Monday, May 30, 2016

Finding Common Ground

Honoring Our Dead With Taking Chance

As anyone who knows him can attest, my brother Mark loves movies.  His DVD collection is, to say the least, extensive, and he is actually a true scholar of films.  He has published numerous movie reviews about World War Two movies that I have really enjoyed for their insights and examination of deeper themes contained in the films.  Interestingly he is also passionate about films concerning Jesus, and has taught several studies privately on the subject.

I read his blog entry this morning and saw his comments on the movie Taking Chance.  I had never seen the movie and was intrigued by its premise and how he had used it to instruct his daughter Chloe on the meaning of Memorial Day.  (Chloe, by the way, is adopting her father's appreciation for classic film: on one visit she wanted me to watch Singing In the Rain with her as opposed to the more conventional Disney or Pixar offerings my kids grew up with). Fortunately I had access to Taking Chance on one of my internet subscription services, and so I watched it.

Image result for taking chance

The film is incredibly moving and really had no message except it told the tale of how the body of a fallen soldier was treated with respect and dignity throughout his journey from the combat zone to burial in his Wyoming hometown.  I admit I cried like a baby watching it.  I was reminded of the famous quote attributed to Joseph Stalin "the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic".  Sometimes, unless we know the deceased personally, we fail to acknowledge the real human impact of war, and that is another valuable reminder of the film.  I understood the conflict experienced by Kevin Bacon's character as well, about whether his service as a staff officer working basically a military job on civilian work schedule allowed him to claim the title of a "real" Marine compared to the obvious sacrifice of those who are actually fighting.  I am a Desert Storm era veteran who did not go to Desert Storm.  I spent that time assisting in refresher training of reservists recalled to active duty to backfill units in Germany, but still was the beneficiary of the outpouring of public affection for the military during that conflict, and sometimes felt like an impostor. 

However the point I want to make is about the diversity of backgrounds of the people honoring Chance Phelps, the fallen Marine, and his escort officer, LTC Michael Strobl.  Throughout the film, spontaneous gestures of respect take place, ranging from the complimentary upgrade of the outbound flight to first class Strobl receives at the airline ticket counter, to the stewardess who wordlessly hands Strobl a crucifix on the plane, to a baggage handler getting bedding for Strobl to sleep on so he can stay with Phelps' body during an overnight layover, to finally an impromptu funeral procession that forms as Phelps' body is driven 5 hours from the airport to his home.  This is where I see hope for us as a nation.  There are points that divide us, sure, but there are also those where all of us as Americans can agree.  Honoring those who have died in the defense of our freedom is definitely one.

So, thanks to my brother, I feel I celebrated Memorial Day with a proper attitude of respect and remembrance.  Despite the gulf of what often seems to divide us, and our very real differences, there is common ground.  This is what we can build on. 

Donald Trump and the "F" Word

The "F" word is Fascist, and lately columnists everywhere have weighed in on the relationship between the "F" word and Donald Trump.

Note that I do not call Donald Trump a Fascist.  As far as I can make out, Trump is a political opportunist with no coherent political philosophy.

Nor would I argue that Trump supporters are Fascist, certainly not in a self-conscious way.  The question instead is whether the impulse that underpins their support reflects a Fascist sensibility.

This is a question that has cropped up at least since December 2015, as I discovered when I did two Google searches:  "Trump fascist" and "Trump not fascist."   The early replies were in the negative.  See, for example, Dylan Matthews' column in Vox.Com (December 10, 2015):  "I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here's what they said."   The five experts thought he wasn't.

In January 2016, Gianni Riotta declared in The Atlantic"I Know Fascists; Donald Trump Is No Fascist." On March 11, The Chicago Tribune also rejected the thesis that Trump was a Fascist.  A week later Austin Rise, an historian of Fascism, complained on that "Claiming Donald Trump Is a Fascist Makes Fascism Impossible to Understand." (March 14, 2016)  As recently as May 19, Michael Ledeen sneered in Forbes that "Nobody Knows Anything About Fascism."  

