All posts by johnwagner

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of: 1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru 2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

BETO: Gold or Just Glitter?

I first learned about Beto O’Rourke last fall, when I volunteered in San Antonio with an immigration-rights agency, working on the family separation crisis. The lawyers and other staff at the agency were not naive, idealistic college students but principled, dedicated even hardened, legal fighters, used to fighting many tough battles in the trenches. My thought on meeting them, who were universally welcoming, was that they would be put off by any politician who merely put on a good show but did not really have serious ideas and abilities. I was surprised to see the many staff there with Beto decals and decided to check him out. On doing so, my first impression was that he was a handsome (almost a Robert Kennedy look-alike), showy, politician for the new generation (NextGen) who did not seem to put forward many detailed ideas. Just the kind of guy my new legal friends probably wouldn’t support, I thought. Yet in talking with them, I discovered there was much more to Beto.

Since reaching voting age, I’ve always rejected the idea that I must choose the lesser of two evils. Instead, I’ve gone for many hopeless causes like Gene McCarthy (the first Gene McCarthy, pre his becoming a goofy Reaganite), George McGovern (St. George! A vote I’ll never regret), Fred Harris, pre-scandal John Edwards, John Anderson, Ralph Nader (an easy vote in California since it was clear Hillary would win here easily) and Bernie Sanders. Indeed, I’ve taken pride in my hopeless-romantic stance. Even years after his assassination, I’ve hated RFK’s tactics in letting Gene McCarthy take the heat for being anti-war, and then, when it became clear that millions of Americans were also against the Vietnam war, jumping into the election with his star power, effectively killing any hopes for Clean Gene.

So now we have Beto, whom some commentators say is essentially a young Biden, with popularity but mere centrism as opposed to a real progressive message. They say what he brings to the table may be his ability to sell the message (or part of the message), of progressives like Sanders, Warren, Harris (Kamala this time, not Fred), and Booker rather than proposing dramatic initiatives of his own.

Could be. But this time, if that will work to defeat Trump, that’s enough for me. I need not (I doubt I could) go through the litany of Trump’s offenses against our country, against us as citizens, against truth and ethics, against justice, and against common sense and fairness. I still don’t understand how he remains at approximately 35-45 percent popularity no matter what. Yes, apparently our autocrat in chief, seemingly devoted to horrific autocratic murderers, really could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in broad daylight and get away with it. If it takes a handsome face who might (or might not!) implement many of the progressive ideas in the air at this vital moment to get rid of Trump, that’s good enough for me. We need the best person to take down Trump. Period.

Maybe I’m being taken in but I find Beto inspirational and charismatic, with the ability to bring enough Trump voters across the line. And his lack of experience? While his positions are vague, they are clearly progressive to some extent. Undoubtedly, he will get good experts on all the important issues and flesh out his positions as the campaigns go forward. Already, he has made it clear he’s against the death penalty which no major Dem candidates have announced before.

And don’t forget: a good indicator of Beto’s inclinations is what he did during the House gun control debate after the Parkland shootings. The Republicans attempted to shut down the hearings but the Democrats held a sit-in. (Pretty unusual, just doing that.) The Republicans shut off the cable coverage but Beto got his staff to rig up a system so they could livestream the sit-in. Now what other Dem candidate would/could do that?

Trump has already started attacking Beto, calling him “crazy” for his hand gestures. Trump? Trump, of the nonsensical hand gestures (the “L” with his thumb and first finger, the “O” as almost in OK, and others)—all used without any apparent meaning? It’s as though some debate coach told him to use gestures, any gestures. Sure, Beto is enthusiastic. He puts his whole body, including his hands, into what he’s saying. Now he may moderate that but overall I think people will see that as a good thing.

Finally, Beto is a white male and many Dems assume there is an obligation to nominate a woman and or a person of color. But is there? Undoubtedly, he will name as his Veep candidate a woman or person of color. Along with filling many of the Cabinet positions with same, perhaps current opponents for the nomination. Maybe it takes this particular white male to “unify” the party to get women and people of color to unprecedented numbers.

So, for the moment, count me in.

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH GEORGE H. W. BUSH’S “CIVILITY”

Praise For the Departed

During the recent ceremonies honoring the late President George H. W. Bush, we have heard much about his “civility.” But let us not speak falsely now. The hour for our country is getting too late for ordinary encomiums. To be sure, Bush 41 was a patrician who was brought up to believe in “noblesse oblige,” the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth. The eulogies tell us he did try to speak to the ordinary Jane or Joe when he could. But he was also willing to rush to war and to stir up the racist and vile instincts of many Americans when he thought doing so would help him win a campaign. In many ways, he (probably mostly Karl Rove, but H.W. approved) created the template, on a much lesser scale, for the offensive Trump tactics we have been treated to and continue to see.

