Sunday, November 29, 2009


As we wade in to a new future of nationalized banks and major industries, of probable socialized health care, high unemployment, endless taxes, and just generally Animal Farm-style governance -- oh yes, achievement will be punished, and some pigs will be very much more equal than others I am sure, and nothing to do about it but try to "put boulders in the road," as Rush Limbaugh says -- it occurs to me that the destruction and disappearance of old worlds is a constant in human history. Pundits being wrong about a lot of things, including the dire results of change, is also a constant, but valuable things do vanish. Noble systems break down, useful knowledge is forgotten, new rules and systems imposed, often enough through deception or crowd hysteria or violence. People and nations witness ends that would have seemed unbelievable if seen in a crystal ball. Or in their own childhoods.

I don't compare President Obama's assault on the country to, say, the cranking up of the French Revolution (which started as an upper-class tax revolt, funnily enough), or to the sweeping of hordes of Goths into the crumbling Roman empire. Or to the sweeping of Arab Muslim hordes into Zoroastrian Persia, say. ...I only just learned about this so I get bragging rights in passing it on. It produced most curious results in history. Zoroastrian Persian diplomats stationed abroad found themselves, after a climactic battle in their homeland in 642 A.D., suddenly without a country, an emperor, or a religion to represent. Forever. A thousand years of high civilization and fearsome conquest, vanished. Those berobed and sandaled diplomats, in Alexandria, in Tripoli, must have had to find other ways to survive, for there was no point even in going home.

And Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine, and Goths sat on the throne of Augustus. Roman legions withdrew from Britain; civilized European men slaughtered one another by the millions in the trenches of World War I. And then the civilized empires which sent them to their deaths collapsed, too.

Dear me, such very massive and tragic examples, and all out of chronological order, too. One could be accused of a yowling and infantile panic. No, I don't quite compare the President's plans to all this, but in him we do have someone unprecedented. We have our first anti-American American president, who seems genuinely to want to restructure the country for his own personal pleasure and intellectual and especially academic satisfaction -- payback, even -- and power. It would be as if the former professor Ward Churchill was president. It would be as if any one of my old left-wing professors was president. He is them. No one would doubt that their attitude was fundamentally anti-American, even though like all good open-minded America-hating liberals, each lacked the true courage of their convictions, to pick up and go live elsewhere. I remember my professors scoffing at the deep-voiced young men in the back of the class who challenged them to go live elsewhere. They scoffed, so if you were bright and following along, you could take that as an assurance that the deep-voiced young men were stupid, bigoted -- conservative. But the professors never quite had an answer to the challenge. The truth was always that it is so much safer and more fun not to move, but to change the where.

So we have a president, inexperienced, aggressive in some things and passive-shabby in others (all those bows from the waist, poor, ill raised child) and indoctrinated in economic systems that are righteously, emotionally pleasing but impoverish everyone, who wants to change things. The nation has changed, has been changed, in other ways before now, in ways that to the private citizen constituted a private tragedy, or perhaps a cosmic one, or maybe didn't even come within his notice at all. Pick your changes, in chronological order or out of it. The opening of the West. The Civil War (did you lose a brother, a husband, a son? Five sons?). The presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who also tried and greatly succeeding in laying the foundations of Barack Obama's eternally statist, planned American economy, on the grounds that there shouldn't be unfairness. On an individual, human scale, my grandfather lost his post as Republican precinct captain when FDR won office, and that was that.

And we have all survived, though who can say what's been lost. I was struck recently by the old movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, made in the 1940s but set largely in pre-World War I America. The characters are show business people, who travel the country performing and who consider a steady job of two or three weeks' salary a godsend. They live in boarding houses in the meanwhile, and when they are low on money, they sit at the bottom of the communal table and are served only noodles and maple syrup until they can pay their rent. When they can pay, they are welcome to some goulash. It's fiction, but it reflects circumstances that must once have been true. They are on their own, free (gulp) in ways that we now would not tolerate. What's been lost, if anything?

