Complementary Principles

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With an upcoming presidential election there will be much rancor and little agreement. During the process, I declare my unwillingness to sacrifice a single guiding principle in order to achieve absolute simplicity or popularity. I will not wallow in self-righteous indignation, though dismay fuels my mind. I have been much alarmed by the disrespect afforded our current president. Disrespect is a prelude to wanton waste and self-destructive division – and a sign of weakness. It is also wrong – not just morally, ethically, and politically – but the wrong way to achieve practical self-interests.

In October 2015 I revisited the miniseries John Adams. [1] It reminded me of why citing the Founding Fathers as if they spoke with one voice, which was meant to stand supreme against all comers, is ridiculous and untrue. The Founding Fathers gave us independence from Britain and an outline of a process for self-governing in the face of constant disagreement and existential challenges. That is enough. As for their principles, they were and are at war, but always seeking accommodation and concrete results that are workable, if not satisfactory, for the majority, including, and especially, measures to protect the civil rights of minorities.

In the HBO production, Thomas Jefferson is a playful, theatrical provocateur. He certainly does not believe in revolution every 20 years in the sense that his affection for the French suggests. Hamilton is the real revolutionary of his time. We needed all the elements of the periodic table at the formation of our nation – all the principles and psychological types to build a new kind of body politic.

Today a common refrain from the extreme right and left wings of the political spectrum is, “I will not compromise my principles!” The problem is that every thinking and feeling man, woman, and child should embody a wide range of principles that constantly compete internally for a practical balance. Then no one compromises their principles: they compromise their solutions based on a common pool of viable values and shared information.

As the Steve Jobs character in the movie Steve Jobs reportedly says of his role at Apple, as a breathing, adapting nation, we “play the orchestra.” For maximum enjoyment, understanding, and forward-moving results, we play the full breadth of instruments and styles – principles – for maximum effectiveness in the real world.

To combat the movement toward more guns and more violence, toward more political inaction, I propose a stun device – let’s call it “respectful reason” – that will temporarily stop an attacking principle, seeking supremacy, long enough for the civil society of men and women to steady the attacker and return him toward our shared principles and shared problems – all of them – the whole enchilada. The trouble with big-mouth politicians and terrorists is their single-mindedness. The delicate art in liberal society is our tolerance of dimwitted, even dangerous, talk. The media is not guiltless in this obsession with the phantasmagoric squalor of political operators willing to seek the limelight at any price. OFF is a powerful feature of modern electronics; it is much easier to execute and is just as effective at separating lunatic heads from extended necks before a one-note mob arises.

FOOTNOTE:

1. John Adams aired on HBO in 2008.

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Raid on Palau

Having known R. W. Hulme (Bob) forty years, I can, without reservation, attest that I believe every single word of his stories. It is a wonder that he came to write his stories and that we should hear and like them so much.

I like the excitement and cool detachment; the brevity, clarity, and detail; his determination to get it done; the humility and the humor. But most of all I like the unmistakable humanity – the “one” and the “we” working it out on the fly.

Bob was drafted into the Army on his twenty-second birthday in September, 1941. That fact is completely consistent with the tone of his stories. He was no daring-do cowboy. He moved by force of persistence, against significant odds, into flying. Once there, he took charge without bravado.

Essentially, over time, Bob did not alter, except where a house full of lovely, intelligent, honorable women helps a man adjust admirably. It is noteworthy that his telling of this story comes in 1992. After Ross Perot, Bob privately struggled, for 19 more years, to negotiate the new world order. He adapted in increments like the self-taught, well-read, hard-working, experienced gentleman that he was.

Despite what they claim in fiction and history, great things happen in increments. Bob’s stories – and life – show us that great feats happen in short steps. The context of those steps is often out of control – as are the guiding instruments – but it is how one handles the stick that substantially determines when, where, how, and if one lands.

The new world order was more ambiguous and less trustworthy for a man such as Bob. He respected learning, loyalty, common sense, and work, but he clearly objected to the way things were headed.

After seeing the television series “The Pacific,” I am heartily grateful that Bob was in the air. His is the war that we know through his stories. He and they allow us to suspend judgment about the time, and all that preceded and followed it, in the suspense of how our loved one managed to survive intact. Not just survive, but thrive as the same man we read about now and knew around the kitchen table.

As he makes abundantly clear, Bob was one of many, a leader who wanted to get the hell out and get his comrades out, too, while doing his assigned task in a way that, though not exactly by the book, gets it done and wins peace in which a new world could emerge. Big men yield. But when they succumb to age and change, they leave gaping holes.