Unjustified Rush to an Unjustified War

H.W.’s war drum-beating worked. In January 1991, I began a month-long cross-country drive as Bush rushed us into the first Iraq war. I took back roads and everywhere saw yellow ribbons tied to trees: meaning, “support our troops.” Pray that they might live but also pray that they might kill more Iraqis, including many civilians. Only at the end of my trip did I hear, at a Catholic mass, one of the most powerful and incisive sermons I have ever heard—against his war but especially against his rush to war. On the same day, hundreds of prominent clergy signed a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring the war evil and unjustified.

Many experts have said, then and now, Bush rushed into the war for base reasons. To show he wasn’t a “wimp.” For fear of challenging the newly emerging strong Republican right wing. To distract from an emerging investigation of his son George W’s questionable insider stock sale just before the stock tanked. And to distract from then Vice President Dick Cheney’s role at Halliburton and more. Even his fawning biographer and eulogist, John Meacham, reminded us a few years ago Bush said he would have gone to war even if Congress didn’t authorize it–and if he got impeached, so be it. The eulogists praised his love of his daughter who died at the age of three but did Bush ever speak of the thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties, many of whom would have been little girls the same age? Did he ever apologize?

Maybe the first iraq war would have been necessary, after we had tried stronger sanctions. But it wasn’t necessary then.

Racism

H.W. was a racist. The truth must be told. He approved the now almost universally condemned racist “Willie Horton ad”, certainly a model for Trump’s dog-whistle politics.Also, perhaps, a model for his son George W’s racist attack on John McCain for allegedly having fathered an “N-word” illegitimate daughter. (Actually, the girl was his adopted daughter from Bangladesh and McCain proudly took her campaigning with him.)

There is a subtle suggestion that Bush was not proud of the Willie Horton ad and should be given a pass for it. But did he ever apologize for it?

Go Easy With Talk of Civility

George H.W. Bush was not the worst of our presidents. Certainly he was nice to family, employees, supporters, and, at times, to political opponents or journalists, usually after he had retired and was out of the fray. But let’s go easy on all this talk of civility.

KAVANAUGH AND AIDA

I saw the opera Aida recently at a theater offering Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. Seeing it on the same day that Kavanaugh was hurriedly being sworn in, I couldn’t help but compare the two situations.

In Aida, the Egyptian authorities will condemn Radames, the leader of the Egyptian Army, for betraying his country. Radames loves Aida, now a slave in Egypt but secretly the daughter of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. Aida loves Radames but suddenly Amonasro turns up. He demands Aida find out from Radames which route the Egyptian Army will take in its next attack on Ethiopia. (The story gets fuzzy here because Radames and his army have already defeated Ethiopia and have just held a tremendous victory parade, with live horses and all sorts of acrobats and beautiful dancers onstage, but never mind.) Aida meets Radames, with Amonasro hidden nearby, and pressures Radames for the route. Radames tells her and Amonasro overhears. The Egyptian officials then capture and condemn Radames. (We don’t know what happens between the two armies, that’s not the issue in the opera.)

Most summaries of Aida simply say Radames “betrayed” Egypt. Treason must be an intentional act. I don’t think Radames intentionally revealed the army’s plans to Amonasro. He and Aida were talking of fleeing Egypt to find true happiness in the desert. They needed to escape Aida’s rival, Amneris, the Egyptian queen, who would be sure to track them down. (I’m summarizing tremendously and overlooking many of the beautifully sung pro’s and con’s and what-shall-we-do’s. Opera gets complicated.) Aida presses Radames for a quiet place they can escape to and a route that will avoid the Egyptian soldiers. Radames says, well our route to attack the Ethiopians will be deserted for a day until our army advances; you and I could use that route to look for a desert hideaway. Aida knows her father is listening in but Radames doesn’t and has no idea he has just given his plans to the enemy. So he is innocent of treason I think. But loose lips do sink ships and Radames has just revealed the all-important plans to the Ethiopians, whether he intended to or not.

Aida and Radames will sing most beautifully until their tragic ending but that is not our focus here. The question for me is: how does all this relate to what we just saw in the Kavanaugh hearing and the farcically narrow re-investigation? (Trump to the media: the FBI can investigate anything it wants; Trump to the FBI: you can only talk to four people.)

I started by thinking maybe Kavanaugh was Radames and was pressured by his desires for confirmation to betray . . . what, exactly? No, that didn’t work.

Although I was engrossed in the opera (“Don’t tell her the route, Radames!”), the Kavanaugh situation just wouldn’t go away. It somehow seemed so connected to the opera. Not until a few days later did it hit me: it’s not Kavanaugh, it’s Susan Collins! We all thought she was so honest, so reasonable, so thorough, so morally upright. Maybe a little dense: she bought Kavanaugh’s implied argument that because he said Roe v. Wade was “established precedent,” he certainly wouldn’t vote to overturn it. She ignored that his writings specifically argued that the Court could indeed overturn established precedent. But not in the tank for Kavanaugh. Not good, virtuous, upright Senator Collins from the good, virtuous, upright state of Maine. She couldn’t be.

