Thursday, April 28, 2016

Two Heartfelt Quotations

First Quotation
First Interlude
Second Interlude
Second Quotation

Too bad people don’t do poetry anymore. Our grandparents found it eased their toil through this life to memorize scraps of verse. Today I offer two tragic prose quotations as I struggle with “the meaning of life.” The second quote offers me comfort. The first quote I memorized years ago.

First Quotation
Imagine a big WWII prisoner of war camp. The prisoners retain their rank, and associate with peers of their rank. Why? The Geneva Convention, certainly. Folks of higher service rank will be in charge of the committees for things like justice, entertainment and escape. But what of a camp where they are crowded and mistreated like so many rats: Unlike Nazis, the Japanese don’t honor Geneva. There is very little group purpose for the prisoners, no escape committee.

As I see it, in both war and peace, hierarchy is human. For example, any professional sports team will give higher status to those on the varsity, less to those on the second string. When the superstar speaks, every athlete listens. When a collection of individuals come together with a group purpose, whether for sports, a service club, or whatever, the best status goes to those who best help the group achieve its purpose: the president, the tireless volunteer, the treasurer.

If people are penned together without a group purpose, such as in a high school, then, according to essayist Paul Graham, the hierarchy of status degenerates into a “popularity contest.” (Link) Graham noted how the fluttering palace courtiers of French kings were vicious in their pursuit of empty status. I would add that in small towns the social hierarchy for adults is not only frozen, but serves no sane purpose that I can see.

In a healthy army, within a healthy society, the best status will go to whoever is best helping the army to function. Competence at the top means competence at the bottom: The best cavalry will take care of their horses; in the best army, the officers will cheerfully go to the very end of the lineup for the mess hall; a competent general will not, during a mass retreat, push a private out of his jeep to make room for his personal refrigerator. But this actually happened in South Vietnam. (Two years before the fall of Saigon)

Saigon simply did not reward competence and honesty. (And since the U.S. Army was there to advise, not occupy, they could not hire or fire any Vietnamese) And this meant Saigon had lousy officers: Such a cliché, applicable to many governments in the past.  

And the future? Must corruption, political and economic, continue down the generations? The science fiction satire End of Empire by Alexis Gilliland is based on lessons learned from history. The novel opens during the desperate last hours of a mass retreat by civilians. A competent honest colonel puts a space shuttle container (think railway car) labeled as a specific general’s “furniture” off to one side. This means one more container of desperate refugees can be flown up to safety. It turns out the “furniture” car was actually full of expensive artworks being shipped by that general. The general is furious. Throughout the novel, the general keeps tugging on his white gloves and saying to his high-ranking fellow losers, as regards the honest colonel, “…after all, he is not one of us.” No wonder the empire falls.

Meanwhile, back at the 20th century Japanese prison camp, depicted in the novel King Rat, by James Clavel… an honest junior British officer, Peter Marlowe, notes the senior officers hanging around together, and tugging on figurative white gloves. A dirty senior officer has bribed a young officer by promising him a permanent commission after the war. Later, the officer later says to his corrupt senior peers over a card game: “My God, what bloody nerve—to think I’d recommend him for a permanent commission. That’s just the sort of guttersnipe we don’t need in the Regular Army. My God, no! If he gets a permanent commission it’ll be over my dead body.”

When the servicemen are finally freed, at the end of the war, young Marlowe looks back and wonders.

Marlowe is processed; he learns his father, in the Royal Navy, was on the allied convoys to Russia’s arctic coast to supply the port city of Murmansk. Sometimes the convoys would steam really far north hoping to avoid the wolf packs of U-boats. Sometimes that worked.

Marlowe is told his father was killed.

Marlowe thinks of his respected senior officers; he wonders about a class system with corruption and incompetence, with no relation between rank-status and serving the army, or the greater social good. Like bureaucracy, this seems to be what every respected senior officer, by his actions, believes in. Maybe Marlowe could conform, maybe go along with everybody else, but he has just been through hell—what did it all mean—what is Right?

“And Peter Marlow knew, tormented, that the only man who could, perhaps, tell him, had died in freezing seas on the Murmansk run.”

