JOHN McCAIN, R.I.P.

Upon the sad occasion of the death of Senator John McCain, I would like to re-examine the controversy provoked by this notorious comment by President Trump: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” There is little doubt that it ranks among the most unpopular, unsettling, and offensive things the president has ever said, which is saying something.  On the other hand, I submit that the president, in his inartful way, was trying to articulate a thought that is worth examining seriously: given a choice, he would rather celebrate than mourn.

9/11 was a tragedy, and while first-responders and others acted heroically, we mostly associate the event with the tragedy, not the heroism.  We mourn 9/11, we don’t celebrate it.  The same is true of the school shootings.  Memorial Day is a day for recollection and mourning of deaths, of tragedy, of the cost of war, and it is not a day of celebration, even though many of the deaths were heroic.  On the other hand, Independence Day, despite the casualties we endured in achieving independence as a nation, is the opposite, it is a day for recollection and celebration of heroism and triumph, of the magnificence of the founding of our country, and it is a fun day.  Everyone, and not just the president, recognizes the need for mourning but prefers the joy of celebration.

As should we all.  Yet judging from the proliferation of events that are legally designated as occasions for lowering the American flag to half-staff, not to mention the number of gas stations, big box stores, and homes that choose to lower their own flags on additional occasions, one gets the impression that this country enjoys wallowing in sorrow, even prefers it over taking some risks and acting aggressively to achieve a solution worthy of celebration.  (Sorry, Chicago, but as one who lived there for decades, I do not consider additional gun control laws to be aggressive or even useful.)  Mourning is no substitute for solutions.

A hero is one who saves others; a victim is one who was not saved. We celebrate our heroes; we mourn victims.  Senator McCain was a hero: his voluntarily joining the military and requesting active service in Viet Nam were heroic, and his behaving admirably in that terrible war was heroic.  As to whether he was heroic in refusing to accept release by the enemy unless his fellow-captives were released, there are conflicting views; there is no consensus on whether his resistance helped and inspired his comrades.  Being subjected to torture was gruesome and unimaginably painful, but his surviving the torture was not necessarily heroic, even though it was a demonstration of an extraordinary level of courage and self-discipline. Apparently McCain felt the same way, as he eventually broke under the torture and later stated that he considered his behavior completely unheroic.  For more on this see the James Carroll piece in the decidedly un-conservative New Yorker:  https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-true-nature-of-john-mccains-heroism .

Senator McCain was, by all accounts, a fine man, a patriotic man, a man of great honor.  He was born with the military version of a silver spoon in his mouth, born as the scion of a family that included two four-star naval officers, but he made it through the rigors of Annapolis and earned his commission. His lowly class rank suggests a distinctly un-heroic use of his gifts; indeed, there are reports that his poor rank owed much to his proclivity for the kind of sexuality for which the president has become infamous. But overall, his military record was excellent.

As a politician, McCain was highly successful.  Though his mother described him as a “scamp,” he preferred the more flattering “maverick,” and many of his conservative critics would side with his mother.  On policy issues, he was many Democrats’ favorite Republican, a status that would have made him a more-important figure in an earlier era (e.g., the Tip O’Neill era), when the policy-differences between the parties were less stark; there appeared to be little daylight between McCain’s policy preferences and, say, JFK’s.  But he had no business experience and apparently never mastered either Friedman-Hayek-Buckley or Alinsky-Krugman-Sanders; the senator was not built for the 2000s.  Sadly for Senator McCain, for all his efforts at political compromise during the years after 9/11, he came across as quixotic, weak on policy, and more of a gadfly or deal-breaker (a “scamp”) than a deal-maker. His vote against Obamacare reform appeared petty, based more on revenge than on policy.  His attempt to court the “Deplorables,” his selection of Sarah Palin to be his VP, was an awkward blunder. Once the Right had taken up  free markets, small government, and cuts in taxes and regulation, it had little further use for the McCains of the world (e.g., the Bush family, Flake, Kasich).  In the end, his mark was made as a naval officer and POW, not as a politician.

