The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

PRESIDENTIAL BEARDS: Once upon a time in America, Republican beards ruled the land, and almost all of God’s children were content, except for the usual suspects. There was only one clean-shaven man in the White House in the years between 1860 and 1896, and the House of Representatives impeached him. I do not believe that the House impeached Andrew Johnson because he shaved on a regular basis, although his lack of a proper beard may have contributed to the political establishment’s visceral dislike of him, that and his turning up drunk for his own inauguration as Vice President. Inaugurating under the influence may not be a ticketable offense in many states, but it does tend to give the tourists an unfavorable impression of the Federal government and annoys the citizenry no end. Johnson’s impeachment was wildly popular amongst all segments of the bearded population; it was even popular with women, who could not vote at the time, beards or no beards.

Subsequent candidates learned their lesson; all Republican presidential candidates after Johnson had beards, even if not all Republican presidents did. The exception was Chester Alan Arthur, who wore a Burnside—a full mustache and side-whiskers with a clean chin. It bears pointing out here, however, that Arthur was an accidental President; he was actually the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1880. James A. Garfield, the party’s presidential candidate and the eventual winner of the election itself, wore a full beard, as did Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield as he waited for a train. Many of the doctors who treated Garfield also had full beards and it is still a matter of contention among many historians whether or not the doctors’ beards played any role in causing the infection that eventually killed Garfield, or whether it was just the doctors’ medical ignorance in poking around in the presidential bullet hole with dirty instruments that did Garfield in. In any case, after a reasonably fair trial, the government hanged Guiteau and his beard for shooting Garfield, while the doctors who actually killed the President found that their well-publicized incompetence actually enhanced their medical prestige and allowed them to go on and kill a good many other lesser-known and thoroughly unpresidential people as well and charge the unfortunate wretches that much more for the privilege.

The Democrats tried to make themselves tonsorially convincing, but failed, for the most part. The only Democrat elected to the presidency during the bearded period was Grover Cleveland (Johnson was a Democrat too, but he only got in because Lincoln wanted to be bipartisan in 1864), who was the proud possessor of a walrus mustache, which was about as hairy as any Democrat would allow himself to be in those days. Cleveland’s opponent in the 1884 presidential election was James G. Blaine, a Republican senator from Maine blessed with a full beard and cursed with the bad habit of annoying the voters. Beard or no beard, hanging around with people who trash the voters, as Blaine was wont to do, is not a recipe for long-term political success in the United States or anywhere else, for that matter. Voters at that time also found Blaine’s building a $50,000 mansion for himself on a senator’s $5,000 a year salary a bit off-putting as well. Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, who did have a full beard, and then won again in 1892, all the while courting and eventually marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter, which was more than a little scandalous and tended to confirm the idea that a clean-shaven Democratic face was the devil’s playground in many people’s eyes.

Why, you may ask, were beards so presidentially necessary at that time? Certainly, the Founding Fathers did not wear beards. One can no more imagine George Washington with a beard than one can imagine Fidel Castro without one. From the founding of this our Great Republic to 1860, no American president wore a beard, although James Buchanan needed one. Even Lincoln won the 1860 election without a beard. He grew one a short time later, because he would not allow Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, who wore a goatee, to outdo the President of the United States in any fashion. And so the war came.