Before the Blasey Ford letter came out, commentators considered Collins to be on the fence. Once the letter was out, and once we all saw Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, Collins just had to be more than on the fence. Didn’t she? She certainly wouldn’t stand for a con job, or for a sham investigation. . . would she?

Yet she did. And then she gave an hour-long explanation for her vote: Kavanaugh was a brilliant law student and then jurist, always of great moral character. To be sure, Dr. Blasey Ford seemed sincere, but she just couldn’t provide corroboration, never mind that Trump had cut off the means to find that corroboration, a real FBI investigation. To Collins, the poor woman just couldn’t be believed without corroboration. Collins wasn’t demanding a “beyond reasonable doubt” standard—-no, she knew this wasn’t a criminal trial—-but without corroboration, Collins was left with a reasonable doubt. (Huh? Isn’t that the “reasonable doubt” standard?)

How could Collins do this? She must have known that a woman who saw her attempted-rapist and had his face “seared” into her brain (“my hippocampus”) would be unlikely to be mistaken. She didn’t consider: the “two front doors” marital argument that reopened the whole experience (who on earth puts in two front doors to their house?) twelve years earlier for Blasey Ford; that in therapy Blasey Ford told her therapist about the attack; that at the same time she told her husband Kavanaugh’s name—-all years before it would have any prominence. Collins also completely ignored the numerous witnesses who were not interviewed and the factual possibilities that were not investigated (it would have been easy for the FBI to find out where the house was by talking to and even driving the area with Blasey Ford).

Why? Radames betrayed (or was tricked into betraying) his country for love of Aida. Why would Collins betray her professed values of truth and thoroughness? Enter the villainous, non-beautiful, non-singing Mitch McConnell. He wasn’t even in favor of Kavanaugh initially; there were plenty of conservative candidates, he initially told Trump, who didn’t have the paper trail Kavanaugh did. Was McConnell somehow like Aida, pressured by Trump (father figure?) to prove himself by jamming the nomination through? Was McConnell psychologically trying to prove himself to Trump and to everybody that he was really the supreme ruler?

But why would Collins cave so quickly and so easily, without a true re-investigation? Did McConnell have something on her? (Doesn’t each Senate party leader, by definition and by LBJ’s example, have something on each member of his side?) But if that were so, she would not have made a show of her independence for so long (or would she, one paranoically wonders?).

Maybe it was to be a positive reward. Maybe McConnell could get Collins something she desperately wanted. But there again, what could Collins reasonably want that she didn’t already have? (Every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president but McConnell couldn’t arrange that.)

We’ll probably never know. But let’s watch Collins carefully over the next few years and see what turns up. Oh yeah, I should add to make sure I seem impartial: if anything.

My Love Affair With Studebakers, Part Three

The beginning of my senior year in college, Fall, 1967. The Vietnam War raging and by now I had become a full-blown radical, a one-person SDS chapter, at tiny, conservative Western State College, tucked away in the Colorado mountains. Basically a ski college (which I didn’t figure out til after I graduated), the students uninterested in US and world events and apathetic regarding the war. A few of us tried to gin-up protests and demonstrations, and one professor came up with a “teach-in” but everything went nowhere.

I received a summons to the Dean’s office. Oh no, what now?

“Well, John, you have a National Defense Student Loan, which explicitly forbids having a car while being a student. And we see you now have a car.”

Of course I had a car, and what a car, my Studebaker Lark. Anyone who could scrape up enough money for wheels had a car and it was an open secret that the NDSL rule against cars was never enforced. Never. But now it was being enforced against me, and only me. Complete discrimination based on my antiwar activity.

In the previous summer when I bought the car, I had no idea what a mighty monster I had. Then my brother Mike, who was working at a carpet company, as a present installed rich thick green carpeting to match the dark green of the Studie. (Mike had a friend who worked in a bank and had given him a few sturdy bank bags for currency that Mike used to carry his lunch. Mike had accidentally left the bags on the back seat.) Once I had a radiator problem and the mechanic who fixed it said, “You know, this car has the same radiator as a Mercedes.” That settled it, I had a plush, secret Mercedes in disguise. Really, I thought, a Rolls Royce.

One day my little brother Bill, my “Pard,” was loading his BB rifle, one that used a small CO2 air compressor. I was downstairs reading. Dad was out, Mom was in the kitchen, Suddenly I heard Mom scream. Bill had shot himself in the eye. I raced upstairs, picked Bill up, said, “Call the E.R. at Fitz.” Fitz being the Army hospital base a few miles away. We had lived on the base until Dad retired and I knew every inch of the hospital. “The number is 366-0100.” (I still remember it now, just like that.)

