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Hitler Revised: Just Goin’ With the Flow

9 Mar

Bad boy Charlie Sheen’s ravings are strange, even frightening, but nowhere close to the evil rants of Adolf Hitler, the benchmark for public madmen in modern history. Or so I had thought. But it seems that 70-plus years after the start of World War II, historians are updating the common wisdom about the all-powerful German dictator.

Recent revisionist tracts, such as the diplomatic history 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy, tell us that Hitler didn’t want to start a world war and had no plans to conquer all of Europe let alone the globe. He merely wanted to make Germany the dominant nation in the middle of the continent. You know, just a little extra room for the German people to stretch out. Nothing to fight about.

On the military and economic history front, Joe Maiolo’s Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941 reveals that Hitler was only keeping pace with the arms buildup among other nations. England has tanks and bombers and warships; France has tanks and bombers and warships; the Soviet Union has tanks and bombers and warships, so, this logic goes, the Third Reich better damn well have tanks and bombers and warships, too. Hitler was simply following the crowd.

The Nazi leader, these tomes argue, was just a victim of his circumstances. Even without him the Second World War would likely have been inevitable. So, you see, Uncle Adolf was just playing out his role in the relentless march of history.

And speaking of Hitler playing his role, it’s now much in vogue to play Hitler in a role on the big screen. Comedies mocking the man tend to be popular among filmmakers, if not audiences, such as the 2007 flop My Fuehrer: The Really Total Truth About Adolph Hitler and this year’s Mein Kampf. (Of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers opened the door for these iffy movies.) But dramas have also emerged, including the riveting 2004 Downfall, about which critics worried that by showing the monster Hitler as merely a man who loves dogs and is kind to secretaries would subvert his place as the worst person in history.

But our firm faith that Hitler was the primary force behind the death and destruction of World War II is not built on ideas from movies. It comes from reading history. A history that some, apparently, want to alter.

Historical determinists like Overy and Maiolo eschew the “great men theory” of history. That is, whether you’re a Hitler or a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a Stalin, you are merely a bigger piece of flotsam in the relentless river of history, but flotsam all the same. No matter who you are, determinists reason, history will carry you along, you cannot make history happen. History is bigger than any single individual. Even a Hitler.

That’s nonsense. Men and women make history by their choices. When George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, all the evidence in the world refuting Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 or his collection of WMDs could not stop his single-mindedness. He could have said stop at any moment. But he didn’t. He chose to make history by starting a war. As I write this the Libyan people have joined the surge for freedom in the Arabic world, but one man, the nation’s dictator, is using his will and power to thwart the movement in the region. It’s his choice to battle against democratic urges among his people. And he may prevail.

Naturally, people are molded and influenced by their environment, their times, their family, friends, colleagues, and more. Ultimately, though, they make their own decisions. Others may choose to follow along or not, that’s their decision. This obvious truth is why the lame excuse among Germans at Dachau or Americans at Abu Ghraib that they were “just following orders” rings so hollow. People are responsible for their own actions.

It probably won’t take revisionists 70 years to explain and rationalize Charlie Sheen’s antics as being something beyond his control. He’s just another poor victim of circumstance. You know, like that Hitler guy.


Egypt’s Aftermath: Four Things That Will Happen Here

3 Feb

If the democratic impulses of the people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East prevail, instability will rock the region as their success inspires more revolts against Western-backed dictators. Even if Mubarak’s corrupt regime manages to hold on, it will fuel even more radical responses than we’ve ever seen before throughout the Middle East.

So, what, if anything, will happen in the United States as a result of the turmoil? 

First, everything will cost more. Rightly or wrongly, Western financial and commodity markets perceive stability to be the best of all possible worlds, even if that stability is carried on the backs of poverty-stricken, oppressed people elsewhere. Oil, which underpins our modern economy, will skyrocket in price, driving up the cost of everything else.