After Lincoln, all Republican presidents wore a beard, in tonsorial homage to the great man and to pander to the bearded vote out in the Midwest, although in fairness to Ulysses S. Grant, he already had a beard when Lincoln became President and so no one can accuse him of political me-tooism. In a post-Lincoln environment, everyone wanted to emulate Lincoln’s political success without the down side of getting shot—Garfield was singularly unsuccessful in this regard—and so beards became a necessary adjunct to gaining political office for Republicans. Some politicians like Governor Hezekiah T. Fletcher of Kansas drove the trend to extremes. The good governor wanted the 1876 Republican presidential nomination and decided to grow a beard down to his knees to demonstrate what a good, stalwart champion of old-fashioned Republican virtues he was. While campaigning in Philadelphia at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Governor Fletcher made a speech defending the high tariff on foreign manufactures against some Democratic calumny when, in an unfortunate moment meant to be dramatic, he threw his beard over his shoulder and into the maw of a newly patented industrial sausage-making machine made in Germany, which promptly pulled the governor in and reduced him to about 150 pounds of politically unviable bratwurst before anyone could figure out how to turn the machine off, the instructions on the machine being written in German. The misadventure also ruined the governor’s new suit, which he hadn’t finished paying for yet. The nomination that year went to Rutherford B. Hayes, as did the election, the latter event being the result of some heavy-handed ballot box stuffing in the South. Hayes wore a very full beard, even for the standards of the time, supported the high tariff on foreign manufactures, and would not allow the serving of alcoholic beverages at the White House, this being an edict from the First Lady, which led the newspapers to tag her with that most alliterative of spousal sobriquets, Lemonade Lucy. She was the first First Lady to graduate from college and she never wore a beard, despite her obvious Republican leanings.

Times change, however, and by 1896 there was an entire generation of voters who had never known Lincoln and who were, quite frankly, getting tired of looking at politicians resembling the Voronezher Rebbe’s first cousin on his mother’s side. They wanted something new, fresh, and exciting; what they got was William McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to occupy the White House and a man who was the epitome of small town Republican virtues. He was clean-shaven, though; in fact, McKinley could shave his entire face with just two swipes of a straight razor without so much as slicing off a piece of his nose, a rare talent in those days and in these as well. McKinley was re-elected in 1900, making him the first clean-shaven man to win re-election since Andrew Jackson did it in 1832.

Even if he didn’t have the beard, McKinley wanted to emulate Lincoln, just like every other Republican president of that age, and in many ways, he succeeded. McKinley fought a successful war just like Lincoln did, had a sick wife just like Lincoln did, and was shot just like Lincoln was. McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, also set a precedent; he was the first clean-shaven presidential assassin.

McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had a mustache, as did William Howard Taft, who followed T.R. into the White House in 1908. This gave many old-fashioned Republican stalwarts hope that there would be many a hirsute presidency to come, but alas, this was not to be. In 1912, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican Party, permitting the election of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, erstwhile college president, governor of New Jersey, where he tried to give that state’s traditionally gutter politics a high moral tone, and a profoundly clean-shaven man who made no attempt to pander to the bearded vote whatsoever. What’s more, he made the country like him, even if he hadn’t so much as a milk mustache, and he made the fashion stick. In 1916, Wilson ran against Charles Evans Hughes, who sported a very stylish beard, and whom the viciously partisan Democratic press immediately dubbed the Bearded Lady, setting a new low in political and personal mudslinging. Since 1916, only Thomas Dewey tried to run for President with a mustache, despite the insistence of his political advisors that the mustache had to go. Dewey insisted on keeping it; his wife like the mustache, he told his advisors, and that was good enough reason for him. He lost both times.

And so it is that a great American tradition has fallen into abeyance, the victim of tonsorial trends beyond the control of any one political party. Still, there is hope; everything old is new again, as the saying goes, and sooner or later the presidential face will bear hair once again, and all good and true Republicans will be happy, unless the President in question is a Democrat, wherein the beard is a sign of profoundly left-wing sociopolitical tendencies bordering on the near Bolshevistic in intensity. I mean, really, has anyone seen a picture of Hilary in the morning? I thought not.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

HEY YOU....yes, I mean you. Stop reading this dreary rubbish and read this instead. Go on, go read it, and don't be surprised the next time one of these media types go off the deep end.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008


A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

Bring out your dead, bring out your dead!!—Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Controversy, always feared and usually ill-famed controversy, is brewing along with the tea in the United Kingdom. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a little controversy now and again, like exercise, enlivens the body politic, enriches the mind, and gives media types something to do besides run up their expense accounts. There are those who dislike controversy, of course, but these are the same sort of people who keep lima bean farmers and cream soda manufacturers in business and so we may safely discount their objections in the same way that any sane person would discount the inchoate ravings of the mentally unbalanced, conspiracy theorists of all stripes, and the vast majority of, if not all, Red Sox fans. There is simply not enough time in any normal person’s day to deal with such deranged people for very long.

