Thursday, March 29, 2012


Charles Murray has done it again. With the publication of his latest book, “Coming Apart,” he has set off a firestorm of debate. At the heart of the controversy is his selection of white America as his test subjects. Using graphs, pie charts, data points, and anecdotes, he concludes that white America is coming apart at the seams, with highly educated, highly compensated, professionally successful elite whites at the top of the ladder who have segregated themselves into enclaves and insulated themselves from the concerns of “average” Americans. The two groups are drifting further and further apart, economically and culturally.

Murray calls these enclaves “superzips.” If we put names to them we get the picture. Georgetown is a “superzip.” So is Shaker Heights, Ohio. The most prominent and powerful are the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Most of the criticism of “Coming Apart” is coming from elites singled out in the book. That’s not surprising. As Eric Hoffer once observed, “We do not mind having our hair ruffled, but we will not tolerate any familiarity with the toupee which covers our baldness.”

Murray’s primary problem lies in his use of potent language to describe what his data has shown him. Someone like Robert Reich, speaking from within the elite core, can describe the same phenomenon using the term “the secession of the successful” and find his fellow elites nodding their heads in agreement. But, in spite of the polarizing language, I think Murray may be on to something. We might just be witnessing America “coming apart.”

Does it matter? And, if it does, where do I (we) fit into the scheme of things?

Murray provides a quiz as a means for determining where we fit. There are 25 questions, ranging from whether or not we’ve ever worked on a factory floor, lived in poverty, known an Evangelical Christian, purchased a pickup truck, gone fishing, lived in close proximity to 50 or more people who didn’t graduate from college, whether or not we know who Jimmie Johnson is, or had a friend with whom you could disagree without becoming disagreeable.

The test results can range from zero to 100.

A low final score is an indicator of someone who might be insulated or consider themselves to be part of the “elite” class. A higher score would be an indicator of someone is close to or is a practicing member of the huddled masses.

I took the test. My score was 82, which marks me as being as close to being a Neanderthal as a modern man can be. And, worse yet, I’m proud of it.

Murray was particularly interested in the results of the test. I’m also interested in the reaction people, particularly elites, have had to him.  Some samples follow:

“It's like I said, I'm down with the people and I hate elitists! All my college friends who majored in sociology with me at Berkeley feel the same way! We hate elitists! We are the 99%! It's those Wall Street guys who are elitists! I'm burning over with populist fury and it's too bad the vast majority of Americans are too stupid and fat and superstitious and brainwashed to agree with me.”

“People are becoming more and more trash-like - with little value placed on future generations - they breed quicker than those of us with a plan - it is not elitist - it is a fact of life - open your eyes.”

“I don't see why just because I don't watch mindless TV shows and corporate blockbusters, and because I don't drive a pickup truck like some stupid redneck, and I don't eat at chain restaurants with a bunch of middle-aged fat people, and because I hate ignorant evangelicals and love scientists, and because I chose to live in a neighborhood with creative educated people - why should any of these things make me an elitist!”

In addition to criticism from rank and file elitists, Murray has incurred the wrath of the pantheons of the powerful. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Schmidt observed “But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke.” Some, like Jonathan Chait, haven’t even read the book, but feel wise or educated enough to chime in, claiming that Murray’s work is  - “an attempt to change the subject,” whatever that subject might be.

Murray may be on to something, and it sure is fun to watch the reaction of the elites or the elite wannabees. Seeing it, I’m thinking they’d be better off climbing back into their cocoons. Their very public protests have demonstrated, as St. Paul once said, “Professing themselves wise, they became fools.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Oh how I wish the harbingers of early spring so evident here in Emporia would descend on the international scene. But I fear it’s an empty wish. The skies are filled with wave after wave of man-made storms. The Arab Spring that held such promise a few months ago has morphed into shared military/sectarian rule in Egypt that’s become every bit as repressive as what the people were liberated from. The news from Libya is pretty much the same. This morning’s New York Times had the following dispatch – “There are 250 separate militias in the coastal city of Misurata. From being heroes, those militias have become the most loathed in the country.” The daily reports we’re getting from Syria are heart rending. The streets are littered with corpses. We really don’t know what’s going on with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Israelis are convinced they’re close. Our intelligence officials are telling us we’ve got time.

All of that would be bad enough, but things are getting worse. I got up this morning and read about the weekend incident in Afghanistan. An American soldier is being held in the murder of 16 Afghan civilians. They were murdered while they slept.  Nine of the victims were children; three were women. Some of the bodies had been burned. The solider in custody is a non-commissioned officer. He’s married and has children. He’s a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq. His current tour of duty was his first in Afghanistan. 

