The Banners of Freedom and Eccentricity: Long May They Wave!

Alabama-state-flag

I recently swapped an American flag for an Alabama flag to display in my yard.  Long may the banners of freedom and eccentricity wave!

Regarding this recent dustup over President Trump’s call to fire NFL players who refuse to salute the flag, I find myself agreeing with a guy named John Gabriel, editor of the center-right site known as Ricochet.com.

Gabriel points out – rightly – that life affords us a myriad of pleasures.  Why  sit around debating such a contentious topic on social media when we can choose from a variety of alternatives? Heck, we could even organize our own amateur football league, if we wished.  After all, this isn’t North Korea.

Granted, like many other stodgy old middle-aged white guys, I wonder sometimes where all this political correctness nonsense is taking us. The fact that a large percentage  of snowflakes – I mean, uh, millennials – support bans on what they consider hateful speech should concern all of us.

For now, though, free speech and all the other freedoms so many of us seem to take wantonly for granted remain pretty much intact – or, at least, seem to be.  And Gabriel is right to stress that all of us should indulge that liberty to the fullest degree possible. And as I see it, we should feel fortunate that advances in digital media have enabled us to exercise our First Amendment rights to a degree scarcely unimaginable only a few decades ago.

In the course of affirming my right of free speech, I also freely and happily indulge my ample genetic endowment of eccentricity.  I’ve always reveled in my eccentricity – just ask my parents. Eccentricity has pretty much been my modus operandi for as long as I remember.

Case in point: I’ve been enraged ever since President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the display of Confederate flags in national cemeteries, even where Confederate soldiers are buried.  So, I, a proud son of the South and a lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, decided to impose a ban on Federal flags on my property.  Now days I fly only the flag of the sovereign state of Alabama atop my very conspicuous flag pole, which occupies a elevated point on my property, which, incidentally is situated on the corner of a very  busy and visible intersection in my local college town.

Like millions of other Americans, I exercise my freedom in more subtle, less eccentric ways. Millionaire athletes can squat during the national anthem until the cows come home, but I’ll not watch another NFL football game for as long as this protest persists. And when players pull that stuff at the college level, I’ll swear off collegiate level football too. I am not going to be preached to while I recreate – not by left-wing zealots, not by right-wing zealots.

Yes, I know that will strike some people as hypocritical, given the fact that I’m staging my own personal flag protest.  But there is a critical distinction: I’m staging my protest as a private property owner, while these players are the employees of private corporations. They’re perfectly entitled to act out their grievances, but they should be aware that they are working for private companies whose fortunes rise and fall on the support of their fans.   Simply put, they should be prepared to take their lumps.

I’m engaging in some other silent protests, too.  As far as I’m concerned, George Clooney and that strawberry actress, Julianne Moore, can denigrate Confederate heritage all they want, but I will never darken the door of a theater in which their likenesses appear.  As far as I’m concerned, they have no role to play in framing the moral and cultural debate in this country. They are performers – gifted ones, yes – but not political philosophers or moral sages.

I employ a similar strategy with the TV “comedians” John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher and Steven Colbert, two of whom are not even citizens. Indeed here is a part of me that considers it flagrantly unfair that these two transplants – Oliver and Noah – earn millions of dollars while denigrating this country, particularly the South.  I’d prefer that they go to the trouble of earning their citizenship first.  Whatever the case, I’ll just continue surfing past them.

So, in the interests of clarity:  I’ll summarize all of this as succinctly as I know how and in true reckneck/deplorable fashion: To hell with the NFL and Big Entertainment.

And, while I’m at it, to hell with the neo-Puritanical Yankee temperament that is driving so much of this madness and that seems hellbent on reforming everybody and everything within its clammy reach.  As eccentric as this may sound to some readers, I really believe that neo-Puritanical sentiment is the approximate cause of much of what is wrong with modernity and, for that matter, with a rather large percentage of humanity.

I’ll stop while I’m still ahead.