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Stories in TennesseeSoul by Lt. Col. Robert W. Hulme, USAF (Ret.)
(ordered by date of war event)

Black Sunday
Raid on Palau
The Big One
Clark Field
The One

Painting A Way

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The piece associated with this introduction was not written as a story or article. It is a how-to letter to a friend. But I find it very interesting and share-worthy. I asked Gail if I could put it in TennesseeSoul and she relented.

The aim of TennesseeSoul, or one of the main aims, is to share the ordinary about a small community of people who try their best to survive by keeping productive and endeavoring to discover new things about their world on a daily basis. It is not intended to be showy or prissy professional in the top-drawer sense favored by snobs and academics.

When I read this letter, I wanted to paint. Gail makes it seem very doable. She makes painting a way of life.

I completely revolt against anyone telling anyone else they should not pursue a process that may make them happy, especially when that activity is harmless and more than likely will enrich the practitioner and, perhaps, an audience, no matter how small.

I want my epitaph to read: “TennesseeSoul: He tried.” Some wiseacres quip that life is eighty percent showing up. It’s not quite as easy as that; if it is, get a life. I believe life is at least half trying for even a mediocre existence in sustainable harmony with our world. And mediocre life is pretty good life indeed when you look around at many of the alternatives.

Gail’s simple letter about painting is about far more than painting. The act of painting leads a way to discovery and sustained harmony.

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Sick of Parties

Parties are artificial to me. Alignments are justified on issues but don’t come easy and should not last long. Though alliances are unquestionably useful, group identity gives me the willies. Groups are pernicious and demean individual integrity and openness. They also spawn presumptions that border on lunacy and ultimately undermine the effectiveness of concerted effort.

American politics are like hamburger – or, more likely, pink slime – we don’t know what is in it and it takes numerous and diverse condiments to make it palatable. Politics will always be inherently necessary and distasteful.

In American national elections there are usually two candidates to choose from and one is clearly the better person for the position. Considering past Presidential elections, with the exception of 1992 and 2000, featuring the spoiler Perot and the attention-seeking Nader respectively, the clear best won. In our country of late, due to fringe voters and backers with big wallets, the losing party has not forwarded good candidates for President. It has not been just a question of party.

I will not lie to you, the opposition candidate would have to stink like a three-days-dead yeller dog before I would vote for a Republican. Only occasionally do I consider doing so in my own state, where there are usually two or three dead dogs on the ballot and the established Republican has proven himself more or less reasonable and honorable.

But we liberals and moderates do get it: conservative whites will never forgive Carter for being a good man, Clinton for being a better conservative than those in the other party (and a philanderer, for which Democrats will not forgive him either), or Obama for being an intelligent, calm black man, for being elected twice by a majority for President, and for not embarrassing himself, his family, his core objectives, or the nation before the world.

I get it personally: I can read the latest review of Henry Kissinger’s writing and agree with almost all of it. But I cannot easily forgive him for squandering the lives of thousands of young men in pursuit of an ideal of honorable peace that was impracticable based on the principles of world order in his own late-life pronouncements.

* * *

The world is a dangerous place – any moron knows that – but just how dangerous and to what degree in what quarters is up for reasonable disagreement. Anger, theatrics, and lies have little constructive role in deliberations about military action or policy in general. For that reason I never watch Fox News or MSNBC, except for lampoons of both by Colbert.

Today is not 1964 or 1968 – the mirror tells us that. Those who know too much about history (and too little of human psychology) and focus ever backwards are doomed to fear reliving history over and over again. Obama’s administration had no need to fabricate the severed heads of American citizens, or the agony of Syrian and Iraqi minorities, for the nations of the world to see and judge reality for themselves. His military actions in the Middle East might indeed veer into worse involvements for American soldiers, but they could also prevent worse as well. So-called conservatives McCain and Graham squeaked and screamed for deeper involvement and obviously crave more still. Those on the right who think and act as if they possess better military intelligence and foresight than regular folks can whisper their superior notions to one another and tut-tut the bipartisan will of Congress, but if they do not enter the public forum and prove it, they are no more than Walter Mittys of political debate and citizenship. Most do not want war, but most also want to help improve dangerous international situations. It is not just a question of party or mass stupidity.

I say to 2014, I knew 1964 intimately and you are not 1964. You, 2014, are also not 2003. You are something new from something old. That is what both liberalism and conservatism stand for. Defeat, revolution, totalitarianism, and nihilism are the polar opposites.

