Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 28, 2013

My Memorial Day weekend

Filed under: Eleagic mode,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:06 am

“The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” – G.K. Chesterton

This Memorial Day weekend I stayed home alone and got some productive work done, in between even longer bouts of productive loafing. And of course I watched a lot of old war movies.

I got to see “Destination Tokyo” again, with Cary Grant as a submarine skipper on a mission to insert a weather observation crew ashore in Japan to guide Doolittle’s Raiders on their mission to bomb Tokyo.

This movie is one for the ages. Since war from the viewpoint of a submariner is not as visually exciting as that of an infantryman, or fighter pilot, there’s a lot of time spent on character development.

I was impressed all over again how thoughtful it was. It was war propaganda for sure, but that’s what made it so moving. It was war propaganda in the mold of Capra’s “Why We Fight” series, an explication for reasonably intelligent people of the difference between them and us, and why we could not share a world in peace.

It’s entertainment and “propaganda” made for free people.

In a eulogy for a dead shipmate, killed by a Japanese pilot he was trying to pull out of the sea, a Greek-American sailor tells his reasons for fighting.

His uncle was a philosopher, “and you gotta be good to teach philosophy where they invented it.” But the Nazis stood him up against a wall and shot him. His dad was no good, an alky who died screaming of the DTs. But in America even a bum has a right to die in his own bed.

Capt. Cassidy (Grant) said their friend Mike had just bought a pair of roller skates for his five-year-old son. The Japanese pilot got a present from his father when he was five too – a knife. Maybe the one he used to kill Mike.

“There’s lots of Mikes dying right now,” Cassidy said. “And a lot more Mikes will die. Until we wipe out a system that puts daggers in the hands of five-year-old children.”

There is a reserve office on board who is key to the mission because he was born and raised in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese.

“There was a democratic movement in Japan after the last war. What happened?” Cassidy asks him.

“The leaders were assassinated,” Reserve Officer Raymond replies.

This was 1943! In the middle of that terrible war, they could find some compassion for a ruthless enemy whose people were subjects of a tyrannical regime.

It’s hard to imagine, “Destination Tokyo” was released 70 years ago!

I don’t think any conflict before or since has been so well-explained to the people who assumed the terrible burdens of war, in movies like “Destination Tokyo” and Capra’s documentaries.

They told our people this is why we were fighting, this is why a lot of people we love were never coming back. Our enemies were fighting to enslave the world, we were fighting to free it.

Call it propaganda, the term is quite correct in the strict meaning of the word. Which doesn’t make it any less true.

And how do I know this?

Because contemporary Japanese have told me so.

Since the end of World War II the United States has been involved in three major conflicts and a number of smaller military actions. None have had the same level of support from our citizens. In none have the reasons for going to war been as well-articulated, the justification so well-expressed. In none has the necessity for victory been so compellingly presented.

Will the justification for any future conflict ever be presented to our people this well? I wonder.

May 24, 2013

The Minnesota marriage equality act non-issue

Filed under: News commentary,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:01 am

Note: This is cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Well Gov. Dayton has signed the marriage equality act, and depending on which side you line up on either the sky if falling or Minnesota has leaped into the forefront of human progress.

I’ve advanced my notions on this issue before, and been roundly condemned by both sides. But fools rush in…

Am I the only one who thinks this is the biggest non-issue today?

In Your Humble Narrator’s opinion, marriage is two things, sacred and secular.

Marriage in the secular sense is a legal contract involving obligations of support, rights of inheritance, the power to act for another in the case of incapacity, etc.

Does anyone see anything absolutely gender-specific about this? I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem so to me. Or at least not anything that minor modifications wouldn’t adjust it to the needs of gay couples. To my non-professional eye it looks rather like a legal adoption except that the rights and obligations are equal and reciprocal.

Marriage is also a religious sacrament. In the Catholic church one of seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.

My understanding is that when an ordained priest or minister performs a marriage he/she also serves as a registrar for the local government and gets a small fee for filing the appropriate papers.

