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)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose: The Civil War came early to Winchester, Virginia, and it stayed late. Between the war’s beginning and end Winchester passed from Union to Confederate and back to Union control no fewer than 72 times, including one prolific day where the town see-sawed back and forth no fewer than thirteen times. Faced with the almost daily reminder of the ever-changing fortunes of war, the good merchants of Winchester protected their personal fortunes with a simple expedient: a split level cash drawer with Union money in the top drawer and Confederate money in the bottom. In this way, they were the loyal citizens of whichever country’s army occupied Winchester on any given day.

Winchester’s merchants were wise in a way that the Democratic Party was not in 1864. When the circumstances of the war changed, the merchants changed with them. The politicians, on the other hand, refused to change, even refused to acknowledge that there had even been a change. The Democrats nominated George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, as their presidential candidate that year, and although McClellan himself repudiated the central plank in the Democratic Party’s platform, that of ending the war with a negotiated peace between the North and the South, Abraham Lincoln knew better. In a memorandum dated 23 August 1864, Lincoln noted that his re-election was unlikely and that he would have to do his utmost to save the Union between Election Day and the presidential inauguration in March, because McClellan would have “…secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

Lincoln was right; McClellan would have to make peace, whether he wanted to or not. The summer of 1864 was the nadir of American political and military history. The people of the North wanted an end to the never-ending violence that seemed to accomplish nothing and the Democrats were willing to give the electorate that peace if it gave them the White House. In the field, Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign, which saw some the most prolonged and ferocious fighting in the history of warfare up to that time, had come to a bloody halt in the trenches outside of Petersburg, Virginia. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was stuck outside the campaign’s eponymous objective. In the West, the Red River campaign, possibly the least explainable military campaign in American military history, ended ingloriously with the engineers having to dam up the Red River so that there would be enough water to float the rest of the army back down the river to its starting point. Politically, Lincoln faced a growing sense of panic in the ranks of his own party; many Republican leaders wanted to hold another convention and nominate someone, anyone, else for President. The conventional wisdom of the day was that Lincoln not only would not win, he could not possibly win.

And then everything changed. On 5 August 1864 Rear Admiral David Farragut ordered his fleet to “…damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead…” and charge through the minefields that protected Mobile Bay to smash the Rebel fleet inside, thereby closing the South’s last major port on the Gulf of Mexico. Less than a month later, Sherman finally forced John Bell Hood’s army out of Atlanta. Atlanta was the rail hub of the South and a major industrial center; the loss of the city meant that food, munitions, and other supplies from the Deep South could no longer reach Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s army would now have to make do with what their commissary corps could find in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Disaster then, as it is wont to do, followed on disaster. Philip Sheridan, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, received orders from Grant to destroy Lee’s supply base in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley once and for all. Sheridan, a five foot five Irishman with a six foot seven chip on his shoulder when it came to Southern aristocrats—he had been suspended from West Point for a year following a fight with the scion of such a family—went about his incendiary duties with an pyromaniac’s glee, turning the once verdant Shenandoah Valley into a Dixieland version of Mordor. When a Confederate army surprised and defeated his army early one morning at Cedar Creek, Sheridan single-handedly turned his routed army around and sent them smashing back into the Confederate lines. The Rebel army cracked under the unexpected onslaught, retreating out of the Shenandoah Valley for the last time. Winchester would not change hands again.

What was clearly obvious to the soldiers soon became obvious to the war-weary citizens of the North; the never-ending war was, in fact, coming to an end, and coming to an end without having to tear the nation in half. The national mood lightened, as did the determination to see the thing through, and support for Lincoln began to grow.

And through it all, the Democrats’ message did not change: the war was a disaster, the country wanted peace, emancipation was a mistake, and Lincoln was an illiterate dictatorial buffoon unworthy of the high office he held. They repeated the party line over and over again, perhaps to reassure themselves, perhaps believing that if they said it often enough the voters would ignore what they read in the newspapers and vote to end a war the North was now clearly winning. But whatever the reason, the party leadership and the Democratic press insisted that nothing had changed, that their party’s platform was still relevant, that it was still July 1864, even though the calendar and the war and the electorate had moved on.

