Archive for January, 2011

  • Blog
  • January 31st, 2011

The Lady From Wonderland

By Joel M. Vance

I fish and hunt in Minnesota, a lovely state with an alleged 10,000 lakes, lots of Scandinavian types and good beer.

And then there’s Michele Bachmann, surely the goofiest politician to come stumbling down the pike since….well, I can’t think of since when.  Her spin on reality is every bit as valid as that of J.K. Rowling, but not nearly as entertaining.

It is tempting to dismiss her as simply a mighty wind without substance, but she got elected presumably by voters who agree with her nutty viewpoints.  It’s also tempting to dismiss her as a ditz, which she is, and move on with more substantive things—but she unaccountably gets press and she is a United States Congresswoman no matter how much that makes me shake my head, sigh and reach for another beer.

My home, Missouri, has elected its share of your basic venal, corrupt and incompetent legislators, but so far I don’t think we have elected anyone with as tenuous a grasp of reality, history or basic intellect as Ms. Bachmann.  Minnesota seems to have a bi-polar political personality.  The same state can send Al Franken and Michele Bachmann to Congress.  Or elect Jesse Ventura as Governor and send Paul Wellstone to the Senate.  Go figure….

There was Ms. Bachmann’s hyperbolic statement a while back that, “I’m a foreign correspondent on enemy lines and I try to let everyone back here in Minnesota know exactly the nefarious activities that are taking place in Washington.” It sounds tough, but really makes no sense.  But then she rarely does.

Of course there was her call to arms, literally, when she said, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us ‘having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,’ and the people – we the people – are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.”

That inflammatory rhetoric got conveniently overlooked when her fellow legislator Gabrielle Giffords was shot by an anti-government nutcase.  The extreme right immediately said, “Hey, politics didn’t inspire him and anyway if they did, it was the liberal left who goosed him into shooting that lady.”

Except I can’t think of a single liberal who has been urging folks to be “armed and dangerous” and who links that with revolution.  Thomas Jefferson said what he said more than 200 years ago and while most of what he wrote and believed is valid today, it doesn’t mean all of it is.

I don’t believe he was promoting periodic armed revolution within the nation he helped to create but instead was indulging in some hyperbole of his own by overemphasizing that the citizenry needs to be wary lest its government morph into a tyranny.  Can anyone other than Bachmann and a few of her crazy compadres seriously think that Jefferson advocated a bloody revolution no more than 20 years after he produced the most famous document in American history?

To my knowledge, the United States is not now and has not been since that revolution, dominated by another country nor has it elected a tyrannical leader on the order of Hitler or Stalin.  It has instead elected leaders for better or worse who have come and gone—not stayed on like Papa or Baby Doc Duvalier, Saddam or other well-known “democratically” elected tyrants.  We had a pretty substantial war in 1860-65 to re-establish and reinforce our system and while we can’t ask Jefferson what he thinks about things today, I would question that Michele Bachmann’s interpretation is the definitive one.

Bachmann’s latest foot in mouth outburst invokes the Founding Fathers who, in her view, “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States….Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”  First of all, J.Q. Adams was not a Founding Father, but the son of John Adams, who was.  J.Q. was nine years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed—maybe a Founding Son, but not a Father.

Second, he died in 1848, some 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation did end slavery.  Third, George Washington, the Father of the Country, owned slaves, as did Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and as did many of the signers of the Declaration, including James Madison, another President who is considered the father of the Constitution, and James Monroe, yet another President—all Founding Fathers, as it were.

In other words, Michele Bachmann, once again, is totally full of crap.

She would not be significant, a minor zit on the often pitted face of politics if it were not her insistence on recognition, and her being authenticated by the extreme right wing.  She gave the Tea Party rebuttal to the President’s State of the Union speech and she is a minor power among the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

At the moment she has game, but she surely will fail, victim of her own tangled tongue and voter disenchantment.  When she starts getting specific on issues she almost inevitably alienates another chunk of her potential base.

To show you how politically astute she is, she chose Iowa to give her historic fantasy speech right after calling for an end to farm subsidies—sure way to go over big in  the nation’s leading farm state.  Presumably she chose Iowa for her speech because it often is considered a launch pad for a Presidential bid.

Maybe next she’ll tell Kansans that sunflowers are noxious weeds or Missourians they should eat more mule.