It’s not done this way everywhere. In many countries in Europe couples have two ceremonies, one at the local government office and one in church. In some places they do this in the morning and afternoon, but I knew couples in Poland who waited years and had a few kids before getting around to the church wedding.

My children’s Polish grandparents had a church wedding in the city of Wroclaw – at 6 o’clock in the morning with a witness they literally dragged in off the sidewalk, because grandpa was an officer in the Army of the Polish People’s Republic and he was terrified the Party would find out he’d been married in church.

But I digress. My point is, aren’t we supposed to have something called “separation of church and state” in this country?

What business is it of the state to define what marriage is? Shouldn’t the role of government be confined to registering the contract and enforcing the provisions thereof if necessary?

The question of marriage in the sacred sense is the business of the churches. If yours does it, fine.

If it doesn’t, agitate for change or join another. Or start your own, it’s the Californian Way.

DO NOT demand the state force your church to do it. Whether you agree or disagree with the stand of your or anybody else’s church, that separation thing works both ways.

The only issue remaining is whether society at large is going to recognize same-sex couples as married.

Can’t help you there, people think as they please. Some will, some won’t. In the long run…. we’ll see.

May 23, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:42 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

“Iron Man 3” is awesome. At least according to the unanimous vote of this older dad, pre-teen son, and six-year-old daughter.

How’s that for broad-based appeal? My daughter is pleading to see it again.

Perhaps not so surprising. According to Marvel Comics, though fan mail from females is much rarer than from young boys, most of it is for Iron Man.

“Iron Man 3” is the culmination of a story arc that’s a rollicking good adventure and a story about growing up. They clue you in on how it’s come full circle when the last line of “Iron Man” is repeated at the end of IM3.

Iron Man first appeared in “Tales of Suspense” in 1963, and became part of “The Avengers” line-up the same year. The Golden Avenger got his own comic, “The
Invincible Iron Man” in 1968, and 40 years later was translated to the silver screen starring Robert Downey Jr.

Downey is Tony Stark, wisecracking genius, bold entrepreneur and perpetual adolescent, until he’s matured by massive systemic shock. It takes a while though, three movies to be exact.

Well that’s what it takes for a lot of us. For Stark the process starts when he gets a chest full of shrapnel and a better man dies to save him. (For most of us it’s having kids.)

Iron Man is the creation of Marvel impresario Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber. Marvel pioneered the notion of the three-dimensional superhero with personal problems. And one has to wonder how much depth Downey’s well-publicized substance abuse problems and his recovery contributed to his interpretation of the role.

Like the Batman, Iron Man is a non-super guy whose power comes from training and technology. His armor to be exact. It’s also the thematic question of the trilogy. Is it the suit or the man inside that makes the hero? A question that might occur to anyone who takes up arms to defend those he loves.

The concept of powered armor was first fictionalized by Robert A. Heinlein in his popular and controversial novel “Starship Troopers” published in 1959, and murdered on the screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997.

A prototype powered exoskeleton was built by Russian engineer Nicolai Yagin in 1890 (!!!) and in 1965 GE unveiled “Hardiman” as the Next Big Thing. Since Tony Stark is said to be based on Howard Hughes we can only regret the reclusive billionaire hadn’t turned his attention to… never mind.

Part of the appeal of Iron Man is, you don’t have to have been born on Krypton or bitten by a radioactive spider to become a superhero when you‘ve got the suit. Of course, first you have to invent it and manufacture it in your the multi-billion dollar home lab. But there’s the other cool thing, Tony Stark is really smart! From all of us science geeks, thank you Tony from the bottom of our hearts.

And speaking of hearts, Tony’s is broken – literally. He’s the wounded king of mythology. His suit is not just the source of his power, but of his life. His heart is kept running by a super-pacemaker thingee which also keeps the shrapnel out of it.

But aside from the over-the-top tech (armor that flies through the air and attaches itself) and the explosion-filled fight scenes, Iron Man is about the banter. Stark banters with his girlfriend, his best bud, his enemies, and his computer/valet – who gives as good as he gets.