Thanks, all of you, for your indulgence and for this exercise of free speech.  I feel much better now.

Have a nice day.

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Why I Can’t Stop Watching the Exorcist

Exorcist-Puppet

The puppet used for special effects in The Exorcist (1973). Photo: Courtesy of Pollack man34

Every time I encounter The Exorcist while channel surfing I invariably end up watching all of it.

I can’t help myself.  I’ve always been fascinated with the film, though for largely unconventional reasons.

Though only an pre-teen when the film came out, I vividly recall the news accounts of all the swooning, vomiting and even passing out in movie lobbies. I and others in my small northwest Alabama town were entreated by ministers to steer clear of that film, lest we be pulled into Satan’s inescapable grip.

Of course, all this fear, all these dire warnings by ministers, priests and other authority figures, provided writer and filmmaker William Peter Blatty, the movie’s producer, with the ultimate trove of ballyhoo, all the extravagant hype that film studios typically develop on their own to generate interest in newly released films.

It was years before I finally got to see The Exorcist, and while I was never trapped by Satan’s grip – at least, as far as I can tell – I came away a devoted admirer of the film.

First of all, I’m struck by the stark contrasts depicted throughout the film.

Most of the plot unfolds in a spacious, unusually well-appointed home in Georgetown, occupied by Chris MacNeil (depicted by Ellen Burstyn), a famed actress, quintessential beautiful person, and popular fixture of the Georgetown cultural set.  All of this sophisticated placidity ultimately is disrupted by her daughter, Regan (played by Linda Blair), who, McNeil reluctantly concludes, is possessed by a demon – even  worse an ectoplasm-spewing, superhumanly agile, and, as we soon learn, homicidal one.

The possession apparently stems from the hapless Regan’s experimentation with a Ouija board through which she encounters what initially seems to be a benign character who refers to itself as Captain Howdy.

And this possession is further complicated by MacNeil’s own form of possession: lingering guilt over her divorce, which appears to have been an exceptionally ugly one, complicated by all the motherly concern about how this turmoil has contributed to Regan’s alienation and unhappiness.

I am also intrigued by the complex characters of the two priests in the film – Fathers Damien Karras (portrayed by Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (played by Max von Sydow). Both are are not only priests but also trained scientific specialists who are forced, certainly reluctantly in Karras’ case, to walk a thin line between modernity and Medieval supernaturalism.

Karras, a Jesuit-educated psychiatrist, even struggles with a wrenching crisis of faith, complicated by the death of his mother.

His sense of doubt is so pervasive that he mildly upbraids MacNeil when she raises the question of Regan’s possession:  “There are no experts. You probably know as much about possession than most priests. Look, your daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. And if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you’d know it’s like saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte.”

All of this primeval doubt and possession among the principal characters are much of what makes the The Exorcist so compelling.

Most of all, though, I’m struck by how The Exorcist serves as a sort of looking glass into the cultural upheavals the early 1970’s.

The film was released at a remarkable cultural juncture in history, when American faith in material progress was increasingly ridden with doubt, almost a wrenching, neurotic sense of doubt.

This is not surprising, of course, given what was unfolding throughout the country and the world at the time.  Americans faced the impending end of the conflict in Vietnam and, with it, the emerging realization that communism not only was on the march but was seemingly even tightening its noose on the West.   The Watergate scandal was unfolding at the time, too, underscoring to Americans that their president and much of the political class were far removed from the singular and morally unblemished individuals we once assumed they were.  Add to that  the chronic fear of nuclear annihilation, chronic stagflation, the energy crisis and a growing awareness of our planet’s fragile and vulnerable biosphere.

A deep sense of self-doubt – what President Jimmy Carter would describe later in the decade as as a national malaise – had taken hold of the American psyche in the early Seventies. And this was reflected in second doubts not only about politics but also about scientific achievement and progress that had carried American society and the rest of the West so far over the course of the 20th century.