What makes Obama different and more threatening from a lot of previous American movers and shakers is not only his having bigger, more ignorant, more absurdly expensive plans, and a downright vengeful Democratic Congress willing to help him implement those plans -- and these Democrats do include people like my own Senator Dick Durbin, who viciously compared American troops in Iraq to Nazis -- but his election by a voter base that may stay untroubled by the dirt clinging to him. I believe they may remain untroubled by anything he ever says or does. His church membership and his terrorist friends didn't bother them. Now his inability in economics to add two and two, or rather his cynical relish in not adding it, does not bother them either. Some pundits think his followers will wake up when they at least realize that he has his hand in their wallets, too. I'm not so sure. I fear he may be creating the Presidency as an emotional office that only he can fill. I wonder if his voter base would notice or care if he suspended elections, "because folks are struggling, and this great country needs ... ," etc., etc.

And what makes him and his swoony voter base still more threatening is that he is imposing plans that can unravel the nation as a Western power quickly, you might say a Western-proud power, unravelled following the model of a socialist and hyper-taxed Europe, poleaxed in addition by waves of non-Western immigrants who have taken Europe up on its offers of compassion, asylum, religious tolerance, jobs possibly, but free state money forever, definitely. It's a whole world of circumstances that our man's voters do not know or care about. If someone observing Europe and liking what he saw wanted to think out a formula to quickly transform the United States into its mirror, he could hardly have come upon a more pitch-perfect scenario than this. Let the nation, well meaning and deluded, exhaust itself vomiting out imaginary money on problems that are made worse by more imaginary money; let the state control all, on the grounds that only the state can fund fairness. Let our man, freely and joyously elected, be of Muslim descent with a Muslim middle name, just for sheer irony's sake and nothing else.* A few years ago Mark Steyn wrote a book called America Alone, all about the U.S. being the last non-Muslim, un-jihadi-fied bastion on the planet. How strange to think the book could now be nearly obsolete, simply as a result of election day, 2008, and the changes thereby made. America alone? Not so much. America as a jihadi state, led by President-for-life Obama? No. (Fiction is not my strong point.) America joins the world? More likely yes, but not in a good way.

Yes. Well. In the meantime, people live, as they have with luck lived through changes before. Goth and Zoroastrian, sans-culotte and Civil War widow. Yowling and infantile though it may seem, I do think this interesting situation prompts the question, what else do you do with life when things on a grand scale are not going as you'd like?

It sounds like an idiotically selfish, whiny little question. The left preens itself on its patient George W. Bush hatred, and no doubt regards everything from Obama's blessed Inauguration Day onward as mere payback, with plenty more to come. And the end, you know, has not quite come yet. Goth and Zoroastrian and Civil War widow would not even bother to scoff at me. They would be too busy living. And who knows, in a year or two our man may have so far overreached himself that pundits who now fear him, or adore him, will be astonished at the depths of impotence to which he has fallen. Expect the unexpected, not only in the White House but in life and in history too.

Meanwhile what do you do, privately, publicly, when it looks like an entire system of liberty and prosperity whose greatest vulnerability is its need to rest on a populace educated in those things, may be bumped off that foundation by an opposing ideology that mimics the system's purposes (freedom, fairness) but can't achieve them and can't admit it? What do you do? -- write your congressman? Garden? Philosophize? There's a Roman lady in Tacitus, therefore by definition living through interesting times, who spends her time "beautifying her fish ponds at Baiae." Senator Durbin writes back, after a lag of a month or two, congratulating me on agreeing with him and explaining why it's so important to stop global warming. Before he moved up in the world, Senator Obama did the same. Senator Burris hasn't gotten around to replying -- or, to be fair, was he the one whose email link didn't work?

What do you do? I've done a few new things, lately. I've skimmed over The Federalist Papers, which I never thought to do. Did you know they were short articles, originally published in a newspaper, and each designed to answer a specific complaint about the new Constitution? They are pretty digestible. I've learned to put in words, if only for my own satisfaction, why it's not true that of course one must acknowledge and support the great leftist, progressive credo that there are "two sides to every story." No, there are not. There is the truth, which you or I may not find today -- Socrates admitted he couldn't necessarily find it, today -- but which is not the same thing as humbly agreeing it can't be known, thus inhaling the left's debate-snuffing anaesthesia so they can loudly keep the field.

