sunday — this beautiful world

Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.

My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”

Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.

Just outside of Mingo.

This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.

That straight line is the current channel of the South Skunk River

The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.

Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.

One of the many bridges.

It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.

Another bridge.

We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.

Bridge over the South Skunk River

After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.

One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.

Along the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, a man fishing.

After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.

Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).

That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.

Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.

Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.

yeah, it did

You know what’s annoying? You probably do, but I’m going to tell you anyway (which is undoubtedly annoying). What’s annoying is folks who ought to know better–and maybe actually do know better–repeating the same stupid shit. They continue to claim to be absolutely shocked at the completely predictable outcome of the US/NATO adventure in Afghanistan.

“It didn’t have to be this way,” they say. And yeah, they have a point–but it’s a very narrow one. The moment the Bush administration decided to step beyond its simple, achievable objective of eliminating the influence and capabilities of the al Qaeda network, they created an inevitable monkeyfuck situation.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–as soon as we decided to ignore 1700 years of history, it had to be this way. When we decided to engage in a conflict against multiple ethnic and tribal cultures we don’t understand, that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, that have values and ethics that are often alien to us, and that have goals that are foreign to us, it had to be this way. We didn’t understand Afghan Rules, and we were too lazy/arrogant to bother to learn about them. I said this back in April, when President Uncle Joe announced the withdrawal date: Forget it Joe, it’s Afghanistan.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we implemented a style of combat that was heavily dependent on sophisticated technology and massive firepower in an environment that’s hostile to any machinery more complex than a Toyota pickup and has a mountainous terrain that moderates the effectiveness of firepower. Military tech is great, but that shit is expensive and it breaks. We made it all worse by training the Afghan army to fight an American-style high tech war, then failed to train them to maintain the tech required to support it.

This terrain is fucking nightmare for an invader.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it really did–when we decided to impose a Western style centralized democracy on a diverse group of tribes and clans that have zero experience with democracy. In fact, many/most of them reject the notion that they all belong to a single nation. They don’t think of themselves primarily as Afghans. The Tajiks speak Farsi and generally identify as Tajiks, not as Afghans; the Balochs speak Balochi and identify by any of dozens of local tribal or clan affiliations, not as Afghans. The same is true of the Uzbeks and the Hazara and the Kyrgyz and all of the other tribal groups. (See the Editorial Note at the end.)

Various ethnic/tribal/clan groups that make up Afghanistan

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we brought an American football mindset to fight against a fútbol mindset. In football, orders are given by a coach who isn’t on the field of play. Those orders are sent to a single player who relays the commands to the others and controls the ball. The other players each have a specialized skill set and very specific roles to play; they wear complex specialized gear and follow their orders. Most of the players never touch the ball, only a very few can achieve the goal. After each play, the action stops, the team regroups and waits for the next set of orders. In fútbol, the play never stops, the players don’t depend on gear to protect them, the players learn to recognize situations and adapt their play to the immediate situation, they shift roles easily and often as the situation changes, no single player controls the ball, at any given moment any player can assume temporary control, and they’re all capable of scoring. Football is about a rigid centralized command structure, and following strict orders. Fútbol is about decentralized flexibility and quick idiosyncratic responsiveness to changing situations.

It didn’t have to be this way? Yeah, considering all the bad choices we made, it did. It was a monkeyfuck almost from the start.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m too lazy to count and categorize the various ethnic and tribal groups that comprise what we like to call Afghanistan, but the CIA collected a list in 2005. Many of these groups speak their own language, have their own unique identity, have their own cultural norms, have their own conflicts/feuds/vendettas with other groups. There is no United States of Afghanistan; anybody who thought we could create one was an idiot.

it’s going to be awful

It’s going to be awful for women and girls. It’s going to be awful for almost everybody, but the return of a Taliban ‘government’ in Afghanistan is going to be particularly and singularly awful for women and girls. And it’s going to become awful for them really quick. We’ll see a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan before the end of the year.

It was probably inevitable, given that every foreign entity that’s tried to invade/rule Afghanistan has failed. It’s not because the Taliban are a superior military force; it’s because of 1700 years of Pashtunwalie warrior culture and tradition. They know they don’t have to win a war. They just have to keep fighting and eventually their foreign enemies will leave. Five years, ten years, twenty years–doesn’t matter. Ultimately, they’ll get tired and leave.