First Interlude
My own small equivalent of poor Marlowe would be the years I wondered if I should ignore the lessons of Vietnam, and instead “serve the bureaucracy” like everyone else does. Did the war mean nothing? In the end, I left work that would take me away from serving clients by inappropriately serving red tape; in the end, I lowered my university grade by going off topic by doing my second of two term papers not on the class subject, but on “red tape.” My professor apologized for having to downgrade me, but I told him I was still passing the class, and that was fine.

Second Interlude
It seems to me that just as people have anger issues with their heavenly father, they can have issues with their earthly father too. My family was British and alcoholic and we sure as hell didn’t use the word “love” around our house. Did they care? Have concern? Today I would think so; back when I left home I felt like a prodigal son, “not good enough.” At least, while I was living over a dozen mountain ranges away, I had the sense to seek the clarity of a counselor and the comfort of a church. Was my parent’s love real? In their old age, when first they came to use the L word, I didn’t know quite what to believe.

When my father came to my university graduation I didn’t tell him about lowering my mark; I never asked him about leaving my job. He died last year.

Second Quotation
Connie Willis spent five years writing her grim Doomsday Book—time well spent.

The winter solstice, Christmas, is traditionally a symbol of death, as the earth lies in winter’s grip, and also a symbol of birth, as the world begins at last to move back towards spring. Doomesday Book unfolds both in Oxford in the future, and in a village in the medieval past. Both time-locations have Christmas, and God, and a deadly plague. (Oxford invokes a police-patrolled quarantine)

For research, the university has a time machine portal. Time travel involves a so-called drop zone, or “drop.” Because of the science of time-linkages, it’s crucial to be back at the drop for your pick up, or else be lost...

A young graduate student, named Kivrin, is sent back to a few years before the plague will arrive and, of course, Something Goes Wrong. As the book’s back cover explains, Kivrin misses her drop…

Kivrin has surgically installed a futuristic recorder, hiding it in a fake wrist-bone spur. She had promised an archeologist, before she left, that if, by some terribly unlikely chance, she missed her drop, then she would try to be buried in a local churchyard: They could dig her up, look for her bone spur, and learn about medieval life. In Kivrin’s final recorder transcript, she is talking to her old professor.

“It’s strange. When I couldn’t find the drop and the plague came, you seemed so far away I would not ever be able to find you again. But I know now that you were here all along, and that nothing, not the Black Death nor seven hundred years, nor death nor things to come nor any other creature could ever separate me from your caring and concern. It was with me every minute.”

Sean Crawford
April, 2016

Thursday, April 21, 2016

American Country Patriots

How delightful: For the first time ever Country Thunder, a huge outdoor music festival, which has long played in just three states, is coming here to Calgary in mid-August. Yippee! And how nice that in mid-April I told a couple of older ladies of this, as I talked with them at the Country Thunder festival down in Arizona—and an hour later they excitedly told me they were coming up to the Calgary festival too! It’s a small world. And since one of the ladies uses a medical scooter, I’m sure I’ll see them in the disabilities section with my friend and me.

In Arizona they don’t have a disabilities section, but we were all in the very front row, on white plastic lawn chairs. A man who sees my friend with his father there every year came over to talk. From him I learned the two owners of Country Thunder are from Saskatchewan. The man had long hair, a Mad Hatter hat, and a detailed black T-shirt that said something on the back about veterans. He seemed Canadian; I didn’t ask; I know that thousands of Canadians served in Vietnam, with 69 killed there. Another man who came over to us had Vietnam Veteran written around the bill of his ball cap. According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, about 27,000 people attended daily.

What struck me was what other visitors to the U.S. have remarked on: the patriotism. To the average civilian here, a soldier is not set apart as a weird man from Mars, bizarrely risking death. No. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are brothers, sisters and cousins. And yes, the civilians would risk death too, to serve their country.

Now, according to one scenario, foreign natives are a hardy bunch who can march on a handful of rice a day, while Americans are spoiled and weak, lost without their couches and TV sets. Not so. Americans can fight. The reason they can fight better than the former Army of South Vietnam, or the current armies of Iraq and Afghanistan, comes down to motivation and “functioning.” (Not training) When an American crosses the wire to a base he is willing to sweat into shape and do what needs to be done. This while he knows his fellows are trying hard to be competent, and not be corrupt: Hence his ardor does not quickly fade or feel wasted.