Even knowing that, do you then continue beautifying your fish ponds at Baiae? I believe there is a school of thought, a human tendency, to give up (or become wise) and say that in the great unfolding pageant of human folly, no matter whatsoever the grand stupid men are doing above you, the time sometimes comes when after all, what you are doing for your own happiness in your tiny corner of the universe turns out to be the loftiest thing of all. It's the only thing you do that affects -- that pleases or displeases -- you, so you may as well carry on.

A wise reaction, mature and sophisticated, deeply Old World? Or surrender? Lin Yutang wrote books throughout the mid-twentieth century, claiming that Chinese civilization for one had long since learned to avoid the blind alleys of moral righteousness, religious certainty, of, I suppose, taking on too much personal trouble over great national ch-ch-changes. He delighted in stories of famed Chinese sages retreating to the mountains to sip tea and write poetry. When they got visitors from the folly-filled world, they would leap up and run to the nearest stream to wash the filth of the News of the Day out of their ears -- and the wisest of all could tell when the water outside his hut had been polluted by the sage upstream, already washing the News of the Day out of his own ears.

Or is such behavior indeed surrender? After all, wise and chastened and sophisticated nations full of poetic sages still have not done all we've done. And -- Rush is correct -- nothing is different about us as human beings except that we have a political and economic system which allows us to do all we can or wish to do in the pursuit of happiness. It's all worked amazingly well. As the economist Thomas Sowell emphasizes (in Basic Economics for a start), "wealth saves lives," just for a start, and there's no doubt about our wealth. There is far more to the good, for more people, going on here than can be wisely and sadly represented by the image of the innocent lady tending her fish ponds, long divorced from any concern for the fools in Rome. So why loathe and desire to change our system?

Perhaps because the most intractable human folly of all is the passion for power over one's fellow men, especially the lower orders. A system which gives them power, which incidentally doesn't tell funny stories about sages' exiling themselves and leaving government to do as it likes, is totally anathema to any human spirit that wants power. "What in the world can we do with the Napoleonic -- heroic ambition or military glory?" Allan Bloom asked in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). He meant "we" who live in a "gray," "commercial" liberal democracy, we who have made a good system, but one that lacks what democratic revolutions tear down forever: the "nobility, brilliance, and taste," nurtured by a leisured aristocracy, the "depth, seriousness, and sacredness" of a state religion. Re-reading Bloom leads to the suspicion that he and Mr. Limbaugh would not get on.

Incidentally I'd hardly call President Obama Napoleonic. He only wants to remake a country to which he has contributed nothing, as per instructions from shrivelled little academic souls he respects, and he does feed on worship. Otherwise, one can't imagine him crossing the Alps, still less winning battles. But perhaps he is a sort of little Napoleon, a little answer to Bloom's wonderment at "what we're going to do" with this aspect of the human personality that can't be kept in check all the time. What are we going to do with it? Well, occasionally it seems we're going to lose our heads and elect it to the White House, not least because we're so unused to seeing the type in action that we've forgotten it exists and that it loves to tell lies, too. Perhaps future historians will say that, right about now, two hundred or so years after the American founding, intellectuals and other grand people began fully to realize that the American system, unchanged, could leave them in a desert of impotence forever. Imagine being wise and educated, imagine knowing what's best for Bodo the peasant, or Bodo the NASCAR fan, and never, ever, being able to impose it on him because he votes in the same dreary old system year after year, because he has money and more than enough to eat, and possibly a gun. You can almost hear the roar of frustration, from a large segment of humanity. What to do? The answer, historians may notice, was for the roarers to fall down in joy before a little Napoleon, and work like mad to see him re-open closed doors and reforge old chains, before Bodo fully grasped the malice bubbling in the situation.