From Plains to Polestar

For Roberta Jane on her Ninetieth Birthday
(July 5, 2014)

When she was young, a way out West,
her family owned the dairy best;
her aunties smoked and drank and cussed,
then laughed out loud and lightly fussed.

On Okie sod she staked her claim,
then danced into a pilot’s brain.
Gettin’ hitched and movin’ East,
she planted firm where change is least.

Popping babies one and two,
a couple more, tired through and through,
Bobbie Jane, she kept ’em thrivin’,
too many schools for daily drivin’.

‘Twas Bobbie this and Bobbie that,
fetch the hoe and get my hat,
please bake those tasty heads of cat,
feed the dogs and trim the fat.

She took to travelin’ east to west,
but always thought the beach was blessed.
She spoiled the babes and kissed their toes;
she sneaked them sweets and wiped their nose.

Then finally when she hit the chair,
an open book, a stance so fair,
her Bob and clan close arm in arm,
she gazed beyond her rich green farm.

Though far from home of younger years,
she found a hope to calm her fears,
she waited on a life held dear,
she whispered joy that’s ever near.

Memphis Movie Palaces

Click here to read this story by Beverly Cruthirds.

This week’s feature is a story by Beverly Cruthirds about Memphis movie houses in the 1950s and 1960s. It was immediately evocative of three things in particular when I read it: riding the bus; the dark, ornate, labyrinthine interiors of those oft-visited movie theaters; and Mr. Peanut. The tap-tap-tapping on glass by that over-sized mechanical peanut, outfitted in top hat and monocle behind a shop window on Main Street near the Lowe’s State, quickly came to mind. The roasted aroma that enveloped the sidewalk outside the tiny shop is probably why the memory lingers so strongly and connects so readily to thoughts of nights and days out at a movie downtown.

Beverly’s clear and honest descriptions are rich for another reasons as well. A glimpse of the personal experience of another, especially a long-time friend, through his or her own eyes, stirs one’s own memories of doing similar things, adding layers and colors – textures, sounds, and smells – to the storytelling. It magnifies the individual experience knowing that others were thinking and doing the same things at the same time with the same sense of intrigue and relish.

Taking a ride on a city bus would not seem a very exciting venture to a young person today. But for an early teen around the 1960s, it was not only stimulating, it was loaded with import. A bus ticket was no less than inexpensive access to a vast urban environment full of interests and new experiences – a passage to freedom.

There is something deeply satisfying about immersing oneself again and again in the Memphis of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – especially if one was young, healthy, white, and near middle class in that place and time. In the 1960s, when I was ten to twenty years old, Memphis was essentially beginning its leaderless period – in other words, a young person, particularly a white male, was fairly free to fly if he kept his activities within, or under the radar of, the law. Well into the 1970s, I recall thinking Memphis was the perfect size in terms of territory and population and level of adult supervision. It had the intimacy and connectiveness of a town, but with some of the amenities and anonymity of a city. Memphis of that day was mostly comfortable and relatively safe. Kids spent a lot of time out of doors and ventured far afield from home on their own and with buddies.

Beyond history or nostalgia, what I feel and most like about Beverly’s story is this clear composite of the living Memphis of my youth. The story captures a sense of liberation. For the most part, it was not a time of smash hits and fireworks – of great things in the general scheme of mankind. In reality, for most of us, Elvis and other local notables were just other Memphians availing themselves of the easy pickings like everyone else. It was a time of average activities and arrangements that might have been sustainable, were it not for the rush of developments, the righting of unseen wrongs that let us wildly imagine that we could continue in such a way despite hidden realities. As I said, leaders were virtually invisible in Memphis: leading families abandoned the field of practical urbanism. Good families were utterly disinclined and unable to heal the great city in time. Nevertheless, Memphis was once a paradise of sorts in which to come of age.

Click here to read this story by Beverly Cruthirds.

Fathers and Guns

Patricia Waters launched a blog this summer called Green Roots TN. It was originally aimed at a particular environmental concern: fracking on property managed by the University of Tennessee. Very soon she branched out to address a multitude of her interests in the full panoply of her persuasive powers. At the end of her first month as a blogger, she posted a copy of a letter she sent to her local newspaper editor regarding a Tea Party member’s “full editorial page rant against” a friend’s letter to the editor about gun violence. Her letter is well worth the read. Here is a link to her letter. Below the link, I have posted a response to her essay.

http://greenrootstn.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/the-western-and-gun-violence/

Continuity and conservation versus “hell no” and gunpowder – only one side seems interested in asking fundamental questions. Patricia’s letter on guns in our culture is a terrific read. The passions rooted in Tennessee, American history and popular culture, and ancient antecedents drive home the insidiousness and pathetic pettiness of Tea Party misdirection and flippancy.