In any case, the controversy across Mr. Joyce’s bowl of bitter tears revolves around the British government’s intention to right an ancient wrong, that of hanging Mr. Burke, of the firm of Burke & Hare, Ltd some 180 years ago, and then of allowing the National Health Service to summarily expropriate, under the color of law, that firm’s business. Messrs. Burke and Hare, for those of you who may not have heard of them, were a pair of early 19th century Scottish entrepreneurs who made their fortune supplying Edinburgh medical schools with cadavers for the schools’ anatomy classes, it being imperative then, as now, for doctors to know where vital and non-vital organs alike are located within the human body so that they may have a better sense for what to charge the unsuspecting patient for removing them. I should point out here that your average Scottish citizen of that period was an unimaginative cuss much given to declaiming the poetry of Robert Burns, drinking whiskey, and eating haggis, a dish so utterly vile and disgusting that it defies the descriptive power of any known adjective in the English language and is best eaten after the consumption of large amounts of the country’s semi-eponymous liquor, the better to wash the stuff down with, and therefore said average Scot was not in any way the sort of person to part with his nearest and dearest in any manner save the unimaginative way the Church of Scotland approved of, i.e., burial in the local churchyard, followed by the consumption of more haggis and whiskey. It was in this primitive era that our two heroes served the advance of medical knowledge by waiting until nightfall and then digging up the deceased and carting them off to the medical colleges.

This might have been an extremely lucrative line of endeavor—the demand was certainly there; the medical colleges were voracious in their hunger for fresh stiffs to cut up—but the supply, unfortunately, was more than a little tenuous. In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, the government’s reform of the death penalty laws, which had once prescribed death as punishment for almost two hundred separate crimes, to only a few crimes like murder, had nearly eliminated the medical schools’ of fresh dead bodies to dissect. Without the government stepping in to execute felons left, right, and center for everything from picking pockets to walking on the grass without a permit, people then, as now, simply refused to die in sufficient numbers to keep the corpse traffic economically viable.

It is true, of course, that with war, pestilence, and famine being constants in human affairs, the supply of bodies should not have been the problem that it was at the time, but one should remember that war, pestilence, and famine, like Bedouin, impecunious relatives, and embezzlers, are a fairly peripatetic crew, much given to wandering hither and yon at a moment’s notice, except in the Middle East, which tends to irritate the inhabitants of that region no end and makes transporting bodies from there to would be doctors in 19th century Scotland something of a problem. The other problem here is that war, pestilence, and famine, together and separately as well, tends to indicate a certain breakdown in the social and political fabric, a fact that often signals a concomitant lack of widespread interest in medical education on many people’s parts. There is, I think, a certain medical irony in the fact that one does not often find a desire to study human anatomy in places where there are large numbers of fresh corpses. But we digress.

Faced with inexorable demand and a finite and even dwindling supply, our two hardy capitalists put their brains together (not literally, of course; you have to point these things out in discussions like this one) and, as their fellow Scot Adam Smith could have predicted, found a free market method of supplying the need. The British government of that time was not nearly as broadminded as the current government, unfortunately, and in a fit of regulatory oversight gone stark raving bonkers, hanged Mr. Burke by the neck until he was dead, yet another martyr to ill-planned governmental interference in the workings of a market economy.

It probably would have ended in this tragic manner, no matter what. The fundamental problem with Burke and Hare’s idea was that it was well ahead of its time. In a world without refrigeration, Burke and Hare could not maintain a supply of cadavers against inevitable downturns in the market nor could they exploit the various niche markets available to them; like all primary commodity producers, they were at the mercy of speculators and middlemen. For Burke and Hare, one cadaver represented one sale, nothing more and nothing less. While certain cadavers brought more money than others; the corpse of one young harlot was especially remunerative and also very popular with the students, who hated to part the young woman in the end, no business plan then extant could get around the technological limitations of the period.