When the Shah of Iran lost power, the uncertainty of oil prices helped usher in years of economic stagnation. And while Mubarak does not control oil production, Egypt does manage the Suez canal where a lot of it passes through in tankers. Only the potential of that waterway closing has pushed up crude oil prices to their highest level since the speculator-driven oil crisis of 2008. Imagine the impact if the flame of self-determination begins to burn elsewhere in the region?

Second, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate and extend its hold in the House in 2012. It will also win the White House. (Unless the GOP is stupid enough to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. She’s toxic to a majority of voters who see her as a selfish quitter and an ignorant shrew.) That’s because voters in this country always punish those in power when something bad happens. And because the hard right controls the GOP, it will accelerate the increasing inequality in this country as tax policies will favor the rich even more and, to pay for it, the Republicans will raid the budgets of social services.

Third, the wars in the Middle East will widen beginning in 2013. America depends too much on oil to let it slip from its grasp without a fight. And no political party better represents oil companies than do Republicans. Just as the Iraq war was all about oil from Day One, though gussied up to be about WMDs or spreading democracy, the next Middle East conflagration will be explicitly about keeping petroleum flowing to prime the pump of our economy.

Fourth, incompetent GOP economic policies and those new Middle East wars will hasten the end of the American Empire. The dollar will be the first victim. The British pound sterling dominated the planet for centuries. World War I changed the situation. It only took from 1914 to 1925 for the pound to give way to the Almighty Buck, which replaced it to become the reserve currency of choice among nations. Whether the euro or China’s yuan rides triumphant over the dollar is too early to tell.

Naturally, this is all speculation by your average joe. Nothing qualifies me to see into the future. Admittedly, I’m a glass-is-half-emty kind of guy, but it seems obvious to me that the consequences of what is happening in Egypt will reverberate beyond the the Nile to the broader Middle East and, thus, to the world as a whole. And because the United States has let its dependence on foreign oil become inextricably linked to the health of its economy and polity, risking its loss will become unacceptable to the powers that be, but attempting to sustain it will become how the American Empire passes into history.

Citizens United v. You & Me

24 Jan

One year ago this month the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission concluded that corporations and unions were the same as you and me and could donate money freely to politicians. The court ruled that these entities were people with rights like us.

The decision must also mean that we have equal rights as corporations and unions. But it will take some effort on the part of individuals to attain that equality.

So, the next time a company decides to strong arm your local or state government to get tax breaks, you should sue to get the same tax breaks. After Citizens United a business has no more right than you and me to tax benefits. The next time a corporation tries to get an exemption from environmental or even traffic laws, you should have your lawyer call city hall or the state capitol and demand the same waiver as they get. If a company wants to pollute drinking water, you ought to be able to burn trash in your backyard (or frontyard, for that matter) instead of paying to go to the dump.

Also, following the Supreme Court’s logic, if a corporation or union is a person, then when it is convicted of a crime, as they so often are, every person working there will need to do jail time, not just those who may have concocted the illegal scheme. After all, it’s the company that is guilty and the only way one can impart justice to a person is to put the entire person in jail not just parts of him or her. And just like people, the business, whether union or corporate, will need to come to a halt until the person(s) gets out of jail. Also, if the crime was a felony, every individual in the company must lose the right to vote because they are part of the convicted person.

I’m not sure that this is the hornets’ nest the court had in mind to kick with its decision, but it’s a logical outcome. We only need come citizen lawyers to establish their equal rights with corporations and unions.

Climate Change: I Am the Problem

10 Jan

Catherine manages our household thermostat carefully. Usually, my wife keeps it set at 65 degrees (fahrenheit) or below during the day. When guests come over, she’ll nudge it up to 68. At night she turns it off completely, so it’s always a bit nippy come morning, since our days in winter generally start well below freezing (outside). Ask her why she’s so parsimonious with BTUs, and she’ll point to the meagre family budget, but also she wants us to do our part for the planet to conserve energy.