Ms. Bachmann and her husband own a mental health care business in Stillwater, Minnesota, and it is almost overwhelmingly tempting to suggest that she….oh, nevermind.  Once again Michele Bachmann proves that her Tea Party is the one from Wonderland and not the one from Colonial America.

Go get Alice, somebody—she can have company down that rat hole.


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  • January 25th, 2011

The Great Railroad Troubadour

By Joel M. Vance

I first heard the man who died a year before I was born late one night on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop broadcast from Nashville.

Tubb, a worshiper of Rodgers, played a recording of Jimmie Rodgers singing “Away Out On The Mountain,”  a light-hearted song about where you go when you die. Rodgers was only a few years from that faraway mountain when he recorded it.

I crouched before our big old Zenith console, desperately tuning the dial to get the best signal as the quavery voice fought through the static.  His voice was light and supple, Southern.  It was high in the mouth, leaking through the nose, but also rich on the palate—enjoyed the way you taste fine wine.

His guitar was brash, the yodels molten silver.  I had no idea who the man was, nor his place in history, but I knew I liked him and I still do today—a fan from teenage to old man.

Most country music fans know the story of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman (or, sometimes, the Yodeling Cowboy) who pioneered what became the backbone of country music—a male singer with a guitar.  Rodgers was the first member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and today is called the Father of Country Music.

He was born in 1897, died of tuberculosis in 1933.  He made musical fun of the disease that would kill him.  He sang about “Whippin’ That ol’ T.B.” with wry humor, personifying his enemy, holding it at bay for a few short years.  Jimmie Rodgers died May 26, 1933, only six years after his first recording.

He died far from home in New York City, having recorded several of his best songs only hours before.  The train that carried him home to Mississippi blew low and lonesome at rural crossings where fans lined the railbed and silently wept as he passed by.

Jimmie Rodgers and I each had an affinity for railroads—he had worked on them, sang about them…and I lived across the road from the railroad tracks and heard the cry of the last few steam locomotives as they sounded for the crossing.

Nostalgia for railroads is endemic in country music, but no one ever has sung of the railroads as movingly as Rodgers.  He worked on rail cars until his health began to fail. Music was a hobby that became a necessity because of his frailty.

Railroading ran in Jimmie Rodgers’ family.  His father was a section foreman at the turn of the century (you might say tuberculosis ran in the family too–his mother died of the disease).

Jimmie Rodgers sang many train songs: “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run,” “The Brakeman’s Blues,” and “Jimmie the Kid,” which mentions many of the old rail lines in the lyrics.  The rails never were far from his thoughts.

Never in country music has there been a life more geared to melodrama than that of Jimmie Rodgers, not even those of Hank Williams or Elvis.  Consider: a lanky railroader, knight of the lonely old steam engines, finds his health going, so turns to show business.  He struggles, learns to play a half-baked banjo and guitar, and sings weepers and some bluesy nonsense he’s patterned after black singers in his native Mississippi.

He ignores musical convention and is difficult for trained musicians to play with, but there’s something compelling in that throaty voice and the silvery yodels that punctuate his music.

He shows up at a Victor recording session in 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, talks his way into an audition, and cuts a record.  No one seems to expect much of it, but lightning strikes and the Singing Brakeman soon is an incredible success, his clear, thin voice and simple yodeling capturing the hearts of the Southland as well as those of some Yankees with a feeling for roughcut music.

But always the grim specter of death, that ol’ T.B., is waiting in the wings, bony hands on the final curtain.  Rodgers desperately moves through the last five years of his life, up and down, spending money with the abandon of the doomed.

There even was a faithful wife (not to mention a few girl friends and a first wife conveniently left out of most biographies).

His career fading because of who-knows- what–changing times, the Depression, lack of promotion, lack of personal appearances–he makes a last trip to New York to record his final songs.  He is so ill he has to rest on a cot between cuts, drinks whiskey to burn his throat clean.  His voice is noticeably weak, but still true and filled with the indefinable sadness that set him apart from singers who weren’t living the blues they sang.

