Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silliness Within the Sadness

The recent tragedy in Tucson didn't bring an end to the silliness that has inspired my posts recently. First the Sheriff of Pima County blamed the shootings on the degradation of political discourse. Apparently he is more politician than law enforcement officer and couldn't see the event as another deranged person bent on destruction. Predictably the media picked up the scent and went bonkers on the sheriff's idea. Never mind that there is no evidence to support that. It's all a waste of bandwith.

The tragedy is that the real problem is being ignored: the lamentable state of the law and mental health services in this country. In several of my careers I have to deal with people who are bi-polar, schizophrenic, and disordered, and the aftermath of their untreated illnesses from wasted governmental resources to children whose lives are forever scarred. Now we have murders to add to the bill. Virginia Tech all over except now we have a live defendant to sketch in a courtroom.

I hear from advocates about the rights of mental health patients and even their right to refuse treatment. Crazy people have a right to their craziness even if they end up homeless and potentially violent.

But they don't have that right.

Government and society have a responsibility to protect themselves from those who would do harm and people with demonstrable mental health issues fall in that category. Police and courts need more tools to prevent the mentally ill from harming others, harming themselves, and becoming a burden to society. The definition of a dangerous mental illness needs to be revisited along with the resources available to treat people. Alas in this era of shrinking public budgets we can only look forward to more tragedies like Tucson and then endless litigation about whether a defendant is fit to stand trial or is not-guilty by reason of insanity.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Captain - Not

More silliness. Although I will grant the U.S. Navy absolute discretion in who they appoint as captains of their warships I wonder if the recent relief of Captain Owen Honors as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise is either wise as a principle of military leadership or a proper use of taxpayer dollars.

Four years ago Honors was the Executive Officer (XO) of the Enterprise and while on deployment made a series of videos to bolster crew morale. Deployments on carriers last six months or more and become very tedious. Crew members describe the experience of a long cruise as like the movie Groundhog Day, the same thing day after day. In an environment where all members of the team have to be on their toes at all times morale is very important. So the XO, himself a Top Gun fighter pilot, undertook to poke fun at himself and the Navy. The videos were broadcast throughout the ship and, from a crew of 5,000 men and women, some were offended. That he had time to do the videos is an indication of just how much time people have on their hands aboard ship. I've seen the clips and found them within the boundaries of college and GI humor.

This all happened between three and four years ago. Honors progressed through the pretty-stiff process of qualifying as captain of one of the Navy's most important assets and was about to ship out to support the war in Afghanistan. Then clips from the videos were released and the admirals and cable channels went totally nuts. He was relieved of command, effectively the end of his Navy career. Not only that, the Enterprise has to get a new captain just as they are shipping out.

But the Navy has spent millions, maybe tens of millions, to bring this man to this point only to fire him for off-color satire he did four years ago! Since he made it to captain I assume that he is otherwise qualified for the job and not just a clown. To increase the silliness the Navy is on the hunt for any of his superiors who were aware of the videos (shades of Tailhook). To what end, prosecution of bad comedy? Wasting Navy time? Undoubtedly prejudicial to good order and discipline, a crime in the military. What if they find out this sort of thing happens on all the ships?

During the Civil War people complained to President Lincoln that General Ulysses Grant drank too much (not really true and never on the job). Lincoln replied, "I can't spare this man. He fights!" For the men and women who fight unseen and far away this American will grant them their bad jokes. Alas, the waste of good people is no joke.

PC Huckleberry Finn

The news item about a publisher cleaning up Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to eliminate references to "the N-word" is both laughable and lamentable. The work is in the public domain so there are no copyright issues or control to be exerted by the author's heirs so I suppose that the publisher is well within their rights to change the text in any way they like. They argue that this change will bring new readers to the work, as if Twain has been falling out of fashion. This is a silly nod to political correctness.

I think this move is an abomination, worse than colorizing black and white movies or putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo's David. Without launching into an analysis of the work Twain used the vernacular of the day to emphasize the discrimination against African Americans, which Twain abhorred, and Jim's humanity.

President Harry Truman (whose grandfather held slaves) used the same term in private correspondence and went on to desegregate the armed forces. Yet historians would use the former as evidence that Truman was fundamentally racist. No, Truman was just a man of his time who changed with the times.

I have written an historical novel, 104,000 words from the point of view of a slave. Omitting the N-word would make the work incomplete and dishonest. Omitting the word from Twain's work makes it incomplete and dishonest. Don't buy it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Lost Cause

From news accounts (to be accepted with some caution) the controversy over The War Between the States - The Civil War - The War of the Rebellion - The War of Northern Aggression - is increasing in volume with the observance ("celebration" is an inappropriate term) of the sesquicentennial of the secession of states and the ensuing bloodbath. Although not a card-carrying Civil War geek, I am knowledgeable about the period 1850-1870 and am prepared to engage in a civil, rational, evidence-based discussion. Anything that you hear or read in the next four years on this topic should be viewed with the same skepticism as any contemporary news accounts so draw no conclusions until you know the facts. In the interest of full disclosure my second grandfather David Morgan had a son on each side (they survived).

A common piece you will see published is titled something like "Myths of the Civil War." These are bulleted, dumbed-down lists intended to be consumed between bites of cereal or page views. I find some of the myths laughable, but considering the (reported) level of knowledge of Americans many might believe them. So I guess that dispelling some of these assumptions is appropriate. But please don't base your study of history on bulleted lists. Who is writing and who is being quoted and why?

Once a journalist asked me the cause of The Great Depression. I replied that there are several depending on the historian. The journalist had a deadline and said, "choose two." So much for history in the newspapers.

I can hold forth on some of my own opinions about conditions and events in 1861, but will save them for online discussion groups and email exchanges. Anyone interested in The Civil War has tens of thousands of references to consult (probably more than any other subject) whether they are interested in politics, battles, or the lives of civilians and soldiers. Just the study of the study of the war - who is writing and why - is a lively sub-genre of the topic. Then there is the sub-sub-genre of which this post is part, the study of the study of the study of the Civil War.