Downey is a master of delivery. And the writers took some chances with this – remember the fuss over the “He’s adopted” joke in “The Avengers”?

Stark has a perfect foil in a kid-genius (Ty Simpkins) who resembles a younger, poorer Stark. When the manipulative brat gives him his sob story about how his father abandoned him, Stark says perfectly deadpan, “Dads leave. No need to be such a ***** about it.”

From a lot of single parents – thanks Tony. It’s hard to comfort your kids and simultaneously tell them to buck up and move on.

They’re generous with the lines. There’s a villain’s henchman with precisely one line that evokes loud guffaws.

There’s an unexpected plot twist that seriously messes with the Marvel mythology of the Mandarin and evokes gales of laughter.

And there’s a tribute to Wing Chun Kung Fu, the style Downey practices (a variation of which Your Humble Narrator also teaches) that he credits with helping him get clean, sober, and ripped for the part.

Thanks even more Tony.

The trilogy ends as Tony Stark comes full circle and answers that question, “I am Iron Man.”

But there’s always The Avengers 2 (2015), though Downey’s participation is rumored to be stalled in salary negotiations.

You’ve got to come back Tony! ‘Cause we’re connected!

May 20, 2013

Review: Home Run

Filed under: Movies,Science — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:28 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

I ran into this film quite by accident on Sunday. I was pressed for time, had to have something to review and I really didn’t want to see another iteration of “The Great Gatsby.” I’ve seen the Robert Redford version, a work of genius about people I don’t give a flip about.

I knew “Home Run” was about baseball, and addiction. “42” made me care about baseball, and some people I do give a flip about are in recovery.

Well, you’re not far into the movie before you notice it’s proselytizing for Christianity and promoting Celebrate Recovery, a program run by the Saddleback Church, founded in 1980 by Pastor Rick Warren in Lake Forest, California.

Celebrate Recovery was started in 1990 by Waren and Pastor John Baker in response to the various 12-step Anonymous programs. Warren and Baker have a similar approach but differ on two points. One, they bring all addictive behaviors, “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” under one roof.

And, they felt the AA reference to a “higher power” was too vague and specifically center their reliance on Jesus Christ.

So aside from the message and Frank Capra’s advice to use Western Union if you’ve got one, how does it stack up as entertainment.

Not bad actually, but it can make you more than a bit uncomfortable in spots.

Cory Brand (Scott Elrod) is a major league baseball player with a drinking problem. After publicly screwing up one too many times, accidentally bloodying
Carlos the batboy’s nose (Juan Martinez) while throwing a tantrum, his agent Helene (Vivica A. Fox) sends him home to Okmulgee, Oklahoma to 1) do conspicuous good works, and 2) get into a 12-step program. CR is the only one he can find.

On the way home he crashes a car while tanked to the gills, putting his brother Clay (James Devoti) in the hospital in the process. Which fortuitously gives him the opportunity for well-publicized good works – taking over as coach for the Little League team.

First complication, the batboy plays on the team and is his brother’s adopted son.

Second complication, another coach Emma Johnson (Dorian Brown), is the high school sweetheart he abandoned 10 years before when she got pregnant.

Third complication, their son Tyler (Charles henry Wyson) is on the team and doesn’t know his idol is his father.

The movie starts with a flashback. A bucolic farm scene segues into Cory’s abusive alcoholic father making him practice batting. Dad was a player who never made it past the minor leagues.

Flash forward. Cory is a seriously unlikable person. He’s got the manners, morals and habits of a spoiled six-year-old. He screws up everything for himself, the people who care for him, and won’t acknowledge any responsibility for it.

Watching him can make you squirm in your seat. They’ve got addictive behavior down.

He’s got just two things going for him. One is that he can really hit a ball. The other it turns out, is he has a real gift for coaching kids.

Of course the film is about his literal come-to-Jesus moment, brought about by a combination of things. One of them is learning the sister-in-law (Nicole Leigh) he’d contemptuously dismissed as having no problems greater than a clogged sink, had a childhood rough enough to make him ashamed of his whining. They show this with a brilliantly simple visual involving no special effects magic.

