August 2018

5,676 Good Words on John S. McCain

2018-08-28T23:38:09+00:00August 28th, 2018|Gold|

David Foster Wallace, “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub,” April 13, 2000

Wallace’s famous 2000 dispatch from the Straight Talk Express is, unsurprisingly, very good. It’s also a welcome break from the dreck that has so far marked McCain’s passing: from the far left (and far right) a steady stream of cruel Twitter one-upmanship, from most everyone else uncritical blurbs that dwell little on the man and even less on the legislator, focusing instead on the time he cracked a joke in a Capitol corridor or remembered a reporter’s name. Wallace’s work is also, however, 25,000 words long. I’ve condensed down to what I found especially stirring.

On “Service” and Vietnam:

[W]hen Senator John McCain also says – constantly, thumping it at the start and end of every speech and THM – that his goal as president will be “to inspire young Americans to devote them- selves to causes greater than their own self-interest,” it’s hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real “cause,” to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble – sounding bullshit and convince even themselves that they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it’s how most of us feel. And it’s beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level where we also block out billboards and Muzak.

But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the – charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.


October 2017

The George Wallace Show, Circa ’72

2017-10-07T23:52:04+00:00October 7th, 2017|Gold|

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, 1973

In his reporting, Thompson does not seem much interested in Wallace. The Confederate Flag-beating demagogue is less a man than a force of naturean angry hurricane the casts the struggle between Muskie, Humphrey, Kennedy, and McGovern in sharper relief. But when he does turn to Wallace, there is wisdom there. First vignettes by Thompson; below the jump, Timothy Crouse.

The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece. Probably the rarest form of life in American politics is the man who can turn on a crowd & still keep his head straight—assuming it was straight in the first place…Maybe the whole secret of turning a crowd on is getting turned on yourself by the crowd.

The only candidate running for the presidency today who seems to understand this is George Wallace…

The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy—and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions: Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn’t want the problems solved, so they wouldn’t be put out of work.

The ugly truth is that Wallace had never even bothered to understand the problems—much less come up with any honest solutions—but “the Fighting Little Judge” has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap. Southern politicians are not made that way. Successful con men are treated with considerable respect in the South. A good slice of the settler population of that region were men who’d been given a choice between being shipped off to the New World in leg-irons and spending the rest of their lives in English prisons. The Crown saw no point in feeding them year after year, and they were far too dangerous to be turned loose on the streets of London—so, rather than overload the public hanging schedule, the King’s Minister of Gaol decided to put this scum to work on the other side of the Atlantic, in The Colonies, where cheap labor was much in demand.


April 2017


2017-04-17T00:53:03+00:00April 17th, 2017|Gold|

Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995

This essay, published more than 20 years ago by a political scientist whose youth was spent under the rule of Mussolini, remains the best resource I’ve seen for explaining what “fascism” is and is not. Read the criteria. Consider the emerging or proposed regimes of Erdogan, Orban, Le Pen, and, of course, Trump. And then ask yourself: when does “fascist” cease to be a slur and become, instead, an accurate descriptor of these demagogues and their adherents? 

In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.

I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.

In April 1945, the partisans took over in Milan. Two days later they arrived in the small town where I was living at the time. It was a moment of joy. The main square was crowded with people singing and waving flags, calling in loud voices for Mimo, the partisan leader of that area. A former maresciallo of the Carabinieri, Mimo joined the supporters of General Badoglio, Mussolini’s successor, and lost a leg during one of the first clashes with Mussolini’s remaining forces. Mimo showed up on the balcony of the city hall, pale, leaning on his crutch, and with one hand tried to calm the crowd. I was waiting for his speech because my whole childhood had been marked by the great historic speeches of Mussolini, whose most significant passages we memorized in school. Silence. Mimo spoke in a hoarse voice, barely audible. He said: “Citizens, friends. After so many painful sacrifices … here we are. Glory to those who have fallen for freedom.” And that was it. He went back inside. The crowd yelled, the partisans raised their guns and fired festive volleys. We kids hurried to pick up the shells, precious items, but I had also learned that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.


December 2016

Hemingway on Il Duce

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00December 28th, 2016|Gold|

Ernest Hemingway, “Mussolini, Europe’s Prize Bluffer,” The Toronto Daily Star, January 27, 1923

Note: Dispatch from the 1923 Conference of Lausanne, an international conference updating treaties in wake of the rise of Turkey, notably attended by Benito Mussolini of Italy. The Gabriele D’Annunzio cited was an Italian nationalist of an older breed. His opposition to Mussolini would come of nothing.

