Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

In two short weeks America will simultaneously be destroyed as a nation and saved from the brink of disaster depending on who you listen to.

Obviously someone is going to win this election and someone is going to lose. Passions are running high, and however it goes some people are going to be… upset.

Something I noticed just this past week on a road trip from Oklahoma to Minnesota through Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa much of it on state and county roads. I saw at most a half-dozen yard signs. (all for Trump by the way) and very few bumper stickers. (One for Hillary, one for Trump and one for Johnson.) After thinking about it I realized I have not seen a single yard sign in my own neighborhood.

I like to think this is because sensible people, realizing how high feelings are running, have decided not to make an issue of it with their neighbors.

I’m afraid to think people might be concerned about the possibility of vandalism to their homes and vehicles. Or God help us, even assault.

And I’ve realized there are things I fear more than either a Clinton or a Trump presidency.

I’m going to list some of them here but I’m not going to give examples. Right or left, Democrat or Republican, pick your own. And consider that you could both be right.

I’m worried that after the election a critical number of people will be convinced the election was stolen, either through voter fraud or voter suppression.

On the right a great many people believe ballot boxes are being stuffed and votes discarded.

On the left there is a belief in a conspiracy to suppress minority voting.

I have my own opinion on which accusation is credible, but again it doesn’t matter. What matters is what people believe.

Governments remain stable as long as they are viewed as legitimate. Once the perception of legitimacy is destroyed the ability to govern cannot be maintained for long.

We can survive a bad presidency and we have, many times. America is bigger than any leader. We cannot long survive the perception of illegitimacy.

Wealth inequality.

In spite of dire warnings from academics, vast differences in wealth are not the problem. Americans by and large neither hate nor envy the rich – as long as they feel the game is being played fairly.

John Steinbeck once said Americans will never be socialists because here the poor regard themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Even inherited wealth is not generally resented, because after all we know we’d do it for our own kids if we had it.

But I think we’re seeing a growing feeling that the game is rigged. Men and women who enter politics with moderate means quickly become rich beyond our dreams of avarice. We look at the wealthy and see not men who invent or produce, but the well connected.

Equality under the law.

Yes everybody knows that a good lawyer costs money. As they say, America has the best justice money can buy. That’s not quite the problem.

The problem is that we see the wealthy and powerful accused of major crimes and are either never charged or if charged, tried, and convicted receive a slap on the wrist for what you or I would do hard time for and left with a record that would bar us from a long list of professions, provided we could find work at all.

When men see justice is not blind, what incentive do they have to seek justice?

Intolerance for different opinions.

We have deep-seated disagreements in this country about what kind of country we are, and what kind of country we wish to be.

But disagree is what free men do.

More and more we hear that disagreement comes from self-interested and evil motives. That those who disagree with them are not merely wrong, but evil.

How long can we remain a country when so many believe so many of their countrymen actively and maliciously wish them harm?

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The national question

If anything good comes out of this election, it may be that we’ll finally approach some sensible dialog about what some call “the national question,” immigration.

The question is, what kind of a nation are we and what kind of nation do we want to continue to be – if we do want to continue.

The answers boil down to, either a nation with an acknowledged common culture or a polyglot mega-state something like the European Union if you like the idea. Or Yugoslavia if you don’t.

What we have is W.E.I.R.D. Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.

The United States is one of the weirdest of the W.E.I.R.D. Here is where the people Edmund Burke called the most protestant of Protestants and the most dissident of dissidents settled.

What they created was a national culture almost unique in the world. An identity based not on blood ties, but on our relationship to a body of literature.

Among peoples of a book, Jewish identity is based on a centuries-long literary discussion about man’s relationship to God. Icelanders identity is defined by the tales of heroic ancestors in the Sagas.

Americans are defined by our relationship to a literary discussion of the relationship of men in society. The canon is not well defined but certainly includes the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Federalist (a kind of operating manual for the Constitution) plus influential works such as John Locke’s treatises on government and the nature of property.

The result was a radical departure from all previous ideas of national identity. The notion that you can become an American, as much an American as anyone born here.

That would seem to settle the question. Come on board it’s really great!

Except it isn’t working that way.

For most of the history of our nation immigration came overwhelmingly from Europe. Though they had to learn what it means to be American, they came from cultures sharing a common origin which was like it or not Christian. That is, a religious tradition that taught you were personally responsible for the state of your soul.

