Thursday, November 24, 2011


With this and next year’s election rapidly approaching, I want to honor an official elected to Washington who put his duty before his ideology to make government do the right thing. Washington Senator, formerly Representative, William Armstrong, a conservative Republican, was my representative in the mid 70s, and he helped me to get part-time employment at the Colorado Springs campus (Cragmor) of The University of Colorado. He is now president of Colorado Christian University.

In ordinary times, a young English Ph.D. does not seek such assistance. But those were not ordinary times. In a few years, a projected scarcity of English Ph.D.’s became a persistent surplus. I was a part of it. At a time of preferential hiring for minorities, women, and those with specialties not mine, few colleges needed another white, male Shakespearean. So I was lucky to get a one-year, full-time position to teach composition in Manhattan, Kansas, and commuted on a fortnightly basis. But, when the Arab Oil Embargo struck, the country cut the speed limit to 55, and my daughter’s first words were “Daddy,” “car,” and “bye-bye,” I resigned and sought part-time work at Cragmor.

I applied but could not get a job. Moonlighting officers teaching English at the Air Force Academy taught the extra courses. I thought it wrong that ranking government employees could take a second job and deny me, a qualified civilian, any job, even a part-time, one. So I did what any trained scholar would do: research.

In turn, I requested the relevant regulations from the Air Force Academy, the Air Force, and the Department of Defense. In turn, although their regulations clearly stated that officers could not take jobs for which civilians were qualified and available, all three denied any violation.

Then I wrote Armstrong, who served on the House Armed Services Committee, with my complaint. I was not surprised when a staffer replied that Armstrong had asked DoD about my complaint and had been assured that the Academy was in full compliance with all relevant regulations.

In the spring of 1974, with President Nixon facing impeachment and others linked to his campaign or administration having given false assurances about their compliance with laws, I wrote Armstrong again, this time to say that I thought his reliance on the word of the accused seemed untimely and unwise. My letter caught his attention and prompted a telephone call directly from him. He told me of his confidence in DoD assurances. I remember my response very clearly.

I said that I was not a lawyer, only an English Ph.D., but that I was sure that every legal document from the U.S. Code to the Academy regulations prohibited competition between officers and civilians for the same job. I said that neither of us could make an interstate bet over the phone but that, if we could, I would wager whatever I was worth to a dollar of his that I was right. Armstrong was impressed. He said that, though he thought the odds were a million to one that I was wrong, he would inquire again.

Two weeks later, Armstrong called. He said that I was absolutely right and that he was flabbergasted and furious that the DoD had lied to him. He said that he would see that my situation was resolved to my satisfaction. The end of the story is short. The Cragmor campus president apologized for my frustrating experience and promised a suitable response; the English department chair invited me to an interview, the purpose of which was to match my interests to unstaffed fall-term courses. Later, he gave me my choice of any spring-term courses.

I tell this story because it has at least three lessons. First, although Armstrong was a strong supporter of the military and trusted it to tell him the truth, when he learned that it had lied to him and had violated the law, he took action to redress its misconduct. (I doubt not that the liaison officer who lied to him and perhaps others involved were reprimanded or reassigned or even encouraged to resign). Second, although he was a conservative Republican and probably imagined that I was anything but, he acted on the principle that justice must be done, regardless of real or presumed differences of politics.

The third lesson includes the first two: Armstrong’s conduct exemplifies what we expect of elected officials: whatever their affiliations or allegiances, duty to truth and right, not ideology, comes first.

In these difficult times, when we lack confidence in government, we must elect officials who, whatever their ideological convictions or political alliances, know their duty to their country and constituents. We must vote for those local, state, and federal officials who know that their duty is not to shirk duty by shrinking government, but to make it work. Conservative Republican William Armstrong knew and did his duty. I honor him for knowing and doing it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


My parents lived through the Great Depression and raised me with attitudes and values which came from living through tough times, weathered or witnessed. Even as a child to the manor born nearly two years before Pearl Harbor, I felt that no good could come of letting the good times roll. As a septuagenarian, I have the same feeling, now reinforced by the facts of my lifetime that no good ever did come of the good times.

Two qualifying notes: One, although what follows focuses on individuals and not on institutions, I know full well that it takes both to make the mess in which we are in find ourselves. But we are the people, and if our institutions disserve us, we have to take personal responsibility that their failures reflect our deficiencies. Two, when I speak of Boomers and Boomlets, I speak not of an entire age cohort, but of that part of it once mostly white, middle-class, and suburban; now more diverse racially and economically. Yet I know that many of those whom I omit have succumbed to the pervasive and pernicious socio-cultural influence of suburbanites since the end of WWII. I generalize in the service of truth as I see it.

My father was too old for the Second World War, so I was not a child of The Greatest Generation. Lucky me. Many of that generation were hard workers and great fighters, to whom great tribute is due, and Ted Koppel has capped his career by paying it on our behalf.