The problem for women and girls in Afghanistan is that the Pashtunwali culture–the norms and values that makes the men such dedicated warriors–is also deeply misogynistic. We’re talking about a pre-Islamic tribal code of conduct–a way of life that persisted even as Islam became the accepted religion. Regional tribal groups violently resisted any attempt to organize them into a nation. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Abd al-Raḥmān Khān became the Emir, that Afghanistan had an actual centralized government. It was Abd al-Raḥmān who made Islam the national religion. But it’s important to understand that Islam is layered over Pashtunwali culture–and 1700 years of tradition, that shit’s hard to break.

We’re going to see a return of gender apartheid in Afghanistan (not that it’s ever completely left). Women and girls over eight years old will have their mobility severely restricted; they won’t be allowed in public unless accompanied by a man who is either their husband, a blood relative, or an in-law. In public they’ll be required to wear some form of full-body covering (“the face of a woman is a source of corruption”), and they’ll be required to be quiet or soft-spoken (“no stranger should hear a woman’s voice”). At home, windows at street level will be painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street; women may even be banned from standing on second story balconies. Medical care for women will be sketchy at best; male doctors are generally prevented from treating women patients and women doctors are actively discouraged from practicing medicine. And, of course, women and girls will be discouraged–or actively forbidden–from receiving education. It’s going to be awful for women and girls in so many ways.

I should note that some women freely choose to cover themselves. We see it in Western cultures as well. There are valid reasons for that choice. The problem is never how women choose to dress; the problem is having a patriarchal society deciding how women are allowed to dress.

Let me say it again, because this is something that can’t be glossed over. When the Taliban takes over, it’s going to be completely fucking awful for women and girls in Afghanistan. We have to face that reality, as ugly as it is. But we also have to consider a response. How do you change 1700 years of tradition and culture?

This isn’t about Islam. All religions have conservative branches, and all conservative branches tend to impose restrictions women and girls. The more conservative, the more restrictive. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism–it doesn’t matter. But if we (and by ‘we’ I mean specifically the US and generally all of Western society) want to improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan–and if we want that improvement to endure–I believe we have to work within the bounds of organized religion. Sadly, religious change is almost never quick.

First, we need to fund Islamic NGOs to help provide health care for women and girls who live under purdah. But if we want to see systemic improvement in the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, we need to address issues within religion. I suggest we need to encourage moderate madrassas–to fund and encourage moderate imams to open Islamic schools in Afghanistan in order to teach a slightly less misogynistic form of Islam. As moderate forms of Islam take root, then more liberal, women-centric practices can gradually be introduced. I’m not a fan of incrementalism, but perhaps feminism-creep–a slow, steady expansion of the rights and freedoms of women and girls–is the most practical approach.

The Afghan Girls Robotic Team

I hate saying that. I fucking hate it. I hate it because it means writing off this generation of Afghan girls and women as lost. It means accepting that the lives of the next generation will likely be only somewhat less awful. But looking at the long, bloody history of that region, I can’t think of any other way to begin creating a better life for Afghan women.

I find myself thinking about the Afghan Girls Robotic Team. Seven teen-aged girls from Herat, they developed a solar-powered robot that could help farmers with seeding; in response to the pandemic, they built a prototype ventilator from parts of an old Toyota Corolla. And they did that during a war, under circumstances that were already restrictive to girls. Think what girls like this could do in a society that actively encouraged them. What’s going to happen to them when the Taliban take over?

It’s almost too awful to think about. Which is why we need to think about it.

john kenna and three spoilers

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed legislation to remove the statues of leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America from the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol. The vote was 285 to 120. The 120 members of Congress who voted to keep the statues of Confederates were all Republicans.

(SPOILER #1: The Confederate States of America was an illegal and unrecognized breakaway entity of eleven US states that, from February 8, 1861, to May 9, 1865, fought in a bloody, armed rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States of America in an effort to maintain an economic system grounded in human bondage.)