The outliers were Jews, who nonetheless shared certain crucial assumptions about the dignity, worth, and inalienable rights of the individual. They worshiped a God of liberty and justice.

During the Western expansion we first accepted large numbers from non-Western cultures, Chinese and Japanese. And it appeared to work well. Who would have thought the insular Japanese would assimilate so thoroughly?

Forward looking Americans began to believe in our ability to assimilate any number of exotic foreigners, perhaps presaging a worldwide age of liberty and universal respect for the rights of man.

And it was precisely at this point that two things happened that called it all into question.

Wealth and industrialization made world travel easy and cheap. Technology fed images of the wealth of the West into every corner of the world. Soon masses of people were clamoring to come and share in it.

That’s not the problem. We’ve done this before. The famine Irish were more wretched than any Syrian or Somali refugees we’ve seen so far.

The first problem is these people come with no conception of what it is that made us this wealthy: free enterprise, sensible laws governing labor and business, and a general acknowledgement that what you make is yours to keep minus a tolerable levy for the upkeep of the country as a whole.

We’re now accepting people who appear to believe what we have is the result of luck – or worse, theft. People who do not care to assimilate, and in fact reject the idea out of hand.

The second problem is we appear to have lost the will to insist on it. That native-born Americans have lost sight of what created this outpouring of wealth unprecedented in human history.

We can’t bring ourselves to say anymore, “Come and bring the richness of your culture. We welcome it. But you must leave behind your old loyalties and your old hatreds. You must learn a new way of thinking about yourself and become a new kind of person. We ask much, but in return much is given.”

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Questions of words and deeds

If there is anything this election is doing it’s bringing certain fundamental differences in the way people think into sharp focus.

Some of the issues that illustrate what I’m talking about.

One is the question of Trumps alleged history of sexist remarks, including what is called fat-shaming these days. He apparently told a Miss Universe contestant that she needed to lose some weight. He wasn’t subtle.

Said contestant was once involved in a plot to murder a judge and allegedly bore a child to a drug lord but fat-shaming!

Hillary on the other hand has a long record of supporting women’s issues.

She is also married to a man who has been credibly accused by quite a number of women of unwanted groping and rape. At least one, Juanita Broaddrick has claimed Hillary behaved towards her in a way she thought was threatening, presumably to insure her silence.

Others Hillary dismissed as “bimbos,” “narcissistic looneytoons,” and “trailer trash.”

Another issue, taxes.

Media is all a-twitter with revelations that Trump may have dialed his taxes down to as little as zero through the bankruptcies of a few of his companies and other provisions of the tax code.

The Clintons however have done the same through the establishment of an allegedly charitable foundation which maintains that official status by setting aside a pittance for charity from their enormous income from favor-seeking donors. But it’s technically a charity.

What Trump did was perfectly legal, albeit unpopular these days.

Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) said, “Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.”

It is interesting how many people react to that quote with mixed shock and scorn, yet cannot say what is scandalous or wrong about it. Better still, ask them how much they tipped the federal government when they last paid their tax bill, if they did pay any income tax that is.

Yet another.

I recently posed a question to an academic who is a Hillary supporter (almost a redundancy).

How do you think the Clintons went from “practically broke when we left the White House” in Hillary’s words, to a personal fortune estimated at somewhere between $100 and 200 million?

He answered that he didn’t know but however it happened it was better than Trump’s inheritance.

Well yes, Trump inherited money from his father, i.e. his father freely gave his son money that was his to give.

Trump used this fortune to build tangible things such as hotels and casinos. The former are out of my price range and the latter not to my taste, but it’s his money not mine.

The Clintons sold access to and favors from an ex-president and then-current Secretary of State – but magic words “public service.”

And there I think, is the difference.

Let’s step outside the election shenanigans for a moment and consider something.

By now many readers are probably thinking I’m about to accuse Clinton supporters of hypocrisy.

But what if it’s not hypocrisy at all? What if it’s not just political tactics?

What if for a substantial number of people in this country, words are far more important than deeds, gestures more important than sound policy, stated intentions more important than results?

We’ve seen a generation of students demand safe spaces where they can hide – from words!

We’ve seen people who believe magic words such as “racist,” “Islamophobic,” or “homophobic” have such power they must be accepted uncritically, without proof.