By that time, however, Robert Kagan had published a counter-assertion in the Washington Post that gained wide attention, partly because Kagan is a well known defense analyst who is himself conservative (some would say neoconservative) and who enjoys wide respect within the conservative national security community.   Pointing to the Trump campaign and the well-springs of its support, Kagan prophesied, "This is How Fascism Comes to America."  He argued that however Trump himself characterized his political views, they were essentially fascist and if Trump became President fascism would be lodged in the corridors of national power.

Since then, the op/eds I've encountered has largely followed Kagan's lead.  Prominent among them is a long article in the New York Times that places Trump within the larger context of a perceived turn toward global fascism.  This morning brings an article in Salon"Our Memorial Day collision course with fascism: Donald Trump and the new American militarism." "It's not that Trump himself is a fascist," writes David Niose, "but he's a sign that we are more vulnerable to it than we ever imagined."

I offer the above simply as a guide for readers interested in pursuing this story line.  I myself am seldom quick to make pronouncements about these things.  I do believe that Trump represents a political phenomenon in American life that merits close study--and will undoubtedly receive sustained historical scrutiny regardless of whether The Donald has the opportunity to create the Trump White House.  Right now I don't think anyone has a clear handle on what exactly is going on.  A number of explanations are floating about, many of which have enough plausibility to serve as legitimate hypotheses.  And almost certainly no single explanation will suffice.

Whatever we are looking at, surely it's a perfect political storm, a collision of numerous factors, among them the freakish multiplicity of GOP candidates--if memory serves there were originally 17; Trump's mastery of the cult of celebrity and his ability to captivate the talk radio and television industry; the sheer rage of a segment of the American electorate that feels alienated, betrayed and marginalized for reasons the are class-based; and quite possibly fueled by racial anxieties, nativism, and xenophobia as well .  But does any of this add up to a fascist impulse?  The jury's out--and is likely to remain out--but it's a question worth asking.



The Impact of "Taking Chance"

Today is Memorial Day. Two years ago I took my daughter Chloe to a Memorial Day parade and tried to give her some idea of what it was about, but as she was just 2 1/2 years old I naturally had limited success. So last evening we sat down together and watched "Taking Chance." It's a 2008 HBO film based on the true story of Marine Lt Col Michael Strobel's experience escorting the remains of PFC Chance Phelps from Dover Air Force Base to his parents' home in rural Wyoming.  Here's the trailer:

I'd seen the film before, enough to know that it was perfectly suitable for a 4 1/2 year old to watch. It contains no violence and (with one brief exception) no profanity. Chloe asked a number of questions, and periodically we'd pause the DVD while I answered them. One of them had to do with the term "service"; as in "Thank you for your service." Chloe had previously encountered the term only in the context of food service, so I had to explain the larger meaning of "service," what it means "to serve," and so on. Particularly what it means to serve in the military and, by extension, to serve one's country.

Whenever I get a little choked up about something, Chloe interprets it as sadness, and has continued to do so despite my efforts to explain that such shows of emotion often do not signify sadness.  Several times during the film she turned to me and said, "Don't be sad."

The movie had an impact on someone made of sterner stuff than myself.  Early in the Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conducted a review of the Defense Department's policy of barring media access to the military mortuary facility at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  The media cried foul, with some charging that the policy was a politically-motivated effort to hide the human cost of war from the American public.  But the military services and a number of groups representing the families of fallen soldiers considered it almost sacrilegious to allow cameras to film the flag-draped coffins returning from overseas.  Gates ultimately decided to modify the policy so as to allow press coverage as long as a grieving family did not object.

In his memoirs, Gates wrote:
In the case of my decision on Dover, an HBO movie, Taking Chance, released in February [2009], had an important impact.  The story follows a Marine lieutenant colonel (played by Kevin Bacon) as he escorts the remains of Marine Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover to his hometown in Wyoming, ordinary Americans making gestures of respect all along the way.  After seeing the film, I was resolved that we should publicly honor as many of our fallen warriors as possible, beginning at Dover.  -- Duty:  Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York, 2014), 307. 

