New England, The Devil and P.J. O’Rourke

It’s a blue moon, and a Blue Moon of May (I began this before midnight). I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, and the Full Moon of May — or the Wesak Full Moon — is the great festival of the year: A time for contemplation and meditation. Since we actually got TWO of them last month (a blue moon in this sense is two full moons in one calendar month, and NOT a literal blue moon caused by the eruption of, say, a Krakatoa-sized volcano) here is a blue moon meditation.

There are a couple of considerations, and I might as well start with the first: on June 1, of 1974, thirty-three years ago, I was married for the first time, in a profoundly American setting.

My wife-to-be’s father had purchased a house on the western outskirts of Sudbury, Massachusetts, that had been the Wayside Inn’s keeper’s home. There was a sign on the front lawn, on the Boston Post Road (created when Benjamin Franklin was the Royal Postmaster General of the colonies) that read: ‘Longfellow’s Wayside Inn 1000 feet.’

This was often missed by drivers looking for the venerable tavern that Longfellow composed his ‘Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ poem in — at least it was the star poem in Longfellow’s TALES FROM A WAYSIDE INN. George would be out front, mowing the grass, and somebody would drive into the circular drive, pop the trunk and say: ‘Get our bags.’

And, often, he would take their bags and put them up on the porch, so that when they walked a ways into the house, and realized that they’d invaded someone’s home, they would have to put their trunks BACK into their trunks in the most sheepish and embarrassed manner possible.

And it was funny as hell.

In 1974, the Bicentennial was well under way, and so was Watergate. Nixon would resign that summer, and every car in Massachusetts had a bumper sticker reading: ‘DON’T BLAME ME, I’M FROM MASSACHUSETTS’ referring to the 1972 election in which George McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia against Richard M. Nixon.

It was a strange clash of cultures.

But on that day, we were married in the Wayside Innkeeper’s house, with her uncle presiding over the clerisy’s festivities. He was a Congregationalist minister: the denominiation which the New England Puritans became, going back to Cotton Mather and the Boston that young Ben Franklin found so oppressive that he ran away to Philadelphia when he was sixteen.

… the church and religious culture of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed the basis of post-colonial American Congregationalism, specifically the Congregational Church proper. The term Puritan was used by the group itself mainly in the 16th century, though it seems to have been used often and, in its earliest recorded instances, as a term of abuse. By the middle of the 17th century, the group had become so divided that “Puritan” was most often used by opponents and detractors of the group, rather than by the practitioners themselves.

Wikipedia

Later, the adult Benjamin Franklin would build the road that the house was built on, and would lend his name to my great-great grandfather, the Civil War veteran, Benjamin Franklin Williams (who served with his brother, George Washington Williams).

There was a connection to Washington at that wedding, too: my bride carried a piece of Martha Washington’s wedding dress, a family heirloom, passed down through the Custis line (George and Martha Washington had no children).

There was even the traditional photographic portrait of the bride in The Boston Globe section devoted to that sort of thing. (The groom, as I recall, was unworthy of photographic preservation, but was accorded copy as befitting his essentially cameo role in the production. There is nothing so useless at a wedding as the groom, I have come to learn. Were it not necessary that he be present for the ceremony, American weddings would undoubtedly benefit greatly by his absence.)

Which gave me plenty of time to consider the historic overtones of the wedding that was taking place amidst the historical pageant that is suburban Revolutionary Boston.

And, aside from the traditional overtones of marriage, there was a profound and moving echo of American Revolutionary War history surrounding it. And, of New England history. Thoreau once wrote (ever the booster of causes, in this case, the cause of Oregon Territory emigration):

“Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness…. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), U.S. philosopher, author, naturalist. “Walking” (1862), in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 5, pp. 217-218, Houghton Mifflin (1906).

I took his advice then, and do not regret it now.

Two miles away were Lexington and Concord, and Sudbury Minutemen had shown up for the confrontation on the Lexington green. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had lived in Concord, and we made the obligatory pilgrimages to their graves, and to Walden ‘Pond’ — which proved to me that while it took a lot to be a lake or a river in the East, any bump was a mountain. The other end of the proof was seeing the Catskill ‘Mountains’, in upper New York. I kept asking, ‘Are they behind that hill?’)

On the other hand, Walden Pond would be Walden Lake anywhere west of the Mississippi, while it takes a lot to be a mountain, and not just a hill. Any seasonally running ditch, out here, is a river. Any pond, filled or not, is a ‘lake.’ Kinda depends on where you live, I guess.

Thoreau also said this:

“Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice? What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?”

The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 4, pp. 476-477, Houghton Mifflin (1906).