Drawbacks. This is a film about addiction, which they attribute to childhood trauma passed down through generations. But lots more people have rotten childhoods than ever become addicts to substances or self-destructive behavior.

Conversely, lots of addicts have nothing to complain about in their childhoods.

Trauma, especially young no doubt contributes to addictions, but there are other issues as well. Is there such a thing as an addictive personality? If so, is it biochemical in nature, and more to the point is it hereditary?

Is Cory a lush because his dad was abusive, or were they both lushes and prone to be mean when drunk because of their heredity?

And here’s where it gets very interesting. The open profession of faith makes a lot of people uncomfortable these days, but the fact is faith-based programs have comparatively high success rates. If addiction is a biochemical weakness, the “self-medication theory,” then what if living with it involves strong, single-minded belief in… something.

If religion isn’t something you go to the movies for, this isn’t your cup of tea. If you have dealt with addiction, of know someone who has, it might be interesting.

What’s also interesting is, for an indy movie with competent acting and good visual composition, it cost only $1.2 million to make. Which it made back with change its opening weekend.

May 13, 2013

Terror in rural Minnesota!

Filed under: Media bias,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:15 am

I started out last Monday writing my weekly movie review when a report of terrorist activity in Montevideo, Minnesota landed on my desk.

The FBI press release had it that someone named Buford “Bucky” Rogers had been arrested in a raid on his parent’s trailer home on Friday. The FBI claimed they’d seized lots of guns, including a Romanian AKM assault rifle, Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs.

It’s a bit outside of our coverage area but it seemed serious, so up I went and spent most of the day in the trailer park outside of town, talking to the Rogers family, a.k.a. “The Black Snake Militia” and their neighbors, and watching the TV news people from as far away as Minneapolis and Sioux Falls come and go.

Since then I’ve caught the news reports of the terrorist plot as it’s gone national. The FBI claims they’ve saved Lord knows how many lives.

It’s all bull$#!+ and a lot of so-called journalists should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!

The “terrorists” are father Jeff Rogers, a man four years younger than I am who looks 20 years older. He’s wheezy, out of shape, and had open heart surgery not long ago. His son Shawn is 17, though neighbors told me they guessed his age at 13-14, which should give you an idea how dangerous he looks. As it turns out Bucky doesn’t live there but with his girlfriend and their 10-month-old baby in town, which is actually where he was arrested.

These people aren’t terrorists. They’re dumb as stumps, nutty as fruitcakes – but probably harmless.

The talking heads pointed their cameras at the family, asked a few questions – and sat back and watched them rave about implanted microchips and their “militia.” Because everybody wants to be a movie star, and this was likely the most attention they’d gotten in their lives.

But they’ve got guns!

All of them legal and registered to Jeff. A sizable collection but no bigger than those of friends of mine who include teachers, county commissioners, farmers, and cops.

They wear camouflage!

For God’s sake, cammie is the right-wing equivalent of “Che” T-shirts and “Mao” paraphernalia. “Look at me! I’m wearing the battle dress of a military I don’t remotely qualify to join.”

Nobody gets upset when college students parade around campus wearing the faces of mass murderers on their shirts. Nobody cries “racist” that one was the greatest murderer of Hispanics in the 20th century.

Why the hell aren’t journalists asking intelligent questions?

If the FBI found bombs in the trailer home – why aren’t the Rogers family in custody? According to Jeff, they weren’t even mirandized.

Molotov cocktails? That’s an incendiary made by filling a bottle with gasoline and stuffing a rag in the neck for a fuse.

Nobody stores Molotov cocktails! They keep cans of gas, rags, and bottles around and assemble them as needed!

Shawn Rogers said the FBI carted off a box of scrap plumbing pipe. I believe him, The Rogers seem to eek out Jeff’s disability pension by collecting and selling scrap. I got Jeff Rogers to open the “bomb factory” shed – it’s a junk heap!

