Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Best Days Behind US?

Many feel that America’s best days are behind us, that our country peaked sometime in the late 20th century and has begun to decline. Maybe most Americans feel that way, I don’t know. Some point to disintegration of family. Others cite economic decline - that we don’t produce much anymore as manufacturing is outsourced. The old Yankee saying that we could “Make the thing, or make the thing that makes the thing,” doesn’t apply anymore. Still others point to welfare dependency and the rise of our big-government nanny state. While liberals still claim children go hungry in the US, the real problem is childhood obesity. The “poor” in America are too fat. Many lament that Americans have become not only fat, but dumb and lazy as well. It used to be so that Americans were too proud to accept hand-outs from government, but now they’re encouraged. Our US Department of Agriculture even recruits people in Mexico to come to the United States and apply for Food Stamps immediately upon arrival!

Others cite parallels to Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” repeating in the country which used to see itself as “the city on a hill.” According to Wikipedia’s description of Gibbon’s thesis, that empire declined because: “Romans had become ‘effeminate,’ unwilling to live a tougher ‘manly’ lifestyle.” It also cited Gibbon’s belief that Christianity’s ascendency after Emperor Constantine weakened the empire because: “Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. [Gibbon] also believed [Christianity’s] comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit.”

While Gibbon cited the rise of Christianity as hurting Rome, still other Americans cite Christianity’s decline causing our decline. If America is indeed declining, then who is ascending to fill the global power vacuum? China? Radical Islam? God help us, but those would be the two leading candidates.

What’s life like in China? Well, it’s still communist. While it’s relaxing its historic demonization of capitalism, it’s maintaining, even increasing its big-government, dissension-hating oppression. For more than a generation, women have been allowed only one child. Get pregnant a second time and government will compel you to kill your child in utero, even if the pregnancy were concealed until eight months along. Criticize the government there and you disappear to a forced, re-education camp for indoctrination in political correctness. There, you might lose a kidney or even a heart to the black market in human organs - especially if you’re a match with a ranking Chinese Communist Party official who needs one.

How about life in a Sharia-compliant country like Iran - or what Egypt and Libya are likely to become? There’s the Iranian “Modesty Police” who arrest women on the street if they show skin or hair. Homosexuals are publicly hanged, and women accused of adultery - even if that “adultery” occurred as they were gang-raped - are publicly stoned to death. Those converting to another religion are “apostates,” and the penalty for that? Death.

Several writers on both left and right agree that American power is on the wane. Liberal former Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Post-American World” in 2008 and conservative National Review’s Mark Steyn wrote “After America” in 2011. Zakaria purports that America’s decline is only relative because other countries like China and India are rising while we stagnate, and only the degree of our dominance is declining. He thinks America will just lumber along sharing global leadership with China and India.Steyn, however, is far more concerned; his subtitle is: “Get Ready for Armageddon.” He sees America becoming sclerotic with big government debt, bureaucracy, and regulation. In this way, he parallels Gibbon’s observation that Rome lost its vitality and so has America. Steyn sees American decline as imminent and precipitous; hence the subtitle. He purports that British decline and European decline were genteel because America alone carried western civilization in the last half of the 20th century as it fended off communism and other forms of civilizational evil. Indeed, “America Alone” (2006) was prequel to “After America” (2011). Steyn sees the twin demons of Chinese-style big government and fascist, theocratic Radical Islam waiting to fill the void after American collapse.I hope both Zakaria and Steyn are mistaken in their forecasts. If they’re not, I’d much prefer Zakaria’s vision for our future, but I’m sorry to say that Steyn makes the stronger case. Can our decline be reversed? We’ll get a clue about that in November.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Creative Networking

Just as I write mostly for myself, my photographs are selfish too - but I don’t publish them, except the occasional few on my weblog. I give them away to whoever asks. Lately, I’m deriving more satisfaction from pictures than from words.

They’re related, though, words and images. Good novelists catalyze images which are, in turn, subjectively modified in readers’ minds. While reading a good story, there’s a movie playing on the back of my forehead that I view with my mind’s eye, so to speak. Conversely, “A picture,” goes the proverb, “is worth a thousand words,” but those words need not be spoken or written, necessarily. The picture might just speak for itself, as words are sometimes insufficient.Every day I expect to see beauty, so I take my camera wherever I go. If it’s not hanging off my shoulder, it’s not far away in my vehicle. Should my pictures capture some imperfect, but reasonable facsimile of a beautiful witness, some appreciation may then be kindled in others viewing it.Encounters with beauty quicken feeling. If nothing troubles me, the serenity helps me to see the beauty I might otherwise have missed if I were melancholic. When I expect beauty, it usually appears and when it does, it magnifies serenity, which helps me see still more beauty. “Beauty” defined is:

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).
As most of my pictures are attempts to capture beauty, there’s feeling associated with each. They begin with feeling, at least, but they don’t always render it. When my photographs fail to catch and arrest even a small portion of the beauty I perceive, I feel a loss. But when they do, it’s wonderful.My favorite poet, Robert Frost, wrote: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat . . .” and I get that. Frost went on: “ . . . a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” My pictures might contain some lovesickness - an immersion into feeling - but with more emphasis on love and less on sickness. I write about woe, but avoid photographing it. Frost went still further, saying: “. . . It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”Beauty, when I encounter it, is transitory. Either it diminishes as light wanes, or I must leave its proximity and see it no more. I can preserve it - though always in attenuated form - with my camera. I carry some of it away. Strawberry preserves don’t taste as good as strawberries, but are good nonetheless. Serenity enables notice of beauty, and the camera enables me to preserve some. It’s all “an effort to find fulfillment,” as Frost described poetic inspiration.

The picture is a medium captured with a camera created by man, but operated by a photographer created by God. Properly executed, the picture captures created beauty, which is then triggered in viewers who are also created. Without the divine, there would be neither beauty nor perception of it. With it, our perception and attempts to capture it bring the fulfillment both Frost and the photographer seek. If we plug into the process, what we capture will resonate in the reader or the viewer, as we are are all components in the network of our Creator.Van Gogh

The more I work with pictures, the more I appreciate good painting. Some painters capture beauty exquisitely. They’re plugged into the network, consciously or not, and their work reflects it. Others don’t - not to my eye at least. I see it in Van Gogh’s work, but not in Picasso’s for example. Much of his work is alien to me and I wondered why, so I researched him. A few of his quotes were enough to understand:

God is really another artist. . . . He has no real style.

I am a communist and my painting is a communist painting.

Picasso

But this confession of his sealed it:

The 'refined', the 'rich', the 'professional do nothing', the 'distiller of quintessence' desire only the peculiar, and sensational, the eccentric, the scandalous in today's art. And I myself, since the advent of cubism, have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied these critics with all the ridiculous ideas that have passed through my head. The less they understood, the more they have admired me! ...Today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone, I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist at all, not in the grand meaning of the word. ...I am only a public clown, a mountebank. I have understood my time and exploited the imbecility, the vanity, the greed of my contemporaries.

No wonder I was repulsed. His were hardly efforts to find fulfillment. I’ll continue trusting my instincts with poets and painters and other image-makers.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Write, Left, Right

My thousandth column was published sometime this year, not sure exactly when. At about 800 words each, it hasn’t amounted to a million yet; that’ll take another four years if I keep it up. It all started with letters to the editor when I felt strongly about something. Then I published a few opinion pieces in a Catholic weekly newspaper, then a few in a big daily which was first to pay me. In 1992, I began publishing every week and lately I’m asking myself why I keep doing it. The money is nice, but it’s not a lot. Other ventures pay much better.

It’s probably because I write about whatever I want. Mostly it’s been politics and world affairs, or social issues, or history - whatever is most on my mind any given week. Sometimes it’s a personal issue, but there are some personal issues about which I’d like to write but cannot do so publicly because it might hurt others, or because I haven’t come to enough resolution on them to make any sense in print. Should they resolve themselves, they’ll likely emerge here.

Various editors have suggested that I write more of this kind of column or that kind, but I’ve resisted, and I guess that answers my question. I only write what I feel like writing, and I’m likely to continue as long as I can do that.
Early left-winger days

When I started in the mid-to-late 1980s, I was still pretty liberal. If I’d stayed that way, I would likely have gotten bigger checks because most big dailies are liberal, but I changed. I was moving right while New England was moving left. Readership diminished. I’m still changing, and don’t expect to stop until I stop breathing.
Ira Rubenzahl, one of the Alinskyites I worked with in the 70s today.

An old friend from Massachusetts happened upon my blog last year and was shocked that I’m so conservative now. We both worked a couple of years with Saul Alinsky, red diaper baby “community organizers” in the early ‘70s. He’s still a proud leftist and loyal Democrat. He didn’t ask me why I’d changed, and I didn’t ask him why he hasn’t. Perhaps we’ll discuss it someday.
Alan Solomont, another of the Alinskyites I worked with in the 70s today.