(For more information on the film, see the  "Taking Chance" web site on HBO.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Crying Wolf

Ad Hominem Codespeak As Substitute For Meaningful Dialogue

Michel Foucault, who published his magnum opus Madness and Civilization in 1960, is one of the unheralded architects of the restrictions on free speech which have come to be known in popular lexicon as "politically correct".  Foucault argued the language is a tool of oppression and violence because it is a way of imposing our own point of view upon others.  Another French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, wrote in his 1976 book Of Grammatology, that the author's intent in writing something was ultimately unknowable, then the reader is free to give whatever meaning he wishes to the text.  This concept, known as literary deconstruction, also has a profound impact on modern thinking (and got me my easiest "A" ever at Ohio State when I took a literature class - I could make up whatever I liked and not be wrong).

One consequence, particularly of literary deconstruction, is intellectual laziness.  There is now a tendency among the "chattering classes" to find one or two tortured comparisons to figures of deservedly universal contempt, like Hitler, and then apply them to whoever we disagree with.  This is what passes for deep analysis nowadays, but is nothing of the sort.  In my adult life, I have heard the term "Hitler" applied to just about every prominent Republican coming down the pike.  The word has been watered down to the point where it has lost all meaning.  Like the boy in the classic children's morality tale, crying wolf falsely too much has caused the villagers to stop running with pitchforks and axes at the cry.

Case in point is Donald Trump.  Love him or loathe him, he needs to be taken on his own terms and not dismissed with a simple perjorative.  Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institute, recently wrote a paper whose thesis was based upon Donald Trump being a gateway drug into full blown fascism in the United States.  It is not surprising, given the stated philosophy of Brookings, that Donald Trump would be anathema.  While it is true the Institute was supportive of some of George W. Bush's foreign policies (some say overly so), it generally takes positions on public policy to the center left.  One of its goals is to foster more open and cooperative foreign policy, and Trump would seem to run afoul of that.

Mark tweeted an article the other day from the New York Times which illustrates how simplistic this approach has become.  The article points out some things that need to be said.  First, it points out that often facile allusions and provocative code words are used as a substitute for real analysis.  It then gives examples of how these metaphors break down.  For example, the article points out "... fascists believe in strong state control not get-government-off-your-back individualism and deregulation".  This is a critical point, because without the power of an oppressive state, you can't have fascism.  Trump's stated policy of shrinking the power and reach of government of government into people's lives actually acts to diffuse fascism.  So when Kagan makes the case that Trump has sold a message that he exists to solve all of people's problems, he is dead wrong.  Trump instead has vowed to put America first in his decision making processes.  This is offensive to some, but seems to be the proper of a government designed to preserve and protect the United States.

In terms of government being the answer to all needs, this is properly the province of the progressive left.  Listen to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton and what you get is John Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" turned on its head.  Everything is promised: "free" healthcare, education, childcare, housing, and food paid for by the pitiless bourgeosie 1%, who "need to pay their fair share".  This is the real danger to democracy, in my opinion.  Once people recognize they can vote into power a genie in a bottle who will tend to their material needs at someone else's expense, then kiss freedom goodbye.

In closing here is a quote to ponder:

We don’t have to stop any of the processes of our lives because we are rearranging the structures in which we conduct those processes. What we have to undertake is to systematize the foundations of the house, then to thread all the old parts of the structure with the steel which will be laced together in modern fashion, accommodated to all the modern knowledge of structural strength and elasticity, and then slowly change the partitions, relay the walls, let in the light through new apertures, improve the ventilation; until finally, a generation or two from now, the scaffolding will be taken away, and there will be the family in a great building whose noble architecture will at last be disclosed, where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfected, co-ordinated beehive, not afraid of any storm of nature, not afraid of any artificial storm, any imitation of thunder and lightning, knowing that the foundations go down to the bedrock of principle, and knowing that whenever they please they can change that plan again and accommodate it as they please to the altering necessities of their lives.

