 

p.s., my Indian best-friend often scolded me for incorrectly using Hindi as a generic adjective for things associated with the Hindu religion or culture.  According to her, Hindi should be used only when referring to the language.  In all other contexts, use the adjective Hindu.

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