We’ve seen a sitting president and one who would be president say “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism” as if saying it makes it true.

Our fat happy country has enemies who are men of deeds. How will we fare when our rulers are men of words?

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Why are smart people so stupid?

Some time back after I had returned to the United States after living in Eastern Europe I was invited to speak to a local chapter of Mensa about my experience living abroad during an exciting time in history.

Mensa is the international high-IQ society founded in 1946. Its only criterion for membership is an IQ in the 98th percentile. In other words, in a group of 100 people you’re one of the two smartest people in the room.

The first time we tried to get together they sent me to the wrong address. So we rescheduled.

The second time they’d forgotten there was a scheduling conflict so I wound up going out for a beer with the three people who did show up.

So how come the smartest people in the room couldn’t arrange something every Cub Scout den mother does on a regular basis?

I think all of us probably know some pretty smart people who have dumb ideas. And the stereotype of the unworldly impractical genius has been around for a long time.

An article in the New York Times Sunday Review of Sept. 16, by David Z. Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and graduate student Alexander P. Burgoyne, summarizes research that confirms what some of us have suspected for some time.

Smart people can be pretty dumb.

“As the psychologist Keith Stanovich and others observed… some people are highly rational. In other words, there are individual differences in rationality, even if we all face cognitive challenges in being rational. So who are these more rational people? Presumably, the more intelligent people, right?

“Wrong. In a series of studies, Professor Stanovich and colleagues had large samples of subjects (usually several hundred) complete judgment tests like the Linda problem, as well as an I.Q. test. The major finding was that irrationality — or what Professor Stanovich called “dysrationalia” — correlates relatively weakly with I.Q. A person with a high I.Q. is about as likely to suffer from dysrationalia as a person with a low I.Q.”

So it turns out that people with high IQs are just as prone to bias, prejudice, and rationalization as anybody else. No matter how smart we are, it’s difficult to think objectively about things we are emotionally invested in.

It’s depressing.

Though perhaps not surprising. How many smart people do you know who can be spectacularly stupid about for example, their romantic affairs? Money? Car repairs?

In fact, it seems really bright people are capable of much larger scale and much more harmful stupidity than your average-bright person.

Worse news, it doesn’t seem that higher education has an effect on how prone to cognitive bias we are. So much for those freshman logic classes.

The good news Hambrick claims, is that computerized training can affect long-term improvements in people’s ability to think objectively.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I haven’t looked at the experimental results in detail, but I’ve seen a lot of a tendency to label something “objective” when it seems to mean “agrees with me.”

That however could be my own bias in favor of a classical liberal arts education where logic and rhetoric are taught early. Logic is about objective thinking, rhetoric is about persuasive speaking, and the study thereof is about knowing the difference between them.

Perhaps we will find, or rediscover ways to teach objective critical thinking. One may always hope.

But one thing is for sure, we have every reason to be skeptical about the ability of other people to run our lives for us based on the argument they are smarter than we are.

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Dangerous Times

I set out this morning to write a different column.

I was going to do a bit about the Hillary health issue and make a point about the dereliction of duty by the media in failing to cover the issue until they couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Then I had an exchange with a friend who is an aid worker in Sudan. She’s worried about security of foreign workers and local friends.

It seems armed men in uniforms occasionally go out seize women take them back to quarters and rape them. Including a few foreign aid workers. So far the women have been released afterwards.

My friend and I belong to a loose group of people interested in personal security issues and wanted some feedback. She was concerned about resisting, that it might escalate the situation fatally.

My first thought was, at this point the problem has gone beyond how not to get raped to how not to get dead.

My second was that I had nothing to offer her by way of advice. She’s there and I’m not.

Except for one thing I learned from Steven Vincent, a journalist who was murdered in Basra, Iraq 11 years ago.

I didn’t know Vincent well, but we exchanged a handful of emails over the course of a few months, the latest the weekend he was abducted and murdered. Some time later in Washington I met an Iraqi lady who knew him, and had begged him to live in her house rather than in the community.

I admired Vincent a lot, because he went on his own dime to make up his own mind. Unfortunately it got him killed.

The conclusion I reached, which I passed on to my friend, was that when you go to live in these appalling countries you get to love the people who are trying to live their lives as best they can.

To the point you forget they have a lot more experience surviving there than you do. Which can make to hesitate when you really ought to cut and run.