If you guessed Mussolini you are wrong.  The quote is actually from Woodrow Wilson's famous 1912 campaign speech "What Is Progress", which contains the seminal ideas of the modern progressive movement.  If I was to envision natural models of fascism, then the bee colony and anthill would certainly come to mind.  So I shudder when I think how many people nowadays think a beehive is a great place to live.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Towards a More Civil Discourse

I'm Scott Grimsley and, as Mark wrote, I am the little brother.  Interestingly when we were young, I never had any real interest in politics.  Mark was working for the Jimmy Carter campaign in 1976 as a 16 year old; I could have cared less.  In fact, in what was one of the most monumental elections of my lifetime, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which was also the first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election, I didn't bother.  Instead I learned Ronald Reagan had been elected pumping quarters into slots at a video arcade on the Ohio State campus.

I should have known better.  Stagflation, as the horrible economy of the late 1970's was termed, meant that I was paying 21.7% interest on my 1977 Chevy Monza (a real piece of junk even at 0% interest), and had seen the spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis unfold for the previous year with America's impotence for all to see.  For some reason, as is ever the case with many young people, it seemed politics had little to do with the reality of what I was witnessing.

Four years later though, I couldn't wait to get the polls to reelect Ronald Reagan to a second term. Reagan spoke to me as no politician ever had.  Believing that the Cold War would be resolved in some form over the next 50 years, and not being willing to not contribute to the outcome, I joined the Army in 1985.  I attended Officer Candidate School and served as an armor officer for the next seven years.  I took my duties very seriously, and did not pay much attention to politics in the best tradition of the military.  However, in the late 1980's several things happened to change my viewpoint on things profoundly.  First was the birth of my daughter in 1988.  This changed me more than anything else ever has because it made me think seriously about the future and the kind of world she would grow up in.  The second was I starting reading the Christian worldview writings of Chuck Colson, and realized there should be a strong connection between what I believe and how I act on that belief.  The third thing was that I started to listen to Rush Limbaugh.  Rush will be the first to say that he does not so much shape opinion as give voice to a constituency which was largely inarticulate in its beliefs, and such was the case with me.  He presented politics from a viewpoint that I enthusiastically agreed with, and it was almost like hearing what I would say myself, if I were more informed at the time.

These three things began the evolution of political awareness that continues to this day.  I continue to learn and grow in my beliefs, and have great strength of my convictions.  I no longer need the training wheels of Rush Limbaugh to help give voice to my views, though I still listen from time to time when I am traveling.  So I have come a long way from the time when I asked my brother while I was in college to explain the difference between a liberal and a conservative, because I genuinely did not know.  But there is one additional idea that also has emerged from my political journey and is one sadly lacking in much of today's discourse.

In 1996, during the presidential campaign between the hapless Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, came to my small town of Elizabethtown to give a speech.  Jack Kemp, as many of you know, was an adviser to Ronald Reagan and the innovator who came up with such ideas as Enterprise Zones and other innovations to empower economically sectors of American society who did not feel they had a chance at the American dream.  In short, Kemp was a capitalist's capitalist, a man who believed in supply side economics to his core.

When he gave his brief talk to a few dozen of us at the municipal airport though, he said something that both surprised and amazed me.  He described his vision of how things could work, and then the progressive vision, and how that view differed from it.  Then came the remarkable comment - he said that "both were legitimate points of view".  No slander, no reviling his opponents as godless haters of American liberty, but simply people who disagreed with him over what was the best policy for the country.