The president, like many others, wishes we did not have to lose our gallant military in faraway places – just as he no doubt wishes we could be done with school shootings and shootings on Chicago’s streets.  He, like the rest of us, would rather have more victories to celebrate and fewer losses to mourn.  But Memorial Day is enormously important, and John McCain was a courageous and heroic man, and President Trump should not have spoken as he did.

 

 

TAKE THAT, COLIN KAEPERNICK

The Army v. Navy football game this year was a stirring experience and an evocative one.  It evoked further thoughts on two hot topics:  violence, and the national anthem.

Let’s start with the anthem.  Confession:  your host prefers classical music to rap but is resigned to having to live with the long odds against ever hearing another classical version of The Star Spangled banner.  For every stunning performance by a Renee Fleming (Super Bowl 2014-), a Marian Anderson (Eisenhower inauguration in 1957), or a Marilyn Horne (Clinton inauguration in 1993), or by the five service-academy choirs (2005 Super Bowl), there are hundreds, thousands, of public performances of another type, running the gamut from the treasonous (the Roseanne Barr butchery of the anthem at a baseball game in 1990, a performance that might have offended even Colin Kaepernick), to the OK performances by Lady Gaga or Kelly Clarkson or Beyonce’, and then to the very-popular Whitney Houston version at the 1991 Super Bowl, a performance that would have embarrassed Renee’ Fleming while possibly afflicting her with a temporary hearing-loss.

Which brings one to this year’s Army-Navy Game anthem, performed by the combined choirs of the two service academies:  fantastic, stirring, some of the best choral singing one has heard this side of the best professional choruses (e.g., the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus).  An unadulterated version of the anthem:  original notes, original lyrics, classical harmonies, excellent voices, no gratuitous changes in tempo or slides toward the correct pitch.  Despite the massive differences in Americans’ musical tastes, it is hard to imagine that anyone, certainly no one with any sense of the patriotism that surrounds the Army Navy game, could have failed to be moved and inspired by the Army/Navy chorus.  On the other hand, it is equally hard to believe anyone could come away from the Whitney Houston version – or the Beyonce’ version, the Faith Hill version, the Dixie Chicks version, whatever – with the same sense of the importance of the game, the importance of the Army and the Navy, and the importance of our nation.  Entertained maybe, but not inspired.

Speaking of the importance of our nation: quick cut to Colin Kaepernick.  The non-franchised QB has been at pains to explain that he has nothing against our armed forces and that his only real objection to America is that blacks and other minorities are mistreated here.  He has talked specifically about mistreatment by the police, the court system, and – wait for it – the economy.  Well, he didn’t actually mention the economy, but just think about his most specific, most oft-repeated, demand:  “social justice.”  Now that he is into explaining himself, trying to assure us that actually he kind of likes America, he has settled on social injustice as his major complaint.  Bad choice.  Social justice is the central concept of communism, its most important goal.  Social justice was at the heart of virtually everything ever written by Karl Marx.  Social justice, apparently to Mr. Kaepernick as well as to Mr. Marx, is shorthand for equality of incomes and wealth.  Not clear whether Kaepernick wants everyone else to make as much as he has made as a pro football player, or rather wants his own income reduced to as little as everyone else makes, as in the Marxist model employed today in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and other nations where communism rules.  Either way, the Kaepernick protest indicates a total disdain for the essential economic model on which America was founded and on which it still operates.  Kaepernick’s actions make it clear that he sees no reason to love or even respect his country.  How can one be convinced by his claim that he respects our military, given his avowed opposition to the very system the military is charged with the duty to defend and protect?   Sounds like he is saying he respects individual military personnel, but that he has no respect for their mission.  How does that equate to patriotism, to love of his country?  Answer:  it does not.