What an extraordinary thing that Bodo's major hobby these days has turned out to be the internet, with all the opportunities for independent news-gathering, fact-checking, scathing commentary, and protest planning it affords. It would be as if Hussite and Wycliffite and Roundheads all had a thousand printing presses at once. What do you do -- what does he, Bodo, do -- with individual life when things on a grand scale aren't going as he'd like? Just as there seems to be a personality type that retreats wisely into the mountains to contemplate plum blossoms and folly, there is another that does not. There is another that, in its own way, may be just as infected with the lust for personal power, power over its own person, as is its better, its Napoleonic counterpart. The comfort of this thought might be ruined by its triteness, were it not for the fact that we can cite a powerful text in support of it. Who was it who said something like "I have never believed that one part of mankind was born to be ridden?" No, it went like this: "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately." And dear me, the speaker was none other than Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, he was talking about an official priesthood. But then, of what else are we talking?


*"Obama would fail security clearance," Daniel, Oct. 21, 2008.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Flying south

Sandhill cranes, circling, forming a V, and moving off. Noon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Geraniums in November

My, they do seem to love the cold.

Monday, November 16, 2009

American photos

It's the mystery of this one that I like. Is she a seamstress, showing off a masterwork? Is she an actress, caught forever in her most famous costume? And how old is she -- six, ten? Twenty?

On trying terrorist masterminds in New York

Even though I understand it is intuitively grotesque to put "KSM" -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, master planner of September 11 -- on trial as a mere criminal in New York, and even though I understand the insult to all of us in granting alien warriors our constitutional rights, and the damage to our intelligence efforts the "bonanza" of required sensitive information from military and intelligence services would prove to do, all of it spilling out as a result of the accused having the right to face his accusers -- granted, a lot of "even thoughs" -- still I think there may be one silver lining in this cloud. (The darkest part of the cloud is that the people who want to bring KSM to trial want to do so for absolutely malicious reasons, I am sure. They, from President Obama on down, want to grotesquely insult the nation and endanger its future, but I daresay we are almost getting used to that. And their guaranteeing that KSM will be convicted and will get the death penalty also, of course, renders the whole thing a show trial, another blow to the very appearance of justice that they pretend to tout. In addition to that, I feel sure they'd be delighted if he were acquitted. We have some utterly brutish little children at the helm of this ship. Are we getting used to it?)

Anyway the silver lining is that in trying Muslim terrorists in a civilian court, we may deny them their ability to define jihad. The smart commentators are saying just the opposite, that it's grotesque for KSM to be given this forum by which to preach and recruit. I wonder.

I think back to the movie Braveheart, in which Mel Gibson plays the medieval Scottish warlord William Wallace. When Wallace, battling back against England's conquest of Scotland, is captured by his English foes, he is brought to London for his execution. The crime he is charged with is treason against the English king. The punishment is hanging, drawing, and quartering.

By no stretch of the imagination could Wallace, morally (at least in the movie) be considered a traitor to his nation's conqueror. To be charged so is a cruel and of course deliberate slur to him and to the truth and the reality of his warfare. If his side had won, things would have turned out very differently and no king would have had the power to tell him he was a rebel. But Wallace dies the death of a convicted traitor: the English crowds watch and move off, and Scotland is still conquered, or at least seems well on its way to being. He has lost. His knowing, and his people's knowing, that he is in the right in some lofty sphere, with God perhaps, does no one any service in the end.

And, outrageous as it is to bring the terrorists of September 11th to Manhattan to be "tried" as if for some extremely serious legal faux pas of which they are still yet presumed innocent, nevertheless it does also treat them as the king of England treated William Wallace. It denies them their ability to define themselves, their ability to say what their actions were about. Considering that their motive was jihad, one of the cornerstones of Islam for 1400 years and something laid down by Mohammed himself (the "perfect man"), our chloroforming that motive in a Western courtroom, our saying instead -- no, this was a crime in our Western sense, may prove to be unintentionally wise.

Revised May 16, 2010

Sunday, November 15, 2009

American photographs -- 1910

Chicago, Sept. 12 - 10

To Mrs. E. E. James, Boswell, Ind.