He knows he doesn’t have much time–the title of one of his songs was “My Time Ain’t Long.”  He returns to his hotel and, alone and far from his beloved Southland, has a fatal hemorrhage.  Then there is that sad funeral train carrying him home to Mississippi while the silent hill and delta folk watch the mournful passage and hear its whistle moaning low at the crossings,

The story throbs with soap opera emotion…and it is all true.  His songs were universal and remain so today.  He and his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, wrote ballads with a Thirties feel, but an ageless impact, and he adapted folk blues that are timeless–after all, technology never cured the blues.

Who knows what legacy Jimmie Rodgers would have left had he lived a Biblical lifespan.  Rodgers’ career was slipping when he died.  He had topped out, was not selling records (neither was anyone else–this was the pit of the Depression).  On the other hand, his health kept him from public performance, so he couldn’t collect money that way either–and public performance in the 1930s was what kept an entertainer in public view.  There was no television or MTV videos.

Jimmie Rodgers directly influenced a generation of singers and indirectly a second generation.  Ernest Tubb was an unabashed Jimmie Rodgers imitator early in his career.  Gene Autry, another Rodgers’ worshiper, is virtually indistinguishable from his hero in early recordings (reissued on “Gene Autry, Blues Singers 1929- 1931,” Columbia Legacy series).

Later, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Emmylou Harris and the anachronistic cult figure Leon Redbone would sing Rodgers’ songs.  Redbone has made a specialty of ’30s music and Jimmie Rodgers’ songs are a substantial part of his repertoire.  You’ll often hear Garrison Keillor sing a Rodgers song on his radio program A Prairie Home Companion.

Rodgers in many ways was a pioneer.  He recorded one side with Louis and Lil Armstrong playing cornet and piano at a time when country entertainers didn’t often mingle with black entertainers, let alone with jazz musicians.  He used a Hawaiian guitar on many recordings—played the way today’s resophonic (Dobro) is.

But most of all he is remembered for his solo efforts.  “Just Me and My Old Guitar,” in the title words of one of his songs.  He wasn’t the world’s greatest guitar player (nor singer, nor yodeler), but everything suited everything else.  The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.  One summer I detasseled seed corn to earn enough for a good guitar.  I paid $60 for a mahogany top Martin 00-17…and later found that Jimmie Rodgers used the spruce top version of that same guitar on his early recordings.

Rounder Records has reissued all Rodgers recordings on seven compact discs.  Through the wonder of digital restoration, fans can hear Jimmie Rodgers sing almost as if he were in the room with them.

Of his more than 100 recorded songs, one stands out as a personal anthem.  In 1928 he took an old melody and adapted old lyrics and came up with “Waiting for a Train,” perhaps the ultimate train song.  It sold more than 300,000 copies in the Depression.

In it, he introduced a variation of his “blue yodel.”  It was an imitation of an old steam locomotive’s whistle.  “Whoooo!  Whooo!  Whoooooooooo!”  The whistle trailed off lonesomely like a train sounding for a crossing.

Even someone who has never heard that sound across the moon-silvered fields on a cold winter night is likely to feel a chill and a moment of sorrow for times and troubadours past.

For a kid who lived across the street from the railroad tracks and spent hours with the station agent, there could be no musical hero other than Jimmie Rodgers.

I visited the T Jimmie Rodgers museum.  It is a simulated railroad station in a Meridian, MS, city park.  An old Baldwin eight-wheeler locomotive sits on a section of track outside the building and inside are Rodgers’ memorabilia and his songs continually play in the background for the pilgrims who visit.  Most are elderly but few still live who were young when Rodgers was alive.  Even second generation fans are in their 70s.

But I really wanted to see where Rodgers is buried.  I found the small country churchyard just outside Meridian.  There was no overflowing parking lot or fans flocking to it..  It was not Graceland, with an eternal flame marking the grave of Elvis, just a country church like countless others in the South.

The Rodgers’ family plot is high on a sloping hill, near the road.  There they are: “Carrie, Anita and me” as he sang in a song.  His wife, his daughter and him.  I guess you’re supposed to feel something at a shrine, but dead is dead.

I knelt before Jimmie Rodgers’ grave marker…and there was a guitar pick on the marble marker.  Left by some fan, I suppose–someone with more imagination than me.

When I finally got home, I cradled my Martin 00-17 as if it were a newborn child and when I hit the strings, it rang like an anthem to someone long dead who sang about trains that no longer run.