The statues include:

CSA President Jefferson Davis — owned 113 slaves; believed the right to own black slaves created the foundation for white equality (I’m not making that up).
CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens — owned at least 30 slaves; said the Confederacy was built upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
CSA Gen. Joseph Wheeler — owned as many as 300 slaves; in Dec. of 1864, when hundreds of liberated slaves followed Union Gen. Sherman’s forces on their ‘March to the Sea’, Wheeler’s troops came across app. 600 former slaves stranded by US forces on the banks of the Ebenezer Creek — they killed and drowned many, captured and resold the rest back into slavery.
CSA Gen. James Z. George — owned app. 30 slaves; believed African slaves should be treated ‘fairly’ but weren’t capable of ‘responsible citizenship’; changed Mississippi’s post-war constitution to enable illiterate white men to vote while excluding illiterate blacks.
CSA Gen. Wade Hampton III — owned app. 3000 slaves; post-war he was elected governor of South Carolina with help of the Red Shirts militia, which used violence to suppress black voting; an estimated 150 black freedmen were murdered during the campaign.
CSA Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith — owned an unknown number of slaves, one of whom (likely his half-brother) accompanied him as a servant during the Civil War (and later became Jacksonville, Florida’s first black doctor); Smith was the last CSA general to surrender.
CSA Col. Zebulon Baird Vance — owned 18 slaves; believed emancipation of black slaves was a threat to white purity; said the mind “recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
CSA soldier John E. Kenna — owned 0 slaves; joined the Confederate Army at age 16, after the war became a politician noted for improving the Kanawha River navigation system and defending the president’s power to fire executive branch officials.
CSA soldier Edward Douglass White — owned app. 60 slaves; after the war he took part in the Battle of Liberty Place–an attempted insurrection against the Reconstruction state government of Louisiana by the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization made up largely of Confederate veterans; they occupied the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days before arrival of Federal troops that restored the elected government; he was eventually appointed to the SCOTUS, where he voted to uphold Jim Crow laws stripping black Americans of civil rights.

You may be wondering 1) why the National Statuary Hall even has statues of men who betrayed their nation in the defense of slavery, and 2) why anybody would support keeping the statues of traitors in the Capitol Building (especially after that building had been assaulted by an insurrectionist mob attempting to disrupt the legitimate election of a new president). The answer to both of those questions is as follows: a lot of Republican politicians are massive assholes and/or racists who are okay with folks overthrowing the legitimate government if it will put Republicans in charge.

(SPOILER #2: 121 Republicans in the House voted also against certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome and 138 House Republicans voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome even though both states certified their election results as legitimate.)

I’m glad the statues are being removed…but I’m also a tad troubled by the inclusion of John Kenna. The resolution pertains to statues of “any individual who served voluntarily at any time as a member of the Armed Forces of the Confederate States of America or of the military of a State while the State was in open rebellion against the United States.” And yeah, that’s John Kenna, right there.

John E. Kenna

Here’s why I’m troubled. Kenna was just a grunt. An enlisted soldier. But his statue is being treated as equally offensive as that of the president of the Confederacy and the military leaders of the CSA. Kenna was only 16 and had little education when he joined the CSA, he never held any high military rank, neither he nor any of his family owned slaves, there’s no written record of him promoting slavery or white supremacy before or after the war. But his statue is being given the same treatment as the statue of Jefferson Davis.

Did Kenna fight on the wrong side of the war? Absolutely. But he was just a kid. Did he fight against the legitimate government of the United States? Yep, he did. But he was just a kid. Did he fight in favor of an economic system that dehumanized black people? Yes, he surely did. But he was just a kid. Did he believe slavery was right? I don’t know…maybe. Probably, since he grew up with it and didn’t know any better because he was just a kid. My guess–and I admit I have nothing at all to base this on–is that Kenna had no more sense of what he was fighting for or against than the kids who fought in Vietnam. My guess is John Kenna went where he was told to go, shot who he was told to shoot at, and did what he thought was his duty.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it. You make choices, even as a kid. And you own those choices, even if you were acting out of ignorance. John Kenna volunteered to put on the uniform and fight for the Confederacy. So his statue has to go. Has to.

John E. Kenna

But we don’t have cheer for it. We can celebrate the removal of the leaders of the Confederacy, the men who knew what they were doing and why. But when we remove Kenna’s statue, we need to remember the reality that enlisted personnel are tools that our leaders use for their own purposes.