It’s not rocket science: Even back in the days of Confucius we knew how to have a successful (functional) army: It has to be within a just (functional) society. The Chinese sage used to tell kings of small Chinese feudal-states that if they would give their peasants a fair deal then they would be unconquerable by any other king— But of course selfish oppressors have never been willing to embrace anything approaching democracy. Meanwhile, Americans come from a tradition where common farmers defeated the red coats of King George.

I never did see the face of a fan standing along the runway, (extended proscenium) his back to me, his T-shirt reading:
I once took a solemn oath
To defend the constitution
Against all enemies
Foreign and domestic
Be advised that no one
Has ever relieved me
Of my duties under this oath

I saw two middle-aged shorter-haired blond ladies in matching black T-shirts walk by me. I wonder if they worked on a base? I think I passed a couple little U.S. Marine bases near by, one for helicopters and one for a shooting range. The ladies’ shirts had a little globe and anchor on the front, for the U.S. Marines, and big letters on the back:
Pain is weakness leaving the body.

Many of the performers, during their chatting between songs, asked us to remember those in the service, and the police, firefighters and first responders.

The jolly man in a cowboy hat next to me had a T-shirt that read:
Rock of John

Praise to the Lord my rock
Who makes my hands for war
And my fingers for battle

Psalm 144

There was a comic duo who often walked the runway during the half hour between acts (as the stage was being struck and reset) Once they had us stand for the national anthem; and yes, people put their right hands over their hearts.

After each group performed their final song the guitarists would often whip their guitar picks into the crowd. Once a lady came over and gave my friend a pick she had found on the ground from last year. Her T-shirt read:
What would Johnny Cash do?

Seated at the front, we could see people behind the fence below the stage, such as (with boxes to climb on) a movie cameraman, a county sheriff, and young lady: She looked like a wholesome confident “girl next door,” one of the festival staff I think, with a T-shirt for the Buckskin County Fire and Rescue, and fire academy #1. Her shirt pictured a high concrete dam, a river rescue boat, and scuba divers below. I loved the line at the bottom:
Best in the Dam County

In America the police see themselves as being nice and safe, honest and heroic. The festival was well staffed by Pinero County sheriffs in brown uniforms—one of them gave my friend a small sheriff’s badge; he made sure to wear it all festival. I was amused to see the police well festooned with special gear in special pockets. Perhaps because of needing to wear radio headphones with chin microphones, (loud music) all of the troopers had left off their usual Smoky the Bear (Boy Scout) hats.

In the second row sat an old man with a cane wearing a USMC T-shirt. Between acts, when the seats were mostly empty, I noticed him. He wheezed to his feet and shuffled over to the county sheriff by the fence. He simply shook the sheriff’s hand once, turned around, shuffled back and sat down.

God bless America.

Sean Crawford


Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Martian Named Heinlein in Old Greece
A Narrow Look at an Aspect of my favorite writer

Robert A. Heinlein: He’s loved, he’s hated.
He was a giant, the first (and only?) writer to put that silly space fiction into the respectable pages of the Saturday Evening Post. This at a time when people said “jet propulsion laboratory” because saying “rockets” sounded crazy. I won’t repeat his biography to you here, not in this age of new exciting search engines.

Who was he?
To some, “the dean of science fiction writers” is the longhaired liberal who wrote the college cult classic about the orphan raised by Martians who comes to earth, Stranger in a Strange Land. To others, he is the shorthaired fascist who wrote the novel about the boy who earns his right to vote by doing military service in Starship Troopers. Then again, he’s that older bald free-thinker, the crank who believes in libertarianism and in keeping the government out of the nation’s bedrooms. (Gay rights, equality for women)

Some call Robert A. Heinlein their favorite author, (Me!) others find him distasteful, even disgusting. Increasingly, as the 20th century recedes, some even find him irrelevant and boring: a smart teenage girl was unable to finish his rousing “boy’s own adventure” story of Starman Jones. This “weirds me out” since I loved that book as a boy. (My mother read it too, back in the day)

I hate to sound like an English teacher, but I am an avid reader of books, including books published before I was born, and so I just have to say: I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate the writings of Robert Heinlein if you are “locked in” to your 21st century. I hate to sound like a lover of history, but I do believe time travel broadens the mind: If you don’t know your country’s past then you don’t know your own country.