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  • January 19th, 2011

The Old Man and the Lake

By Joel M. Vance

It was 6 a.m.  The cabin was chilly (outside the temperature was dropping like a concrete parachute.  The wind rattled everything that could be rattled, including my composure.  The lake had whitecaps that looked like the climactic scene of “The Perfect Storm and we were getting ready to go onto this maelstrom in a boat that increasingly resembled Charlie Allnut’s wheezing old tub in “The African Queen.”

We got ready to launch and I checked to make sure the name on the boat was not “Andrea Gale.”  “We” was me, my son Andy, and son-in-law Ron DeValk and we were in northern Minnesota, lair of the wily walleye. It was late October, that brief Minnesota interval between summer fishing and more ice than you can chop through with a double-bitted ax in a month.

Andy spent the evening before fussing with rods and reels, tuning, checking line, sorting through a myriad of jigs and never-fail walleye lures.  I did what I do best–sprawl on the couch like a poleaxed boar.  I’ve found that all the fussing in the world is not appreciated any more by walleyes than is slack-jawed sprawling, so I choose to sprawl.  It’s what I do.

Walleyes are alleged to be on the prowl for pre-winter chow this time of year and we intended to check that thesis.  Either that or, given the weather, huddle in the cabin like Inuits in an ice block hut during a whiteout.

Low clouds spat rain against the cabin windows and the sound seemed to say, “sleet is on the way.”  Thinking to bring a bit of levity into the dire outlook, I sang, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, The sun will come out tomorrow!”

“Somebody oughta knock Little Orphan Annie in the head,” grumbled Ron sourly.

“Rain, rain go away,” I said.  “Come again some other day.”

“You don’t shut up, I’m gonna knock YOU in the head!” Ron snarled.

I visited what the resort euphemistically calls “The Biffy” and saw a can labeled “T.P.”and figured that stood for “tip” so I left a tip beside the roll of toilet paper in the can and prepared to challenge Minnesota in the pre-winter.  Ron was draining water from our boat and it ran through the drain hole like water from a fire hose.  Not a good sign.  At least it’s going out and not coming in.  So far…..

We clambered into the rocking boat and I remembered scenes from the Normandy Invasion.  At least no one was shooting at us.  I remembered that some of the landing craft went aground a hundred yards from shore and the soldiers had to wade or swim to the beach.  “A couple of guys down in southern Minnesota swamped their boat last week,” Ron said.  “They had to tread water for 30 minutes before they got rescued.”

I gulped and checked the snaps on my life jacket.  Ron put the spurs to his 30 horses and the boat leaped into the waves and I remembered how I got the lower back spasms that now make me walk like Groucho Marx.  It began with a Cree guide in Canada who drove his fishing boat like Dale Ernhardt and, I was beginning to fear, with the same end results.  He hit the tops of the waves with hammer blows that translated directly up my spine and I went from the pride of the YMCA to the pride of the Orthopedic Group.

Finally we reached the lee shore and my spine clattered back to semi-normal.  I’m sure an x-ray would have looked like a map of the Appalachian Trail, but at least the water was relatively quiet and I could enjoy my agony secure in the knowledge that we weren’t going to be swamped by the proverbial seventh wave.

All the fish, of course, had migrated to the far shore, reveling in the piscatorial equivalent of the Aqua Ride at Disneyland.  “We’re going to have to go back to the windy side,” Ron said grimly.  “That’s where the map said to fish.”  Goodbye lee side, hello lower back pain.

The map in question had been provided by our host who drew circles around what he said were the hot spots.  The circles were the approximate size of Rhode Island, so we narrowed our search to an area of about 100,000 acres.  Just right for a minnow the size of your little finger.

Ron turned on his fish finder and we found no fish.  We did find the depth, though, and a nice dropoff which is alleged to be where walleye hang out like guys in front of the Starbucks, waiting for the good-looking secretaries to come by for their lattes.  I threaded a reluctant minnow on a jig and sent it to the bottom and there was an instant tug, tug, tug.

“Fish on!” I screamed like Zane Grey, fast to a thousand pound billfish.  After an epic fight, not adequately described since Ernest Hemingway wrote about that old man, I brought my fish to gaff.  I guess a six-inch lake perch doesn’t exactly qualify as a literary icon, but you gotta write about what you know.