I remember the Old Manse, which Emerson had lived in, but rented out, for a time, to Hawthorne, and how Hawthorne’s wife had scratched the birth dates of her children into the poured glass panes with her diamond ring. The Wayside Innkeeper’s house had that kind of glass, too, and something called ‘Indian shutters,’ which could be shut to protect the glass windows, but were slit-cut, so that you could fire your musket out the seemingly ‘decorative’ cruciform pattern.

The whole area had been a Henry Ford project sometime earlier in the century, and he had replenished or refurbished several places in the neighborhood, including bringing the famous ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ to rest in the meadow that the Wayside Inn sits in. Within walking distance was the ‘Grist Mill’ star of innumerable postcards and travel brochures.

We went horseback riding, and there was an old dam Henry had refurbished. There were various grandfathered-in clauses in everyone’s purchase agreement to keep this bit of New England ever-New Englandy.

We stumbled, in Concord, while scouting for a honeymoon spot before the wedding, on a Revolutionary War re-enactment that clogged the city with cars and blocked streets for several hours. One of a thousand such events in Bicentennial New England.

Hell, Sudbury’s zip code was 01776 — which both Lexington AND Concord felt, by rights, should be their own. (I think they were 01774 and 01775 respectively).

And I have always carried that strange echo of the Revolution with me, through these 33 years. The marriage is long gone and all but forgotten, but the wedding remains with me.

It was all very New Englandy, even if Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’ was playing on every radio station in every car that I drove that summer.

Oh, and ‘Ricky Don’t Lose That Number,’ by Steely Dan. Mostly I listened to music that I purchased at the local record stores, and that summer, it was King Crimson, beginning with Starless and Bible Black:

Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines
of the Virgin Mary

– ‘The Great Deceiver,’ Richard Palmer-James

And, in that spirit, I must tell you what King George’s men have been up to the past several weeks.

P.J. O’Rourke went to Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just down the Boston Post Road from the Innkeeper’s house, and made his fame with the NATIONAL LAMPOON of the 1970s. Since then, he’s crafted a literary career that caters to the Right Wing, and attempts to create ‘humor’ for that famously humorless slice of the American electorate. On Bill Maher’s last REAL TIME show of the ‘season’ (whatever that means anymore) he had on O’Rourke and Ben Affleck without third party guests.

In a nod to Maher’s continuing influentiality, Michael Moore chose Maher for the first interview since 2004 and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ – the documentary notable for noted American author and dumbass Ray Bradbury thinking that he held copyright to the title, even though he ought to have known that titles can’t be copyrighted, and that he doesn’t even hold copyright to ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (the temperature at which paper burns for a book about book burning). No one knows whether Bradbury also feels that he holds copyright over the combustive phenomenon itself.

O’Rourke is from Toledo, Ohio, and looks like he was the class geek, to be sure, but he DID, in fact receive an education and cannot pretend that he is a dumbass, however convenient that might be in the Republican dumbass circles in which he now moves.

I bring this up only to preempt any suggestion that O’Rourke was unaware of what he was doing, or that he was so unskilled at argumentation that he inadvertently fell into fallacy.

No, friends. He MEANT to do what he did, and, perhaps, that’s also a nod to the influentialitinessitude of Maher’s HBO show.

What O’Rourke did was to INTENTIONALLY derail discussion to derail as much criticism of the Bush regime as possible. And to put as much daylight between himself and the sinking ship as possible — following the lead of Frank Luntz, as reported here. (‘An Elephant Always Forgets’).

The first and best example of which was Bill Maher bringing up Ron Paul’s comment at the GOP debate (otherwise known as the Macho-Beatchu smarm summit) that our foreign policy had something to do with why people wanted to hijack planes and suicidally attack us … e.g. 9-11.

O’Rourke seized the bull by the balls and twisted: ‘I can sum it up in one word–these Ay-rabs all hate Israel … and WE SUPPORT ISRAEL!’

(reflexive applause).

O’Rourke then tried for a double with: ‘And I FOR ONE THINK THAT SUPPORTING ISRAEL IS A DAMN FINE THING TO DO!’

Well, who the hell is going to argue with that?

Except that O’Rourke had jerked the topic off the table. Now it was going to be about how much do you support Israel, etc. Perfect setup for a gazillion talking points, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

The original point (which Ron Paul appeared to explain himself) was that our actions (like setting up the Shaw in Iran after deposing the democratically elected government in the 1950s, via coup) have consequences. The ‘Israel’ argument was a red herring, but, worse, an INTENTIONAL red herring.

Maher did manage to get things aimed back at the topic, but not before O’Rourke had revealed his pattern for the evening: distort the dialogue, go for the cheap applause, wrap yourself in the bloody flag (in this case, whichever flag is most convenient, i.e. Israel) and for Gawd’s sake, keep that railroad off the tracks.

