History Of The Last Five Minutes

So, Beto O’Rourke announces his inevitable run for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020 by saying, “The challenges we face are the greatest in living memory.”

I suppose they are, if your entire audience is composed of those born only within the last eighteen years, but “living memory” encompasses far more than the last two decades and far more serious challenges than millennials have ever faced–to wit, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of Communism, war in Korea, totalitarian states in Latin America, a viscerally unpopular war in Vietnam, an unprecedented and unsuccessful grab for power by the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government in 1973, the fall of Communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall (a structure whose sole purpose was to keep people in East Germany rather than keep others out) in 1989.

We survived all of these upheavals.  What’s more, every one of us has benefited from the greatest economic expansion in the West in the last three hundred years.  That expansion happened because, at an enormous cost of money and blood, America and its Allies met the threat of Nazi domination of Europe and Japanese domination of the Far East.  Out of that conflict emerged everything we know today:  radar, wi-fi, computers, television, and, looming over all of us, nuclear and biological weapons.  With all due respect to O’Rourke, the challenges of today, whatever they may be, pale in comparison to the challenges we have faced before.

The greatest challenge we face today is, frankly, O’Rourke himself, and what the left wing of the Democratic Party represents.  O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren and Bill DiBlasio are all part of a leftward shift of the party that is nakedly anti-capitalist.  They are this way–anti-capitalist–without ever once announcing what they are for, and articulating how they expect to achieve a better system.  All that we have heard so far is a vague proposal for a “guaranteed minimum income”–an idea that ought to scare the wits out of anybody making $35,000 a year and above.  Scary, because the operative words of the proposal are “guaranteed” and “minimum”.  The former has never been provided by any government anywhere in human history; the latter is likely the only “guarantee” any of us will see, if it comes to pass–the absolute minimum a government could do.

Truthfully, we have already seen the minimum of what socialist governments can do:  the poverty and fear of the Soviets themselves in the 1950s under Stalinist rule; the empty grocery shelves of the last decade in Venezuela.  Yet, that kind of socialism is supposed to appeal to us.  It shouldn’t.  Socialism has failed everywhere it has been applied–the USSR, Cuba, Venezuela.  It limps along in Britain and Europe, with their extraordinarily high unemployment rates, only because it is underpinned by the deeper, stronger roots of capitalism.

The fact that it has failed is easy to see once you understand that socialism did not start out as an anti-capitalist system.  It was originally opposed to individualism, as expressed in both America and Europe.  It has never been effective as an economic engine because it has no philosophy of how an economy is supposed to work, no principle except “redistribution of income,” which means, a la Robin Hood, “take from the rich and give to the poor.”

Do that often enough, and you wind up with Venezuela, where everybody is poor.  The Soviets tried and failed to control every aspect of the Russian economy–means of production, products, markets, interest rates–everything.  They couldn’t do it, even after seventy years of trying, because markets must have freedom in order to operate.  There will always be unpredictability, uncertainty, and, yes, inequities, in such a system, but over the long haul, encompassing the last century, far more people will benefit under capitalism than under socialism.

The Democrats have preached “Equality!” “Equality”! for the last sixty years.  It was in fact they who established Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in that day.  What they have sought in the years since, however, particularly on the left wing of the party, is not equality of opportunity–which we all want–but equality of outcomes, which can only be achieved by theft, and the diminution of the genuinely talented.

There are a number of things they can do to address these shortcomings, but whether they will is an open question.  The first thing to do is acknowledge that American memories go a lot further back than one generation.  We’ve already seen within that time everything the political left can offer.  We’ve also seen the consequences, in other places, of accepting what they offer.



Baubles, Bangles, and Beads

I am not in New Orleans.  (Now there’s a sad sentence.)  If I were, I’d just now be waking up in my hotel room or, if these were ancient days, hauling myself out of bed in New Orleans East and making my way down toward the French Quarter and Canal Street.  I might have breakfast at Begue’s in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where Belinda Lazaro used to work (it ain’t dere no more); I might not; but, since I’m in control of this fantasy, the sun would certainly be shining.

The walk to Begue’s would be a slippery one.  Sidewalks and most of the streets are wet with last night’s beers and the soap suds used to clean them off this morning.  It’s hard enough to make one’s way when sober; drunk, I imagine, is almost impossible, at least this early.