But many were lousy parents. They over-compensated for their deprivations and hardships by indulging themselves when they returned from war. They left the crowded cities for the sprawling suburbs; weakened the family and social networks which guide and nurture adults and children; in an unprecedented buying spree, bought homes, appliances, and cars; and increasingly, left home for two jobs to pay for them. TVs instead of tables became the centerpiece of family togetherness, with everyone watching the Box, not conversing with each other.

Self-indulgence became generational. Thus arose the Boomer Generation, those born after 1945, many of whom grew up believing themselves entitled to whatever they want when they want it, and feel victimized or become resentful if they do not get it. Self-centered and materialistic, they have lived on credit consumerism without saving and avoided sacrifice by opposing, then eliminating, the draft. With the economy in its worst condition since the 1930s, they sense that the bill is coming due, but, neither well raised by parents nor well educated by teachers, they have no clue.

Thus raised, thus self-replicating, as many Boomers raised their children—I call them Boomlets—even more self-centered and materialistic, and increasingly clueless about anything resembling the real world. Instead, they are well versed in “reality shows”—a fitting phrase for the confusion of the real and the illusory. They are equally steeped in the inanities of Twitter and Facebook, the perfect technologies to divert the idle or mindless into revealing the triviality or vacuity of their lives in trivial or vacuous messages, complete with pictures. Their idea of getting serious is distilling their political and social wisdom into semi-literate, 140-character, messages of even less value than 30-second sound bites.

Boomers then and Boomlets now are incapable of more, for they can no longer offer a sensible account of any choices affecting their lives. A recent study found that young adults cannot make a moral argument about what is right or wrong, and, indeed, seem not to understand the concepts of right and wrong. They deem judgment unfavorably—don’t be so judgmental, they say—as much because they have been taught (judgmentally) that it is wrong as because it is do intellectually and morally demanding.

Boomers and Boomlets received, and want their children to receive, an education reflecting their lifestyle: teachers who cater, or pretend to cater, to individual learning styles and needs; courses which stress self-expression and relevancy; and social promotion, high test scores, and excuses to celebrate a graduation or a diploma. Long gone are rigorous curriculums of structured sequence of information and skills to be acquired and applied, as the basis for what matters in education: inquiry, critical thinking, and problem solving. For them, formal education is too stifling and difficult, and jeopardizes self-esteem. The result is a dark hole of ignorance and ill manners which is sucking almost all politicians into it, in a race to the center of stupidity and boorishness. Educated, decorous candidates are, by definition, elitists, not ordinary Americans like them.

Boomers and Boomlets have lived in denial of reality, but reality has not lived in denial of them. The infantilism of frustration at this confrontation shows itself in their temper tantrums: the tempest in the Tea Party, as it were, in the run-up to the 2010 election; and the inchoate gatherings of the Occupy Any-and-Every Place movement now the run-up to the 2012 election. Indeed, even as they indulged personal pleasures, they abdicated political responsibilities. Not surprisingly, they are surprised that the vacuum created by their vacuity powerful commercial interests have been happy to fill. The empty and hateful sloganeering on the Right and Left; the angry and indiscriminate flailing at Big Business or Big Government; the swinging-to and swinging-fro in responses to candidates, one dumber than another—such emotional and erratic behavior reflects those without mental or moral compasses.

The economy has collapsed, probably not soon to recover, because Boomers and Boomlets built it, not on the rock of self-improvement and productivity, but on the sands of indulgence and pleasure. The mental and moral slovenliness of it all is coming home, not just to haunt us, but also to hurt us. Paradoxically, as many Boomers and Boomlets are getting dumber, they are getting more resentful of, or cynical about, hard workers, smart thinkers, and those who make sacrifices to serve their community or country. They sense that they are likely forever on the outside looking in. They blame everyone else, accuse bankers of ripping them off and elected officials of failing them—right they partly are—scapegoat minorities, and complain that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Actually, they have headed in the wrong direction, and arrived in a bad place. Any escape is possible only by the miracle of realizing that they must perform a miracle: unlearn everything which they think they know or want to believe about life. No more “you deserve a [whatever] today”; more “you want it, you work, earn, and save for it.” If it is too late for you, then teach your child or grandchild what you have learned at last: the meaning of “no” and the value of “not now.”

I do not believe in miracles. Boomers and Boomlets will go bust and take everyone else, and the country, along with them. Everyone else is not only old fogies like me, but also, among others, many in the few remaining factories, many in the few remaining family farms and ranches, and many in the military who seek to improve themselves and serve something other than themselves.

On this day after Veterans Day, this veteran notes that too many Boomers and Boomlets let others take the risks and suffer the consequences, and give them mouth-honor in return, if they return. But themselves sacrifice for country or serve the community, work hard to grow them well, or get smart to guide them wisely—surely, they think, I suffer from shell-shock.