I watched the rerun of Jon Stewart’s interview with the Bush Education Texas Chick (think of a less grotesque version of Karen Hughes), and was struck by how much the same tactic was used. There was no intention of engaging in debate. Just get the talking points out there, and ACT like you’re a good sport when they laugh at your ‘Commander Guy’s’ endless litany of screw-ups, foul-ups, bloopers and other capital crimes.

Which means that they hold us in utter contempt, chillun. When you decide to treat your fellow citizens as ribbon clerks, or children to be mollified by shiny objects, it bespeaks your contempt for anything that they have to say — in advance of their saying it.

And when you cannot debate, sooner or later, the differences of opinion will be settled with the gun and with steel.

I have to answer one of O’Rourke’s many slithery, slipperies here, though.

Bill Maher began to make a point about this ‘War’ not being a war at all, and O’Rourke immediately chimed in with … like the WAR ON POVERTY of Democrat Lyndon Johnson? Haw! Haw! Haw!

Ben Affleck neatly trumped him with ‘or like the WAR on DRUGS’? and the audience responded with wild applause.

But the damage had already been done: The ‘War on Poverty’ of the Great Society was actually VERY successful, as the Harvard-educated O’Rourke well knows. But he lied to make his point, and it was glossed over, because, frankly, who could possibly expect comedian Bill Maher and actor/screenwriter Ben Affleck to be up on the intricacies of the Johnson Administration, forty years ago? Wikipedia:

… In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to 11.1% and have remained between 11 and 15% ever since. Since 1973 poverty has remained well below the historical U.S. averages in the range of 20-25%.[2]

Poverty among Americans between ages 18-64 has fallen only marginally since 1966, from 10.5% then to 10.1% today. Poverty has significantly fallen among Americans under 18 years old from 23% in 1964 to 16.3% today. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5% in 1966 to 10.1% today…

The O[ffice of] E[conomic] O[pportunity] was dismantled by President Nixon in 1973, though many of the agency’s programs were transferred to other government agencies.

Not quite the laughing stock that the Harvard-educated liar, P.J. O’Rourke, would have you believe.

But that is their intentional modus operandi: twist and distort the truth, because the truth is your enemy. And the people who speak it are your enemies as well. Confuse and deceive them. Now, WHO (or WHAT) does that sound like? A little hint for you and for P.J.:

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition

Great Deceiver

Sing hymns make love get high fall dead
He’ll bring his perfume to your bed
He’ll charm your life ’til the cold winds blow
Then he’ll sell your dreams to a picture show

Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary
Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary

Cadillacs, blue jeans, dixieland playing on the ferry
Cadillacs, blues jeans, drop a glass full of antique sherry

– ‘The Great Deceiver,’ lyrics by Richard Palmer-James
from the King Crimson album ‘Starless and Bible Black’ 1974

Now, thanks to Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush, it’s the ‘War on the Impoverished.’

Courage.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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8 Responses to New England, The Devil and P.J. O’Rourke

  1. Hart

    Great post! I forgot it was a Blue Moon month, although I frequently noticed 2 full moons on my calendar next to my desk and vaguely remember thinking about it mid-May.

    It really is the ‘War on the Impoverished’- I can’t remember things being this bad since Bush I had his brief reign.

  2. Anne Yenny says:

    You said: “O’Rourke then tried for a double with: ‘And I FOR ONE THINK THAT SUPPORTING ISRAEL IS A DAMN FINE THING TO DO!’

    Well, who the hell is going to argue with that?”

    Well … I wish I had a dollar for every Dem who said “we have to rethink our foreign policy with Israel” after 9-11. Heard a bunch of delates to the Dem Convention say it, too.

    So, I daresay there are quite a few people who would argue with O’Rourke’s statement.

    Oh. And if the War on Poverty was such a great success, what is John Edwards prattling about?

  3. Anne:

    You will note (if you read carefully) that the poverty rates in the 18-65 range changed very little (less than 1%). The great success of the War on Poverty was that those ABOVE age 65 went from nearly 1 in 3 down to 1 in 10. If that’s not a significant accomplishment, I wonder what you think one would be?

    But those aren’t working people (who tend to fall into the 18-65 range), and I wonder how what I’ve said contradicts Edwards in any way?

    Do YOU think the middle class is doing well?

    As for Israel, your argument is a straw man: certainly jumping up on the soapbox and declaring undying committment for Israel has been a *guaranteed* applause line in American politics since 1948. O’Rourke jumped on that soapbox, and no one wanted to go there, which was my point.