(SPOILER #3: Think about John Kenna when you hear that South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has authorized a Republican billionaire to fund the deployment of her National Guard troops to the Mexican border at the request of Texas Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott.)

curiosity and ragnar the cheesemaker

I have a morning routine, which rarely changes (because, you know, it’s in the morning and I’ve just awakened and and any activity that requires actual thought is probably beyond my capabilities). Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat), feed the cat, ingest some form of caffeine, pet the damned cat, read the news, read more news, continue to pet and feed the fucking cat, consider reading email, decide against reading email, check Twitter, check Facebook.

By the time I reach the ‘read more news’ point, I’m moderately awake, properly caffeinated, and curiosity has kicked in. That generally results in me doing some level of research about what I’m reading. For example, this morning I saw something about ‘cult’ television shows. Not shows about cults; shows with cult audiences. No, wait…that sounds like the audience members are in a cult. Like everybody in the Order of the Solar Temple gathers around the television in the afternoon to watch Jeopardy. I’m talking about television shows that are obscure or generally unpopular with mainstream audiences, but still attract a devoted fan base. Somebody mentioned a British show called The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Which sounded weird and interesting, so I did some research and learned…well, that it was weird and interesting.

My point, if you can call it that, is that at some point in the morning, my need to read the news gets hijacked by my need to know and understand random stuff. This morning it was a few minutes of Gurney Slade. Then, on Twitter, I came across this simple question: Did Vikings make cheese? And my morning was gloriously ruined.

First, the question itself is wonderfully weird. You have to wonder what sparked the question. I assume it wasn’t just an idle thought; something caused this person to wonder if Vikings made cheese. Maybe they wanted to know what foods Vikings packed for a long voyage, maybe they were curious about Vikings and lactose intolerance–I don’t know. But it was an interesting question. But my immediate response was delight at the notion of a Viking cheesemaker. Some hirsute guy who, instead of setting off with the crew to raid the coast of Britain, decided, “Naw, I’m going to hang here and make a cheese.” Ragnar the Cheesemaker.

That led me to wonder how the process of making cheese was discovered, which eventually led me to read a sentence that not only took up much of my morning, but will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Cheese may have been discovered accidentally by the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals.

Okay, if you’re anything like me, you immediately started asking critically important questions. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to store milk in the stomach of an animal? Who first said, “Dude, we got all this milk and we got no place to store it. Fetch me the stomach of an animal, please.” Who thought it was a good idea to store anything at all in the stomach of a dead animal? Who conceived of animal stomachs as prehistoric Tupperware containers? Somebody, while gutting an animal, must have had the idea, “Hey, let’s hang on to this stomach…we can clean it out and store stuff in it!”? Where would you keep the empty animal stomachs you plan to use later to store milk? And who, having left that first batch of milk in an animal stomach long enough for it to curdle and separate into curds and whey, thought, “Fuck it, I’m eating it anyway.”?

Medieval cheesemakers

My research also brought me to an article entitled Make Butter Viking Style, but I had to stop reading almost immediately, because of this:

Step One: Bring the crème fraîche up to room temperature and whisk it as if making whipped cream.

I am not convinced this is how Vikings made butter. I could go on (and believe me, I did), but you get my point. This has been my morning. Cat, Miami condo collapse, infrastructure agreement, some GOP bullshit about the military, cult television shows, Vikings, cheesemaking, animal stomachs, butter production. Every morning is like this for me. I’m completely fucking worthless from about 0700 to maybe 1000 hours, because of stuff like this.

And the worst thing about this? I have absolutely no use at all for what I’ve learned this morning. The odds of Gurney Slade or the history of cheesemaking (or, lawdy, the evolution of storage containers) ever coming up in conversation are astronomical. But this stuff will rattle around in my head for hours (or days or decades) and possibly spill out at some wildly inappropriate moment.

the second amendment, matt gaetz, and the battle of the wabash

This year I was going to avoid writing about Memorial Day. I’ve written about Memorial Day just about every year since I started writing this blog. I’m not even going to bother linking to all those earlier blogs (though if you’re interested, just type ‘Memorial Day’ into the search feature and hey bingo).

But here it is, Memorial Day again, and I’m about to write something that’s not exactly about Memorial Day (well, not about Memorial Day at all), but about cheap-ass pseudo-patriotic feculent cowardly politicians who give speeches during the Memorial Day weekend. And when I say “cheap-ass pseudo-patriotic feculent cowardly politicians” I mean Matt Gaetz.

What happened was I read what Matt (Hey, what’s a little child sex trafficking among friends?) Gaetz said a few days ago at an America First rally.