My goal: To put Heinlein, a man only 12 years older than my father, into historical perspective, by sketching his generation’s belief in classical schooling and citizenship. His generation, I fear, is now history. And it’s a history we don’t know. This I can say because, according to the Internet, some readers despise Heinlein for having a character say a man should be able to do A, B, C, et cetera… ending with saying “…specialization is for ants.” I would tell angry readers to relax: The character was repeating a Greek ideal, while in the real world Heinlein’s peers, and he himself, had specialized jobs.

Well Rounded
I suspect most people, including the readers mentioned above, are not, as a physician would say, “well oriented as to time and space.” Instead, they are trapped in their own decade. Easy for me to say: I know what young people are missing out on, for I have lived across two centuries. Born in the 1950’s, I still get homesick reading Ray Bradbury’s 1940’s The Martian Chronicles.

History is more than just grim battles and changing national frontiers. History is literature; history is popular culture, new inventions and funny movies. Remember the 1970’s and Monty Python’s Traveling Circus? And John Cleese? Recently I enjoyed the comedian’s insightful book, “So, Anyway…” about his life. It was in 1960 that he went away to university. With, I think, humorous detachment, Cleese wrote: (page 120)  

“What did matter at Cambridge was professional reputation. There were the grand jobs—like being a surgeon, or a barrister, or a professor—and there were the more mundane occupations, like being a solicitor or an accountant or a general practitioner. The aim in life was to become very good at whichever category of job you went for, and to earn the respect of your colleagues, and enough money to lead a very comfortable life. It was also vital to have a few cultural interests outside your work. The aim was to be “well rounded.” Educated, accomplished, well informed and comfortably off.”

Back in the U.S., having a university department specializing in “business,” or “commerce,” totally separate from economics and sociology, did not arise until after the post-war business writings of Peter Drucker. As I see it, from reading memoirs and old fiction, (“The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can.”—Edith Hamilton) in the U.S., even as late as 1960, university students and professors still had similar ideals to the British: To be “well rounded,” with “cultural interests,” and “educated.” And yes, to get a job.

The “well rounded” ideal was a part of our culture back in Heinlein’s day. We felt knowing about Greco-Roman times was important, and we knew the Greeks were famously well rounded in the schooling they provided their children—how else could they have a healthy democracy? You may recall that besides the three R’s, Greek children were expected to be outdoors under a bright sun, to participate in sports, dancing, music, rhetoric and art. To the Greeks, learning the flute was anything but frivolous. They had a slogan, “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.” …It was as if Greeks thought uncritical drudges, “without a life,” might someday be suckered into glorious torchlight parades by the Reichstag.

Greek Values
I have a good idea of the “natural” beliefs of Heinlein’s era, if only because, in the basement as I grew up, there were three high school history textbooks from the 1930’s.

High school kids, as you may recall from the headmaster in the Hollywood movie Dead Poet’s Society, are to be properly taught, regardless of what some of the free-thinking adults surrounding them may actually believe, taught “the official norms” of society. From the school texts, I know what Heinlein’s generation “officially” believed: They believed in some of the values of what my Rand McNally historical atlas called “the classical world.”

Classical Values
Needless to say, we stopped believing in these classical values, lessons, stories and proverbs well before the 21st century. I once came across a splendid book by best selling author Rita Mae Brown, Writing From Scratch, where she opined that our western culture used to have a heritage of three streams: Hebrew, Christian and Greco-Roman. Now, she says, we are down to two streams because our Greco-Roman heritage was dropped after the First World War. As writers, this means she and I lose a number of powerful symbols and references. But we can still refer to the baby myths such as Medusa. Brown’s viewpoint that we have lost a mighty stream makes sense to me.