But Patricia, in her erudite, lucid, principled, and personal argument, does not tell the full story as it relates to true conservatism – what relates to our heritage, our fathers, and our real lives. I know that her story has a deep connection to her father and his love of Western fiction – and his intense patriotism as a World War II B-29 flight engineer (20th Air Force, 313 Bomb Wing, 505 Bomb Group) who served in the Pacific Theater (North Field, Tinian, in the Northern Mariana Islands). Though he had two hunting rifles and a shotgun, he did not possess a functioning handgun until late in life when he was living on his own after his wife passed away.

My father-in-law was a bomber pilot in the Pacific in World War II and had a full rack of rifles and shotguns for his entire adult life. He was a Ross Perot Republican, yet he did not possess a handgun after the war. He would have been appalled at the liberality of gun laws in Tennessee and across the country today. He thought movies were a complete waste of time. For him a real man read and worked to support his family and settled his differences with his arms and hands (not a gun) only if all reasonable alternatives had failed.

My father was a hunter in his youth and a Tennessee lawmaker who thought government very useful in building highways and schools. He never renounced guns, but they were never a visible or important part of family life. He instilled in me a love of the old movies that we shared together and the values they imparted. He modeled respect for learning and guided my initiation into retail politics and civil activism.

The ways of the Tea Party are not just an affront to our fathers and their legacy, they are an affront to conservatism. They reject the civil behavior represented by our fathers and for which they honorably struggled. Tea Party ways are intended to be a rejection of our primary legacy in a cynical ploy to gain political power for a wealthy few.

Tea Party intransigence, though considered a convenient tactic by its exponents and controllers, is not merely ignorant and clownish: it is profoundly immoral. Calculated immorality at an empowered level is intended to shatter reason and order so as to subject others – not to law but to the will of the powerful. Certainly there are large numbers of Tea Party followers who are genuine – and genuinely manipulated by bankrollers who care not a fig for their general welfare. (These same bankrollers are sponsoring advertisements urging young people not to buy health insurance.) Some undoubtedly think they are being funny, just getting a rising out of mainstream people (and many in mainstream too quickly take the bait, pursuing gab instead of effective concerted action). At worst they are the most pernicious kind of evil: the evil that seems normal but perpetrates the kind of scorched-earth policies that Patricia cited as evident in latter-day classic movies. This is perhaps an evil with global dimensions and permanent consequences for life on earth.

There is much tongue-wagging and screaming about the threat of our national government. But like Oliver Goldsmith, if there will be tyrants, I prefer my tyrants to be far away, not in my local and state government. National government has to accommodate a multitude of powers and interests under great scrutiny with significant checks and balances. Local governments are not so naturally constrained.

Do-nothings or evildoers in politics get away with it because liberals and centrists and real conservatives can’t be bothered with stopping nonsense at the polls, at the courthouse, at the legislature, at the TV set, at the checkout counter. Our elusive hope is that some hero will step forward and fix it for us, like in the Westerns, or that in time the jokers will overplay their hands and bring on their own demise. So, it’s high noon and the town’s folk have scattered for cover. But the Gary Cooper and John Wayne types are no where in sight, except for Patricia, who is packing two holsters chock full of legacy and literacy and the skill and guts to use them against lunacy masquerading as law in the clear light of day.

Tractors Are Us

Low Idles

I am the proud owner of a copy of Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 1962, 1967). In this old hardcover book, the author documents the dramatic alterations specific technological innovations wrought on Western culture. Not all of the advances originated in the West, but the adoption, adaptations, and application by the West more than made up for an absence of authorship. It is a very good thing for the West that there were no prevailing patent laws back in the early Middle Ages. Wholesale theft of other people’s innovations was a practiced Western art form. For example, the humble stirrup and lowly heavy plough revolutionized warfare and agriculture. This slight book, obtained decades ago, forced me to look at gadgets and machinery in different ways. Afterward, I saw more than a touch of art in the most rust- and grease-bound objects found in junk yards and the dark corners of old barns. Though I dearly love working with wood and the look of wood finishes, the difficulty of fabricating metal pieces casts an artful aura over the disintegrating remains of once-powerful machines. Delicacy alone means less amid a craving for things brutal upon which one can firmly stand and jump. But delicacy joined with practical effectiveness yields stronger substance still.

The new story in TennesseeSoul has little to do with this preface. Or does it?

Read it here.