She thanked me, and mentioned a Serb security man had also warned her that she trusted her driver and some local co-workers way too much.

Maybe it’s not so far from what I set out to write.

The common thread that runs through a lot of our discourse these days seems to be the assumption that reality is optional.

News people that should have been following up on a story ignored it, hoping it would go away. They ignored it because they didn’t want it to be true. Until they were forced to acknowledge Hillary had a problem.

Another example.

I know a fair number of people with opinions about foreign affairs. People who have never lived outside the United States and appear to assume the rest of the world is like us.

It is not.

We are the outliers, a people so rich and secure, and so ignorant of history that we can maintain the happy illusion that the world will never intrude on our fat happy lives so long as we extend the hand of friendship to all.

The consequence of this is that when things go south we start looking for what we did wrong to offend our should-be friends.

Another example. We have two presidential candidates who have assured us they can deal with Vladimir Putin as a friend.

Perhaps they should have listened to Putin’s reply to a similarly clueless German reporter who asked if they could be friends.

“I am not your friend,” Putin replied. “I am president of Russia.”

Putin basically repeated what British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said. “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

I’ve been told often that this archaic idea of mine, that the world should be approached with armed wariness is what’s wrong with the world. That lack of a benevolent and trusting attitude to all peoples is what causes conflict.

Putin and I think they’re idiots.

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Has anybody else noticed that the lunatics have taken over the asylum?

No, seriously. That used to be a joke, “Ha, ha, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” Not anymore.

I’ve just read a friend’s blog post about a situation at her job. It seems there is someone in her workplace with “anger management issues.”

Anger management issues are what we used to call “a temper.” Meaning that some people react to stress by getting angry, shouting, and in extreme cases perhaps throwing things. After which they’d calm down and apologize.

Now however it’s been medicalized, it’s an “issue.”

In the case of my friend’s coworker, he announces he has “ANGER MANGEMENT ISSUES” for which he gets some kind of therapy.

Oh goody, there’s certainly times I wish I could have had some help in managing my Irish temper.

Or not. Evidently this guy’s issues give him a free pass to indulge his temper, which everybody else is supposed to tolerate. Including a coworker who has social anxiety disorder and suffers in silence for days after each outburst. Which Mr. Anger Management Issues is totally oblivious to.

Coincidentally after reading her post I came across an article about how Princeton University is ordering their staff to avoid using the word “man” or gendered pronouns such as him or her, and substitute they and them. Because not everybody identifies as a him or a her.

“Gender binary is the traditional view on human gender, which does not take into consideration individuals who identify as otherwise, including and not limited to transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and/or intersex,’” says the staff directive of the elite institution of higher learning older than our nation.

Some have gone further and invented new pronouns such as ‘ze’ and ‘hir,’ which would be funny except the New York City Commission on Human Rights Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression: Local Law No. 3 (2002); N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-102(23) says if you run a public accommodation you can be fined for not using them with your tenants. Or not letting a guy use the lady’s room.

Like all roads headed in this direction, it started out with good intentions.

Long ago, there used to be something on TV called Public Service Announcements. (How long? Think black-and-white TV.) Before air time got hideously expensive TV stations would occasionally spend a few minutes on a message devoted solely to the public good. Hire an ex-con, give a man a second chance. Don’t leave your keys in your car. Beware of socialism. That kind of thing.

One I remember was a plea for compassion towards people who are a bit off.

“It’s not the way they want to be, it’s the way they have to be.”

Well that was nice, but along the way something happened. Compassion was replaced by tolerance. Then passive tolerance, basically minding your own business and live and let live, wasn’t good enough anymore. We needed “acceptance.” Then we had to embrace our differences. And if you still thought their craziness was weird and maybe kind of icky, then you were a bad person.

We knew things had gotten seriously weird when they invented a pretentious academic term “cisgendered” to mean what we used to call “normal.” And if you think guys who think they are guys and are attracted to women who think they are women is normal, then there’s a special insult for you, “heteronormative.”

There, doesn’t that make you feel special?

Has anybody noticed that this “acceptance” is not compassion but the very opposite of compassion?

Long ago during a brief period I worked as a psychiatric aid in a mental hospital we were given a very firm directive on dealing with patients. Don’t humor their delusions!

There is such a thing as normal. Yes, it covers a pretty broad continuum and is fuzzy around the edges. But it exists, it’s real.