I recall an old 1930’s version of Dale Carnegie’s excellent How to Win Friends and Influence People where a man portrayed his wife as uneducated: He said she “…didn’t know who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” I’m sure that fellow’s words are not allowed into 21st century versions of Carnegie’s book. No point in embarrassing today’s readers. (The Greeks came first, and before them came the Egyptians)

Whatever we of today might or might not believe, no doubt the reader’s of Heinlein’s boyhood saw nothing wrong with citizens going off to war as a part of the larger society; (Unlike Darth Vader’s storm troopers being apart from the people) they saw nothing wrong with citizens being freely deputized to go catch criminals, (as in a posse) or with citizens “legislating” common law, (as in case law) through their jury trials. As for me, like my dad’s generation, I’m not rigidly against uniforms or politicians, but I also know, as a Heinlein character put it, that “civil servants” should not become “civil masters.”

For most locations of time and space, of course, government officials, with their armed “federales” are indeed the masters. I am thinking of the times of kings, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or China’s Communist rule.

U.S. President Harry Truman, around the year 1950, said, in my own words, that when he would step down from being president he would at the same time step back up into the highest honor in the land: Citizen.  Former US. presidents, still entitled to the simple honorific “Mr. President,” are never to be called something grand like “Your Excellency.” As the proverb says, the president puts his pants on one leg at a time: As in Greece, citizens all share equality; we can't download responsibility onto our leaders by saying they are better that us. Truman told news reporters he could have been happy as an historian. I’m sure Truman understood: If a man does not feel as if he is a citizen, if between his ears he is a despairing peasant, feeling no reason to become informed or participate, then his being able to vote every few years, as they do in Russia, is pretty useless.

Hopeless Apathy
Heinlein’s peers would have seen individual men lose their jobs, and get depressed, and lose their sense of “personal agency.” But could an entire nation somehow come to believe in apathy, in leaving everything to the rulers, and thereby losing their sense of being masters of their fate? Heinlein’s peers knew the horrifying answer was “Yes!”

For one thing, they saw the Germans of the democratic Weimar republic, a republic where (I once read) it was against the law for a German to say anything against, say, Arabs, even in a private conversation on the sidewalk —Yes, the Germans, after “the war to end all wars,” had ideals! Heinlein’s generation had seen those same Germans proceed to transform themselves into a Nazi state. But to be clear: If Americans knew the horrible answer was “Yes an entire state could decline,” and if they realized the dangers of surrendering a sense of citizenship, then it wasn’t merely from anything the Americans had seen it their own lifetime. Americans knew of classical history, from long before the Weimar government was voted out of office in favor of Nazis. (Yes, Hitler got in legally)

Heinlein’s generation shared a cultural memory: They knew a sense of citizenship could be lost because they knew about the strong and virtuous Romans. The Romans transformed. They went from living in a first world noble republic, just like Corinth or Athens, into a third world Roman Empire, exchanging their citizenship for apathetic decadence, in only one to two generations. There they were, like so many couch potatoes, just lying there eating grapes. The Roman senators, now having a constituency of wimps, in place of active citizens, now had no power to be a check on the emperor. The textbooks in my basement explained that while Roman Empire continued to expand for several generations, it was merely “running on momentum.” The republican virtues were gone.

Heinlein alludes to Rome’s decline and fall in his Stranger In a Strange Land where the rulers in Washington lean on astrology; the police wear black like the SS, and they deliberately land their flying police cars to show their superiority: not on a man’s driveway, not on his lawn, but right onto his flower beds. (The Man from Mars makes sure the police never do that again)

In The Puppet Masters (1951) Heinlein shows an invader from space talking to an old man, offering to have the invaders be the rulers, offering to “take care of” the old man, and the whole U.S. republic, removing everyone’s burden of responsibility and decisions, to make everyone’s lives “easier”—if only the invaders are allowed to rule. The old man glares, like a 1790 French citizen would glare at an aristocratic parasite, and answers that humans have had that offer made to them in various times and places in history—it never works out well.