“For all the fake news media, the Second Amendment is not about — it’s not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports. The Second Amendment is about maintaining within the citizenry the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary. “

Aside from the fact that an America First rally is an awfully nice way of saying “Rally for Fascism Yay!” there’s this: Matt Gaetz is, obviously, a fuckwit. You have to make some allowances for fuckwits. Because they’re fuckwits. So I’ll agree that Matt was correct when he said the Second Amendment isn’t about hunting or recreation or sports. But he’s absolutely wrong in thinking (and I use ‘thinking’ in the loosest possible way) that it’s about the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government. That’s just fucking stupid.

It’s the same sort of cellular-level stupidity that allows gun nuts to simultaneously insist that an AR-15 assault-style rifle is NOT IN ANY WAY a military weapon BUT is still absolutely vital for citizens to own in order to go Matt Gaetz on the US military. You know, if necessary.

Gen. Washington telling the Continental Army to just go home.

Thing is, the Second Amendment was grounded in the deep distrust and suspicion of the Founders regarding a professional standing army. Remember that most of the Founders had a Western European mindset, and Europe had a long history of standing armies, answerable only to a king, imposing the will of the king on the people. I mean, they explicitly denounced the entire concept, stating “standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.” That whole “well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” business was about insuring themselves against a professional army acting on the whims and wishes of a supreme ruler (or the army’s own generals).

That’s why, after the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was disbanded. Gen. George Washington gave a speech to the troops, in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing here):

“Guys, war’s over. Thanks for helping to kick the Brits out. But go on home now. Take your guns and uniforms, put that shit in the closet, and if you’re ever needed again, we’ll let you know.”

Oh, they kept a few troops to guard the arsenal at West Point, because you can’t just leave artillery laying around like lawn ornaments. But that was basically it. The former members of the Continental Army met periodically with other civilians as informal local militias to train or put down the occasional slave rebellion.

But in 1784 problems on the Western Frontier (which at the time was somewhere around Ohio) triggered Congress to approve the creation of the First American Regiment. The problem was settlers versus Native Americans. The settlers were all “We just want to live in peace, and cut down all these trees to create farms where we can grow crops on land that the savages weren’t really even using like god intended, but the savages want to cancel our culture.” Yes, the settlers kept personal firearms to hunt and to protect themselves from attacks by the natives they were displacing. The job of the First American Regiment was to support the locals, secure the frontier, and discourage Native Americans from slaughtering the white settlers. They did this by slaughtering the natives first.

First American Regiment, looking for unruly natives.

You may be assuming the reason the new American government was protecting those settlers was because they were racist assholes who didn’t think of the natives as human. Which would be accurate. But the primary reason was because the new US government didn’t have the authority to impose taxes on its citizens, which meant the government was broke, which meant they needed to generate some serious pocket money, which they decided to do by selling the land the natives weren’t really using like god intended to the invading settlers. So obviously, they had to keep the settlers from being slaughtered by the natives because dead folks don’t buy land.

That policy worked really well. The First American Regiment fought the natives, which allowed local militias to keep the slaves in check. Everything was cool…until November of 1791, when 320 troops from the First American Regiment supported by about a thousand local militia/settlers tried to teach a lesson to a coalition of Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, and Potawatomie tribes. That lesson was rejected. It’s generally called the Battle of the Wabash, but it was more of a rout than a battle. The native coalition kicked ass. Over 800 soldiers and militia members were killed; around 270 were wounded. A quarter of what had been the standing army of the US was wiped out.

“WTF, I’m wearing a snazzy uniform and being killed by a native wearing feathers and a purse?”

Congress responded to the defeat in a variety of ways. They decided maybe a standing army of professional soldiers wasn’t an entirely bad idea after all. They created the Legion of the United States–about 5000 troops–to insure a more effective military force for slaughtering natives. A month of so after the defeat, Congress also passed a lot of amendments to the new Constitution, one of which authorized well regulated militias to keep and bear arms. Five years after that they changed the name of the Legion of the United States to the Army of the United States. Probably because ‘legion’ sounded French.

My point, though, if you can call it that. was that the Second Amendment wasn’t about fighting a rebellion against the US government. It was about arming local groups who could be called upon to fight against local enemies (like slaves who resisted being slaves) freeing up the standing army to fight against regional enemies (like godless natives who resisted giving up their land to decent god-fearing white settlers).