While checking my breath for vapor in the morning at the kitchen table, I have been known to whine about how chilly it is. I might also observe that we pay Portland General Electric a premium each month to get all of our electricity from wind farms and that our heat comes from natural gas, which is plentiful. She’ll just shake her head at my wimpy nature and tell me to put on (another) sweater.

If everyone was more like Catherine and less like me, there’d be no ongoing energy crisis on the planet. Climate change would be more theoretical and less real. And we’d all have a little extra money in our pockets instead of constantly handing it over to the energy monopolies. Alas, I’m the norm and she’s the outlier.

Admittedly, I am not an optimist by nature. I believe climate change will accelerate, disrupting societies in all hemispheres. And while I appreciate why my wife is doing what she’s doing and even accept it as the right thing to do, I don’t believe in the long or even short run that it will matter much. That’s because while there may be millions of other people like Catherine willing to do what’s best for all of us, there are billions of people like me who only want to enjoy whatever comfort is available.

People like me, whether pessimists or optimists, are the problem. If we can be made comfortable by flicking a switch, even if by doing so we know that, say, ten years from now the switch won’t work, we will flick it without a second thought. Optimists will argue that scientists and engineers will figure out a way to save the future. Pessimists like me shrug and say, “What future?” Either way, the switch gets flicked.

Lucky for you, I live with someone who thinks her actions today can have a positive influence on the future. The energy she’s saving now might come in handy in the year 2020. I doubt it. But it’s possible. In the meantime, I’m going to don a heavier sweater and maybe a second pair of socks. Brrrr.

Callous Toward the Homeless

4 Jan

Nearly every day I see people begging here in the Willamette Valley. They stand on street corners and at freeway exits holding barely readable tattered cardboard signs. They wander up and down the streets of towns large and small asking for spare change. They line up outside shelters for food and a bed for a night.

Like most people most of the time, I don’t pay them too much attention. I’ve become callously indifferent toward the homeless.

When I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and walked from the Polk Gulch neighborhood to my office downtown, I’d put a big handful of quarters in my pocket and hand out one or two in response to the requests for spare change. By the time I got to work a half hour later, my pocket would be empty. I doubt that I saved anyone on those urban treks, but I doubt I did any harm either.

In 2007 it was estimated that more than 650,000 people in the United States were chronically homeless. The government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that in 2009 1.5 million individuals spent at least one night without a home to sleep in. According to another survey, more than 19% of the homeless are military veterans. That same report shows that 55% of homeless people are afflicted with disabilities, yet barely 25% have some kind of health insurance. And more than half of those on the streets have no source of income, hence the begging.

It’s only going to get worse. As jobs become scarce in this country and politicians chip away at social services, Social Security, and Medicare, expect homelessness to grow. In fact, given the arrival of Baby Boomers into senior citizen status, it’s estimated that the number of  homeless among the elderly will expand 33% in the coming decade.

Guilt-ridden individuals will not solve homelessness one handout at a time. The solution, if there is one, must come from a large-scale government effort. But our political leaders have little concern about the homeless because they are not as powerful a constituency as, say, millionaires who demand tax breaks. Sadly, there’s little hope for the homeless.

On occasion, especially on a cold day like today, I’ll roll down the window of my heated car and hand over a dollar or two to a beggar who claims to be homeless. Although I know it’s unlikely that my meagre contribution can turn their lives around, I still do it. And, yes, I realize I can get scammed by those who are not in such dire straits. But I don’t worry about the loss of a couple bucks to a petty crook. Mostly, I worry about the loss of my sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings.

Everyday Beer

28 Dec

If you open most refrigerators in the USA, on any given day, you’ll discover someone’s everyday beer. It’s not necessarily their favorite one, but it’s their reliable, go-to beer. Growing up in my family the everyday beer was always the one on sale. There was no serious brand preference given that a good deal from any decent brewer could change a purchase plan. To a point.