    Game, set and match.

    As one of those who think that a rational policy towards Israel is an indispensable prerequisite for any comprehensive Middle Eastern peace, I understand the “jingo ploy” that O’Rourke used all too well, but perhaps you move in more rarefied circles.

  4. Anne Yenny says:

    And in the sentence “As one of those who think that a rational policy towards Israel is an indispensable prerequisite for any comprehensive Middle Eastern peace” what is your precise definition of “rational”?

    And are you implying that our current policy is not “rational”?

    Talk about strawman: Who is going to jump up and say:I am for an IRRATIONAL policy towards Israel? Aside from Buchanan, of course, who certainly doesn’t run in my rarified circle.

    And as for the war on poverty, all I can say is: Since the government is successful at so little I would be very surprised if we could put this in the win column.

    Many of the statistics that are quoted in economic discussions are misleading (ie: Savings are at an all-time low! Well, yeah. Because you don’t count my 401K and my home equity)

    I am neither qualified nor interested in getting into a debate with you regarding statistics. As for the middle-class? All I know is that home ownership is at an all time-high (yes, even after you factor in those who will lose their homes because of sub-prime lending) my mother and father raised a family of five kids on one income, I am raising four in similar circumstances, as are all my sisters, we all own our own homes, we all have at least two cars, each has kids in college, blah blah blah.

    So, yeah, I think the middle class is doing fine. Give me the option of privatizing my Social Security and offer vouchers to families who are stuck with sub-prime schools and the middle class will do even better. And those two opportunities will give the lower class the opportunity to join the ranks of the middle class.

    Without declaring a war!

  5. Anne Yenny

    I get that you miss the point – we have not won the war on poverty. Poverty is at an all time high, this the Bush ‘War on the Impoverished.’

    U.S. Economy Leaving Record Numbers in Severe Poverty

  6. pamylla says:

    How DARE you call Ray Bradbury “dumbass”?? What do you mean by that? Bradbury is one of the most gifted and prolific writers of our time, so don’t go saying ANYTHING ABOUT HIM, you dumbass!!!

  7. pamylla:

    I retract the statement that Bradbury is a dumbass, per se. He merely does dumbass things on more than an occasional basis. If you don’t believe me, attend a meeting of LASFS and ask gently: the historical record will be cheerfully unfurled. I don’t confuse the art with the artist; and in this case, the artist behaved abominably.

    Anne Yenny: I find your comments trollish: My post was clear, your desire to get in the verbal gutter is clear, and I’m clear of this argument. When you would like to discuss what I’ve written (and not wild detours of your own) in a polite and reasonable manner, let me know.

  8. Darrell Prows says:

    Some folks think that the way to discuss politics is to roll out the same infantile slogans that they hear chanted by their favorite gods and goddesses on talk radio. Inexplicably, Limburger and those folks can make a fortune out of entertaining a certain segment of the population this way, but they really ought to be required to air that handy disclaimer, “folks, don’t try this at home”.

    One tried and true inanity is some version of blaming government for all of the ills of life. Translation, as used by these folks: “Whaa, I don’t like to pay taxes”.

    Another oldie but goodie is to claim vouchers as a cure for “everything that’s wrong with the failed system of public education”. Translation: “Whaa, I don’t like to pay taxes.”

    Back in the real world, this country is not only the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nation in history, but our lead in these areas is, if anything, increasing. Any credible explanation for how we got to this position of dominance would acknowledge the preeminent role played by decisions made over time to collectivize our efforts. In other words, our success (and I’m setting aside various policy failures here, including a flood of recent ones) has occurred explicitly because of our government, and clearly not in spite of it. Anyone wanting to argue otherwise would have to detail the outlines of some force or factor that is invisible to the rest of the world, and take pains to explain how it could have functioned powerfully enough to bring us where we are while simultaneously warding off all of the manifestations of government dead weight.

    On the education front, the major error consists of arguing (a) that our country is basically in some sort of crisis caused by the insufficiency of the collective mental resources of our populace, and (b) that we need to privatize education because of the inherent superiority of that option. Again, of course, the cold light of reality shows a completely different picture. Private education, far from being an untried panacea, was the exclusive choice until public education was established. Needless to say, with a huge head start, private education would have won the race if it was not clearly the inferior choice. Not inferior for the privileged few, but clearly inferior for society as a whole. And, again, we are who and what we are because of public education, not in spite of it.

    The whole purpose of having political discussions is not to point out that there are alternatives, but to argue for why a preferred alternative is superior to the other choices.Right wingers invariably think that sloganeering is sufficient, and that they are entitled to prevail in any discussion if they have memorized all of the routine phrases.