Until fairly recently, I felt ashamed of my left-wing activities in those days, but I realize now they were essential to constructing my world view of today, especially now that my country is being run by the kinds of people I worked with then. It’s not just the president and secretary of state, it’s thousands of bureaucrats, judges, and other functionaries appointed over the years. I understand how they think.
Liberal, anti-nuclear-activist days

To sum up a few of the differences between them and me within an 800-word, op-ed column, generalizations are necessary, so here goes:

They’re nihilists. I’m a theist. They believe the universe happened by itself. And humans? A few chemicals mixed together in a primordial sea and became a cell which reproduced and evolved into us. There’s no meaning, so don’t waste time looking for any. The laws of physics are absolute and nothing else exists. I believe God created it all and He is absolute. Laws of physics are secondary instruments of His spiritual will.

They’re relativists. I’m not. I believe in objective truth, but since I’m as flawed as every other human, I perceive it imperfectly.

They’re utopian. I’m not. There can be no perfect society this side of heaven. My former Alinsky associates think they can manifest utopia with big government. Mine is a tragic view. That is, we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life. The best we can expect is episodes. As government grows, those episodes become fewer and farther between.

They’re atheistic, or, at best, agnostic. I’m Christian. More so, I’m a Catholic Christian. My church is the oldest, continually-functioning institution on earth, but it’s imperfect too because it’s comprised of flawed humans like me.The recent conservative me at CPAC with Erik Erickson of Redstate.com

Both Communism and Nazism have been manifestations of their thinking. That the Catholic Church and capitalism were enemies of both is not coincidental. The 20th century was dominated by the struggle between and among these competing belief systems. Hundreds of millions died and that struggle continues, smoldering, into the 21st. Neither Communism nor Nazism are dead. Both had been in remission, but are re-emerging in parts of the body politic with ubiquitous application if Alinskyite euphemism.

Even when I was a leftist, however, I was pro-life, although today that would be considered oxymoronic. I always knew abortion kills innocent human beings. Abortion epitomizes the leftist, nihilist, atheist, utopian mindset. Protecting it is the primary objective of today’s Democrat Party. Redistribution of wealth and income is second. Big government is their vehicle for both. The November election will be pivotal to the continuing struggle.Writing this column - putting ideas into logical sequences of sentences and paragraphs each week - helps me work all this out. I do it more for myself than for you, my readers.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dogs Instead of Children

As a kid, I remember driving to the beach on hot summer nights in July and August after my father came home from work. There wasn’t a lot of time before the sun went down and mosquitoes came out, but neighborhood kids would pile out of the family car (most had only one back then), drop their towels, and run to the water. I was reminded of this recently as I’ve been spending a few hot, summer evenings at a local beach in South Portland, Maine after working all day fixing up the house my wife and I recently purchased as an investment. A few young parents would bring their children down in the late afternoon and then take them home again for supper.

More numerous, however, were people who brought their dogs. They would have been young parents two generations ago but now they’re pet owners. Arriving at the edge of the sand, they’d let their dogs off leash and they’d run to the water’s edge, then back to their owners. Soon, it became evident how greatly dogs outnumbered children.

The children seemed to know each other as did the dogs; it was a neighborhood beach. They were all fairly well-behaved and had a good time, but I couldn’t help thinking about what a major cultural shift I was witnessing.

Have you noticed how many young couples are getting dogs instead of having children? They’re putting off babies, or they’ve decided they don’t want children at all. Children are a lot of work - a lot of commitment. They’re expensive. They live longer than dogs too, and they demand much more time and attention. They require self-sacrifice. But what’s to become of us all if this trend continues?I was one of eight children. That’s why they call mine the Baby Boom Generation. My wife and I had four children, but we have only four grandchildren so far. There might be one or two more to come along, but our grown children are like others of their generation: they have only one or two children - or none. They have dogs instead. Writing about the economic implications of this, columnist Mark Steyn uses Greece, Europe’s economic basket case, where their fertility rate is way below replacement level, as an example: “100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren,” he points out. “i.e., the family tree is upside down.”

Why is this happening? Talking to other aging baby boomers the conversation inevitably turns to family and I hear a similar lament. Fellow boomers are taking care of their grown children’s dogs instead of the grandchildren they’d rather care for but don’t have. When I’ve asked them why their children are not having children, I hear: They cannot afford them. They want to buy property instead. They want to travel. They don’t want to stretch out their bodies in pregnancy. They want to concentrate on their careers. They’re afraid of what is happening in the world and don’t want to bring children into it. They think the world is over-populated and don’t want to add to it. They think having children will stress the environment. They think there won’t be enough food for everyone,” et cetera, et cetera.