I picked up Bill somehow, ordinarily I wouldn’t have been strong enough. He was holding a dish towel to his eye. I put him in the passenger seat of the Studie, sitting in the driveway, and took off, flooring it as soon as I got off our street, Ursula, and onto Baranmor Parkway. Wow! This thing was moving, the scenery was coming toward me incredibly fast, but the car was totally silent. There weren’t any traffic lights and I made the mile to Peoria Street, the feeder street into Fitz, in no time. I blasted down Peoria, now having to maneuver around traffic, but still getting to the Fitz gate in what I’m sure was an all-time record. Now that I was over 18, I was no longer a military dependent and had to explain to the MP at the gate that my dad was a retired officer and that I had to get my brother, who was a military dependent, to the E.R. as soon as possible. I asked him to alert the E.R. and took off, not waiting for official permission to proceed.

I knew how to get to the driveway at the back entrance of the hospital, it took just a minute. I took Bill into the hospital and into the E.R. Luckily, he had his wallet with his dependent ID card in his jeans. Quickly, he was on an exam table in the small E.R. It turned out he had not shot himself in the eye but that the CO2 compressor had exploded and had hit him right above the eye socket. He was injured but his eye was okay and he wouldn’t lose any vision, the doctor said. Relieved, I eased out of the E.R. to move the car into a parking area.

Only to find two large MPs waiting for me. They had seen the Studie in the hospital’s back driveway, parked haphazardly, its doors open, and bank cash bags in the back seat. They thought they had a big one—that they’d nabbed an injured bank robber. It took a lot of talking and they even interrogated poor Bill, while in pain on the E.R. table, before they decided to believe us.

In coming back to WSC for the new school year, which would be my last, I was driving the Studie on a rural highway, being held up by a slowpoke flatlander. I was finally able to pass, moved into the opposite lane and immediately saw a car in the distance coming at me. There was enough time to pass, I thought, if I did it quickly. So I floored it. This time, I noticed what seemed to be a little bump under the gas pedal and I pushed it even harder. (Overdrive, I would learn later.) The car simply took off, like a jet airplane. Was like the hyperdrive scene I would later see in Star Wars.

So this was the car WSC was taking away from me, a secret Mercedes that was, even better, a secret jet. What to do? I couldn’t sell it—it would be too much hassle and whatever I would be able to get for it wouldn’t be enough. So I checked with my brother Tom at Colorado University. We agreed on a price of a bottle of Chivas Regal scotch and one dollar (to satisfy the DMV).

Long live Studies!

March 24: Remember Oscar Romero

We don’t have heroes anymore and for the most part, that’s good. They always turn out to have the typical feet of clay. But ever since I learned about liberation movements in Latin America, Oscar Romero has been my hero. The feet-of-clay issue doesn’t exist for him and, even if it did, it would have to be awfully severe to turn me around. Even if you told me he had sexual affairs right and left and had the typical Latin America priest’s secret wife, so what? He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture, and for that, he was assassinated almost forty years ago, March 24, 1980. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93scar_Romero

But that’s only part of the reason he’s my hero. The question is why did he speak out against these injustices? He came from a modest background, was raised in a conventional lower-middle-class El Salvadoran family, and was a typical kid. His parents pushed him toward the priesthood and he was conservative and ambitious when he started his religious career. Romero did not set out to change the world. He just wanted to be a traditional priest and, later, to climb the conventional Church hierarchy. After he’d been elevated to become the Archbishop of El Salvador, he was looked on favorably by the conservative priests and negatively by those on the left who sought reform within the Church. Many priests spoke of “revolution” but Romero made it a point to say that, for him, any true revolution was an interior revolution in people’s spirituality, not a real, change-in-the-power-structure, revolution.

The oppression and repression in El Salvador was not something new that Romero rose up against. Everyone in El Salvador knew the political system brutally supported the wealthy Salvadoran oligopoly against the vast majority of the country, in particular against campesinos, who did not have any land rights. Romero simply had not paid attention to these issues. They were not his concern. He was focused only on the traditional priestly mission of saving souls and performing the traditional Catholic ceremonies.

Little by little, influenced by his priests who were threatened and then some of whom were killed by the repressive government, Romero began to see with his own eyes and to better understand the plight of the poor and marginalized campesinos. As the government repression continued and worsened, eventually killing priests, Romero began to change in response to what he saw. He began to put his life on the line for the poor and the dispossessed, realizing they were indeed his responsibility. Only then did he dare to publicly command the Army, on the national radio station, with no authority but his own conviction: “I implore you. I beg you. In God’s name, I order you: Stop the repression!” In doing so, he signed his own death warrant. In a scene almost made for a movie, he was shot dead not long after, while holding high the host during communion at his daily Mass. (There are such movies, including Salvador and Romero.) He lived in a little room in a hospital and said his daily mass in a small chapel on the hospital grounds. I have visited that room and that chapel. Only a few people regularly attended Romero’s mass; he had to have directly seen his assassin and I think he had to have known what was coming. What courage!

(It is well-established a soldier shot Romero but neither the soldier nor the higher-up who was the “intellectual author” (a Spanish legal term) of the deed (convincing research points to death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson) has ever been convicted of the assassination.)