Yes, a righteous man will take into account another’s infirmities and weaknesses. But it does him no favors to reward bad behavior or pretend he’s OK when he’s clearly not.

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The lineup on the day

In this most contentious of campaign seasons there are a couple things pretty much everyone agrees on. One is that this is an election like no other in our lifetime. The other is a vague feeling that this is not good.

Recently I proposed this model of how the electorate lines up on a graph.

It’s important to note something. Though it goes from left to right and yes the Democrats are on the left, it is not a model of political thought but of behavior, how people plan to pull the lever on election day.

It seems to me that we have a spectrum defined by fanatics at either end.

On the left you have the Hillary fanatics. These are the people who airily dismiss all charges of bribery, corruption, malfeasance in office, etc. as the products of a 30-year campaign of pure slander.

OK, so no indictments. But there is a long list of blatant self-serving lies, such as landing under sniper fire in Bosnia, shown to be false by eyewitness testimony and video.

Doesn’t seem to matter to them.

You cannot reason with these people. Nothing, literally nothing, matters to them except Hillary equals first woman president and upholder of “Progressive” values.

On the near left you have the “Hillary is the lesser of two evils/never Trump” crowd. Often former Sanders supporters in an odd mix with Republicans who can’t stand Trump.

In the middle you have the “plague on both your houses” crowd who think both major candidates are equally bad.

This group is pushing the surge in support for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. In an ordinary year a great many of them would simply stay home. I don’t think that will be the case this year, and it may very well be a watershed year for the third party movement.

Oddly enough, there will be some former Sanders supporters among them who feel like they’ve been kicked in the face by the Democrat establishment. So there may very well be some socialists voting for the libertarian in an electoral irony.

On the near right you have the “it can’t be Hillary” crowd. They don’t really like Trump, but are deathly afraid of Hillary.

On the far right (and again, this is not about the left-right divide in political philosophy, only electoral behavior) you have the Trump fanatics who think Trump is going to “make America great again.”

As an aside, do you think anyone might ever run on the slogan, “Make America normal again!”?

You can’t talk to these people either. Point out that Trump was a Democrat about five minutes ago, that he ran a scam real estate college, tried to use eminent domain to seize an old lady’s property for a casino (and lost!)… nada. You get angry people denouncing you as a Hillary supporter.

One more observation. Hillary was nominated against the wishes of the rank and file Democrats. Maybe she would have won it fair and square, but we’ll never know because she openly stole it in a manner that indicated she didn’t give a damn who knew it.

Now Bernie Sanders has slunk home like a man who’s just realized he was very lucky to get out of it with a whole skin. His supporters have divided into those who are mad as hell and won’t take it any longer, and those who will lick the boot that kicked them.

Trump on the other hand was elected with massive popular support among rank-and-file Republicans against the frantic and panicky resistance of the Republican establishment.

Previous elections have pitted fanatical leftists who regard their candidate as the messiah against center-rightists who regard theirs as damage control at best. Consequently McCain and Romney fought like sick nuns.

Now the right has come up with a fanaticism of their own to fight the fanaticism of the left.

The important question is of course, what are the numbers for each category?

And even more importantly, how will they react on the day after the election?

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The Twilight of Democracy

Is anybody looking forward to this election with anticipation? Or should I ask, is anybody looking at this election with anything but dread?

On the one hand we have a seriously unlikable harridan whose ideology is pretty straightforwardly totalitarian, as defined by Mussolini.

“Everything within the state. Nothing outside the state. Nothing against the state.”

After an investigation for serious felonies the FBI director announced she was guilty as hell but he couldn’t touch her, in almost as many words. Fanatical supporters crowed she had been “cleared.”

The DNC has been revealed to have rigged the nomination process to block Bernie Sanders by Wikileaks via Vladimir Putin.

And by the way, if they’re willing to rig a nomination do you think they would scruple to rig an election?

And is anybody the least concerned a hostile foreign power is openly trying to decide our election?

Which brings us to Trump. An unknown quantity, since he’s run businesses but never held so much as a city council position.

Need I point out government is not business?

Trump has held a lot of different positions on many issues and nobody seems to notice that at present he’s essentially a moderate Democrat. An improvement over the hard left cadre that has seized leadership of the party to be sure.