I think this is where true dialogue among people of goodwill begins.  It is the recognition that people who disagree with you have looked at the same facts and are coming up with what they see as the best solution.  This does not mean that all ideas are equal: there are ones that have more merit than others without doubt.  There are ideas that work better towards solving a problem than others.  So it is incumbent for folks of good will to argue about ideas, testing the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions against those of their opponents because, at the end of the day, we, along with our children, have to live with what we come up with.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Pushing Back

I'm Mark Grimsley.  The photo above was taken probably in 1971.  That's me on the left.  My brother Scott is on the right.  Our father is in the center.  Dad died at 54, less than twenty years after our mother took this snapshot.  She herself died at 47.  I mention the ages at which our parents died because they matter.  I'm now well along toward my 57th birthday.  This year Scott will turn 55.  In short, we've so far managed--barely--to outlast our parents.  We're both in fairly good health, so there's no reason to suppose that we won't live for many years to come.  But having lost our parents at such early ages, it skews our sense of mortality.  At a gut level, it's hard to believe that we'll live as long as the actuarial tables say we will.  It shifts our sense of the importance of time, and the need to make the most of the time we have left.

Our parents' death has affected us in another way.  In modern America, once children reach adulthood, the centrifugal forces of life tend to carry them in different directions.  The main thing countervailing this is a surviving parent or parents.  To pursue the analogy from physics, they act as a force of gravity pulling the kids back into orbit (family re-unions, holiday dinners, etc.)  Since Scott and I haven't had this second force acting upon our lives--nor for that matter, has our younger sister--it's been easy for our relationship to become tenuous.  And all the more so because our worldviews and our politics are so different.

The relationship between Scott and myself has seldom been easy.  This has been primarily the case since we reached adulthood, but it tracks back all the way to early childhood.  I suspect this is because fewer than two years separate us in age.  I'm the older of the two, but not enough to create a clear distinction between "big brother" and "little brother."  In such a context it was understandably Scott's inclination to compete with me and my inclination to compete right back.  We long ago recognized this dynamic but have yet to overcome it.  We probably never will.

Throughout most of our adult lives, this mutual competition has played itself out through debates about politics and religion.  It's a cliché that you should never talk about politics or religion because they are inherently so divisive.  That may be so.  But I'm pretty sure our debates have often served as a proxy for arguments about things even more divisive.

Since our relationship seems condemned to play itself out largely through discussions about politics and religion, Scott and I have decided that we can at least make this dynamic redemptive.

How so?

Well, as much as we disagree about political issues, we share a common concern:  the toxic nature of political discussion in our country today.  Civility has never been the foremost hallmark of political talk, but incivility has become the norm to such an extent that our society no longer has good models for how people can disagree about politics in a respectful manner.  The reason isn't hard to find.

Political talk shows on radio and television model the kind of discourse that caricatures and demonizes the other side, when the other side isn't present in the discussion; and becomes little more than a shouting match when the other side is.  This has had the effect of repelling many Americans to such an extent that they have given up on politics.  And among those who choose to remain politically engaged, this form of discourse has poisoned us.  Our ability to carry on a civil discussion has not only atrophied, we have, by and large, lost sight of it as an ideal.  It has instead become a blood sport.

Historian Richard Hofstadter long ago identified what he called "the paranoid style in American politics."  In capsule form, the paranoid style asserts:  Our side is nobly defending liberty.  The other side is willfully, culpably trying to destroy liberty.

Present-day Americans create didn't this style.  But we have industrialized it.  I suspect that among the "chattering class," the scorn and ridicule they heap upon their political opponents, and the zeal with which they wrap themselves in the flag, are largely performance art, like professional wrestling.  But when performance art is mistaken for the real thing, and ordinary citizens choose to regard it as the way in which we should actually discuss politics, then we are in real danger.

The only way that Scott and I can think of to push back against this is to model the kind of political engagement that we would like to see.  Sibling Rivalry is an effort to do that.

Neither of us has a completely developed idea about how we'll go about this.  And we know we have many competing responsibilities that are going to pull us in other directions.  But we will do what we can.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.  Or at least criticize the other party.  With civility.