So…look for it in your bookstores: “The Old Man and the Piddly Perch.”

It ain’t much, but it’s all I got.


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  • January 12th, 2011

Stage Fright

By Joel M. Vance

Ben Franklin said that death and taxes are the only inevitabilities in life, but I’d add the inevitability of being asked to perform in public.  Sooner or later someone will ask you to give a program, make a presentation, accept an award or otherwise put yourself at risk of humiliation in front of an audience.

“Imagine they all are naked,” is the advice often given to those with flop sweat.  As rampant as my imagination is (I can, for example, imagine Angelina Jolie naked with no problem whatever), I could not mentally disrobe an audience.  Instead I imagine them as Visigoths, armed with studded clubs, dressed in animal skins and with eyes as red as those of a hungry jaguar.

Death, taxes, public performance–of the three, the latter is the most terrifying.  You don’t have to think about dying.  You just do it and no one will be critical of the way you did it. Taxes are traumatic when you don’t pay them.  But an audience is chock-full of critics, all of whom are just waiting for you to fart loudly or succumb to projectile vomiting in the middle of your slide show.

A few folks have managed to combine death and performance.  The great Metropolitan Opera baritone Leonard Warren died on stage, ironically during a performance of Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny.”  And Brooklyn Dodger mogul Branch Rickey suffered a fatal heart attack while accepting his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Most people faced with their first public performance (or, for some, every performance) would welcome death rather than the terror of facing an expectant audience.  My first encounter with public performance was enough to queer the rest of my life, and I’ve often wished it had.  I was 15 years old and my mother talked me into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for the Methodist Church congregation.

Aside from a geriatric lady who fell asleep in a front pew, syncopating my quavering song with snoring, it was a sympathetic audience.  Then a somnolent wasp lost its balance and fell on my neck.  Apparently it blamed me for its clumsiness for it stung me and I exclaimed “God damn!” which was both appropriate and inappropriate, given the setting.

I didn’t stand before an audience of more than two or three for many years after that, but part of my job as a writer for the Missouri Department of Conservation was to make public appearances.

One was at a turkey calling contest in Hermann, a German town fond of its beer.  And there was an open bar during the contest. By the time I rose to give a stirring address on conservation there were a number of rowdy drunks milling around the beer tap.

My fervent pleas for habitat preservation were punctuated by guys demanding loudly, “Hey, gimme another one uh them sumbitches!”  Finally I ground to a halt, like an overloaded freight train.

A fellow who had spent most of the evening sampling the lager, weaved over to me afterward and said, “You Joel Vance?”  I modestly admitted that I was.  “You the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine?” he challenged.

Now that is the kind of question for which there is no saving answer.  You admit you write bullshit or you say that you’re not the guy who writes it, an obvious lie, making you both a liar and a purveyor of bullshit.  “Hey, Charlie!” he shouted at a fellow halfway across the gym.  Heads turned.  “You know who this is!” he bellowed, indicating me as if calling attention to a noxious bug.  “This is the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine!”

And I didn’t even get paid for the talk—it was part of the job.

My late boss Jim Keefe was a self-destructive type, his own worst enemy (he once walked into a parking meter while ogling a pretty girl and broke three ribs).  Once he was making a talk from a stage below which loomed an orchestra pit.

Carried away by his rhetoric, he gestured dramatically, lost his balance and fell with a thunderous crash into the orchestra pit.  There was stunned silence.  Then he rose from the darkness, clambered back on the stage, faced the crowd and said, “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to grab an audience!”

Rodney Green, an education consultant, now retired, from the Missouri Conservation Department, was giving a talk to perhaps 100 Girl Scouts and their mothers.  He chose to talk about snakes and brought a couple of non-venomous snakes in a snake sack.

One was a kingsnake which he had not gentled.  As he held the snake in one hand, he carelessly passed his other hand by the snake’s mouth and the kingsnake obligingly bit him and held on.  Blood began to stream down his hand and wrist.  The snake was firmly fastened and Rod said, “See how the snake’s fangs are recurved so it can hang on?  And it has an anti-coagulant in its saliva so that’s why I’m bleeding.”  The snake grimly refused to relax its painful grip.  “Does anyone have something to pry the son of a….the snake’s jaws open?” Rod asked.

