Sunday, February 16, 2014


Some illusions are shattered more gently than others.

When I was young my musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In my high school days I would often daydream about sitting around a hobo campfire with a cigarette dangling from my mouth and a few down and out drifters sharing the warmth with me. Woody would be there, too, plunking away on that old guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” emblazoned on the soundboard. Even today I can occasionally hear the mournful strains of the old Goebel Reeves’ tune “Hobo’s Lullaby” well up within me:
“So go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin’
That’s a hobo’s lullaby”

Woody died in 1967. By that time I’d already served six years in the Air Force, including tours of duty in Newfoundland and Vietnam. I got out of the Air Force in ’69 and adopted Pete Seeger as my new hero. I was especially fond of his protest music. Every time I heard or saw something about Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, or Richard Nixon, I’d think of Pete’s rendition of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The last words – “The big fool says to push on” – rang so true to me.

Pete Seeger died a few weeks ago. Another of my heroes has met his Maker. Since his passing, there’s been quite a bit written about his Stalinist and socialist ways. It’s as if a lightning bolt of revelation has struck the newsrooms of America. It’s funny. We who were his acolytes knew years ago that Pete was a “red.” And, so was Woody Guthrie. Neither Woody nor Pete hid that fact, except from congressional investigators. They were quite proud of their associations with the “Party.” Woody wrote columns for the Daily Worker and the Soviet press often lionized Pete as a “great hero of the people.”  Pete repented for his love of Stalin, but not for his love of communism. He maintained the party line.  Toward the end of his life, long after a million or so Kulaks had died in Stalin’s purges, he did admit he should have asked to see the gulags. But it was too late. By the time repentance came, the numbers didn’t seem so important. How did Stalin put it? “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is just a statistic.”

We knew, but we didn’t mind. We listened to them and loved them for their sentiments, not their myopic politics. They were roaring socialists, to be sure, but so were most of us in your younger days.  I never met many young people back in the sixties who weren’t ready to abolish the right to private property. We were especially keen on doing away with the other guy’s right to private property, while simultaneously clinging desperately to our own stuff. Our motto was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine.”

Like Pete, we weren’t troubled by our inconsistencies.

As it always does, times change and the seasons of life pass. We grow up.  When we do, the illusions of our youth are supplanted by the healthy kind of disillusionment that comes with adulthood. As Peter, Paul, and Mary once crooned, “painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.”

Woody and Pete are gone, and so are the illusions. My boyhood heroes seem less heroic to me now. I realize that they had feet of clay.

Those illusions were shattered, but they were shattered gently. That’s not always the case. I read a disturbing piece from the New York Times a few days ago. In a February 1st op-ed, Nicholas Kristof gave voice to the question of whether or not it was “appropriate to honor a man who is an artistic giant but also was accused years ago of child molestation.” The man accused is film maker Woody Allen. The accuser is his daughter, Dylan. Allen denies the allegations. Who do we believe? The artistic genius who gave us “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Midnight in Paris?” Or Dylan Farrow, the traumatized victim? What about the presumption of innocence? Does that mean that Dylan’s words carry no weight?

I’ve always loved Woody Allen’s films, but I’m finding another illusion shattered. Did he commit the crime and get away with it like the respected ophthalmologist in “Crimes and Misdemeanors?”  I don’t know. It’s all “she said” – “he said” now. But the thought of someone getting away with such a heinous crime makes my skin crawl.

Having illusions shattered can sometimes be a healthy thing. I rarely dream of life in the hobo camps these days, I don’t covet the other guy’s stuff, and I’ve sworn off Woody Allen films.  I’m disillusioned.  But, I’m also a bit wiser and a lot healthier.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


Holy writ commands that Christian disciples “honor all men.” It also admonishes them to “honor the king.” These are important principles of faith, but I sometimes find them hard to follow. I want to honor and respect our leaders, but I also believe they should honor and respect me and my neighbors in turn. When leaders fail to live up to their obligations to us, we have the right and the duty to speak out.

The Bible is full of times when people of faith have spoken out. John the Baptist called the leaders of his day, “a brood of snakes and vipers.” The prophet Joel railed against Queen Athaliah, declaring that Judah’s society had been “shriveled beneath the clods” under her leadership. Jesus warned those who would listen not to follow leaders who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”

Nancy and I didn’t watch the state of the Union address on the 28th. It was our mini-protest.  If we had wanted to watch kabuki or Peking opera we would have made more appropriate arrangements for the evening. We opened our I-pad instead. We found the episode of Downton Abbey we had missed on Sunday, plugged the I-pad into our TV, and settled in for an hour or so of really worthwhile viewing.

It’s strange, really. We’ve found ourselves preferring the compelling fiction of Downton Abbey over the reality and spectacle of our national politics. Will John and Anna Bates be able to weather their current storm? Will Mrs. Patmore be able to reconcile herself to the new electric mixing bowl? Will Tom Branson, the Irish firebrand, be able to reconcile himself to life as a member of the Crawley clan? Will Mary Crawley grieve forever? And, what new schemes will Thomas Barrow hatch?

It’s true. We really do prefer Downton Abbey to the pointless political theatre that our state of the Union has become. We’re weary of watching senators and congressmen¸ Democrat and Republican, pop up on cue and applaud. They look like the toilet seats Andy Griffith rigged up in “No Time for Sergeants.” It has become really nauseating.

I didn’t see it, but I read there was only one really compelling moment at the event. Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg got the honor of sitting in the First Lady’s box.  It was his reward for 10 deployments (not two or three or four or five) into combat zones. He bears the scars of that service – blindness in his right eye and the loss of the use of his left arm. As soon as the President uttered the words, “Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” the gallery erupted in one minute and forty-four seconds of spontaneous applause.

The irony was palpable. Sergeant Remsburg had earned the applause, and much more from the nation he has served. Unfortunately, the same political leaders (including the President) who had the temerity to send Sergeant Remsburg into harm’s way ten times had also cut his cost of living adjustments by 1%. A seat of honor next to the First Lady, a few minutes of applause, and a cut in benefits to boot. Some rewards for patriotism and service to the nation, eh? Even the fictional Thomas Barrow could never be that crass.

No, I didn’t watch the state of the Union address. I didn’t need to. I know things are bad – really bad. And more and more of us are seeing it. The President’s approval numbers are under water and the public is tuning him out. Things with our Congress are even worse. They’re at the bottom scavenging with the bullheads, channel cats, carp, drug dealers, and ambulance chasing lawyers.

Things are approaching critical mass. The justice department is bullying nuns and other political opponents. Government agencies are spying on us, for our own good they say. Not long ago, Congress passed the “Stock Act,” to create the illusion they’re also willing to obey insider trading laws like everyone else.  Then as soon as the election was over they stripped the law of its power, by “unanimous consent.”  When asked why they had changed the law in the dead of night, they told the press that doing so in the light of day would have posed a “national risk” to the people they served. Things have hit rock bottom when legalized theft under the cloak of darkness is considered service to the people.

People see it all and their mood is shifting. They’re more sad than angry.  They feel there’s little they can do to turn things around. Peggy Noonan put it this way –“it feels more like grief.” I think she’s right. I’m past anger now. I feel a dirge comin’ on.