Public pressure forced the conservative Catholic Church (reluctantly, in my opinion) to finally name Romero a saint a few years ago. While I’m glad the Church did so, what makes Romero a hero for me is not his sainthood but that he did not turn away from his lived experience. He did not have a preconceived agenda to help the people gain rights, not that such an agenda would have been bad. So many successful people, and almost all Church officials, turned away from the many injustices they saw—and still do. Romero simply did not, would not, do this.

(Two excellent books on Oscar Romero are: James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990, © Chicago Society of Jesus; and Romero’s posthumously-published diary, Irene B. Hodgson, Trans., Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Shepherd’s Diary (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 1993).)

WHY WE BABY BOOMER MILITARY KIDS DEVELOPED DIFFERENTLY THAN CIVILIAN KIDS

I was one of the first baby-boomers, born to a father in the Army. (There is no precise date for the beginning of the Baby Boom but it is generally considered to be October 1946, the months the new post-World-War births hit their peak.)When I get together with other baby boom military kids, we frequently talk about how we turned out “different” from civilian kids.
One reason is that our families moved so much. It became normal for our family to move every two to three years, sometimes more often. It was normal to have to leave friends or to have them leave us. It never occurred to us that many other kids lived a completely different life. Friends were nice to have, but they were temporary. As were schools. We were always starting at new schools, often in the middle of a school year. (My first wife grew up, all the way through college, in one house. I was amazed and envious.)

But there’s something else, something that military kids born later didn’t experience. Our dads had been through four years of long, bloody, slogging-it-out violent warfare. Even if they weren’t on the front lines, and most weren’t, they worked to support the fighting men. In short, they lived an existence centered around organized violence. Most reacted to that by turning inward. It’s common to talk of the “greatest generation,” but our dads also became the “silent generation.” To the universal question we kids asked, “Dad did you kill anyone during the war,” they either said “no,” which may or may not have been true, or changed the topic. They didn’t talk about the violence they had endured, witnessed, or perhaps inflicted. That closed them off from us and our mothers, which in turn closed us kids off from other, non-military kids, without our realizing it.

I always had kids I was friendly with but I never had that many close friends, something that plagued my adulthood as well. I’m sure a lot of that was my introverted personality (and other flaws) but some part was due to the military life of moving frequently and the “secret life” our dads had lived during the war. I never really expected that I’d stay somewhere very long, or, if I had a friend, that they’d stay on the same base for very long. Later, as Dad neared retirement, we’d move much less but by then subconscious patterns may have set in: life moves on, people change, and that’s just the way it is. Get used to it kid. And that is the way life is, military or civilian. After high school, after college, after graduate or professional school, after leaving a job, suddenly all the people we’d known and been friends with were gone. After the “we’ll stay in touch” goodbyes, in fact, people don’t stay in touch. That may have changed a bit since the advent of social media but probably not by much.

Our experiences led to a certain “closing down” as well as it’s opposite, a certain unrequited longing for the time when we did have close, intense, relationships, even if time limited. The closing down sense really came home to me when I worked in a very intense law firm, where new lawyers were expected to “produce” immediately, generating high billable hours. After a year or so, if lawyers didn’t seem “on track” (a firm buzzword) to meet the firm’s expectations, they were quietly but ruthlessly “counseled out” of the firm. As a result, I noticed that, when I met a new lawyer I liked, I was reluctant to think of a deep friendship because I thought the odds were that person wouldn’t be around in a year or I might not be around.
I see the almost opposite effect when people who were in the military (or, often, who were good athletes) continually reminisce about what they see as those wonderful, intense years of what they recall as close bonding, although at the time they were probably miserable. Again turning to my legal experience, I remember the crushing 16-hour days of emergency cases but I forget the long hours and remember the experiences as sort of a high.

In life, sooner or later the military service is over, the athletic season(s) comes to an end, or the big project or legal case ends. The team breaks up. Everyone goes on to other experiences and to form new teams. Then years later, they will seek to replicate that which cannot be replicated, or will view the past with regret and despair that they didn’t have more of those experiences. We all have losses of this kind, no matter where or how we grew up. A Buddhist would caution: everything is transitory. But for a military kid, these come early and often, at developmental stages where they may stunt the ability we’ll need as adults to weather similar losses and changes.
Courage, fellow military brats!

CHRISTMAS DEPRESSION CAN BE FUN, SORT OF

CHRISTMAS DEPRESSION CAN BE FUN, SORT OF

Well it’s Christmastime now down on Rue Morgue Avenue. Time to talk of peace on earth, good will to men and women, mistletoe, opening presents under the tree, and, of course, depression. I’m too lazy to Google it now but I know there are plenty of psychological studies relating Christmastime to depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (um, SAD) being one of the more benign conditions.