In the aftermath of the carnage American officials are saying “all the right things.” “The perpetrator will be brought to justice.” “The actions of one person do not, in any way, reflect the professionalism and courage of the vast majority of Americans serving in Afghanistan.” The statements are true, but the tragic facts remain. Pronouncements from our leaders can’t wash away sixteen corpses.

The Taliban in Afghanistan have vowed revenge. Americans in Afghanistan are once again on a high state of alert.

Is it just me? I feel like the wheels are coming off the wagon.

Not long ago we were being fed rosy scenarios about progress. We were being told to stand fast and remember the mission.

The warning signs have been there for some time. Tragedies like this don’t happen in isolation. They’re part of a larger whole.

A few months ago, Lt. Colonel Daniel Davis reported his findings from a year in Afghanistan to the Armed Forces Journal. In his travels, from Kandahar to Kost to Kunduz and other provinces, he saw, first hand, that events on the ground “bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders.” .His conclusion was brutally honest – “When having to decide whether to continue a war, alter its aims or to close off a campaign that cannot be won at an acceptable price, our senior leaders have an obligation to tell Congress and  the American people the unvarnished truth and let the people decide what course of action to choose.”

Overnight polls taken by the Washington Post in the wake of the murders reveal that about 60% of us want to leave Afghanistan…..NOW!

Will we? I doubt it. There’s a mission to complete.

What’s the mission? I have no idea. And I don’t think our leaders do, either. The mission seems to be whatever they say it is on a given day. One day it’s getting Bin Laden. The next it’s stabilizing the Near East. On really optimistic days it’s about making democracy work in Afghanistan.

One thing is certain. The man who did this will be punished. But what of those who crafted the policies that made something like this inevitable? If one man, whose judgment might have been blurred by three tours of duty in harm’s way, can be punished, what should happen to those who crafted the policies? Did they really believe something like this would never happen when they discussed strategy and tactics in their climate-controlled conference rooms?

There’s plenty of guilt to go around. The punishments, however, are selective. Robert McNamara was the architect of rural pacification and body counts in Vietnam. His post-war punishment? Chairmanship of the World Bank. Henry Kissinger gave us Vietnamization and Realpolitik. Gerald Ford made him Secretary of State.

When it comes to punishment, the guy in the trench always bears the brunt. During the Boer War, Harold “Breaker” Morant was executed for having killed a Boer prisoner. Morant claimed he was following oral orders that had been issued by high command. On the night before he died he penned the following:

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot 'em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity's sake, don’t shoot ‘em!

“Breaker” Morant had to pay for his crime. The mission and high command had to survive.

 And so it is today.

Thursday, March 08, 2012


Howard Beale came along at a time when “The dollar buys a nickel's worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it.”

Who was Howard Beale? He was the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 classic, “Network.” He prophesied at a time when inflation was in double digits and about the only solution the Ford administration could conjure up was those ridiculous “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. They had come on the heels of wage and price controls which had been implemented by Richard Nixon’s economic team as a hedge against inflation. The effect of these political decisions on the buying power of the average American was devastating. Goods that could be purchased for a hundred dollars in 1971 cost over two hundred and three or more by the time Jimmy Carter came along.

He was a blue collar guru who paved the only sensible avenue of protest for the bruised and battered. “Open your windows” he screamed. Tell them “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” As soon as he uttered them, his words became like a medicine to society’s rank and file. In city after city windows opened and their impassioned cries filled the night air. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

There seems to be a madness that goes with the prophetic trade. They wear it like a mantle. Ezekiel laid outside the city gate for over a year, most of it on his left side, followed by a few weeks on his right. He saw wheels spinning within wheels and a valley full of dry bones. Isaiah had the temerity to call the prophets, politicians, and sages of his day “mute dogs.” Jeremiah alternately raged and wept. Howard Beale railed against the system.

Howard Beale was as mad as a March hare and for all I know Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah might have been downright committable. But there was a method to their madness. They said what needed to be said; they said what the disenfranchised intuitively knew was right. They filled a niche few were willing to embrace. While the rest of society, particularly its leaders, floundered in the darkness; the mad prophets exposed the folly to the light of day.

Their rewards weren’t what we normally consider rewards, unless we somehow accept the idea that ridicule and exile, shivering in a cold, dark well, being cut in half, or becoming an assassin’s target is proper compensation for telling the truth. It’s strange, really, the punishments meted out to the mad prophets rarely fit the crime. Dr. King said, “There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” That and talk of brotherhood put him in the gun sight. Brother Solzhenitsyn criticized Stalin’s soviet system and spent eight years in the Gulag. Years later he was stripped of his citizenship and sent packing to the West. He came as a darling of the progressives, but as soon as he criticized our materialism and humanism he became persona non grata and they sent him packing back to the East.