My other point, which I seem to have strayed from, was that Matt Gaetz is a treasonous fuckwit who should be giving his speeches from a prison cell.

forget it joe, it’s afghanistan

There are things you can fix, and things you can’t. There are things you have a moral obligation to try to fix even if you can’t possibly fix them. There are things you believe need to be fixed, but aren’t actually broken. There are fixable things you believe you understand, but you’re wrong. There are fixable things that are none of your fucking business regardless of what you think about them. And when you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard–probably impossible–to know which things are which.

There’s a movie about that. Chinatown. Released in 1974. (I’m going to ignore the legitimate issues about the director, Roman Polanski, because for once I’m going to try to stay tangent-free.) Here’s the backstory of one of the main characters, and a short precis of the film’s plot (and yes, that means there are spoilers).

The backstory–Jake Gittes has a small private investigator business in Los Angeles. He’s a former police detective who worked in the notoriously corrupt Chinatown neighborhood. He became disillusioned (all movie PIs are disillusioned; it’s the law) partly because he was working in a culture whose norms and rules he didn’t understand, partly because of the endemic corruption, and partly because the actions and motivations of the Powers That Be (in both the Chinese and political communities) were concealed from him and inscrutable to him. When his client, Evelyn Mulwray learns he’d been a detective in Chinatown, she asks:

Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there?
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Jake: As little as possible.
Evelyn: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake: They do in Chinatown.

As little as possible. Jake’s disillusionment was compounded when he attempted to help a Chinese woman. He says, “I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure she was hurt.” That same scenario plays out in the main plot, much of which is taken up with a long, brilliant McGuffin. It draws Jake into a situation in which he feels an obligation to rescue his client, Evelyn, and her daughter from an ugly situation involving Evelyn’s father–a multimillionaire developer. Once again, Jake finds himself in a situation in which the rules/laws aren’t clear to him, in which he doesn’t understand the motives or actions of the people involved, and where his attempts to help result in more harm. Had he done ‘as little as possible’ things may have worked out better, even if the situation itself remained awful.

In the final scene, his client is dead, the bad guys win, and Jake is not only helpless, he’s also partly responsible. He sees her body, mutters “…as little as possible” and is ordered away from the scene by his former Chinatown detective partner. As he’s being led away, one of Jake’s current employees tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

This scenario is being played out with President Uncle Joe and the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. It’s a culture–actually, a number of inter-related ancient tribal cultures–we don’t understand, cultures that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, with values and ethics that are often alien to us, with goals that are foreign to us. The US and our Western allies have been attempting to resolve our involvement relying on OUR cultural norms and OUR values to achieve OUR goals. Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

We had a valid reason (at least in my opinion) to intrude militarily in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had used that nation as a training ground and recruitment center for the 9/11 attacks. We had a legit reason to go after al Qaeda. After that, things got…loose.

The fact is, no foreign adventure has ever succeeded in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian army basically walked over every army they’d fought, got caught up in a long guerrilla-style war in Afghanistan. He never fully succeeded in pacifying the various Afghan tribes. Before he died, Alexander said, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.” Various Muslim invasions succeeded in converting most Afghan tribes to Islam, but never completely controlled the area. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan, occupied much of the area for quite a long time, but their empire also fell apart. Nobody held the area as long as Timur the Great–but it’s worth noting that Timur was known as Timur the Lame (or ‘Tamerlane’ as he was called by Europeans) because of wounds he received fighting Afghan tribes. After Timur’s empire failed, the Sikhs attempt to invade Afghan territories several times without much success. The British invaded three times in the 19th and early 20th centuries–and got their asses kicked each time. Russia invaded three times–in 1929, 1930, and finally in 1979–and got their asses kicked each time.

And, of course, the US (and NATO) invaded in 2001. We know how that worked out.

But here’s the thing the Afghan tribes have always known and the thing foreign invaders never seem to figure out: the Afghans don’t have to win any wars; they only have to keep fighting at some level, and eventually the invaders–no matter who they are, or where they’re from, and how powerful they are–will leave. The various Afghan tribes are unconcerned about foreign military deadlines or the domestic political necessities of foreign powers or the costs those powers incur; they’re operating on God’s time, and they measure cost on a different scale.