Now, about violence in football.  Most of us can recite the contemporary case against football:  too violent, too dangerous, and (at least for the southpaws among us) too hostile and aggressive and manly and warlike and uncivilized, etc.  Not enough like soccer or hiking or kayaking or yoga poses.  CENTCOM for the anti-football movement is the mental-health lobby, which fixates on concussions.

So, how do you feel about the Army/Navy game?  Are you opposed, or at least uninterested, because the game presents archetypal models of a type of social behavior you oppose?  Are you bothered by Navy jets buzzing the stadium, by the presence of the entire student body of each of the two military academies and their mass salute to the flag, by all those American flags being displayed, by a straight version of the national anthem rather than a version more indigenous to a rock concert or a topless night club, by cadets and midshippeople and fans who all stand at attention and salute the American flag?  Are you disappointed by the lack of flagrant violations of rules, choreographed celebrations of plays that do not even put points on the board, helmet-to-helmet collisions resulting in concussions, heated protests of every single officiating call that goes against your team, tackles that do not end when the whistle blows, etc.?   Annoyed that academy football resembles boxing more than it resembles MMA?  Well, then, Army/Navy is not for you.  The NFL should be right up your alley.

For this viewer, Army/Navy is about militancy and patriotism, it is about preparing warriors for battle in behalf of our country.  It is a special version of football, as it is both literal and directly-symbolic. There is an obvious reason why our military academies take their football so seriously, and it has been addressed successfully by thousands, maybe millions, of better and more-informed essayists than your host.  Football, more than any other sport, blends aggression with discipline, rewards violence committed with intent to defeat the opponent without violating the rules of engagement.  Army/Navy raises the stakes on football from entertainment to preparation for the defense of our nation.  Football is the best possible metaphor for war, better than even chess.   If you are one of those who are willing to threaten war but not to wage it, you probably are more interested in fantasy football than you are in actual football, and you probably are more interested in violent collisions than you are in good blocks and tackles.  I get it, but I do not want you in my foxhole or even my man-cave.

BAKE ME A CAKE AS FAST AS YOU CAN, part 2.0

A thoughtful reader has asked, how can the religious baker execute certain designs but be allowed to refuse others?  Is it OK if you do custom designs that show stuff you agree with but refuse to do designs that show stuff you disagree with?

First, some hypothetical questions:  what if a customer requested a cake custom-decorated with a 3D representation of the infamous “Piss Christ” photograph (see   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ  )?  What if a customer requested a custom cake depicting a priest and a nun copulating?  A cake depicting a headless president whose head is held aloft by a (you-know-what)?  Wouldn’t it be OK for the baker to refuse, in each of the three cases?

Answer:  Of course.  The focus belongs on the reason for the baker’s refusal of the customer’s request.  If the baker refused to bake a birthday cake for the birthday of a man he knew to be gay, even if the design was to contain no clues as to the man’s sexual orientation, that might have been illegal discrimination.  But if the baker balked because the request was for a cake that depicted or celebrated an act that the baker believed to be sinful under the teachings of his religion, that is different.  The reason for the baker’s refusal was not that the customer was gay, it was that the baker was unwilling to commit a sin, to abet the celebration of a gay marriage. The baker’s intent was not to discriminate, it was to follow his religion faithfully.

Granted, there are certain practices of certain religions that our culture regards as so repulsive, so barbaric, that religious belief cannot be a legitimate excuse for engaging in such practices in this country.  Certainly a refusal to assist in the celebration of a gay marriage is not in any way comparable to, say, committing an honor killing.

FRANKEN FOR MOORE?

The Senate race in Alabama is a head-scratcher.  As a card-carrying supporter of the whole Buckley/Friedman/Reagan thing, one hesitates to support a candidate accused of being a dirty old man.  But what if one’s inability to bend his principles would cost the Republicans their control of the Senate?