Of the firm of Burke & Hare, Ltd, there is little more to say. As with the long line of Wall Street masters of the universe brought low after them, the prosecutors flipped one partner against the other. Mr. Hare cut a deal and testified against his erstwhile friend and partner, and consequently the government hanged Mr. Burke in December of 1828, government oversight being a bit more stringent then than it is today. Following his execution, Mr. Burke, in an apotheosis most capitalists can only dream of, became his own product and eventually wound up in book binding, of all trades. Mr. Hare, on the other hand, simply vanished after the Crown released him in 1829. Where he went, no one knows.

Today’s British government, by contrast, need never worry about technological limitations or the legal technicalities that made life so difficult for Burke and Hare. The government can, after all, provide both refrigerators for the deceased and the ability to move the legal line between life and death at will. So, in a tribute to his fellow Scots, who, as the title of the recent book would have it, invented the modern world, what Prime Minister Brown’s government is proposing is basically this: that the British government owns your dead body. This is a strange notion, to be sure, but according to the government, a necessary one; the people of Great Britain are not donating their organs in anywhere near the numbers required to sustain a national organ transplantation program and so the National Health Service is seeking to rectify this situation by nationalizing the dead. Not all of the dead, mind you; one assumes that Henry V, Florence Nightingale, and Field Marshal Montgomery are exempt from the program and need not lose a moment of their eternal sleep worrying about having to perform some further service for their country; but only the very recently deceased, as organ transplants must be du jour to be of any use to the recipient.

This wholesale conscription of Britain’s freshly dead into posthumous government service is not as popular an idea in the United Kingdom as it might be. A good many British citizens think that while the government might, through the use of the power of eminent domain, take for public use the river and woods one travels over and through to Grandmother’s house we go, and perhaps even take Grandmother’s house should the need be urgent enough, extending the concept of eminent domain to Grandmother herself is something of a stretch, if not actually presumptuous. And if the government can summarily draft the dead into service, the critics charge, who else is safe from the powerful reach of anatomical socialism? It does not take a dystopian imagination to think the government may, having lined up the dead, will turn next to nationalizing the nation’s wombs. Not all of them, naturally—there would hardly be any point to that—but rather the wombs of unwed economically deprived teenage mothers, as part of some far-reaching government plan to move into the booming surrogate motherhood market. By nationalizing these wombs in particular, the government can remove these girls from the unemployment lines and the welfare rolls, reducing poverty throughout Great Britain. The government will also save billions in unnecessary educational expenditure, as school buildings and teachers become the newest victims of the onward rush of technology; surrogacy as an occupation being open to the unskilled as well as the skilled laborer, extensive education beyond the ability to sign one’s name on the dotted line is not a requirement. The government will, no doubt, ignore the critics, convinced of their own righteousness and of the brave new world of opportunity they are opening for the previously unemployed dead and previously unemployable teenaged mothers. Governments are prone to this type of thinking, especially socialist ones, which view the expansion of government power over the populace as a good thing in and of itself, whether or not specific proposals for the expansion of that power makes the government in question look like a howling mob of gibbering baboons. Governments don’t think much about that sort of thing; it gives them heartburn.

A robber of grave-worms. One who supplies the young physicians with that with which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.—Ambrose Bierce.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

OF LAW AND DOGS: It is one of the great truisms of modern American life that anyone who says that they do not wish to complain is either a) about to complain about something; b) is already complaining about something and is taking this opportunity to start complaining about something else; or c) lying. The statement begs for a qualification, for a but or an and, especially the former; no one says I do not wish to complain so I won’t. No, saying that you don’t wish to complain needs a but even more than my brother does, and he’s up to a two pack a day habit as it is. So, as I see no reason why I should be any exception to the rule, here goes: I do not wish to complain here, but (see, what did I tell you?) I wonder if anyone here in our happy little burg realizes that there is a pooper-scooper law on the books?