The Democrats lost the 1864 election; in fact, they wouldn’t win another presidential election until 1884, and the two noncontiguous terms of Grover Cleveland were the only two Democratic administrations between 1868 and 1912; and a generation of Republican politicians rose to power and prominence by reminding Union veterans that they ought to vote as they shot, and that the Democratic Party, the party that wanted to end emancipation and divide the Union, was now the favored political party of their erstwhile enemies. There isn’t much anyone can learn from this, I suppose, except that denial, whether we’re talking the state or the river, can be a dangerous place for people with a blind spot.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

CALIFORNIA SHAKING: I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a whole lot of things. There are only so many hours in a day and you can only think about so many things in those so many hours before you want to stop thinking and watch television. This seems to be true everywhere; even with the advent of our new postmodern information society, which allows more people to think about more things that most people couldn’t care less about one way or the other than ever before, most people will reach a point of data overload and will start tuning out. This is as true for me as for anybody else, so on the odd occasion when something on the information superhighway comes along and manages to pique my interest, I tend to spend more than the usual amount of time mulling the subject over than most people I know. The recent earthquake in California is a case in point. We all know that there are earthquakes in California; that is not the issue here. I am simply wondering just why it is that all these earthquakes must be San Andrea’s fault and not the fault of some other deserving saint.

As far as I can tell, and I should mention here that I have done absolutely no research on this and so I am entirely ignorant about what I am talking about, the better to hold a strong opinion on the matter unsullied with mere information, San Andrea, the biblical Saint Andrew the Apostle, never, in all of his missionary travels preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the benighted lower classes of the heathenistic Hellenistic world, set foot in California, an equally heathenistic country chock full of benighted lower classes, although with better sanitation, and in all likelihood could not find California on a map of the United States, an ignorance of basic American geography that the blessed saint shares with millions of American schoolchildren. Even if he had known where California was, it would be extremely unlikely that he would ever have gone there, what with his driver’s license expiring early in the year XXI. It does not do for saints to be wandering up and down the Pacific Coast Highway with an expired license; while not a cause for scandal in the theological sense of that much abused word, it does tend to promote bad driving habits and a fundamental disrespect for both canon and traffic law. Driving without a license also jacks up your insurance premiums once the cops pull you over and discover that you can’t legally drive in the Golden State. All around, it is not a good thing to do.

In any case, not much is known about Saint Andrew the Protocletos, which means the First-Called and is not, as I first imagined it to be, the scientific name for a small and not particularly bright species of dinosaur. According to the ancient sources, Andrew was the first called primarily because he was the first person in that area of the Galilee to get a cell phone and unlimited minutes for his calling circle, something that helped keep the Apostles in touch as they wandered around ancient Israel together healing the sick and raising the deadbeats and then calling; you just know when some guys have nothing but a pair of deuces in their hand and are just trying to bluff you out of the pot. This is, in fact, one of the few things we know for certain about Saint Andrew. Most of what we do know comes from the Gospels themselves—we know from the Gospels, for example, that Saint Andrew was the brother of Saint Peter—and from some newly translated documents pulled out of the remains of an old Coptic monastery at the Nag Mefurmoni archaeological site in Egypt. In 1976, a team of archaeologists from Harvard working on a two year project for finding new ways to loot the Harvard endowment discovered, quite by accident, a treasure trove of early Christian documents and Red Sox memorabilia at Nag Mefurmoni, a small desert outpost only a hundred or so miles from Cairo. The stunned archaeologists, who’d spent most of the dig working on their tans, literally stumbled across an ancient library under the spot they were going to park their Port-O-Potty, a library that included, amongst other things, a carbon copy of a hitherto unknown Gospel according to Andrew and Andrew’s Epistle to Saint Barney the Barman, along with Barney’s reply. Barney’s reply contains one of the first complete examples of a Christian catechism ever found, as well as a request that Saint Andrew settle his tab and, in the margins, some professional tips on how to make the perfect Harvey Wallbanger. This epistle never actually reached Saint Andrew, though, as Saint Barney neglected to put a stamp on the envelope and so the epistle never left the Nag Mefurmoni post office; apparently, the post office clerks just tossed the screed into the undeliverable file, along with all those letters kids wrote every year to Santa Zeus. But in all of those documents, however, there is not one mention of California, earthquakes, kids wearing pajamas to school, or why anyone should hold Saint Andrew responsible for these phenomena.