There are plenty of novels dealing in some way with depression, whether Christmas-related or just regular good ol depression. One of the most interesting is French author Michel Houellebecq’s (pronounced “Well-beck”) first novel, which carries the English title, Whatever (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998, 2011). The French title is Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte, which, I am informed by a French reviewer on US Amazon, means Extension of the Field of Struggle. Yeah, a real audience-grabber. I haven’t been able to come up with captivating titles for my books but even I wouldn’t dare use an obtuse title like that. Tells you how much I know. This novel, Houellebecq’s first, made him famous as an intellectual novelist, say the Norman Mailer of modern times. While my comments here relate to Whatever, they could as easily relate to most of Houellebecq’s novels as most of his themes carry over from one book to another.

Houellebecq doesn’t care about plot. His books are anti-plot. One thing happens after another for no apparent reason. Everything is remorselessly depressing. Then he throws in some violence near the end, maybe because he’s seen too many modern movies. Yet then one meaningless thing happens after another all over again.

But one reason I like his writing so much is that he dares to ask the ultimate question: is this all there is? And he answers it pitilessly: yes. The mundane stuff in our lives is all there is and it is pointless to look for any hope. He is nonreligious and non-“we are all part of the great wave of the universe” to the max. I don’t agree, but it is this pitiless honesty that makes his books so absorbing. He takes depression head-on. And he doesn’t give us an easy way out.

Houellebecq puts an Everyman in an arbitrary situation. But there is no arc, no redemption, no change. We all remain the poor slobs we are. We are all caught up in “the struggle,” a social Darwinist approach describing life as a struggle to gain the physical attentions—not love, forget love, that’s too cutesy—of the sexual objects (same or opposite sex) we desire. It all, somehow, maybe, sorts itself out in the end. According to Houellebecq: we get the sexual mates we “deserve” in the sexual economy. We are not valued for who we “truly” are but then, why should we be? Life is a movie-magazine culture.

Until we finally accept our fate, life is terrifying because we always want someone more desirable than we are. (Buddhism: we are always grasping.) But why should that more desirable person want us? He or she wants someone more desirable than them. Besides, even if we land someone more desirable than us, they will trade up at the first opportunity. (Look at Trump’s divorces…the divorce rate in general.)

Most of life is taken up with the day-to-day battles and manipulations to fend off rivals and to find some meaning in a meaningless universe. (To create our own meaning or to truly accept our own suffering on its own terms, not for any noble or religious terms). We might not achieve what we’d like but the important thing is to struggle, not to abdicate, to keep looking for love despite the unlikeliness of finding it and despite the general hopelessness of it all. Now that French title makes sense: To recognize there is a field of struggle and to extend it wherever possible. Santa Claus?

In the evolutionary jungle of attractiveness, there are winners and losers starting at least by adolescence. The economy of good looks generally rules. We will not grow out of adolescent sexual failures but, rather, those failures cut deep wounds that will get deeper and deeper. Those wounds will create an atrocious, unremitting bitterness that will grip our hearts. There will be no deliverance, no redemption, other than having struggled—to be who we want to be, to do what we believe we are called to do. (He wouldn’t put it this way. There is no “who” calling us, he would say.)
Houellebecq adds to this an interesting take on the “new” sexual economy, which may not be new at all. Everyone is in a Catch-22. The victors, the attractive ones who have lots of sex in adolescence and young adulthood, by their very victory lose a kind of innocence and illusion they could only have if they weren’t so attractive. As these people age, they necessarily lose their attractiveness. This leads to a festering hatred of youth culture, with all that remains being resentment, disgust, sickness and the anticipation of death. So, the victors aren’t really victors. And the sexual losers? They just keep losing throughout their lives. Except. Except if they do happen to find that appropriate mate, that appropriate challenge in life—which they may never do. There you have it. And who’s to say it’s not so.

What to do when there is no hope? At least Houellebecq writes about it in terms that bring it home to us. And we respond because it’s honest. It’s Hemingway without the b.s. Don’t expect anything more, Houellebecq tells us.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Think Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. But we can be happy, not worried. Houellebecq is right but so are the old Budweiser slogans. You only go round once. This Bud’s for you, my friends. Sure your outdoor display just got vandalized, your car just got hit by a cell-phone-distracted teenage-softball-star name-checking her dates, and some red-faced guy in a pickup cut you off because he wasn’t paying attention to his exit. Your daughter just got cancer and your spouse found someone better. Look inside all that. Look at the moment the ladder started falling. It ain’t fun but while we’re alive, we are alive. Drink tea and oranges. Dance with the one who brung ya. Love the life you’ve got.

What We Really Need to Know About The Magna Carta

Most of us know something about the Magna Carta. (A linguistic quirk: We Americans call it “the” Magna Carta while the British call it simply “Magna Carta.” Probably from the Latin and not for the reason—whatever it is—our CIA disdains “the” CIA and calls itself just “CIA.”) In loose terms, if we know of the Magna Carta at all, we generally think of it as a legal, written, promise forced at swordpoint from the evil King John in 1215 by courageous barons who were early champions of civil liberties. “The” document that, for English and US history, created democratic rights for all and provided legal, enforceable, limits on the actions of the Crown; a document the Framers to create our own Constitution.