Yes, there is, boys and girls, you can even look this worthy ordinance up online, if you wanted to; the City Code is available for the public’s perusal both online and in hard copy here at the egregious mold pit wherein I labor day in and day out. The law, which apparently had bipartisan support from both cat and dog owners, requires that pet owners who walk their pets on the public thoroughfares and whose pets consequently relieve themselves on those same public thoroughfares, must then pick up the pet’s droppings—with what is solely at the discretion of the pet owner—and place the excrement in the nearest litter basket. Now, I will be among the very first to admit that this law basically targets dog owners; cats relieve themselves in sandboxes or in private places of their own; tropical fish are hardly likely to leap from their aquaria nor will hamsters abandon their wheels in order to relieve themselves on the streets of our fair micropolis. The legislation is squarely aimed at dogs and their owners. But at the time, dog owners understood the need for the legislation. No one who remembers the bad old days, the days when you could see grown men and women hopscotching their way down Main Street in order to avoid the semi-mountainous piles of ordure wants a return to the filth-freckled streets of yesteryear. No, we are all for the pooper-scooper law here in our happy little burg, even if it is now very clear that some of the citizenry haven’t gotten the word.

I bring this nauseating topic up first, because I am tired of having to deal with the remains of Fido’s lunch on the sidewalks everyday, and second, I damn near tumbled down an old railroad embankment and into the creek that runs through the south side of town last week while trying to avoid stepping into some pooch’s poop. This, as you might imagine, was not fun, as I am entirely too old and out of shape to go around playing Tarzan at a moment’s notice, and the next time it happens there might not be a convenient tree or its branches available for the grabbing. I was down along the aforementioned creek in order to take some pictures of the old 19th century millhouses along the water’s edge, which are a favorite subject of mine—I actually have more pictures of them than I really need, now that I think of it—and to get the best angles the intrepid photographer must cross some old railroad tracks. Metro-North, a division of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a public authority renowned here in the Vampire State for its ability to lose money while operating a monopoly, owns these tracks and apparently does not care what the dog owners here do with them.

I suppose I could do the popular thing here and not bring the subject up at all; this, in fact, was my attitude towards the matter in general and the matter in particular for a very long time; but after the Tarzan misadventure and my hurried scramble up the embankment to the relative safety of the tracks I saw something that stunned me, something that caused me to stop, brought up by a toxic brew of shock, horror, and outrage. There, on the track, or rail, and not on the tie, or sleeper, for those of you accustomed to British usage, was a nearly fresh pile of dog dung. The disgust I felt towards the dog’s owner at that moment knew no earthly bounds, and had this fiendish wretch allowed his brute to defecate there in my presence I would have committed murder most foul and entirely justified upon this vile specimen’s loathsome carcass.

I do not blame the dog. The dog is merely doing what all animals must at one time or another. Take a moment, however, and think of how the owner has perverted this natural bodily function. This submoronic dolt has, with malice aforethought and with the complete and unhindered use of his admittedly limited faculties, trained an innocent beast to relieve its bodily wastes along a length of standard gauge rail and then, if this altogether dubious and completely noisome accomplishment were not enough, left the dog’s waste there on the rail for all to see. You would think that someone with enough wit to train a dog to perform such a feat would also have the wit to clean up the mess afterwards, but you would be wrong.

No, having trained the dog to relieve itself on a rail, this malevolent jackass left the pile of poop where the rest of us would have to look at it, no doubt to better advertise his dog’s intellectual accomplishments. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that this miscreant also videotaped his dog’s misadventure, if so willed an act can be rightly called thus, and has sent said tape in to some cute pet video show, so that others of his dimwitted ilk can likewise enjoy the sight of a dog crapping on a rail. The mind boggles at the possibilities for commercial exploitation here.

Clearly, a warning will not suffice with this scurvy knave. The law stands as warning enough, common decency stands as warning enough, a desire to protect the health of his fellow citizens stands as warning enough, and yet this whelpitudinous jackanapes still permits his mutt to pollute the public thoroughfares. No, mere deterrence is not enough in this case. A public example is needed here, lest others think that they, too, may flout the full majesty of the law with impunity. It is clear that the outraged citizenry of this our happy little burg must take matters into our own hands. We must tar and feather this contemptible lout and run him out of town on a rail, preferably the rail his dog has developed such an excretory attraction for. Then, and only then, will the decent, hardworking people of our town be able to walk the streets with their heads held high, and without keeping one eye peeled on the sidewalk looking for Rover’s next “accident.”

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