Dear Cousin Nellie,

Will let you know that I can not go out this summer. Will can't get a vacation as he thought he would for any length of time so don't look for me until next year now you & Earl & Lucy come and visit this winter near Holidays we would like to have you come Lovingly Nelle

(This was taken at night it's not very good
write soon did you receive my letter
my Best to all

(Note the card has no stamp. It was never sent.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Did you know? (Obama helps the UN shield Islam from criticism)

This article comes from The International Free Press Society, October 22, 2009:

"On October 1, 2009, the Obama administration in conjunction with the Egyptian government, introduced an anti-free speech measure to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (HRC). It was adopted the next day without a vote.

"Earlier this year, when the United States sought a seat on the HRC, it was a controversial decision. Many who found the HRC neither credible nor useful, opposed the move. Yet, others were more optimistic that America could change the HRC from within. Perhaps the U.S. could spur debate stemming from its opposition to China, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia on critical human rights votes.

"Little evidence suggests that Americans on either side of the aisle contemplated the US entering the ring and supporting the opposition’s anti-freedom measures. Yet now, the current administration has done worse: it’s leading the charge.

"The draft resolution, misleadingly titled 'Freedom of Opinion and Expression' includes two troubling components. First, it calls on nation states to take 'effective measures' to address and combat 'any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence'. It expresses concern and condemnation of 'negative stereotyping of religions and racial groups'. It further attempts to construe this as an international human rights law and obligation. Second, it recognizes the media’s 'moral and social responsibilities' and the 'importance' that its potential voluntary code of conduct could play in combating intolerance.

"This resolution appears to stem from, and constitute a step toward, the Organization of Islamic Conference’s resolution to 'combat defamation of religions'. The OIC’s resolution would ban outright the 'defaming' of religions, speech critical of religion (even if accurate), and open discussion about any negative consequences resulting from the implementation of religious beliefs (such as Sharia law).

"Though both resolutions mention 'religions' generally, the context and references of the resolutions make them almost certain to apply only or disproportionately to Islam. Indeed, the defamation of religions resolution singles out treatment of Islam. Yet not surprisingly, the OIC has blatantly refused to curtail hate speech against Jews or Israel.

"Further, it is the nature of religion to include a component of exclusivity, thus making it impossible to express one’s theology accurately without making 'defamatory' remarks against another theology. For example, merely preaching that Jesus is the son of God can be viewed as an inflammatory remark and an affront to Islam. Additionally, the wording of this resolution makes its violation subjectively determined and comes dangerously close to outlawing certain emotions, such as hostility toward Islam or Muslims.

"Critically important is the resolution’s attempt to internationalize norms on speech, potentially usurping fundamental constitutional rights. Strict constructionists of the US constitution view the constitution as 'the supreme law of the land' (as the constitution expressly states), whereas those who view the constitution as 'a living, breathing document' might not. But even under a strict construction, when the US signs a treaty, the treaty becomes binding on the US. Though this UN resolution does not constitute a treaty, it is fair to presume that because it is a US-led initiative, the US should be bound by it.

"Also problematic is the resolution’s attempt to make the restriction of free speech a human right. In fact, it is free speech that constitutes a human right and not its restriction. Ideologies, ideas and religions do not, and should not be afforded 'human rights'. They should be fair game for criticism, analysis, open debate and discussion. Religions and ideologies cannot be 'defamed'. Once ideologies are afforded protection from criticism, it is in direct contradiction to individual human rights."

Continue reading the full article here.

Sometimes, scenes of fiction flash through my mind: don't you think, if all his plans and policies had gone beautifully -- and they still may succeed, and far more of them have gone far more beautifully than any one could have imagined a year ago -- don't you think the triumphant young god-President would have loved to take his second oath of office on a Koran and not a Bible?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The messianic Left