No Draft or Conscription
Citizenship is the smart choice, but not the comfortable choice. Edith Hamilton passed judgment on the young men of Greece by writing, “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

Today some folks forget that in the U.S. the peacetime draft (conscription) was brought in as a cold wartime defense, to avoid the slow building of an army as happened in WWII: to be able, instead, to form a big army quickly if the communists, like the fascists had done, launched another “Pear Harbor.” To me, the draft goes with having air raid sirens. (Yes, I remember hearing them wail in despair; they used to test them on Sundays) The Greeks and Romans had no draft—although I suppose the young men would be dreadfully shamed by the old women if they stayed back in the city. No draft meant consequences: The classical city-states had to earn the people’s loyalty on an on-going basis. The state must always stay democratic enough, with people feeling active and responsible enough, to always produce enough volunteers for defense.

I’m not surprised, given the classical teachings of his time, the author of Starship Troopers was very strongly against having a draft. Heinlein once compared the draft to a sleigh being chased by hungry wolves, with people being thrown off, one by one, as a contemptible sacrifice. Contemptible.  

Worthy of Volunteers
Forget the young men of Athens-in-decline wanting comfort: Heinlein’s generation was taught that during the republic the Roman legions were unpaid volunteers. (While the army would of course supply the rations and catapults) Each one of my old textbooks stress this, each asks the students to ponder whether hired armies (mercenaries) can fight as well as volunteers. I don’t think young people of today have the same textbooks: They don’t realize the Romans were volunteers.

I’m no sociologist, but I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of psychological reason as to why people of the 21st century don’t know basic history.

An army with drafted soldiers, in war and peace, only works if they have lots of peers, not drafted, also serving, meaning: only if society is healthy. This happens when the public is serving democracy or some great cause. Otherwise? “I only work here,” the servicemen will say, it’s a “job” they will say, replicating the poor caliber of soldiers of Iraq and South Vietnam.  

Now, despite what you read in the newspaper, —stupid Yankee journalists must be sleeping on the job—further U.S. training for the Iraqi army is NOT the solution to Iraq’s problem. As I see it, even if every single man and women in the entire U.S. forces went over to Iraq to train the Iraqi’s, even if for as many years as they had trained the South Vietnamese, then, once they left, the Iraqi army, as part of the Iraqi society, would still be no dam good. No little squads of competent Iraqi soldiers will ever dash down deadly streets under scathing fire, in quick maneuvers… not as a part of an incompetent society, not if each man regards that society as being undeserving of his death.

The Arab surprise attack of the Yom Kipper war in 1973 is instructive: When the Israeli army, fleshed out by reservists, was outnumbered and surrounded by Muslim mechanized armies, the world saw the difference between armies where the leaders push from behind, and an army where the leaders lead from the front.

Historical Lessons
Down the years, as my culture has changed around me, my reading tastes have changed too. I’m no longer acclimatized to the 1950’s, but in my nostalgia? The ’50’s remains my favorite decade… and that’s my favorite decade of Heinlein’s writing. (As an avid reader, I always check a book’s copyright date) I don’t mix up Heinlein’s 1950’s work with his later novels where’s he’s changed, tending towards being too soft. I don’t hold his later novels against him, any more than I hold the reputation of the later Roman Empire, where the legions were paid, against the earlier Roman republic.

As long as you don’t get the two cities mixed up, Rome’s sprawling third world empire cannot tarnish the eternal glory of the republic on the seven hills. —By the way, the so-called “powerful” Roman emperors desperately needed an equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard: The Romans called theirs the Praetorian Guard.

To 21st century readers, Robert A. Heinlein can be as hard to understand as a Martian or an ancient Greek. Today I have tried to explain the classical foundations for his generation’s belief in citizenship. He remains my favorite author: Not only did he publically conform with what his 1950’s culture believed, he also had slid into his novels beliefs that were ahead of his time, such as hating sexism and racism. I won’t explain any of his other beliefs just now: My laptop is losing power, and I’m getting tired. Next week is another essay.

Sean Crawford


“I don’t know why people… don’t know basic history.” I wonder if it has something to do with denial and Star Trek’s Prime Directive, as I talked about near the end of my essay The Madness of Michael Moor archived March 2016.

For your further reading, in the forward by Ken McLeod to Heinlein's novel Doublestar, now on bookshelves, McLeod contrasts Doublestar to Starship Troopers. Doublestar is Heinlein's most democratic book, portraying a functioning democracy under a constitutional monarchy (Like Canada). The hero finds himself among people who are party members but not politicians, and they have their adventures between elections.