Even my coupon-cutting, penny- and pound-wise mother never drank jokey cans of Generic Beer; nor did she succumb to the limpid national lagers from St. Louis or Milwaukee. Instead, we grew up with the equally limpid local lagers from San Francisco’s Hamm’s and Burgermeister breweries in our family ‘frig. It’s little wonder, then, that I did not take a strong fancy to beer until I after I got out in the world and enjoyed good beer and ales not chosen primarily by price alone.

In the mid-1970s while living in Kentucky Pabst Blue Ribbon was popular among the people I met in the Bluegrass state. But I preferred my brewed tipple to come from regional beer makers such as Louisville’s Falls City or Little King’s Cream Ale out of Cincinnati. They had a bit more flavor and had the cachet to me of being local.

Later in the decade while in Germany I had the exact opposite experience. I enjoyed making the weekly run to the store to choose crates of beer to heft home despite literally living across the street from the Schlossquelle brewery in Heidelberg. We rarely bought the local stuff, choosing instead our pils and exports from the likes of Gilde, Dinkle Acker, Eichbaum, and others. Only when Schlossquelle was at rock bottom prices would we get it. But when you had the array of fabulous beer choices as we did then, it’s not surprising I learned to be a beer snob while there.

However, as luck would have it, we next moved to Nevada in the early 1980s, which might be dubbed my beer exile in the desert. There Budweiser became my everyday beer. It wasn’t as cheap or as bad as, say, Billy Beer nor as watery and tasteless as Coors. Even today if stuck in a bar that’s stuck in the 1970s for its selection of beer, I’ll choose Bud out of nostalgia not preference.

Now I still stock my own refrigerator with brews that are on sale for my everyday beer. To a point. My everyday beer is Full Sail Pale Ale, which is made in nearby Hood River, Oregon, and can usually be found at discount in my local markets. But I will easily substitute an India Pale Ale from Bridgeport or a Torpedo IPA from Sierra Nevada if the price is right or even a Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Deschutes Brewery.

All my everyday beers are more expensive than the regional and national brands. And while I am particularly keen on saving money in these hard times, I am only willing to sacrifice quality up to a point. That point being when the bottle opener touches the bottle cap.

Bah! It’s All Humbug About the Grinch

21 Dec

It doesn’t take much each year for me to hate Christmas. Oh, not the religious angle of the holiday, of which I have no useful opinion. But the commercial and societal aspects of December 25 can elicit a particular bile in the back of my throat that, well, is, at best, distasteful.

First, take the festive colors. Green and red. Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to combine two less complimentary or appealing hues than these. Then there’s the Santa character, a fat old man with a drunkard’s nose who likes to have kids sit on his lap, and whose name is, for those who track these things, also an anagram for Satan. Adding to the seasonal mess is that vast segments of society feel it’s necessary to pile into airport terminals, skid onto packed freeways, squeeze into rail stations and trains, all at once, all during the lousiest weather time in the Northern Hemisphere and expect a Christmas miracle in human transportation systems, then somehow act surprised and angry when it fails to materialize.

Even more dispiriting than the bad taste and bad travel is the mandate to shop. Spend. Buy. Give. Acquire. If you won’t, don’t, or even can’t, you’re dubbed a Scrooge or a grinch. Someone to be pitied or even hated because the manufactured joy rings hallow and cheap to you like all the gifts labeled “made in China” under the tree.

Admittedly, I greatly enjoy watching the scary scene of young children full of greedy anticipation as they rush to open their prettily wrapped Christmas booty. They tear apart one box after another with hungry glee like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Doting parents may attempt to calm them down with admonitions to stop ripping apart their packages long enough thank grandma or Uncle Albert for one present or another, but it’s as futile as asking Jaws not to nibble on a succulent surfer.

Given the choice, I’d rather abstain from the forced frivolity and be of good cheer at home with loved ones, appreciating them as I would any other day of the year. I don’t need to exchange gifts to show my love or get them to feel affection from others. And I do not need to set aside one day a year to contemplate the profound and clearly misunderstood message of the holiday: Peace.

That’s something this grinch strives for each and every day of the year.

Peace be with you, my friends.