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What They Said. Or Should Have.

  • Posted on: 2 March 2013
  • By: readersbooks

My old and now sadly departed friend, Charlie Cooke, used to come into the
bookstore every few days to while away the afternoon in our history
section. He was, in my view, the perfect patriot. He read voraciously.
He was engaged in the issues of the day and informed on all the latest
news. He'd spent a good deal of his life in the military and in
government service, and he did not suffer fools gently. He loved to
swear and to argue. He loved the fact that for a brief moment Nixon
suspected him of leaking the Pentagon Papers. And most of all, he loved
to call out the modern Republican establishment for their failure to
live up to their own stated beliefs.

Charlie always carried a copy of the U.S.Constitution around in his shirt
pocket. He knew it pretty well, but I suspect he kept it just in case he
walked into a bar and needed extra black and white evidence to bolster
his point of view. I've been giving some thought to that document
lately, and while it is brilliant in many respects, it also contains a
serious--and I believe, unreported-- flaw. You see, the Constitution
offers Americans all kinds of rights, but it doesn't generally demand
that we do anything for them. No, rights are "God given" and
"inalienable," as it is said. Like sunshine or rain, nothing much you
can do about it.

But what if, along with the Bill of Rights, came an equally sacred Bill of
Responsibilities? What if the Founders took it upon themselves to
suggest that Americans must act like grown ups? That's the way it ought
to have been stated. You have the right to free speech, for example, but
you cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. You have the right to
bear arms, but you must rigorously commit to keeping that firearm out of
an irrational person's hands. And the right to bear arms doesn't mean
you have the right to own weapons so powerful they can decimate a whole
town. You have the right to worship as you please, but your religious
beliefs cannot, under any circumstances, impugn or limit the beliefs of
others. You have the right to vote, but you are obliged to educate
yourself about the candidates and what they would do if elected. As
we've seen all too often recently, an electorate that lets itself be led
around by the nose, an electorate that doesn't ask questions and demand
answers, isn't serving democracy, it's aiding the interests of

A lot of this reasoning has been hammered out in the courts over the last
several hundred years. And some is obviously still going on. But
wouldn't it have been nice if, in their infinite wisdom, the guys who
started the whole idea of America recognized that while we cherish our
individualism, we're all in this wilderness together, and that means we
have to come up with a simple, reciprocal, straight-forward way to get
along? Other countries have done this; it shouldn't really be that hard.
With rights come responsibilities. That's the whole thing in a
nutshell. I never got a chance to run this by Charlie Cooke, but if he
were still around today I feel pretty damn sure he'd agree.


Everyone Talks About the Weather

  • Posted on: 23 February 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Every morning this winter when I drive to work, I'm inevitably overcome with a deep, nearly religious sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the grass and for the sunlight glancing through the oak trees, gratitude for the vineyards that are suffused with that golden mustard between the rows, the rolling hills, the whole postcard of where we live. Most of all, I'll admit it, I'm very aware of and grateful for the unnatural warmth we're blessed with in February. I can say this without reservation because, you see, I once lived back East.

This morning I spoke to my wife by phone. She's currently in Massachusetts, where the temperature is hovering around 28 degrees and there's a good foot of snow on the ground. That's lovely, I suppose, in its own way, but you can't compare it with here, or rather, you can, but only at the risk of your marriage. No one back East wants to hear that there is an alternate universe where the sun is always (mostly) shining and people are always smiling at one another and jogging along in their shorts and the surf is always up. It makes them uncomfortable to know this, as though they are trapped, as though they've been doing something terribly wrong all their lives, something that can't ever be corrected. So I don't share much about the weather. My wife says it may snow again, that the sky is darkening up, and I nod sagely from 3,000 miles away and say, "Oh, really? I hadn't heard". I don't tell her what I'm wearing, which isn't much, or that I haven't used the heat in our house for days, or that the camellias are blooming outside our bedroom window. That would be mean, and that's not who I am.



If It Rains on this Parade Don't Look at Me

  • Posted on: 16 February 2013
  • By: readersbooks

the word "dystopia" comes up at a cocktail party most folks think about
the visions left behind by writers like George Orwell and Aldous
Huxley. Orwell's 1984 was based on the fear and jackboot brutality exercised by the State, while Huxley's Brave New World conjured
up a somewhat softer scenario where everyone is lulled or coerced into
doing the bidding of the State with the help of pharmaceuticals. Both
these projections are troubling, but let me suggest another one that's
lurking just over the horizon.