After breakfast–maybe grillades and grits, maybe french toast with coffee and chicory, which I still drink, thank God–I face a decision:  do I camp out on Bienville, near the St. Louis Hotel, where I can use the wall along the sidewalk to support my back, or do I step out onto Canal Street and stake out a good place near the intersection of North Peters?  Really good experiences can be had in either place, but I opt for the latter, and it’s a good choice.  There aren’t many people on the street yet and I can find a good spot without too much trouble.  I finger the green and gold beads I’m wearing like the good Catholic I’m not and watch as the street begins to fill up around me.  Despite the huge throng that will soon arrive, everybody is in a good mood.  Some people have already started to dance, and it’s easy to recognize those in in the crowd whose habit of mind and heart is to dance every day.  I don’t dance, myself, but I inch a little closer to those who do.

The Rex parade is what it usually is, a heady blend of pomp and frivolity.  Showers of glittering cups, beads, moon pies, and new things I don’t recognize are tossed our way.  I snag a couple of throws with the surprising grace of one habitually awkward and unlucky, but my neighbor to the left of me slips a moon pie into my back pocket.  That act, in itself, is the essence of Mardi Gras.  The throws, whatever they are, are inconsequential.  It is the act of the throw, and the generosity it represents, which matters.  In the scheme of things, as most people think of that scheme, Fat Tuesday is merely the last day of pointless revelry before the Lenten season of penance and repentance begins.  For those who live in New Orleans, however, the meaning is quite different.  Mardi Gras–the day itself–is the last day of a season of giving, a season which teaches us and encourages us, year after year, to give of ourselves to others, in great ways and small ones–to bestow upon others our food and drink, our laughter, and our good will.

If I were truly living out this fantasy one more time, I’d spend the afternoon eating a sandwich and drinking as many beers as I could hold down at the Crescent City Brewhouse, sitting on my stool like Ignatius Reilly, laughing and watching all the scantily-clad women (and men) wander in off the street looking for a drink or a bathroom.  All of New Orleans passes by there, if you wait patiently enough.  So does the rest of the world.  The priests tell us, “Be in the world, but not of it.”  That’s good advice, even for those who live without much faith.  It’s also wise, however, to just find a place, like a Brewhouse, and just sit there a bit and watch the world go by, even on a day like today, when the world fairly begs us to join in the fun of earthy, fleshly life.

In the days that have actually gone by, I have done my share of having that fun.  I am no stranger to the world, the flesh, or the devil during Mardi Gras.  But my memories have taken on a newer, deeper feeling over the last several years.  If I could, the last hours of this day would be spent sitting in City Park, on a specially-marked bench near a tree across from Hennessey Street.  The tree was beloved of Belinda Lazaro, as she was beloved of her friends.  Mardi Gras was her time, and she lived in the Carnival season as few women have.  Of all the friends I have made who have passed away, I feel the loss of her most deeply, and yet, it would be good to sit there and think of her, shaking her blond hair, tossing down a hurricane like she owned Pat O’Brien’s (’cause she did), and think of the others, too, and remember how lucky I’ve been to have known them.  With all due respect to Ash Wednesday, I repent of nothing I’ve done in this life, but my attitude toward this day, the day before, has always been quite different.  I am blessed, and humbled almost beyond words, by the friends I’ve had.  I remember them, and all the things they’ve done for me, the unspeakable treasures they’ve tossed toward me like beads in the air.


Q & A With Elizabeth McCracken

A delightful question-and-answer session with novelist Elizabeth McCracken here.  She’s most famous for her first novel, The Giant’s House (1996), recounting the bittersweet love story of a librarian with the world’s tallest man.  It is, I think, an extended parable, and well worth your time.

McCracken is right about thinking of authors as people who “talk in their sleep.”  Every novel–and even some non-fiction–has some degree of dreaminess to it, even when we know the person who wrote it was wide awake.

She’s also right about Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West.  It is one of the two Laurel and Hardy comedy masterpieces that should be known by everyone.  The other is The Music Box.  Both may be downloaded from YouYube.


*Native Son* Is Coming To HBO

A film adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son (1940)–a book I love–will be premiering on HBO later this year.  For all of its heavy-handed socialism, Wright’s story of Bigger Thomas’s futile attempts to escape poverty in Chicago is still one of the powerful examinations of race, economics, and moral responsibility ever written.  If that trio of nouns sounds a bit too much to handle, don’t worry; it’s not.  The story is engaging from its very first sentence, and it doesn’t let you go.  Put it high on your list of novels to be read, and watch for the movie to come out.