With help he got the snake loose and silently congratulated himself not only on handling an embarrassing situation but doing it educationally.  He wasn’t done with snakes for the day.

He also had a black rat snake and, thinking it was somewhat more docile than the kingsnake, he hauled its three-foot length out of his sack.  While demonstrating something he passed the snake in front of him and it leaned over and grabbed the crotch of his britches, fortunately not all the way through to the tender bits inside.

But it startled him and he let go the snake which dangled from his crotch at which the 100 Girl Scouts broke into appreciative laughter and the mothers turned crimson.  Rodney, who knows a good story when he creates one, has refined and expanded the story into epic proportions over the years, but for most folks an experience like that would lead to an intense desire to crawl under a rock.

The perils of performance got summed up for me graphically once when I was invited to speak to an evening meeting of a local fraternal club.  Usually their meetings attract 30-40 members who manage to stay quiet for 20 minutes after the tail twister has done his inane job and they’ve inhaled a gob of roast beef and mashed potatoes and, in some cases, knocked back a couple of stiff drinks.

So I expected at the very least a free meal and a sizeable audience.  There were two men at the restaurant when I arrived.  Three more showed up close to meeting time.  “We usually have more…” the club president said, leaving unsaid what I assumed he was thinking “…but they heard you were speaking.”

There were no table settings and no one had appeared laden with steaming dinner plates.  We made small talk and I realized the five of them were waiting for me to do something.  “Is this a dinner meeting?” I asked finally—hell, we were in a restaurant for God’s sake.

“Oh…well, we all ate before we came,” the president said.  “But you go ahead.  We’ll wait.”  My stomach growled and I was miffed enough to take him up on it. So I ordered a cheeseburger and we waited for a while until it came, then they all watched me eat it.

Suppressing a belch, I got up to make my talk after which the

-30- president approached me with a paper sack.  “We have a little something by way of thanks,” he said and I hoped it was a fifth of Jim Beam.  God knows, I needed a stiff belt.

He withdrew a framed certificate from the sack and said, “Here,” thrusting it at me.  I started to take it and he jerked it back.  “Wait a minute!” he said.  He began to scrub at the glass with his thumbnail and I realized the price sticker still was on it.  It was one of those $.98 frames you get at Woolworth’s.

“That’s okay,” I said, half-jokingly.  “Leave it on—then I’ll know how much you thought of me.”

“I know,” he muttered, continuing to scrape furiously.


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  • January 9th, 2011

Palin’s Bullseye Hits the Target

By Joel M. Vance

I swore I wasn’t going to rant for a while—that I was going to blog something funny and I will next time unless some crazy person shoots someone else for no reason other than delusional patriotism.  But until something funnier comes along…..

Let’s just talk a while about Sarah Palin, the rootin’ tootin’ quittin’ Grizzly Mama from Alaska and from wherever she can con someone out of a fat paycheck for spouting nonsense.

Ms. Palin, during last fall’s campaign frenzy, targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on a web site naming folks she wanted to see go down, presumably in the polls and not literally from gunfire.

We all know by now that a nutcase shot Ms. Giffords in the head.  Ms. Palin was quick to express sympathy…but did she accept even partial blame for what happened?  That ain’t the Palin way, folks.  Ms. Giffords, way back in 2010 expressed concern that intemperate talk about taking down candidates might just trigger violent action from the lunatic fringe.  She specifically mentioned Sarah Palin’s crosshairs graphic.

You holler “Fire!” in a theater, you’d better be able to accept the consequences if somebody gets trampled to death.  No use claiming, “Well, they didn’t have to listen.”

What got the Less-Than-Divine Sarah all bent out of shape was the sheer audacity of Ms. Giffords to vote for health care for 32 million citizens who didn’t have it.  Yes, the dreaded Obama Care which puts the clamps on rapacious insurance companies, which prevents them from dropping coverage or refusing health care for pre-existing conditions—pretty good provisions.

It’s not perfect, but any plan is better than no plan at all, which is what the health industry folks would like to see.  You can tinker with an imperfect plan but you can’t tinker with what doesn’t exist.  Universal health care in the United States, by the way, is an idea that goes back more than a century (the first notable president to endorse the idea was Teddy Roosevelt) and is a program that exists in virtually every other advanced nation.