Perhaps like no other film of its era, The Exorcist reflected the hiccup that was occurring throughout America and the rest of the West as growing numbers of Americans sorted out the implications of rapid social, political and cultural change and upheaval so inextricably bound up with American life early 1970’s.  Americans faced a sort of existential crisis, the effects of which linger today, almost a half century since the film’s release.

Posted in American History, Jim Langcuster, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Southern Academia’s Palpable Confederate Legacy

James-Henry-Lane

James Henry Lane, the Confederate States’ youngest general and, later, a Civil Engineering professor at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University).

Aside from being Orwellian, the effort under way at many of the South’s premiere universities to expunge their Confederate past strikes me as, well, a bit Kafkaesque, if not a little tragicomedic.

For better or worse, the Confederacy has left an indelible mark on the South – perhaps not so much because of the Confederacy itself  – Confederate identity never progressed beyond an incipient phase during the war – but rather as a result of the sense of deprivation and dispossession that followed in war’s aftermath. Indeed, the strong case can be made – and has – that Southern identity was forged on the crucible of Reconstruction.

Virtually all modern Americans are blissfully unaware of how Southern suffering born of the struggle for independence and the turmoil that followed produced what amounted to psychological break with American identity that stubbornly endured for decades.

It’s one of those many unpalatable historical truths that have been conveniently swept under the American historical rug. Until the Spanish-American War, many post-war Southerners set aside July 4th to commemorate the fall of Vicksburg rather than the founding of the United States.

Likewise, we forget that many Southern higher education institutions established after the Civil War sprouted from those embittered passions, including Auburn University, a land-grant institution founded years after the war. While I hail from a University of Alabama background,  I completed a 29-year career on the Auburn campus working as a Cooperative Extension news and public affairs specialist and strove to educate myself about the institution’s history.

One of Auburn’s first civil engineering professors was Confederate Brigadier Gen. James Henry Lane, the Confederacy’s youngest general, who is interred at Pine Hill Cemetery, where many of the institution’s historical luminaries are buried.

Lane was also the father-in-law of George Petrie, the author of the Auburn Creed.

The building in which I worked, Duncan Hall, was named after Luther Duncan, a native of my hometown, and a former Auburn president and Alabama Extension director. Duncan was a charter member of the Robert E. Lee Camp 16, Sons of Confederate Veterans, of which I served as camp commander some twenty years ago. In fact, several the buildings on campus bear the names of men who once belonged to that camp.

The City of Auburn was also considered a hotbed of secessionist sentiment in the 1850’s, and Alexander Stephens and several other Southern statesmen who would become high officials in the Confederate Government spoke at Langdon Hall, an antebellum structure that is now located on the campus.

William Lowndes Yancey, considered by many as the father of Southern nationalism, was a frequent guest at Pebble Hill, an antebellum home that now comprises part of the Auburn University campus.

The City of Auburn also possesses one of several remarkable but largely forgotten Confederate artifacts: a so-called “Jefferson Davis rock.”

In the course of traveling by train to his presidential inauguration in the provisional Confederate capital of Montgomery, Jefferson Davis was expected to speak to local townspeople at every major depot. One of the stops was Auburn, which constituted the last leg of Davis’ rendezvous with destiny.

Davis typically scouted out a stone on which to stand while completing his impromptu remarks.  One such stone, bearing a conspicuous marker, still stands, obscurely but defiantly, next to the old Auburn Depot.

Speaking of Pine Hill Cemetery, some 100 Confederate soldiers, mostly from Texas, were buried in a mass grave following a deadly outbreak of infection at the local military hospital where these wounded men were recovering. One can still discern the indention in the ground that was left as these bodies decomposed.

Of course, within the last generation or so, Auburn, like other Research I Southern universities, has made a concerted effort to downplay this historical legacy.

One of Auburn’s presidents, William Van Muse,  once cited the relocation of the Kappa Alpha Order House and the ending of its Old South Parade as one of the conspicuous achievements of his Auburn career.  The fraternity, which maintains strong symbolic links with the Old South and the Confederacy, once caused the university and surrounding city all manner of embarrassment. Adding insult to injury, the KA House was located on main street, not too far from the heart of the Auburn campus.

