Thursday, August 29, 2013


I’ve heard that Newfoundland has the worst roads and the nicest people on the planet. Like so many things I’ve heard it’s only half true. Anyone who’s ever driven on New York’s Major Deegan Expressway or taken a tooth-rattling jitney ride down into Utah’s Monument Valley knows this. But, while she doesn’t have the worst roads, Newfoundland can lay legitimate claim to being the home of the world’s nicest people. I speak from experience, with a bit of personal bias mixed in. My mother was born in Newfoundland, which means I have maritime blood coursing through my veins.
What makes Newfoundlanders so nice? I think it’s the weather. A hundred and seventy some odd inches of annual snowfall and 102 days of blowing snow have mellowed them. Newfoundlanders take life in its stride.
I had the good fortune to be stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Base in Newfoundland from 1964 to 1965. The assignment gave me the opportunity to explore my DNA in depth. I spent as much of my off duty time as possible finding my way to McIvers Cove to visit my mother’s family. I met them all and they were wonderful, but there was one uncle who became very special to me. His given name was Fiander (pronounced Fye – ander), but everyone called him Fye.
I’ll never forget the morning I first met him. I had just finished breakfast at my Uncle Billy and Aunt Mabel’s. “Oooohhhh, Philip,” Mabel exclaimed. “Your Uncle Fye is a comin’ down the road to see ya.’ He ‘pears to be full of excitement.” I looked out the window and there he was. He was tall and lanky. His gait was like a hippity-hop. In a strange way it reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s alter-ego, the Little Tramp. Fye was tall, well over six feet, which made the gait even more amusing to watch. He was wearing a burgundy cardigan that he’d buttoned up unevenly. His head was crowned with a well weathered golf cap. I heard him squeal with delight as he swung the door open. “Is this truly our Susie’s boy?” Once he was assured that I was he hugged me for what seemed like hours.
Three day passes and leaves from Harmon came and went and so did my time in McIvers. Every time I was there Fye would take me under his wing and we’d flit from place to place around the cove, drinking tea and gathering gossip like a couple of bachelor gadabouts. I didn’t notice till my third visit that Fye only had one tooth, a lower right incisor. By the time of my sixth visit I’d read Richard Brautigan’s “A Confederate General from Big Sur.” One of Brautigan’s characters was an off-center relic named Lee Mellon, who, depending on the day might have one tooth, or three. The teeth seemed to magically appear or disappear. From that point on I always found some discreet way to stare at Fye to see what was going on. I’ve never known whether it was my imagination or some sort of counter culture magic, but Fye’s tooth seemed to move like Lee Mellon’s. One visit it might be an incisor; the next it might be a canine.
I developed a deep bond of affection for Fye. About two months before I shipped out for Vietnam I spent a night in his cabin. We talked a lot about the bonds of family. And, there was small talk. I noticed a twelve volt battery sitting on the floor next to his bed. When I asked him what it was for he said that he had plans to get a TV, a hand crank, and a wife so that he could wire the battery to the TV and have his wife turn the crank to generate “lectricty” while he watched the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I couldn’t tell whether or not he was serious, although I did detect the hint of mischief in his eyes.
I thought often of Fye while I was in Vietnam. I sometimes wondered whether or not he was addled. I took a while, but I came to see that he was far from being addled. Fye just took the world in its stride. He didn’t need much to make him happy. 
Looking back on it now, I see that those days with Fye were the launching point in my quest for faith and belief. The warm memories of his simple ways slowly melted away the despair gnawing on me.  I’ll always be grateful to Fye for that.
I’ll see him again someday, dressed in that burgundy cardigan and golf cap. Maybe he’ll even have a full head of pearly whites, although there’s a part of me that’s hoping that I’ll get to see whether that incisor I saw last has once more magically become a canine.

Thursday, August 01, 2013


“Well, you’re on your own, you always were
In a land of wolves and thieves
Don’t put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes…
If you want somebody you can trust, trust yourself.”

-       Bob Dylan – “Trust Yourself” (1985)

In any civil society trust should be the coin of the realm. Without interpersonal trust our families and communities can easily wither and decay. Without institutional trust, particularly at the government level, society breaks apart at its seams, piece by piece. When trust is in short supply, so is justice. And, as it goes with justice, so it goes with truth. As the prophet said, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets.” Objective standards become obsolete. They’re replaced by government decrees, executive orders, or outbursts of civil rage and popular demands for retribution. It’s not far from that point till it all becomes every man for himself.
This is the course our leaders have chosen.
I’ve been trying my best to speak out about the dangers of the surveillance state for months. In some circles that marks me as the village idiot.  That’s alright. I’ll keep plugging away.
I thought a month or so ago I’d seen it all, but I was wrong, as evidenced by the Obama administration’s latest attempt to plug leaks and “keep us safe and secure.” On July 9th, McClatchy News Service revealed that the executive branch rolled out a program called the “Insider Threat Program.” The long and short of the President’s order is for federal employees to spy on their fellow employees¸ looking for potential security threats. Some civil libertarians have dubbed the executive order “Barack Obama’s national neighborhood watch program.”
This program, along with the massive data gathering operations, prosecutions of whistle blowers, I.R.S. targeting operations that now appear to reach to the highest levels, and executive branch programs that profile American citizens who have hosted international students or have travelled internationally, has made being an American citizen an increasingly risky proposition.
I don’t consider myself to be a political libertarian, but as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser) I’ve become increasingly libertarian. How did this happen to someone who invariably tears up when he hears “God Bless America?” It all boils down to the word trust.
A few years ago I became acquainted with the work of economist Robert Higgs. I read his “Crisis and Leviathan” and found it fascinating. I don’t always agree with him, but I have always found him to be thought provoking. An extended excerpt from a recent essay he did on the surveillance state follows. I’m including it because I believe what Professor Higgs says is really important:
“How many individuals cannot be blackmailed by someone who knows everything about their personal affairs, much less by someone who also controls enormous surveillance agencies, police forces, and the courts? With the information now in their hands, state authorities will be well-nigh certain to augment their powers by using this information to deter or cripple political opponents, to coerce unwilling cooperation (including false testimony) by others, and to silence anyone who might be tempted to criticize or expose their misfeasance and malfeasance. To suppose that American state officials will not act in these ways is naïve in the extreme. These politicians are not angels; on the contrary. And their newly acquired treasure trove of information places a resource of heretofore unimagined power in their hands. To trust that they will not massively abuse their control over this resource flies in the face of everything we know about the kind of people they are.”
I have to admit that I was one of those naïve people. I just didn’t think when I first started digging into this sordid mess that our government could do the sorts of things they’re doing to us now. But, the more I dug, the more angry and libertarian I became.
Misplaced trust in any human institution can be foolhardy. As Bildad told Job, “What they trust in is fragile; what they rely on is a spider’s web. They lean on the web, but it gives way.  They cling to it¸ but it does not hold.”
As I see it, there are only two ways out of this mess. First, we need to scream bloody murder. We need more village idiots! For folks in these parts it means that Jerry Moran and Tim Huelskamp are only a phone call or an angry e-mail away. It means we need to flood the President’s in box or his voicemail with our expressions of outrage. Second, we need to heed the poet’s words. We need to trust ourselves Trusting in our government is misplaced. It’s become everything it shouldn’t be. It has become a fool’s errand.