President Uncle Joe’s decision to pull out troops is just an acknowledgment that Afghanistan is Chinatown. Doesn’t matter if we had a legit reason for being there, doesn’t matter if our long low-level war of occupation was a genuine attempt to help the Afghan peoples (and I’m not convinced it was), doesn’t matter what our motives were. Like every other invasion force in Afghan history, we’ve almost certainly done more harm than good.

There’s a scene in Chinatown in which Jake Gittes speaks with Noah Cross, the millionaire developer behind all the misery that’s taking place. Cross inhabits a world where laws and rules of ordinary decency don’t seem to apply–a world that’s as ambiguous and perplexing to Jake as that of Chinatown, a world that’s just as baffling and complex as our involvement in Afghanistan.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah: Oh my, yes!
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. The future. Their future, our future–we think we can make it better. We think we have the means and the power and the right to make it better. We think we know what ‘better’ means.

We don’t. We just don’t.

Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.

heart’s grown brutal

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it. Right now, today, we have about twenty thousand National Guard troops in Washington, DC to protect our government from our president. We have been forced to mobilize a military force larger than the military response we have stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq in order to insure that the insurrectionist followers of Donald Trump won’t disrupt the inauguration of the legitimately elected President of the United States.

That is completely fucking insane–and yet here we are. We’ve arrived at this unnerving moment of history because Trump, supported by sycophantic Republicans in Congress and in coordination with a nexus of unhinged right-wing anti-government cranks and conspiracy theorists (fueled in part by Russian social media disinformation trolls), refuses to acknowledge he lost the 2020 election. Even though Trump has apparently abandoned the demented fantasy that he might somehow, magically, still be declared the winner, he hasn’t yet abandoned his lies about the election being ‘stolen’. That lie hangs in the air, fouling any hope for reconciliation.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare

Billy B. Yeats wrote that in 1922. Ireland, after a couple of years of open warfare against British troops, had signed a treaty with the United Kingdom, granting independence to all but six of Ireland’s counties. The failure to establish full independence sparked the Irish Civil War, between those who insisted on full independence and those who were willing to accept partition in the hope that it would someday lead to a united Ireland. It led to Irish people fighting against “Irish soldiers of an Irish government set up by Irishmen.”

The poem is called The Stare’s Nest by My Window. Apparently in the west of Ireland ‘stare’ was the local term for a starling. I’d read the poem a number of times and loved the language of it, but it wasn’t until I was living in DC and had the chance to hear the poet Seamus Heaney read it aloud, that it actually made sense to me.

William Butler Yeats

When he wrote the poem, Yeats was living in a 16th century tower called Thoor Ballylee. Outside his window, honeybees were building a comb in the crevices of the crumbling masonry near an abandoned starling’s nest. Yeats uses all that as a metaphor for the Irish Civil War. The old tower is falling apart, the nest where mother starlings brought “grubs and flies” to feed the nestlings is empty, but bees are still at work creating a home filled with the sweetness of honey.

My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Outside his tower, in the real world, Irishmen were killing Irishmen. Yeats acknowledges that violence in the poem — “somewhere / A man is killed, or a house burned.” “Last night they trundled down the road / That dead young soldier in his blood.” He pleads for peace and rebuilding, for restoring the masonry of civil society, in a repeated refrain. “O honey-bees / Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

This is where we find ourselves now, here in the United States. We’re badly divided, but unlike the Irish in 1922, we’re not divided by competing notions of independence; we’re divided by willfully ugly lies, deliberately ugly rhetoric, and ugly conspiratorial fantasies created, spread, and often repeated by prominent Republicans.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.

The masonry holding our society together has been eroded, often intentionally, by those who want to create uncertainty and fear in order to stay in power. Our hearts have grown brutal; our hate seems stronger than our love. We desperately want/need it to be repaired. I believe–I want to believe–it’s possible to repair the damage. I see all those troops camped out in the ornate halls of our government, and the possibility of Americans fighting Americans fills me with dread and sorrow. Like Yeats, I feel we are “closed in, and the key is turned / On our uncertainty.”

I have no clear idea what will happen over the coming months. I have hopes; I have fears. I take some small comfort in knowing that countless others throughout history have felt similar hopes and fears. The fact that we’re able to read their writing today is proof that folks generally muddle through somehow.

Here’s the entire poem, probably in violation of some copyright somewhere.

The Stare’s Nest by My Window (1922)

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.