Isn’t it comforting to know that we have a system that ranks right up there with the best of the Third World countries.

Ms. Palin explained her gunsights-on-Giffords graphic—she said, “We’ve diagnosed the problem; you provide the solution.”  And she advocated “”Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”  Now, she probably didn’t mean Annie Get Your Gun, but who knows?  At the very least that kind of rhetoric is an invitation to some crazed nutcase to practice frontier justice.

Much of the nuttiness has happened in Arizona which lately has come to represent the lunatic fringe of politics.  There’s the governor, Jan Brewer, who claimed there were headless corpses littering the landscape between her and the Mexican border, a claim that proved the only body missing a brain was hers.

And of course Sharron Angle in Nevada, who ran against Harry Reid and implied that things were heating up in the country to the point that the “Second Amendment solution” might be necessary.  Is it possible that Jared Loughner, Ms. Giffords shooter, was listening?

I’m a lifetime hunter, a gun owner who cherishes my guns. I have no use for anyone who wants to take my guns away.  But this crazy let’s solve it all with shootin’ irons mentality is mushrooming like a cancer and it hurts every responsible gun owner and gives, if you’ll pardon a pun, ammunition to the anti-gun folks.

The shoot-‘em-up attitude is whipped up by right wing talk show types like Beck and O’Reilly and Limbaugh.  They appeal to the violent and extremists among their listeners.

Example: Glen Beck: “”I say we nuke the bastards. In fact, it doesn’t have to be Iran; it can be everywhere, anyplace that disagrees with me.”  Or how about Ann Coulter: “We need somebody to put rat poison in Justice Stevens’ crème brulee.” She added, “That’s just a joke, for you in the media.”

Somehow I’m not laughing.  These folks are media hate mongers and they do it because they appeal to the worst in us (and the worst of us).  I doubt they really believe the slime they spew—they’re in it for the money and they know that hatred sells.  It’s lynch mob mentality and they’ve refined it to a dubious art form.  Sean Hannity ran a poll titled “What kind of revolution appeals most to you” giving the choices (a) military coup or (b) armed rebellion.  A third choice was “war for secession” and I thought we had one of those 150 years ago.

No one with much sense believes that Hannity is actively encouraging violent remedies or that he truly supports any of them—but by making the poll one of his talking points he gives it life and offers it as a possibility to the folks teetering on the edge of insanity.  These radio messiahs make millions of dollars annually and the only way they can keep the money rolling in is by agitating their jittery audience.  Bore the audience and you lose them and then you lose the sugar tit.

The worst solution would be to censor the Hannity’s, et al.  They have a right, short of actually inciting riot (you can imply it, but not call for it) under the First Amendment to say outrageous things and that amendment is too sacred to tamper with or water down.

What should happen to these saps is a boycott of their sponsors.  Just don’t buy from the companies who furnish them with a platform and pretty soon those sponsors won’t pay them.  Then the hate mongers will fade into the rotted woodwork from whence they oozed.

Next time something funny…..


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  • Blog
  • January 7th, 2011

Sticks and Stones and Mark Twain

By Joel M. Vance

You’ve heard of the proverbial camel with his nose in the tent?  The implication is that once you let the nose in, the rest of the camel will follow.  I’ve never had a camel poke its nose in my tent, although once a prairie chicken did peek in, but decided not to enter.

Anyway, New South Books is publishing Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” with the word “nigger” replaced by “slave.”  Other changes include calling Injun Joe “Indian Joe” and ”half breed” instead “half blood.”  Presumably it is less insulting to call a black person a “slave” than “nigger.”   Seems to me “slave” is more demeaning than a word that is an ignorant corruption of “Negro.”

Somehow rewriting Mark Twain is supposed to mollify those who object to the N-word and, I guess, the I-word.

Mark Twain was decades ahead of the country when he wrote a lasting novel about the friendship that developed between an escaped slave, Jim, and Huck, the rowdy white boy.  It stands as a landmark representation of how two unlikely people bridged the gap between the races when that was rare if not downright frowned upon.

“Huck” dates to 1885 when the wounds of the Civil War still scabbed the public consciousness and the Ku Klux Klan flowered.  We’ve never had a time of complete racial harmony, but it was a whole lot more tense in Twain’s time than it is now.  “Huck” took courage to write and its message was powerful.