Some reports more cautiously said they had “bomb making materials” in their house.

That I believe. But then again, so do I – and so do you. Between your kitchen and your bathroom you have the ingredients for at least two high explosives which I won’t name, but they go off at a harsh look. Everybody is one chemistry lesson away from a bomb.

Bucky Rogers I haven’t met. Word from people in the school system is he was a trouble maker but not scary in school, but his little brother is rather liked by his teachers.

Bucky was on probation for burglary, but didn’t do time. He mouthed off a lot on Facebook in ways that could be seen as threats. The FBI said he admitted after a Miranda warning to firing his father’s AKM at a gun range.

Gotcha! Probation violation – which is what he’s been charged with so far. So why hasn’t he been charged with making terroristic threats?

Bucky’s parole officer might have taken him aside and told him to dial the nutty stuff down until he was off probation.

Instead the FBI swooped down on Montevideo, roped in several local law enforcement agencies, and when the FBI show up in your office you don’t say “No thanks.” They staged a major operation at considerable expense which I seriously doubt the local law will ever get reimbursed for.

Many readers I’ve talked to are quite sensibly skeptical about the sensationalist news reports. Good on you! The county sheriff has been admirably restrained and rather noncommittal in his public statements. The FBI is often disliked among local law enforcement agencies, but it is not wise to antagonize them.

But why all the commotion? Not to mention the expense.

If I were a right-wing conspiracy nut, I’d suspect that in the aftermath of the Boston bombing the PC Patrol is desperately searching for terrorists who aren’t Muslims. The Rogers are the people America has been taught to fear – white, redneck gun nuts.

But since I’m a cynic I have to wonder if the FBI affidavit didn’t give it away. The agent who signed it said he’d been at the Minneapolis office since he graduated from the academy in 1999. If I had to guess, I’d wonder if someone is tired of being stuck out in the boonies and sees a big score that’ll get him back to the bright lights in the big city.

Note: This is the self-syndicated column I submitted to my subscriber(s) for this week. I usually wait a while before posting on my blog to give the print-only outlets a head start. Currently this is re-posted on the websites of rural newspapers in a five-state area in the upper midwest.

I am expecting the compost to hit the thresher over this one. We’ll see, and stay tuned for part 2.

UPDATE: Just got word Bucky Rogers got 3 1/2 years, i.e. a probation violation. Terrorism charges seem to have disappeared.

May 10, 2013

Nobody argues anymore

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:30 am

Note: This is my weekly op-ed.

“What are you talking about?” (I hear you say.) “All we do is argue these days. About gun control, abortion, Obamacare…”

No, we don’t argue about these things at all. Or at best, only one side argues.

“What? Doesn’t it take two to argue? Or fight, make up, or tango?”

Let me back up a bit.

I’m using “argument” in the formal sense used in logic. You have a set of statements, one of which is the conclusion. You’re claiming if all the other statements are true, the conclusion has to be true.

I thought of this a few nights ago when a teacher friend of mine was venting about an exchange he had in the teachers’ lounge.

The issue was gun control legislation, but it could have been anything.

What frustrated him was another teacher making assertions about what he should or should not be legally allowed to have, based on feelings, uninformed opinions, and flat-out assertions of what is or isn’t freedom.

“Is this what passes for argument among these people?” he said.

I’ve run into the exact same phenomenon. And what’s worrisome is, an awful lot among academics. You know, those people who are preparing our children to deal with the world?
I have an acquaintance I’ve known for well over 30 years who teaches history in an eastern college.

He vents a lot on Facebook, and recently something struck me.

In more than 30 years I have never heard him construct an argument. What he does is attack the sources he disagrees with. Sometimes he asserts dark and shady secrets in their past, having nothing to do with their opinions or positions. But lately it’s been simple name-calling: “idiots,” “fools” etc.

I hear this a lot, from a lot of different people. What passes as argument takes the form of an attack, not on the opinion but the person holding the opinion.

