Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Look at an Old Legend

Doc by Mary Doria Russell, read by Mark Bramhall

My dad loved the old westerns on TV.  I grew up watching Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and all the rest.  It took me forever to sort out who was real and who was fictional.

It helps that I enjoy reading American history and I especially like the fictionalized history -- stories that are true to the facts and embellish them with a bit of well congered-up fiction to give the stories a little life.

Given all that, I took up this the biography of Doc Holliday with some anticipation.

I remember Doc Holliday mostly and the older, vaguely disreputable pal of Wyatt Earp, the handsome TV marshal of Dodge City.  I think Matt Dillon also had a Doc and I probably have confused attributes of the two shows.

It hardly matters because neither character had the barest resemblance to the

John Henry Holliday was, in fact, a well-educated man from a good family in Georgia.  When he was about 21, he contracted tuberculosis and that defined the 15 years of his life.

Doc was already a fairly successful dentist by the age of 26 when he had to give up his practice and move west in the hope of finding a climate that might support his increasingly failing health.

He ended up in Dodge City where his life -- and the legend -- became forever entwined with Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Bat Masterson, and other historical figures.

This book, like other historical novels, goes beyond the task of telling us something a bit truer about lionized and largely misrepresented historical characters.  In fact, the ironic truth of the best of these stories is that much of the mundane truth is more fantastic and amazing the the fantacy.

They also give us some insight into a truly astonishing part of our history.  In this book as in others about such characters as Kit Carson (Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides) and Calamity Jane (Buffalo Gals by Larry McMurtry), you see the old west as something rougher and scarier and yet somehow kinder and more hopeful.

This book is well written and well researched and the story of Doc Holliday's struggle to survive and live a good life is compelling.  Holliday was also a man of high morals and strong ideals.  In many ways, he embodies some of the best of the American spirit.  If you are an American History buff or if you just like a strong, moving story about the human struggle, this is a good good book.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How We Got Where We Are and What Now?

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation

by Thomas Frank and read by Oliver Wyman

Thomas Frank offers one answer to the question of where we are and how we got here. In a way, his answer reminds me of the old joke about the guy who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

Frank begins his discussion of the modern Conservative movement with a disclaimer.  He is not, he says, talking about the sincere citizen who lives in the heartland, works hard, invests his or her earnings, raises children, etc.  By and large, according to Frank, these good citizens are, in the end, more seriously deceived than anyone else.

That is because the Conservative leadership Frank is discussing has taken conservative ideas long held by those folks - a belief in good pay for good work, small government, and low taxes - and corrupted those core beliefs beyond recognition.

Modern American Conservatism, according to Frank, is deceptive at its core.  In fact, lying - lying big - is one of the basic strategies of the current Conservative movement. Winning is the only goal and "by any means necessary" is perfectly acceptable.

Starting with the premise that government, just by virtue of being government, is bad, Conservatives have worked diligently for the past 30 years to destroy government at all levels.

The strategy they have used is both successful and profitable.  You simply replace competent, experienced people at all levels of government service with people who have no earthly idea what they are doing.  The only real qualification for a job is that the candidate is a conservative ideologue who has some connections. If they are wealthy, so much the better.  If they are not, they will be by the time they leave their new jobs.

For the most part, these people just destroy the departments they head.  You end up with a Secretary of Education who does not believe in public education, a Labor Secretary who believes her agency exists to serve the needs of business, an a FEMA director whose very first experience with actual disaster was Hurricane Katrina.

Michael D. Brown, the infamous "Brownie," failed to manage any kind of Katrina recovery and the folks in New Orleans are still suffering the consequences.  But, for the Conservatives who put him in that position, the failure is just what was needed.  In their view, government failed once again. Because clearly, government does not work.  It is not anyone's fault, really. It's just that government does not work.

Frank says Conservatives have systematically destroyed government services by putting them in the hands of utter incompetents and then complaining bitterly that they don't work.  We end up with a situation in which "government service" at any level is contemptible and, by its nature incompetent.  This has some peculiar and perverse advantages.

It allows conservatives to turn every thing topsy turvey. For one thing, we don't expect much of elected representatives and even less of government service providers.  Modern Conservatives have positioned themselves as perpetual "outsiders" even when they have a conservative president and control of the Congress.

Modern Conservatives are never accountable for failures, for example, partly because they abdicate the problems by not attempting to deal with them. Whatever does not work is always the fault of someone else.  Any short coming is always a problem of failing to go far enough.

For example, consider the issue of the deficits.  The simple fact is that deficits serve the Conservative agenda and the bigger the deficit the better.  That is because big deficits are the main excuse for cutting programs the Conservative leadership does not like and for slashing taxes - to strengthen the economy by diverting funds and programs and services to business. 

Business and the free market running exclusively in its own best interest is always automatically working for its own good and everyone benefits.  It all works perfectly except when it doesn't and then you just go back and blame it all on the failure of government, on over-regulation, and on taxes.

It has been a winning strategy.  But the cost is high and, until fairly recently, largely hidden.

If you are interested in politics, interested in how we got into our current predicament, and interested in where we are heading, this book should be one of the tools you turn to for answers.