Now that the health tax bill, Pelosi-care, has passed the House in a Saturday night vote, the commentators, most of them I think genuinely distressed, are falling all over themselves to try to understand what it really means, and to predict what will happen next. They have been doing this since early summer when the fiasco emerged from under its rock -- from Harry Reid's desk drawer, or from the "liberal wet dream" where socialized medicine has always suppurated, Rush Limbaugh says. They are saying: it's a Democrat triumph, or no it isn't. If Queen Pelosi couldn't keep 39 of her minions from bolting and voting against it, then she's got nothing to be proud of. The party is still unraveling. One wise man at National Review Online even opines that now the bill is definitely dead; it will never pass the Senate because they will fear the wrath of the voter, even if the House can safely pretend not to. Wise people who are not that optimistic nonetheless agree the bill still might not pass the Senate, or if it does, then these Democrats will join all the others risking hell for it at the polls next November, and the rollback will begin. The commentators are saying, as they have said and wondered since early summer, do Democrats value being retained in their seats more than they do this bill, or don't they? Are they are so committed to it ideologically that they will vote for a ghastly abstraction they think is noble -- one that will be very hard to undo -- and accept being booted from office, so long as they can feel they have imposed a glorious legacy on us all? Is the left's will to power that intense?

The longer I watch politics, the more convinced I am that all of it boils down to something a professor of mine said many years ago. He said, you can have either freedom or equality, but you can't have both. He was not talking about equality before the law, but rather about the left's version of equality: everything will be somehow "fair" (and, depending on who defines this kind of equality, some pigs will be very much more equal than others). Individual commentators, distressed or not, can keep track of fast-moving events and important people better and faster than I can, which is why Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Malkin have careers doing it and I don't. (It's okay. As Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character growls, "A man's got to know his limitations.") But at a time like this, when all our lives and futures have been essentially mortgaged by a few hundred indoctrinated fools in Washington, the professional commentators are no better off than I am. They are essentially saying, please God, there has to be a way in which this is not atrocious news. And there has to be a way for me to figure it out.

You can have either equality or freedom, Professor King said, but not both. It seems to me that all politics in the modern world boils down to two parties, two mindsets, perhaps to those two definitions of human nature which are also not my own discovery nor the Professor's, far from it: that either human nature is perfectible and can be schooled to know "fairness" by expanding knowledge, by expanding thought itself (whose?), or that human nature is everlastingly the same and needs, always, the hard-won guidance and merciful warnings of mankind's collected experience. The left stands on the side of equality, of perfectible human nature, and of schooling the ignorant to move forward bravely into a better future. Conservatives stand on the side of freedom, and of an infinite but healthily embittered respect for human nature, for what it is and what it is not. Hidden somewhere in here is the reason why the left increasingly loves group "rights," like homosexual "marriage," rather than individual rights. Creating new group rights helps create the conditions whereby humanity itself can be redefined, since, no matter what groups he has ever joined, no man has ever himself been a group -- and therefore no accumulated human wisdom can guide that. The door is open to the left, there. For them, there can be no end of fruitful new groups, as fruitful new sources of social experimentation, victimhood, and command. Where the individual resides, as of old, there resides human nature, much less tractable. Full of prejudice. Contrary. Unschooled.

It's hard to know what to call the left now. Perhaps "the left" has stuck because it is the purest term for them, probing directly back to their roots in the French Revolution and of course to their actual place in the debating chamber in Paris. It probes back to their determination to upend and recreate all human living, through violence if need be, to their rushing in to fill themselves the void in orthodox thinking and religious leadership that they created. It's no wonder that they, too, like the priestly hierarchy they displaced, still govern the arts, publishing, and the universities. (I'm indebted to Paul Johnson's Intellectuals for the idea that the modern leftist intellectual has replaced the cleric as self-appointed governor of all.) Jonah Goldberg calls them Liberal Fascists, and it's not a term he made up. It has a history. Some observers, I think, want to call them, more consistently than they have been, "progressives," to indicate their passion for progressing far beyond anything classic liberalism used to advocate. Indeed it's important to remember -- and one of the reasons we need a new word for them is -- that liberals used to espouse good things, things that mankind's collective experience has taught him were indeed very much worth striving for. The end of slavery is the great example.

But now they don't do good things anymore. They have outlived their usefulness. There are no more personal freedoms to get for anybody, unless they want to start doing things like extending the vote to children. As Calvin Coolidge said, “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.” At this point, thinking of the absurd health care vote in the House last night, and the narcissistic, malicious, besoured little man in the White House now who is the exemplar of the creed, I would refer to the whole political phenomenon as simply the Messianic Left. These are people who will never tire of surging forward to a new world of glorious abstractions, mostly involving group rights and the state, that they will never have to pay for and that, they seem to trust, will all somehow prove to ennoble, to anoint their memories in the long distant end. They meant well. (That's the complaint Rush Limbaugh often and often voices about them, and about why they are never held to account for failure.) If they've literally got a charismatic messiah to lead them on their way, so much the better. He can even serve as a useful straw-man individual, to ward off criticisms about the creation of an endless new world of endless groups into which the individual man is ordered to fit as best he can.