They are working on--or perhaps they already have--televisions
that can peer back at you and adjust their programming to the audience.
A six year old, for example, would not be shown R-rated movies, but
directed instead towards cartoons or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I can
see what the intent is here, but nevertheless, to me, this sounds
positively creepy. I don't need a relationship with a flat screen; it's
bad enough that you can hardly talk to a human being anymore when you
have a question for a corporation.

But wait, there's more, and it's even more daunting: I'm talking
about drones. Right now, the U.S. has armed drones flying over
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Africa, where they target and
eliminate terrorists. Let's leave aside the ethics and the efficacy of
this overseas program for a moment; the bigger problem, in my view, is
that these machines were developed by corporations here, they come in a
variety of shapes and sizes, and businesses have already determined that
they could make good use of them inside the United States. Now, in a
reasonable world, you can see how having a little drone the size of a
bumble bee prowling for forest fires or traffic jams might be useful.
But the trouble is, we don't live in a reasonable world. What if these
things get sold to crazy, irrational, or vindictive individuals? Who is
going to monitor that? The same agencies that monitor gun sales? The
FAA? And what happens when the Chinese get them? Or the Iranians? Or
Mexican drug cartels? With this kind of small, remote, practically
anonymous technology out in the marketplace, how can we ever possibly
ensure the safety or privacy of our citizens?

I don't worry so much anymore about Orwellian and Huxleyan
regimes. We've seen variants of them already in the 20th century. They
come and they go, and ultimately the human spirit seems to triumph in
the end. I do worry about a world that can't cope with the unintended
consequences of its own technology, however. And if soon the sky above
us starts filling with drones, it won't be long before all our
assumptions about freedom and individualism will start to look very
quaint indeed.


Time Will Tell

  • Posted on: 9 February 2013
  • By: readersbooks

In Barbara Tuchman's seminal work on daily life in medieval times, A Distant Mirror, and also in William Manchester's wonderfully similar book, A World Lit Only by Fire, they point out that common folks back then had an extremely narrow prism by which they viewed events. They were illiterate, poorly fed, prone to disease, and what opinions they did express often emanated from the local clergy, who were only slightly better off. Life was nasty, brutish, and short, and real information could often not be gleaned from the rash of rumors that surrounded it.

We like to think that we are more sophisticated than those poor
ancestors of ours, but a quick glance at the internet and whoosh of
white noise it contains should give us pause. Yesterday I read a piece
that purported to be an interview with Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann,
who wanted to ban falafel in public school lunches. Why? Falafel, she
said, is a gateway food. Pretty soon they'll be wanted to eat shawarma
and then who knows, maybe they'll start asking, what other good things
are there in Arabia? This is how suicide bombers get started.

I was going to use this space to respond, but halfway through
the article my critical thinking skills kicked and I realized that while
Michelle Bachmann has been known for some idiotic and wacky ideas, this
one was just beyond the pale. Sure enough, it was a spoof. A spoof
that was now all over the internet.

In an age where examination and research are in short supply,
and where the bonds that connect us frequently come out of a hair-thin
wire from thousands of miles away, who can say how far we've come from
our brothers in the 13th century?


Why Mysteries Matter

  • Posted on: 28 January 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Each month a woman of a certain age comes into our store with a paper bag full of mysteries she has read and wishes to trade in. She always leaves with that same bag refilled with more mysteries, a never ending cycle as it were. As I watched her go out with her new treasures it got me to thinking about the nature of mysteries. Why do so many people love them? It's not about the violence, I've decided; there are plenty of straight-ahead fiction books filled with far worse violence. Nor is it the tragedy of someone killed in some gruesome manner and the effect of this on his or her loved ones, though that can certainly be a part of a mystery. No, what makes mysteries so appealing is that they are, in the end, morality plays wrapped in labyrinths. Someone is killed, and in order to recreate justice and balance in the world, someone else needs to determine what happened. Once that is done, the world is a better place, or at any rate, a safer place for the time being. Occasionally, the seeker is a relative or a by-stander, the school librarian or the small town doctor. Then there are the professional seekers, the Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade detectives we've come to know over the years, burnt out cases who can somehow use their compass to point faithfully towards the truth, even when pickled in alcohol. When we read a mystery then, we (the armchair detective) get to feel good about our rational skills and about a world where fairness and clarity are abide. That's a good thing. Everyone, I think, should experience that kind of happiness.