Nowadays the punishments for truth-telling are more civilized. Mad prophets are shunned. They don’t get invitations to the big bashes. You’ll never see them on the guest lists of the VIP events.

Every age and every hamlet needs its mad prophets. Size, either great or small, doesn’t confer immunity from their penetrating words. New York City isn’t immune. The well connected of Foggy Bottom aren’t immune. Media moguls might think they are, but they’re not. Nor are the big, important fish cruising around Emporia’s small pond.

In a small pond like ours the prevailing belief seems to be that our faults (if they can be called that) don’t merit the wrath or the acid tongue. Everything is just fine. We’re doing fine, therefore everyone else is too. But the mad prophets know better. Neglect is neglect. It doesn’t work on a sliding scale that says a little bit of it is okay. A blind eye is a blind eye is a blind eye.

Do we have mad prophets here in Emporia? Yes! But it’s hard to hear them. Their screams only seem silent because they’re coming from the wrong side of town. As the lyric prophets of the 60’s observed, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012


The People’s Petition drive has been successful. Tammy Vopat, the Lyon County Election Officer, has certified the results. We’re grateful for the courtesy and professionalism she and her staff extended to us!

A lot of hard working folks have gone door to door, sought out their neighbors and friends at local watering holes, restaurants, on street corners, and other meeting places around the county. Their hard work has been rewarded.

Almost 1,700, Lyon Countians, 170% of the 992 signatures required, signed the petition in the wake of the County Commissioners’ 2 to 1 vote of a bit over a month ago.  The issue will now go to the voters as a ballot question in the August 7th primary election.

For me the most important task is to thank all of those who have been a part of this petition drive. In my days at FedEx one of the most important tools upper management utilized to say thanks to employees who’d gone “above and beyond” was a note of gratitude. Fred Smith called them “bravo zulus,” a Navy and Marine Corps term meaning “well done.”

With that in mind, I want to say “bravo zulu” to all those who contributed to this undertaking. You’ve done well. You’ve gone above and beyond.

There are a so many people to thank. I’ll be mentioning some names as I proceed, but the list will be far from exhaustive. That said, I’m grateful for the support every person put into this effort.

From the outset, there are two people who’ve been my mentors in the process. Bravo zulu, Steve and Linda Corbin! Your dedication to the petition drive demonstrates how deeply you care about this community and its people.

There’s Eldon Parkman. Bravo zulu, Eldon! You were really under the weather during this time, but you kept plugging away. You’re one of the many who labored in the face of health issues. That’s dedication and determination.

I’m grateful for the hard work Carl Antes and Bob Agler put into dissecting the numbers. Your work is clear, concise, and it reflects the integrity with which you approached the task. Bravo zulu!

Bravo zulu, Darryl Klumpe! Your hard work early on really energized me.

A big bravo zulu to Richard Kennison! You were there with us every step of the way. You’re one of those “ham and eggers” who is just as vital to the welfare of this community as its movers and shakers. You showed clearly how much you care about Emporia and Lyon County.

Bravo zulus to Karen Hartenbower, Dustin Lantow, Shirley Simmons, and others who got tons of signatures in rural areas! Your hard work is greatly appreciated.

And, bravo zulu to the people of Lyon County. You proved that you care about this community!

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. The beauty of a grass roots effort is that it takes a lot of laborers to make the wheels turn. It takes caring people who are willing to translate knocking on doors, walking the county roads or the city streets into signatures, which in turn translates into a collective voice which declares, “We the People.”

I’m not a soothsayer, so I don’t know what happens from this point on. Whatever happens, I believe that this petition drive has been a great success. It’s demonstrated that there are a lot of people who care deeply about this community.

The petition drive is complete, but, our work to build a better community must go on. As I’ve walked my neighborhood, parked myself on downtown streets, or gone to folks unable to get out and about, I’ve seen over and over that there is a lot of work to do. There are tasks beyond ballot issues, as important as this effort has been. I’ve heard it so many times it’s become a refrain of sorts in my soul. “I want someone to listen to me.” “I want someone to understand that what seems so little to them is like a giant boulder on my shoulders.”

Emporia and Lyon County have a long way to go before we can even begin to say we’re the community we all want it to be. It will take political action, of which this petition drive was a small part. But it will take more. Our ministerial alliances need to make this an area of real focus.. There is a harvest of need that must be met and it’s going to take more laborers working in the fields. Out small neighborhoods need to become what Irish statesman Edmund Burke called “little platoons.” We need to work together to improve our neighborhoods and relationships.

Again, bravo zulu to all who contributed to this effort. Let’s use that energy and enthusiasm to continue making this the community we all want it to be!