Saint Andrew is not the only saint to have such uncanonizable faults attributed to him. Saint Vitus’ dance, for instance, is a disease in which the sufferer moves, jerks, and makes wild involuntary spastic movements reminiscent of the worst excesses of the acolytes of Isadora Duncan on speed, whereas Saint Vitus himself preferred the minuet and the occasional foxtrot to keep things interesting. Saint Elmo’s fire is not really a fire at all, a fact once explicated on by the American theologian Rob Lowe, and Saint Elmo had no more to do with the eponymous unfire than did Saint Kermit, Saint Oscar the Grouch, and Saint Demi Moore.

So why Saint Andrew? No one knows, as far as I can tell. Theories abound, of course, as they always do, and some of them are more nonsensical than others, as they always are. This is the way of the world; in the wake of any great disaster, someone will have to say that it must be somebody’s, anybody’s, fault, although it actually helps if the someone you’re trying to pin this thing on is either a Jew, a Jesuit, or a Mason. If you can get someone from all three groups and the CIA involved as well, so much the better for your theory. This has actually been going on for quite some time now. For example, the Inquisition blamed the 1755 Lisbon earthquake on the malign influence of heretics and was all gung-ho to give a few of them the permanent hot foot just as soon as they found enough of them to barbeque. The king of Portugal was having none of that, however, and told the inquisitors that he had to feed the living and bury the dead, tasks that left little or no time for pressing people as to whether or not they believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Mass executions of apostates, while an edifying and altogether wholesome spectacle for the entire family, would have to wait for another time. The inquisitors left the royal presence deeply annoyed; in every crowd, there’s always one killjoy who spoils the fun for everyone, which is something I’m pretty sure you’ve already noticed by now.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

CHANGE AND ITS DISCONTENTS: Yes, the times, they are a-changing, even here in our happy little burg, even though you wouldn’t know it to look at the old place. We don’t think much of change in this neck of the woods; what was good enough back in the day is good enough nowadays, that’s what most folks hereabouts think, and we prefer that people with new-fangled notions about how to do things keep their notions to themselves and let the rest of us be, thank you very much, or if the urge to go a-fangling their notions becomes too great, and let’s face it, sometimes it does and no cold shower will turn your mind to other, more uplifting subjects, that they then have the common decency to go across the river and fangle their notions on the unhappy inhabitants of the slough of urban despond that lies directly across the river from us. Living in any kind of slough is depressing enough and those people could use a good laugh every now and again. We dislike change so much here in our happy little burg that many of us refuse to change our moods if we can help it, and those people who can’t help but change their mood every so often will compensate for their distasteful lack of self-control by not changing their socks as often as they might, which often makes our town a bit easier for the confused motorist to find, especially during the summer months.

Faced with cultural recalcitrance on such a massive scale, how do I know that the times are a-changing even here in our happy little burg? It’s the little things that give the game away. I was eating my lunch a few days ago in the Gnocchi Deli, something I do every day of the week, primarily because I hate change as much as the next person here and also because I lack imagination. The Gnocchi Deli is basically a hole in the wall you couldn’t force a pig to live in without half a dozen animal rights organizations and the municipal health department trying to close the place down posthaste, but they have the best mortadella sandwiches anywhere in town, and, in addition to this, the deli is the only Italian-themed eating establishment within the city limits actually owned by Italian Americans; Albanians own all the others, except for the two places owned by Mexicans (there’s great pizza at the Mexican places, though). As I sat there chewing upon my cud of miscellaneous pig parts, ruminating on the role pistachios play in the making of the perfect mortadella while listening to the radio emit the sound of a heavy metal band cacophonously smashing their instruments over the head of a stoned and semiliterate teenager from Shaker Heights, Ohio, to the tune, I think, of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, although it could have been J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6 in B flat major; I don’t follow popular music much anymore, sorry—my tastes here are still more or less frozen in 1975 and Springsteen’s Born to Run album; our happy little burg’s music teacher came in and bid me a good day.