Muse employed his singular personality and crack negotiating skills – yes, I’m typing with tongue firmly planted in cheek  – to relocate the house and to put an end to the parade.

I recall Muse once expressing stupefaction over why Auburn people and Southerners in general were so caught up with a war that lasted only 4 years.

Talk about a clueless college administrator!

There are many other ways, subtle ways, in which Auburn has abnegated its conspicuous Confederate roots.

Over the course of my career, I passed Auburn student tour guides many times on my walk to lunch.  A time or two I overheard these guides giddily informing prospective students of the many prominent Civil War-era figures who spoke at Langdon Hall in the years leading up to the Civil War.   Of course, they conveniently failed to mention who these “figures” were, though on more than one occasion, I noted that Abraham Lincoln was cited as one of the speakers.

I was tempted a time or two to interject that if Abraham Lincoln had been spotted in secessionist Auburn in or around 1860, he most assuredly would have been tarred and feathered, if not drawn and quartered.

Suffice it to say that efforts to expel the gray – and, I should stress, palpable and formative – ghosts of the Confederacy are proceeding apace on Southern university campuses, including, I’m sorry to say, my local one.

But I wonder: Is it even possible to expunge a past so inextricably linked with the present?

Posted in Alabama Political History, Confederate States, Jim Langcuster, Political Correctness, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s Left When There’s Nothing Left to Unite Us?

washington-statue

George Washington statue at the Virginia State Capitol.  Photo Courtesy of Albert Herring.

The subject of American unity,  raised by Pat Buchanan in his latest and previous columns, has fascinated me for a long time, as many of my readers have surmised by now.

More than a century ago in the decades following the Civil War, our forebears constructed what an old friend aptly described as a “tacit agreement” between Northerners and defeated Southerners. In return for an enduring respect for the courage and valor of the Southern fighting man, Southerners pledged their troth to the American Union.

Of course, this sectional healing was more than helped by America’s upward ascent toward becoming the world’s unrivaled economic and military power, one that was completed at the close of War War II.

All of this is changing. As recent events in Charlottesville and other localities have demonstrated, our national elites have essentially reneged on this tacit agreement. In elite circles, public affirmations of respect for the Confederate fighting man and the Confederate legacy in general are now considered hateful rhetoric. Late in his term, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the display of Confederate flags in federal cemeteries, even where Confederate slain are interred. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has even called for expunging all statues in the Capitol bearing any connection with the late Confederate States, even though states historically have been entitled to select who represents them in Statuary Hall.

Equally significant, within the quarter century following the collapse of communism, this country’s hard-earned reputation as the world’s most successful experiment in democracy and material progress has undergone precipitous decline

And this brings us back to the theme of Pat Buchanan’s latest column. If nothing is left to believe in and to unite us, where are we left as citizens of a republic that purports to be the world’s first propositional one, united not by blood but by a common belief in certain sacred principles? And for that matter, who or what steps in to fill this breach?

As I related just this morning at breakfast to a close friend, elites scarcely are aware of the benefits this country derived from this tacit agreement forced a century ago.

The risk we face is that more and more Southerners – white Southerners – are going to connect the dots. It’s finally going to occur to them: Why should they be carrying this empire’s water – why should the enlisted Southern men and women in uniform continue to bear a disproportionate share of this nation’s military burdens –  if they (or, at least, their history, which encompasses not only Lee and Stonewall Jackson but also Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Andrew Jackson, to name only a few) are consigned in moral and cultural terms to the ashbin?

I know that sounds like hateful and unpatriotic talk to many, but it’s something that sooner or later is going to have to be raised and considered.  And the implications to the future of this republic are, needless to say, troubling.