He’s a bit vague on how he intends to accomplish the things he promises but at times sounds alarmingly like a Latin American caudillo.

But for the first time in more than a century we have a third party candidate in libertarian Gary Johnson who looks like he might ride a wave of disgust, not into office let’s get real, but into vote totals that can’t be ignored.

If either of the two major parties collapses, there is a real possibility of a third party rising to replace one of them.

I hate to be a wet blanket, but the last time that happened a civil war broke out.

So while we still have some semblance of our old democracy, I’d like to reminisce about some things I noticed while I was living in the brand new democracies in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Empire.

In Poland they call their state “The Third Republic.” France is on her fifth.

This implicitly recognizes the first characteristic of a true democracy, continuity.

“Democracy is a habit,” as English writer Gavin Lyall once put it.

In America we have so far never cancelled or postponed a regular election, not even during the Civil War. We’ve had plenty of questionable elections, including a presidential election that was possibly stolen (Nixon-Kennedy). But other countries experience has shown when you suspend your democracy, you don’t pick up where you left off, you start again from the beginning building a new tradition of continuity.

How something is done is at least as important as what is done.

Not long ago I pointed this out in an editorial vis-à-vis legalizing same-sex marriage via executive fiat. A newspaper editor indignantly replied that we can’t wait for messy democratic procedures to correct an injustice. (She compared it to slavery.)

Yes we can, and yes we must.

It would seem like a no-brainer, but the power to wave your hand and do good is inevitably the power to do bad things, unchecked by democratic restraints.

In a new democracy, it’s not the first free election that establishes it. It’s the first election in which the party in power loses – and gracefully cedes power. Then everyone breathes a little easier.

In an old democracy a party impatient of democratic procedures which assumes more and more power to do things by fiat must face the fact that when power is transferred they put those powers into the hands of their opponents.

The thought inevitably occurs, “Then we have to make sure power never changes hands again.”

And lastly something that a lot of people miss. “Soft on crime” is not a feature of liberal democracies but of tyrannies.

Tyrants are friendly to criminals and often use them for their dirty work. Those who desire to rule without restraint admire those who act without restraint.

Have a nice election.

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My America

Finally it happened, the twice delayed road trip with my children, re-planed and expanded better than ever!

First day to the panhandle of Oklahoma. This year it looked greener than I’ve ever seen it due to an unusually wet year.

Our plan was to cruise the back highways through the panhandle and cross over to New Mexico to see Capulin Volcano National Park. My son saw it when he was five years old and his little sister was all of three weeks old carried around the rim of the ancient cinder cone in a sling by her mother.

My son is by now heartily sick of the story of that first trip, but it’s still a fave with his little sister. How we made the decision on the fly to drive from Black Mesa to see the volcano – and how we made the mistake of telling him what we were going to see.

So for two-and-a-half hours we listened to, “Are we there yet? Is that the volcano?”

“No! It’s two hours. Now be quiet!”

“OK… Is THAT the volcano?”

As we approached the volcano we began to fear he’d be terribly disappointed it wasn’t spewing fire.

No worries, he loved it. Just as nine years later his sister loved it, scampering up the path around the rim as Daddy and Big Brother labored to climb breathing the air available at 8,200 feet.

From Capulin to Colorado to have lunch with a friend who’ll be important in their lives in time to come. From Colorado to Wyoming to bathe in the hot spring pools of Thermopolis, a perennial favorite of ours from when we lived in Wyoming.

After picking up a tinge of pink because of course we’d forgotten that sunlight in high altitudes reflected off water equals burn, we went on to Devil’s Tower, which I’d visited once years before. We took a mile hike around the base and marveled at the climbers we could barely see high above us.

From Devil’s Tower to Deadwood, South Dakota. Took daughter for a walk downtown while my son settled a quarrel on an online gamer group. And how odd is it that he can pursue personal relationships with a group of people, some old friends and some he’s never met in person, while traveling thousands of miles around the country?

Took Little Bit to a sandwich place in an old gas station that also features a glass blowing studio.

“I like Deadwood,” she announced after looking around.

Fetched son, showed the kids the saloon where Wild Bill Hickock was murdered. Kids agreed this was major cool.

A kindly local directed us to Miss Kitty’s for pizza. Kids greatly amused aged Daddy misheard “Poor House Pizza.”

“You named a pizza for a bordello?” I said.

“No, POOR house.”