In formal logic this is called the ad hominem (“to the man”) fallacy, and can take few different forms.

The one I see quite often in political arguments starts with assuming the conclusion, then claiming if you disagree you are a terrible person.

I’ll use the example of Obamacare. If you are in favor of Obamacare, please remember I’m criticizing what passes for the argument – not the conclusion. That’s the first elementary mistake students make in freshman logic.

“Obamacare will bring down medical costs and make health insurance available to all the uninsured people. People against Obamacare want medical costs to go higher and poor people to have no insurance. That’s because right-wingers are heartless.”

Hold it! Agree or disagree, the argument is not that the claimed benefits are undesirable, but that Obamacare won’t produce them. That it will in fact drive costs higher and make medical care less available.

Secondly, it asserts an ulterior motive for holding a contrary opinion. (The argumentum ad hominem circumstantial.)

May I point out that motive is one thing we cannot know for sure, because it resides in people’s heads, and is what we are most likely to lie about, even to ourselves.

I believe that this inability to argue is more common on the left, though certainly not unknown on the right.

Why? For one, the so-called “conservative” movement is more intellectually diverse than what’s called “liberalism.” (I put liberalism in quotes because I’m old enough to remember when “liberal” meant something far closer to some kinds of conservatism these days, as it still does in Europe.)

Conservatism is in fact at least three or four “movements” in a loose alliance. The opposite ends of that alliance, libertarians and social conservatives positively loathe each other. Consequently, they argue a lot.

For another, establishment liberalism dominates media and the social sciences and humanities in universities.

The result is, right-wingers have to defend their opinion a lot more often than left-wingers, even among themselves. Left-wingers spend most of their time with people who agree with them.
They don’t learn to argue, because they don’t get their daily exercise defending their position.

An old journalist, Frank Meyer once said, “We find comfort among those we agree with, growth among those we disagree with.”

May 2, 2013

May Day

Filed under: Academic,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:12 am

Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Yesterday, May 1, I saw a Facebook post by an academic I’ve known for… a long time. He teaches history in an east coast college and advertises himself as a “labor historian.”

He, or somebody, had filched the classic “We can do it!” WWII poster of a working woman flexing her bicep and appropriated it to promote International Workers’ Day. He urged everyone to “honor labor.”

Just because I get intensely irritated by the kind of intellectuals and academics who would do anything for the working class – except join it, I left a comment.

I said, “Good idea! How about everyone honor labor by listing all the jobs we’ve done that involved demanding physical labor. Mine are: waiter/bartender, garbageman, framing carpenter, bucking hay in season, sewage treatment plant operator, and in between journalism gigs I drove a grain truck for harvest.”

Dead silence.

At any rate, I got curious and looked up a few things about the date. For one, nobody remembers but April 30- May 1 is the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane that used to mark the beginning of summer. Great bonfires were built and cattle driven between them to be purified by the smoke. Everyone would douse their house fires and relight them from the sacred bonfires.

In the 19th century May 1 was promoted by socialists (my academic acquaintance is a socialist), communists, syndicalists, and anarchists as a day to honor labor. The day was chosen to commemorate the date of the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886. (Which actually happened on May 4, I don’t know why the date was changed to the first.)

During a demonstration a bomb was thrown at police by person or persons unknown, killing seven of them. The police returned fired on the crowd, killing four.

In the aftermath, eight radicals were tried, four executed and one apparently committed suicide in his cell in a particularly grisly fashion with explosives.

For well over a century this was considered the judicial murder of innocent people for the crime of having unpopular opinions, until historian Timothy Messer-Kruse dug up an awful lot of evidence that seems to show that the trial was quite fair by the standards of the time, and if any innocent people were executed, it was because their lawyers were more interested in making points than oh, say preparing a defense. You know, that thing lawyers are supposed to do?

At any rate, eight years later in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill declaring the first Monday in September Labor Day, unofficially marking the end of summer. The date was chosen specifically to avoid any association with May 1.

Nonetheless May 1 remains a labor holiday in over 80 countries world-wide.

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