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Lessons from an Aging High School Cheerleader

A perversely interesting article in the Daily Mail about the frustrations of attractive, middle-aged women struggling to date prompted some reflection on why I was ecstatically, almost deliriously happy when I finally slipped the engagement ring onto the finger of my future wife in late December, 1986.

After more than a decade of dating, first, as an awkward teenager, then as college student and, finally, and worst of all, as a single guy working my first job in a college town, I was finally through with all it – all those years of anguish, frustration, bitterness, self-recrimination and, yes, even self-loathing. 

The article not only prompted memories of those painful years but also of a truly revealing conversation I had a few years ago with an attractive middle-aged woman who had been a cheerleader at her local small-town Alabama high school.|

Needless to say, for a small-town kid, especially a geek like me, cheerleaders constituted the Holy Grail of dating. 

I knew intuitively where the conversation would lead. From puberty, all the way through high school, she confessed being attracted only to one type of guy. She struggled to come up with the right description.

I quickly filled the breach.

“Do you mean ‘bad boys?'” I asked. 

 “Yes, precisely!” she replied, her aging but petite features becoming animated, mental gears ginning up below that platinum blonde hair-dye. 

I couldn’t repress a smile. I had offered a delicate substitute for the label I had improvised decades earlier for this male archetype: “whoop ass.”

I knew quite a lot of them growing up.

In fact, whenever I’m reminded of this testosterone-throttled quintessence, I’m invariably taken back to a scene in the 1987 movie Broadcast News, when the teen-aged Aaron Altmann, played by Albert Brooks, is thrased by three such bad boys.

“Go, ahead, Stephen, take your last licks,” Altmann proclaims. “What I’m gonna say can never been erased – it’ll scar you for ever!  You’ll never make more than $19,000 a year!”

“Nineteen-thousand dollars? Not bad!” one of them, walking away from the pummeling, giddily exclaims, failing to account for long-term inflation – a perceptive piece of screenwriting, but that’s another story.

Back to the aging cheerleader…

She went into this long self-reflection about about how she was always attracted to boad boy types, adding that she couldn’t understand why she never found “geeks” (like me) attractive – the ones who “went on to college, built successful careers, were polished, and knew and talked about interesting things.”

Then, ending it with a hint of resignation, she sighed and observed, “But, you know, if I had life to do over again, I’d do the same thing.”

I quickly formulated a response, one that, from my perspective as a high-school geek was heartfelt and reflected years of pent-up frustration.

“Yes, I’m sure you would.”

Granted, not all women are alike – not by any stretch of the imagination. But in most small-town Southern high schools like the one I grew up in, the whoop-ass archetype constituted the paragon of manhood for most girls, especially those we considered at the time as “blue-chip girls.”

 That’s why my first reaction to reading this article was knee-jerk.

“These women have spent a lifetime chasing whoop-asses and now they’ve finally settled down and all the decent men are gone. Great! Karma truly is a bitch!” I thought to myself.

 Then the thought occurred to me: I’m shamelessly stereotyping an entire sex. And certainly outside of my small-town Appalachian bubble, this was by no means normative line of thinking.

 Even so, I found it a rather interesting read. The moments of self-reflection and self-pitying that followed provided me with a small measure of catharsis after a passage of almost two generations.

But then, this geek, this rather unrepentant geek, has has come a long way from awkward adolescence and early adulthood.

I’m proud, immensely proud, of that fact.

And one thing of which I’m certain:  I’m thankful, damned thankful, to be married and out of the dating game, hopefully for the rest of my life.

In fact, I hope my wife outlives me, if only to ensure that I am never tempted to return to dating. 

Posted in Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Reinvention of England

English-flag

The St. George’s flag of England displayed at Leeds Townhall, 2009.  Picture: Courtesy of Mtaylor848.

A generation ago, English journalist and columnist Simon Heffer wrote a splendid book titled “Nor Shall My Sword,” about the resurgence of English nationalism that likely would follow in the wake of Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

Granted, English identity is arguably a kind of default or quid pro quo nationalism – a natural response to the eroding sense of British identity and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Yet, the remarkable fact remains that an identity that slumbered for centuries is reasserting itself.