Noble concepts but, as Derek J. Taylor explains in his creative and excellent Magna Carta In 20 Places (Gloucestershire, England: 2015), almost completely wrong. King John wasn’t all that bad, the barons were self-serving thugs out for themselves, the Magna Carta made no guarantees of freedom or justice or (heaven forbid!) democracy and jury trials for all, and it certainly wasn’t a proclamation of universal rights or freedoms. Rather, the Magna Carta wasn’t even considered particularly important at the time and only conferred certain limited, technical, benefits on some of the upper classes. Our Framers did not use it as the basis of our Constitution, although Jefferson and others may have had a passing familiarity with it.

But the Magna Carta, due to many quirks of history which the author explains, often with humorous anecdotes and set in scenes of either history or of today, has indeed become an important foundation of democratic rights.

In law school, if professors referred to the Magna Carta all—and I don’t remember them doing so—it was only in passing. I practiced law in California for over 30 years, rarely saw references to the Magna Carta, discovered it somewhere along the way, and became fascinated by it. I read everything I could find about it, had a framed reproduction in my office (which looked impressive but was in Latin and in small print—I had no idea what it actually said), considered myself knowledgeable about it, and frequently cited it in cases against the state or federal government. But until I read this book—alas, published after I retired from the practice of law—I had no complete idea of the many facets of the Magna Carta. I typically cited the Magna Carta in a general way in cases against the government for the proposition that the government’s frequent arguments that it must be right because, well, it is the government, were wrong. (My argument was against the proposition of ipse dixit: that “X is true” because I [the King] say it is.) I think Taylor would agree that that part of the Magna Carta’s heritage does hold up (although the reason is more that our society has accepted that concept than because the Magna Carta specifically spells it out. It does no such thing). As the author explains, the Magna Carta did, in fact, put some—not many, not in the way we would like to see, but some—limits on the powers of the King. And the Magna Carta’s very existence does indeed stand for the existence of a rule of law—yes, quite limited, but still a rule of law—in which even the King must accept some limitations upon his power.

Beyond that, though, Taylor demonstrates that most of the Magna Carta’s importance falls in the territory of myth. While I knew this in general, I had no idea of the actual specifics of the document. We can’t disregard myth, either on a personal (see Joseph Campbell’s books) or societal level. As Taylor demonstrates in numerous easily-readable examples, “myths have always been important throughout the history of humankind.”

And what a wonderful concept for a book about the Magna Carta and its history: not just to explain the concepts and ideas but to physically go to important places in its history or places where its effects have played out. I wish a tour company would organize a tour around the “20 Places” Taylor visited and discusses in the book. I would be happy to sign up in advance as the first client of such a tour. Actually, as you read the book, you feel you are doing just that—visiting places with a “secret history” related to the Magna Carta, having a trusted and knowledgeable friend in the next seat explaining the importance of those places to you.

I’m so glad I read this book, even though it was after I retired from practicing law and, thus, I was never able to cite it in a legal brief. But I emphasize the book is for general readers, not just lawyers. Anyone interested in the foundations of US or English legal history will enjoy the book. The writing is down to earth, picturesque, and often funny. This book should be required reading in law schools so future lawyers will understand just what the Magna Carta is, what it isn’t and why its enduring legacy is so important. My strongest recommendation and my congratulations to the author!

“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

Here’s something that didn’t make the cut in Baby Boomer Army Brat. In my first draft, I started all the way back, when our ancestors came to America. It quickly became clear that was just way too much information. The memoir now starts with Dad and Mom getting married, just before World War II.
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“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

The parents of my great-great-grandfather, George Wagner, probably yelled something similar to him as they waited to board their ship from Germany to their new life in the United States, probably in the early 1850s.

It was no casual picnic. The family had been setting aside money for years for the trip to the fabulous New World and the new opportunities that waited in the US. We don’t know how many Wagner relatives came, but families were large in those day. It cost over a third of a worker’s annual income to bring an average-sized family to the US. With the limited space onboard a trans-Atlantic vessel, the Wagners would have carefully planned what they could bring on board. They had room for only the bare necessities, such as a few changes of clothes, tools, a family Bible, a few other small family heirlooms, basic hygiene items, and, if they’d been forewarned about the horrid food onboard, a small stockpile of their favorite foods that would keep for a while.

The family left from Bense, Bavaria, in southern Germany. After having having said goodbye to their friends and other family members, they would have taken a train to Hamburg and then made their way to the bustling departure port. While they could have smelled the dirty water, they couldn’t board the ship yet. They had to pass a series of medical examinations, which sometimes held up travelers for a week or so for physical exams and awaiting results of lab tests.