And it was written in the language of the time when people were called Nigger Jim or Injun Joe and it should be read in that context, not in today’s.  The point here is not whether those words are offensive.  Sure they are, just as are spic, wop, gook, dago, kike or any other pejorative applied to a race, ethnic group or minority.  I’m a honkey or honky, whatever the spelling is.  And with Irish and German in my bloodline, I guess I’m a bit of a Mick or a Kraut too.  Names don’t bother me.  It’s those sticks and stones a guy has to watch out for.

Racial epithets reflect more on the person using them than on the target.  The redneck racist who shouts intolerance is narrow, ignorant and mean-spirited—a useless insult to humanity.  The birthers who maintain that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen wouldn’t be shouting such silly crap if he were a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  The gut fact is that they are racist scum, hiding their dirty little prejudices.

They’re afraid to say the word “nigger” out loud other than to their equally despicable peers, but you can bet it rots in their souls.  They mask their true feelings with birther nonsense.   Where their barely hidden message is intolerance, Mark Twain’s was just the opposite

The editor of the sanitized Huck, Alan Gribben, says the flood of emails excoriating him for tampering with Twain proves that the word makes them uncomfortable.  “Not one of them mentions the word,” he says.  “They dance around it.”

Of course it is uncomfortable.  And the book should make folks uncomfortable, not for the use of the word, but because it examines an uncomfortable subject—that’s what good books do.  They make us scrutinize our beliefs and prejudices and, one would hope, deal with them.  “Huckleberry Finn” made many folks uncomfortable, not because of its language, but because it proposed that two human beings of different races could come together not only as survivors but also as friends.

Of the two Jim’s instincts were unstintingly pure; Huck’s corrupt at first, but gradually softening.  Jim never would have betrayed Huck but the reverse was not true for a long time.   Clearly Jim was the more admirable of the two and he educated Huck in how to be human being of tolerance and compassion.

But back to the point—once you start altering or otherwise adulterating the words of a published writer, you have a tent with a great big camel nose between the flaps.   Sanitizing history is what totalitarian regimes do for various reasons, all bad.  And sanitizing history for kids creates a fairyland every bit as unrealistic as the one Alice fell into down the rabbit hole.

Teachers should interpret and explain, not censor.   They’re there to broaden horizons, not narrow them.  Expose kids to ideas and attitudes and guide them.  You can’t keep kids from hearing slurs outside the classroom and you shouldn’t keep them from reading them, but you can put those slurs in context and make them mean something more valuable than trash talk.

More important than the stupidity of sanitizing Mark Twain is the precedent it sets.  There is no end to that slippery slope.  Someone will object to just about anything ever written and if you start kowtowing to every grumbler who doesn’t like a word pretty soon we’ll be back to McGuffey’s First Reader as the only allowable book.

Think not?  Gribben says he is rewriting Twain for schools rather than for the general public.  He is targeting the tender sensibilities of school boards and administrators who would never allow a controversial book to enter their sanitized libraries.  You won’t read “Catcher in the Rye” or “A Color Purple” or any of those other nasty, corrupting books in those bastions of education.  Huck is rated the fourth-most banned book but it has much company—mostly from classics up to and including the dictionary.

Right up there with Huck as a book-banner’s target is Harper Lee’s wonderful “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Anyone who could ignore the book’s powerful message against racial hatred is a foaming idiot….but some schools have banned it.  Just as they have banned books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gordon Parks, all African-Americans.

I still remember our daughter’s high school English teacher telling us at a parent-teacher meeting that “you don’t have to worry about your kids reading any controversial books in my classes!”  I still seethe about that and it was many years ago.  I still hope that teacher long since has doddered off into undeserved retirement.

But it’s not even a tossup as to whether it’s worse to ban Mark Twain outright from the school library or to soften him.  The Ivory Snow job is much worse because the enterprising child (or his enlightened parents) can find the original Huck in decent libraries or in bookstores.  But if all Huck were made politically correct we would have no way to read Twain as it was meant to be read.

Mr. Twain did not write carelessly.  He said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  Mark Twain had the right word and the right meaning for his time and for ours.

He said, “Man is the only animal that blushes.  Or needs to.”  Professor Gribben should be blushing.  If there is any banning to be done, might want to start with him as a teacher.


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