Monday, October 23, 2006

Columns and articles that I found interesting recently.

Victor Davis Hanson, "The Wonders of Hindsight," tells us to suck it up and finish the job. A useful antidote to the "woe is me" stuff coming from all corners about the Iraq war over the last few weeks.

Mark Steyn, "Fear of too many babies is hard to bear," celebrates the birth of the 300 millionth living American the other day. His concluding graph brings this lovely line of truth: "The reality is that in a Western world ever more wizened and barren the 300 millionth American is the most basic example of American exceptionalism."

In Monday's Bleat, James Lileks talked to his dad, did an internet search, and found an incredible story about his great-grandfather's night outside the perimeter on Hoth.

David Brooks, "Where the Right Went Wrong," is a review of Andrew Sullivan's new book on conservatism. More than just a reminder of what we all miss now that the Times hides Brooks behind their noxious firewall, Brooks has once again tapped into a fundamental truth about Americans:

As for Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt, I’m sympathetic. I know only two self-confessed Oakeshottians in Washington — Sullivan and me. And yet Oakeshott’s modesty can never be the main strain in one’s thinking, though it should always be the warning voice in the back of your mind.

Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic.

Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.

Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed. In many cases, the people making those calls were religious leaders. From Jonathan Edwards to the abolitionists to the civil rights leaders to the people fighting AIDS and genocide in Africa today, religiously motivated people have been active in public life. They have been, in their certainty and their willingness to apply divine truths, fundamentalists — if we want to use Sullivan’s categories. You take those people out of American politics and you don’t have a country left.
And finally, Joseph Epstein, "Ugly, Thorny Things," about how facts have outpaced ideas in the modern world.

The point should look very familiar to historians who constantly hear the lament that we need more big idea synthetic narrative accounts and then watch big idea synthetic narrative accounts get torn apart by specialists with all the facts and none of the perspective.

Ideas matter. Big ideas matter bigger. The big idea that is America matters biggest of all. Read these five articles together and see what that means. Read on to see what it means to me.

Gather up everyone. This past weekend we had our annual Chilifest--an event of stupendous proportions, frequented by all the most important players, featuring the greatest colllection of chili and people ever gathered in my garage.

Most of the neighborhood turned out, despite the grinding poverty caused by rising housing costs in the midwest. Carlos from across the street--he's of Puerto Rican descent and a guard at the federal prison--contributed a couple of eight foot tables. Dave and Kelly are also from across the street, but they are from Texas (A&M fans) and he's a student at the Command and General Staff College and she's a social worker. They brought an amazing bacon cheese cornbread and these little bite sized orange blossum muffins. Jim and Kelli (surveyor and elementary school teacher), Kansas natives who live kind of next door to us, brought sausages and a pumpkin roll. Eric does development for Baker University and Lisa is a physician and they came up from the Overland Park area with their infant son and brought Eric's venison chili and sweet potatoe pie. Robin, an editor and master map maker from my work, brought cinnamon rolls. About thirty-five people in all showed up, coming from near and far, bringing various contributions to the party.

I made four pots of chili, and we borrowed a few crock pots from the neighbors to set up a serving table in the garage. Saturday was cold and blustery all day--perfect for chili. Everyone ate their fill while the kids ran around and climbed on the as yet unpacked boxes of books in our someday library. The Kansas natives drank beer and discussed the collapse of the Jayhawks at the hands of lowly Baylor and wondered aloud when basketball season started. I talked fantasy football with our real estate agent's husband, who also happens to be the local fire chief.

Later, when all but Dave and Kelly had left, we half cleaned up and sat around drinking beer and playing dominoes, while their youngest daughter and our oldest boy watched Chicken Little on the TV downstairs. My mom called to see how everything went, and my wife went out to the garage to talk to her on the phone. The wife called us out to the garage, and lo and behold we discovered that a possum, roughly the size of a large round of pumpernickel, was sitting on top of a table in the middle of Kelly's cast iron skillet of cornbread, munching away. Kelly, who is from Texas but has family in Arkansas, announced that she was from the South, and proceeded to try to push the critter off the skillet with a paper plate. The possum, apparently in some sort of bacon-chees-cornbread catatonic state, just looked at her. I grabbed a broom and tried smacking the thing on the ass to get it off the table, but, having found the motherload, it wouldn't budge, and Kelly declared there was no need to hurt the rodent, "cause it wasn't hissing or anything." (She also informed us and it that if it was hissing, she would have put it in a pot and made a stew out of it.) So Kelly grabs the handle of the skillet, flips it over, and starts shaking it, all while the possum is hanging on to its precious corn bread for dear life. Finally, it let go and waddled out of the garage--and then most likely passed out in my lawn like grandpa on the couch at Thanksgiving. We wondered if any of the corn bread could be saved, but the hair and possum droppings were too much for even the Southerner, and we had to sacrifice the rest of the pan to the corn bread gods.

After braving the native fauna, and after closing the garage door, we went back to the beer and dominoes. I lost (because my wife cheats), we put the boy down (well after his bedtime), the neighbors headed home (to put down their own delirious child), and the wife and I hit the sack (to settle into our own chili-cornbread comas). A good day.

In the meantime, the people who used to gather at our Chilifests were once again circled around the pit, or rather pits, as in barbeque pits, at the Ohio Smoked Meat Festival and Competition down in Nelsonville, Ohio. Our friend Robert sent a picture, and all looked well.

We should have taken more pictures at the Chilifest, especially of that damn possum, but our digital camera has finally called "uncle." Not that I'm mad at it, it did fine work for nearly seven years. It even had the charming feature of storing the pictures on 3.5 inch disks--useful once, long ago, when USB ports were still a mysterious portal requiring 750 different drivers and an R2 unit to make them work. Now they don't even put 3.5 inch drives on new computers unless by request, and the kids think the disks are some sort of cheap coaster designed to fit in the front pockets of the flannel shirts of 1990s grungeheads. Damn whippersnappers, with their XBox12s and video IPods and automated parallel parking Lexuses. They don't know how tough we had it back in the day.

So sorry, no possum. But the other picture we didn't take was one of everyone together--that fine tradition of gathering friends at an occasion to remember what you did and who was there. Think of all those pictures, from team photos and family gatherings to parties with friends and posing in front of landmarks on vacation. In my work I've noticed how often our troops gather to take photos to commemorate an operation or campaign. I have many such pictures saved in my computer--pictures full of faces with names known only to those who were there. But that's the point: for those who were there to remember the faces and names and all the times they gathered with friends and family, wherever they might be, on good days and bad.

The Chilifest 2006 has no such picture, but we'll find other ways to remember that good day. And we'll look forward, ever forward, to the next one.

Oh yeah, one more thing. He went back one more time to gorge himself on the free meat (and miss the Chilifest), but one of the friends from Ohio is moving out here to Kansas as of, well, later today.

That's right, as part of my evil plan to move everyone I know to Kansas so we can build a Corleone-esque compound from which to rule the state (or at least eat lots of barbeque), our friend Ren is moving to town to work with the team at the Combat Studies Institute. We couldn't be more excited.

And of course I have a better picture of Ren, but zooming in a putting a circle around his face has a "Hitler in Munich"...

...or "John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln's Second Inaugural"...

...kind of feel. Not that Ren is Hitler or Booth.

Or is he? After all, it is my evil plan.


J.D. said...

Aaarrggh! Pains of nostalgia! Memories of chili and meat flooding my mind, filling mouth with saliva...Wanting more beer....

Oh the humanity....God help me in this Him-forsaken chili / bbq wasteland.

Stephen said...

What about posting your favorite chili recipe?