In the end, one is weak on certain principles when survival is at stake.  Forget about degrees of probability of guilt, about degrees of revulsion over the alleged behavior.  Here is my final offer:  If the tradeoff for the withdrawal of Judge Moore’s candidacy were, instant term-limits for the entire Congress, with all extant terms expiring today, meaning we could throw out 535 tubs of mostly dirty- bathwater even though they contained a few healthy babies, I would go for it.  To get rid of every corrupt, lazy, or stupid member of Congress and start from scratch with a new set of elections, I’d trust the American electorate and take my chances with that deal.

But until that deal is on the table, I am not willing to sacrifice control of the Senate in order to enforce a moral code that we have reason to believe is violated on a regular basis by large numbers of politicians, many of whom, actually most of whom (if you can trust even the media), are actually Democrats.  So long as American politics remains an unfair fight, my gloves stay off and I am carrying a tire iron.

The left has seemed oblivious to this issue since Bill Clinton’s inauguration and has only focused upon it lately, when they have finally located an actual Republican against whom they could raise it.  (Actually, we do have our dirty old man emeritus, Bush 41, but he is now reduced to pinching nurses.)  But a prisoner-exchange of Al Franken for Judge Moore? –  any Democrat would jump on that deal.

Other side of the same thought:  the Republicans might be the only group on earth that would be dumb enough, sanctimonious enough, to turn down that kind of deal if the roles were reversed.  If you asked nicely, they might sacrifice Judge Moore (and the Senate) without demanding a single Democrat in exchange, not even a hapless/feckless Democrat like Franken.

All of which tells you a lot about how this nation was frustrated enough to hire a president whose essential campaign promise was to drain the Swamp.

As Obama’s recent comparison of Trump to Hitler has shown, American politics are now a battle to the death, no holds barred.  I am not surrendering any of my troops on the grounds that their deportment offends the volatile sensibilities of the American Left.  If Alabama does not want Moore, so be it.  If Obama and the media do not want Moore, I am massively unmoved and will await the outcome of any judicial determination of his guilt.

BAKE ME A CAKE AS FAST AS YOU CAN

If you offer a product or service to anyone, you must offer it to everyone, but you don’t have to accept an order for something you are not in business to build, even if the would-be buyer is gay.

Based on initial reports of the Supreme Court’s oral-arguments phase of the appeal on the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding, sounds like the Supremes might be inching toward what this observer considers the crux of the case:  just what, exactly, did the baker refuse to do?

Seems clear enough the engaged couple made it known they were gay (i.e., they introduced themselves as the parties to be married), and asked the baker to bake them a wedding cake.  Also seems clear enough that in the end, the baker refused to bake them a wedding cake.  What has been missing from press accounts of the case is this:  did the customers indicate what kind of cake they wanted?  Did they want any old wedding cake, like one of the cakes on display, or a cake of a particular design, like a design that in some way commemorated the fact that it was in celebration of a gay wedding?  More specifically, did the customers indicate they wanted the design to include, for example, two male figures as the wedding partners, or some other design that denoted, at least to the congnoscenti, that it was a gay marriage – e.g., the special flag that the celebrants eventually ordered and bought from another baker?  Initial accounts suggest that Justices Kennedy and Gorsuch, through their lines of questioning, were heading toward this issue.

Why does the design of the cake matter?   Answer:  (i) no problem if the guys wanted a generic cake, like the ones the baker displayed – it is indisputable that the baker offered to sell them a standard-design cake, despite their being gay.  In other words, the baker will sell all of his conventional cakes to anyone, regardless of the customer’s sexual orientation;  but (ii) big problem if the customer wants the baker to produce a transparently-gay cake.

The law is, you cannot offer a particular product to some people but not to others, when the reason for the discrimination is the others’ sexual orientation.  But what about refusing to make and sell a particular product that you do not offer to anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation?  If that behavior were illegal, then a person could walk into a bakery and order cupcakes and a new Mercedes, and if that person were gay, the owner would have to build him a Mercedes. Moral of the story:  if you offer a product or service to anyone, you must offer it to everyone, but you don’t have to accept an order for something you are not in business to build, even if the would-be buyer is gay.