I’ve asserted several times within this forum that I consider myself a post-Confederate, post-racial Southern nationalist.   And if the events unfolding in Britain drive home one truth, it’s that national identities are fully capable of reasserting themselves, even after a passage of centuries and despite their being derided as retrograde by elites.

And that is precisely why I don’t buy into the notion that Southern identity has gone the way of the dodo bird, as some left-leaning pundits steadfastly contend. As more states and regions throughout the United States begin reasserting their sovereignty, the South, which historically has embodied the most significant alternative to prevailing American national identity, will begin to rethink and to reassert its own place within the American cultural and federal matrix.

That is why I consider a recent piece by Richard Wood, a young Scottish columnist, as so valuable and relevant. It cites the enormous benefits of genuine federalism – how the four autonomous British nations, empowered with most of the attributes of genuine nationhood, will be capable of immense innovation and progress, demonstrating to other nations that 20th century cookie-cutter notions of centralized governance are no longer tenable within a flattened, digitized information economy.

Polls have shown as much as 59 percent support for a devolved English Parliament. And the United Kingdom appears to be drawing ever closer to a federal union, one that would operate under a written constitution, which would delineate the powers to which each of the four British nations – England, Scotland, Ulster and Wales – would be entitled as autonomous states.

The United States would have much to learn from a union that viewed federalism as seriously as it once did – excuse me, as THEY once did.

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Britain’s Gorbachev Moment

CIS

Representatives of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine meeting in secret to sign the Belavezha Accords, aimed at replacing the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States.  (Photo: Courtesy of Russian International News Agency.)

It seems that Great Britain is arguably at the same place the decaying Soviet Union was almost 30 years ago: Either it finds a way – a constitutional mechanism – for devolving power back to the four historic British nations or it eventually succumbs to secessionist pressures, namely from Scotland.

To put it another way, Britain is essentially facing the same dilemma as the besieged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as he struggled to cobble together a new constitution to entice fassiparous Soviet republics into a looser, more equitable union.

And it seems that the United States, too, is being drawn into its own Gorbachev moment.

Not only California but also a growing number of other American states, large and small and in every corner of the American Union, are evincing, well, if not fassiparous tendencies, at least a desire to eke out more autonomy vis-a-vis Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before in this forum, Gar Alperovitz, a left-leaning devolutionary scholar, predicated at least a decade ago that some form of California devolution was inevitable. In a manner of speaking, Trump’s electoral victory only hastened this inevitability.

And one should pay special attention to what, in effect, is the fall-back position for the “Yes, California!” Campaign: if not full-blown Golden State secession, at least a “fully functioning sovereign and autonomous nation” within the U.S.”

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but that is precisely the way our constitutional framers originally envisioned the American Union. James Madison, widely reputed as the father of the American Constitution, envisioned the American federation:  as “a system founded in popular rights and so combining a federal form with the forms of INDIVIDUAL REPUBLICS (emphasis added), as may enable each to supply the defects of the others and obtain the advantage of both.”

Once again, California appears to be functioning as an American bellwether. Over time, I suspect, other large states, such as Texas, and even smaller states, such as Vermont, may advance similar demands. Indeed, both of these states have already evolved vibrant and growing secession movements. And within the larger context of U.S. constitutional history, the demands for genuine autonomy shouldn’t be regarded demands at all but rather as reassertions of ancient constitutional rights.

And this leads me to wonder: Are we fast approaching the same constitutional crisis as post-Brexit Britain? In a few more years, Washington may be faced with the same dilemma as Westminster: Either it willingly foregoes the power it has accumulated over the last century or it faces the genuine likelihood of the breakup of the American Union.

Just as Britain may risk the loss of Scotland without an embrace of federal principles, the United States, by its refusal to return to genuine federalism, ultimately may lose California and perhaps even the rest of the Pacific coast.

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