I am not a very sociable person, in the main; people who knew my father or know my younger brothers are often surprised when they meet me—they simply assume that gregariousness is the standard operating mode for all the male members of the Bashmachkin clan—and they seem somewhat perplexed to find that at least one member of the clan in not at all gregarious, but rather something of a dour, uncommunicative stick in the mud with better things to do with his time than sit around all day chatting with you. But if I am not a hail fellow well met, I do try to be civil to all and sundry, and then I surprised myself mightily by inquiring how her day was going, a question I don’t ask all that often, since, to be honest, I don’t really care how your day is going—I usually don’t care how my day is going, so long as it goes with minimal effort on my part. The other reason I don’t ask this question very often is that some people will take the opportunity that the question presents to tell you, often in excruciating detail, just how their day is going, up to and including the details of the colonoscopy they endured that very morning and all about the frightening thing the doctor found lodged in their viscera. You may provide your own drum roll here, if you feel the need. Suffice it to say that unless your gastroenterologist found glow in the dark Obama for President campaign posters epoxied to the walls of your large intestines, I don’t care what your doctor found stuck in your guts and I would just as soon not hear about it while I am trying to eat my mortadella sandwich. But our music teacher, a very nice and cheery lady known to one and all as Miss Susie, said that her day was going well for the most part, the even tenor of the hours complicated only by the need to get back to her studio and tune a dulcimer before one of her students arrived.

There may have been more to the conversation; I don’t know. If there was, I’ve forgotten it completely. In that moment, in that smallest split second of time, to say that all of my gasts took an extreme flabbering would be to make the understatement of the millennium, a fairly easy trick at this moment, given that we’re only seven years into the new millennium, but the principle is the same: I was stunned. I don’t believe I had ever contemplated the possibility that someone here in our happy little burg would ever use the word dulcimer in a sentence outside a high school English class discussing whether or not the Abyssinian maid in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ was angling for a record contract. And yet there Miss Susie stood, in about as nonpedagogical a setting as you can imagine, waiting patiently for her chicken salad sandwich, not only using the word in a normal conversation, but with an actual dulcimer stuffed somewhere in her tiny Main Street studio waiting for a tune-up and a tire rotation, along with, no doubt, a lute, a gamba, and an electric psaltery with iodized stereophonic amplification, the better for her students to blast out heavy metal covers of the greatest hits of 1139 at their graduation recitals.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Our town is changing, whether us old-timers like it or not. Thirty years ago, the word dulcimer would not have come up in any context in any conversation you could think of. I doubt that high school students would have known what the word meant, as most of them didn’t bother to read the poem for their 9 AM English class the next morning, choosing to spend the evening watching the prodigiously jiggling racks on Charlie’s Angels jiggling prodigiously instead. Today, dulcimers not only come up in everyday conversations, there’s someone in town that actually knows how to tune one. Now, I don’t expect that Main Street will suddenly fill with dulcimer repair shops run by medievalists named Lenny who spend the day discussing the comparative virtues of the Guelph and Ghibelline causes before they shake their heads apologetically and tell you that not only will your dulcimer not pass the mandatory state inspection, it will cost you $500 in parts and labor just to put the damn thing back together again, but I do expect that this ongoing gentrification will continue apace, and our decidedly blue-collar happy little burg will never be the same place again. I don’t think that new vegan restaurant is going to last, though; change is one thing, but having our sensibilities assaulted in this fashion is quite another. The side order of smug that comes with every entrée in that place leaves a bitter aftertaste in our mouths.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn has died, and I suspect that we will all be up to our hips soon in crocodile tears from the chekistocrats seeking to reimpose tyranny in the Rodina and from the Western lotus eaters who don’t like having their comfortable bubbles pricked about what a great man Solzhenitsyn was. The prophet, said Jesus of Nazareth, is not without honor save in his own country; Solzhenitsyn managed to be a prophet without honor in a good many countries. Speaking truth to power is a popular idea, especially in the West, where people can talk about how brave they were protesting this, that, or the other thing at cocktail parties while fully protected by the law and institutions they profess to disdain; but the people who actually put their necks on the line to do the speaking tend not to be as popular, since their brand of truth has the edge of ice-cold water on a raw nerve and most of us enjoy the truth so long as we are not discomfited by it. Solzhenitsyn knew that the truth makes you uncomfortable, whether you want it to or not.

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