Fewer of the people who can afford to have children are having them, while more of the people who cannot afford them are. Government has subsidized generations of low-income, single women who bear children and yet we wonder why that demographic increases. In 1950, the rate was 2% of all births among white women and 17% among black women. During my lifetime, the rate has increased to 29% among white women and 73% among blacks! Since 1973, there have been more than 45 million abortions in the United States alone. If those babies were allowed to be born, would the above numbers be even worse? I suspect they would.So the trend is that married couples are having fewer children while low-income, single women are having more. As a teacher between 1975 and 2011, I witnessed first-hand the effects this demographic trend has had on public education and it hasn’t been good. What are the effects on American culture?

You already know, don’t you.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

So it’s a tax law, huh? If it were a law forcing people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, it wouldn’t be constitutional, but if it’s a tax law, it is constitutional. But Obamacare didn’t pass as a tax bill. Democrats in Congress who passed it (not a single Republican voted for it) insisted it wasn’t a tax bill. It was signed by a Democrat president who insisted it wasn’t a tax bill. It never would have passed if it were a tax bill, so they didn’t call it that. Rather, they called it “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” though few call it that anymore. Everyone calls it Obamacare.So the Roberts Court should have declared it unconstitutional and sent it back to the Congress, right? But they didn’t do that. Instead, Roberts re-wrote Obamacare as a tax law and declared it constitutional! He did this with the four liberal justices who just wanted to move it along no matter how that was achieved. Even Justice Flipflopper - I mean Kennedy - was flabbergasted. Talk about legislating from the bench! Even my middle-school civics students knew it’s the Congress that writes laws, not the Supreme Court.
And now government can tax us for what we don’t do? How is that possible? To tax our income, they had to pass the 16th Amendment back in 1913. Why isn’t the amendment process required this time?

Two more problems: the Constitution requires that tax bills originate in the House of Representatives, and it doesn’t give the Supreme Court power to write law or re-write law. Obamacare originated in the Senate, then was re-written in the Supreme Court.Article I empowers a legislative branch to write law. Article II empowers an executive branch to carry out the legislation. Article III empowers a judicial branch to ensure the Constitution is adhered to. Roberts overstepped. He’s not empowered to rewrite legislation. So, is the United States a constitutional republic or isn’t it? Are we governed under the rule of law or aren’t we?There are reports from both left and right that Roberts switched his vote at the last because he was worried about what media and Democrat criticism would do to the image of his court and to his legacy. If those reports are true, we’re screwed. We have a chief justice whose decisions are not based on the Constitution. For as long as he is the fifth vote on vital constitutional issues, we will not be a constitutional republic. If government can do this, is there anything they cannot do?Shrewd Democrats structured this penalty bill, I mean tax bill, I mean “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” so as to give people benefits first and penalties/taxes years later - so that makes it difficult to repeal। When has government ever taken away an entitlement? I cannot point to a single instance in our history, and I can see what’s happening in Europe when “austerity” measures are proposed which would cut entitlements there। No wonder politicians fear this, but that doesn’t stop them from promising more and more entitlements like Obamacare which they know we cannot afford to deliver for very long before we go bankrupt. Stockton, California just went belly-up and it looks like the whole state will soon follow. Then other states. Then . . . who knows?

It may be that in the wake of what Roberts did, the Tea Party will reinvigorate voters and elect a Republican Senate, a Republican president, and retain a Republican House. If all that happens, they may introduce a repeal. It’s a long shot that it’ll go all the way through the process though. It’s more likely that government takeover of health care will continue.

And what would that look like? I have a pretty good idea. A few years ago, I was stopped every morning for ten days by a woman with one of those turn-around, stop/slow signs on Route 5 here in Lovell. I’d wait in a line of cars until she turned the sign. Then I’d proceed slowly past several orange, state trucks and a dozen or so men standing around talking while one of them occasionally operated a machine that was cleaning out the drainage ditch beside the highway. During two of those days, I watched a small, private, local business paving a driveway while I waited. It was a frenzy of activity as a few of my former students laid, graded, and packed a gravel base the first day - then put down a layer of pavement the second day. It looked great and it still does. The state government crew took almost two weeks on a job that should have taken a day - with half the “workers” and equipment.What’s going to happen to our small, private hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, etc. when the federal government takes them over? You already know, don’t you? Longer delays, increased costs, and poorer service. “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”? Talk about a misnomer.

Emerging from the Constitutional Convention back in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government the Founding Fathers created. His reply was: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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