Mussolini is the biggest bluff in Europe. If Mussolini would have me taken out and shot tomorrow morning I would still regard him as a bluff. The shooting would be a bluff. Get hold a good photo of Signor Mussolini sometime and study it. You still see the weakness in his mouth which forces him to scowl the famous Mussolini scowl that is imitated by every 19-year-old Fascisto in Italy. Study his past record. Study the coalition that Fascismo is between capital and labor and consider the history of past coalitions. Study his genius for clothing small ideas in big words. Study his propensity for dueling. Really brave men do not have to fight duels, and many cowards duel constantly to make themselves believe they are brave. And then look at his black shirt and white spats. There is something wrong, even histrionically, with a man who wears white spats with a black shirt.

There is not space here to go into the question of Mussolini as a bluff or as a great and lasting force. Mussolini may last fifteen years or he may be overthrown next spring by Gabriele D’Annunzio, who hates him. But let me give two true pictures of Mussolini at Lausanne.


July 2015

Eisenhower and History

2016-12-28T21:37:54+00:00July 15th, 2015|Gold|

Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends, 1967

My first reading love was ancient history. At an early age, I developed an interest in the human record and I became particularly fond of Greek and Roman accounts. These subjects were so engrossing that I frequently was guilty of neglecting all others. My mother’s annoyance at this indifference to the mundane life of chores and assigned homework grew until, despite her reverence for books, she took my volumes of history away and locked them in a closet.

This had the desired effect for a while. I suppose I gave a little more attention to arithmetic, spelling, and geography. But one day I found the key to that closet. Whenever Mother went to town to shop or was out working in her flower garden I would sneak out the books.


May 2015

The Nature of the Business, So Easy To Forget

2015-05-08T00:57:12+00:00May 8th, 2015|Gold|

From Franz-Stefan Gady, The One Thing Geeky Defense Analysts Never Talk About,” The Diplomat:

The one thing defense analysts never talk about is violent death. While they are capable of superbly analyzing weapon systems, military doctrines, organizational structures and dissecting intricate details of what the future of war may look like, they rarely mention that the elephant in the livingroom of all their analyses is the violent killing of human beings.

The simple purpose of any military is to be an effective and expeditious killing machine—cloaked in the justifying mantle of national defense and as permitted by the “laws of war.” All the discussions about strategy, tactics, logistics, training, and procurement serve the single aim of killing  men— and collaterally, or even intentionally, women and children—when elicited by the rationale or whim of state sponsored aggression.

Perhaps defense analysts do not discuss violent killing because it is all too obvious. Also, perhaps they do not fully assess or comprehend the implications of their analyses and commentaries. Or perhaps they willingly embrace doublethink euphemisms in which killing is replaced by value neutral terms which sanitize slaughter and normalize the polite punditry of bellicose hellfire.

All of this is true. It is on my mind often.

March 2015

When Your Grandfather Fought on the Wrong Side

2015-03-25T04:18:53+00:00March 25th, 2015|Gold|

From Marcus Finster, Quora, “Should Germans today take a more sympathetic view of German soldiers who fought in WWII?

I was born in 1976. I remember when I was growing up, I’d see many old women. Fewer old men. Many of the old men missed an arm or a leg.

I was lucky in the sense to have two grandfathers, both on my mother’s and my father’s side.

My mother’s father had been a Russian POW at the end and spent a few years in Siberia. He was barely able to walk when he was finally released in the 50s.

He’d remain frightened of the chance to starve to death until he died

He told some stories about the war. He’d show us pictures of him in his Wehrmacht uniform. When we were old enough to ask, he’d tell us about only doing his duty and keeping clear of “the others”. It took me a while to understand what the others were – the SS and the Einsatzgruppen.


November 2014

The Price

2016-12-28T21:37:55+00:00November 11th, 2014|Gold|

Excerpted from The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraqby George Packer

On the evening of November 8, 2003, at around 7:40 p.m., a two-Humvee convoy pulled out through the front gate of the American base at the Rashid military camp in south Baghdad. The mission was to pick up a sergeant attending a meeting at the combat support hospital inside the Green Zone. In the rear left seat of the lead vehicle sat a twenty-two-year-old private named Kurt Frosheiser.

There was nothing obvious to set Private Frosheiser apart from the tens of thousands of other young enlisted men who served in Iraq. He was from Des Moines, Iowa. He had a twin brother, a married older sister, and divorced parents. He had been an indifferent student and a bit of a rebel through high school, and by age twenty-one he was a community college dropout, living with his sister’s family, delivering, pizza, and partying heavily. He had a brash, boyish smile, with his father’s full mouth and lidded eyes; he liked Lynyrd Skynrd and the Chicago Cubs; and one day in January 2003, he flew through the door with the news that he had just enlisted in the Army.

His father, Chris, wasn’t thrilled to hear it. There was a war on terror going on, and the strong possibility of a land war in Iraq. But he didn’t try to argue with his son. In February, Kurt dropped by his father’s apartment around two in the morning after a night out drinking and said, “I want to be part of something bigger than myself.