The trip itself would have been an awful, disgusting voyage characterized by seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, vomit on the decks, and disease. The experience could stretch on for what seemed like an eternity. Up until the 1850s, most emigrants from Germany traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage to the US taking forty-three days. Later, steamships shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Living conditions on board were primitive. Passengers had to sleep in narrow bunks below deck. During storms, the door from the outside deck would be locked, leaving them with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and overflowing chamber pots was overwhelming. Constant jostling from weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in bed to sleep, tossed about and sliding over vomit and God only knows what else on the cabin floor.

The ship would priovide little variety in food. If a passenger was lucky, the vessel would be governed by at least some basic regulations, such as the British Passenger Act. Its minimum requirements included biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. Food had to be issued in advance and not less often than twice a week. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The captain also had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Often, though, the water quality was poor. Prior passengers sent word back as to what to bring. Coffee was preferable to tea because at least it offerend some taste; the water was so bad it made the tea tasteless. Even the process of trying to eat was difficult. Many used their trunks as tables, and, in rough waters, struggled to prevent these makeshift tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.
Seasickness was constant. Many passengers threw up after eating their first meal aboard ship and continued to throw up often. Although some passengers adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea. Occasionally, those with overwhelming seasickness starved to death during the voyage.

Life on board wasn’t all drudgery though. Couples got married, perhaps by a fellow passenger who was a minister, or, if the couple had money or connections, by the captain. Women had babies, and couples conceived babies. Many passengers celebrated birthdays. They held parties for many of those occasions. Passengers also made time for playing games, dancing, and writing letters home. Even though the conditions were harsh, the passengers were on a tremendously exciting adventure.

Perhaps the travelers thought the worst part of the trip—worse than the constant motion, the poor food, and the cramped and uncomfortable sleeping quarters—was the danger of life at sea: storms, poor ship construction, and ships simply being lost at sea for unknown reasons. Actually, however, the worst danger was disease, which killed far more passengers than storms or shipwrecks. Illnesses like typhus, cholera, and dysentery would spread throughout ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Sometimes upon landing, a large percentage of passengers went straight from the ship to a hospital, where survival rates were grim.

After the ship arrived in New York and the passengers disembarked, immigration officials herded them to Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the tip of Manhattan. This was the predecessor to the famous Ellis Island. Hundreds of immigrants crowded through Castle Gardens’ doors each day. There, the immigrants reported their name and destination. Government officials gave them information: where they could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. The immigrants could also sleep on the floor there for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. Amazingly, given the experiences conveyed in “The Godfather” and other movies, the government was attempting to shield immigrants from the many thieves and thugs who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon them.

“Baby Boomer Army Brat” To Launch

“BABY BOOMER ARMY BRAT” TO LAUNCH NOV. 6!

My new book, Baby Boomer Army Brat, will launch publicly on November 6. It is already available in print on Amazon and will be available as an e-book on Kindle shortly. Here are some of the publicity descriptions:

In this journey through a 1950s-early 1960s “Army Brat” childhood and adolescence, John Wagner brings the reader directly into his life of dramatic changes. We see him go from a good Catholic altar boy: with obedience to rules and respect for authority and religion, to the opposite: a bad boy secretly breaking the rules, hanging out with potential delinquents, suffering social isolation due to severe acne, and questioning everything, including his family’s longstanding Catholicism. Status is everything in the military and we see his family moving from the high status of an up-and-coming officer’s life to the lower status of an enlisted man’s life, through no fault of his father. We see John become a hero for all the wrong reasons: in a vividly described deer-hunting trip—an initiation into his father’s life—and in the hilarious finale to a championship baseball game. Wagner has a unique, direct, voice, bringing us into the immediacy of the highs and lows, even the sounds and smells, of this military family’s life. We finally see Wagner survive, achieve a smidgen of self-confidence and maturity, as he prepares for college and for what will become the Vietnam era.

John Wagner somehow became a prominent lawyer, won a case before the United States Supreme Court, marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, was in the Nixon “Counter-Inaugural,” and was the host of “Uncle John’s Jam” on a listener-sponsored radio station. He is now a full-time author and has a blog at http://johnpwagner.com. He is still waiting for the clouds to lift about the meaning of life.

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John Wagner’s Baby Boomer Army Brat is the penetrating story of a boy who would become a teenage acne-riddled social outcast, and his coming-of-age within the unique subculture of an Army family. With warmth and energy, Wagner shows a vivid slice of Americana foreshadowing the dramatic changes about to hit the baby-boomers and all of American society: the new civil rights laws, the psychedelic era, and above all the searing division of the Vietnam War.
Wagner details many of the cruel, yet often hilarious, struggles of adolescence, from which he emerges with a core inner strength, although also full of doubts. John must try to forge his own values and beliefs in the midst of a constant inability to do anything right and ongoing criticism from his no-nonsense Army father. Baby Boomer Army Brat shows John trying to survive within the military culture, including sexual abuse from a predatory soldier. John must find his way through a minefield of an ever-changing identity, overwhelming anxieties, seeking a spiritual path, and above all struggling to become authentic.

JOHN WAGNER’S previous book, Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, won the Non Fiction Authors Association Silver Award, 2015.