“Well it is Deadwood,” I said defensively.

Made the hand-off to their mother next day and left the two old Deadwood hands to show her around.

I love traveling. Maybe it’s in the blood. Family genealogies show no generations have been buried in the place they were born for centuries now.

Or maybe I picked up the wanderlust as a Navy brat. I’d made two Atlantic crossings by the time I entered first grade.

I’ve traveled all over Eastern Europe by train, and long stretches of the Arabian Peninsula by car.

But best of all I love to travel in my country by car, especially the Midwest and West. I love to take the old US Highways rather than the Interstates. I love to take my kids to eat in local restaurants where the food is best and the people always ready to chat.

I love to take them to places we’re familiar with, and new places we’ll become familiar with.

I have not been able to provide a lot of stability for my children in many ways. They live in a rental house with an eccentric single father. We’ve moved a lot, and I fear not for the last time. Their closest relatives are far away and hard to visit.

But I can do this for them. I can take them around the vast spaces of this big lucky country of ours, visiting favorite places and discovering new ones. Meeting people with skills and stories.

This is how I tell my children however far they roam and wherever they live, “This is your country, here you will always be home.”

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Game of Kings and Powers

Well Game of Thrones is off into unknown territory. The HBO series has advanced further than the five books author George R.R. Martin has produced so far, and in my humble and very cautious opinion seems to be doing OK. So far. PLEASE!

And there is more good news for fans of period fiction and fantasy, a movie “The Last King” is coming out in July, about the early life of Håkon Håkonsson, the 13th century king of Norway.

Håkon survived an infancy marked by any number of people trying to kill him, became king in spite of them, and ruled for 46 years. His reign is considered a golden age of Norwegian history.

I don’t really have any hard data, but it seems to me that these kinds of movies and TV series are becoming more popular. I mean fantasy set in pre-technological civilizations, historical drama, and science fiction where political intrigue is integral to the story, such as “The Expanse” on Amazon.

I can remember when years went by between science fiction series on TV. Historical dramas were pretty common at one time, but fantasy was exclusively light entertainment such as “Bewitched.”

So what happened to popular taste?

A scholarly friend once suggested that what we’re seeing is a re-normalization of tastes following a historically unusual period. His thesis was that popular taste in fiction has always been fantastical throughout history. Consider the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of King Arthur, fairy stories, etc. He pointed out the realistic novel set in present time with no fantastic elements was a historically late invention.

Others see this trend as a retreat from rationality, a return to a pre-scientific world view.

Perhaps these are partly true. And perhaps we’re reviving an ancient literary tradition for another reason.

We all know there are things we can’t say with impunity, questions we can’t ask, and we all know pretty much what they are.

In the nation with the strongest legal protections for free speech in the world we are terrified of the consequences of voicing mere speculations that arouse the passions of the PC mob.

If you doubt this, remember how James D. Watson’s career was brought to an abrupt end by uttering some incautious remarks on a controversial subject. Watson has been called “the greatest living scientist” but it earned him no tolerance, no forgiveness. He did not even get the courtesy of a counter-argument. The various institutions he was associated with rushed to disassociate themselves with the discoverer of DNA.

Could it be that period drama, fantasy, and science fiction is today the only safe venue for discussing controversial subjects?

I once pointed out that one theme of the late beloved “Battlestar Galactica” was how a free society survives under stress.

Could it be that on some level we realize that life here is so good, so secure, that we have raised a generation that thinks this is the normal and natural state of affairs? That young people raised with this assumption are in no position to deal with the world as it is outside this fat happy civilization of ours?

That is unless they watched Game of Thrones last episode where they would have watched Jon Snow and his half-sister (or possibly cousin) Sansa Stark plan strategic alliances. So-and-so has common interests with them, but there have been killings between their families. Such-and-such are friends with enemies who committed unspeakable atrocities against their family, but might be persuaded with the right incentives…

Those who see “The Last King” will for a time enter a world where men would routinely consider killing an innocent baby, up close and personal, for being the child of a dead king.

We think politics is pretty dirty, but losers of our political fights don’t fear for their lives, and certainly not the lives of their children.

It was not always so. In parts of the world it is still the reality on the ground.

If we want to survive as a free nation we need to inculcate a certain tough-mindedness in each generation. The PC phenomenon shows we’ve been failing. Maybe this is how we make up for it.

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