And I think there is a reason why the messianic left finds it difficult to face and criticize radical Islam. (I turn to thinking of Islam because, brutal though it is to say, I suspect that the jihad at Ft. Hood this week was a godsend for the Democrats. If they were thinking of postponing the vote on the health care bill to Sunday or beyond, I believe it may well have changed their minds. It distracted enough attention from the party's losses in the elections also, and from the very fact of the health care vote coming up at all, to embolden them to carry on and do it.) If ever there were a religious creed that loves Equality, that wants all men to be the same -- all part of a group, as it happens -- it would be Islam. Of course there are many other reasons why the left shies away from this frightening thing. Open minded, perfectible people "don't make value judgments," as another professor of mine once said. Apparently it doesn't matter how much blood flows. But pound for pound and measure for measure, I think the left must at some deep level see in the faith very much the same human monolith that they are. Always surging toward a perfect future, preferably under messianic leadership, in which everyone is alike and everything is fair. And dissent is unthinkable. Dissent brings death.

And finally there's a reason why the messianic left's great enemy will also always be the United States. The founding fathers had the audacity, shall we say? -- to grant to future generations of individuals the right to govern themselves and to make their own decisions in almost all particulars. The soul of the born cleric, aching to plan, to control, to rise above his fellows and help them see the great sunny fields of common justice and joy lying just ahead, revolts in frustration at the idea of his fellows' not obeying him. And suppose behind their refusal lies the right to keep refusing, they and their children forever? The right enshrined in America's founding documents, in the actual Constitution, well thought out by extremely intelligent and educated men? It's a terrible prospect for group-messiahs, who care so much and mean so well, who used to have good and even heroic ideas about individual freedom, and who are accustomed to the fact that for a good couple of centuries now, they have shown they win in the end.

Duane Hanson, Couple with shopping bags (1976). Image from Surrealism & the body

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Pond's cold cream saga

Update, January 1, 2015: thanks to all who continue to visit and comment on this "little" post. If you want to see what else I do, by all means come visit me at Pluot

James Boswell once fretted to Samuel Johnson about whether or not he should think of wasting his time reading or writing on some small topic he had in mind. Johnson said, "there can be nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we have as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

I hope that is true, because amid all the awful and serious news in the world, I do have a small subject that frets and interests me. Everyone must promise not to laugh, or be disgusted.

Wonderful Pond's cold cream has lost its wonderful old scent, and now smells like just nothing at all. Chemicals, perhaps, or some kind of locker-room hygienic cream.

Really. That's what is on my mind, as all the micro-blogging platforms ask. What have they done to it? It used to have a fragrance that, now, I'm afraid I can't remember well enough to describe. It was very fresh, flowery but not fussy, a little powdery, fruity but not in the typical melon-and-cucumber style that any cosmetics company can do well and then call pear or kiwi anyway. It was unique.

And now it's gone. I'm sure they have changed the formula, because ever since I noticed the loss well over a year ago, I have continued to buy the product in small sizes and large, in grocery stores and drugstores, reasoning that perhaps that store got a bad shipment, or this one's supply is old and faded. Alas, each jar is now the same. Even my family agree, when I thrust the jar under their noses and demand their opinion that I'm not crazy, that classic Pond's doesn't smell as strong as it once did. The problem has to lie in the factory, and in the decisions made by the nice chemists there. It's become scentless and dull, and even the creamy feel of the stuff is different. I used to be able to catch up a dollop of it on a fingertip, and it sat there white, cool, plump, and perfect, crowned with a little gay curl. Now it is thin, greasy, and tacky. I plunge my fingertip into the jar and I pull away nothing. I have to dig into it with some fierceness, and do my best with a clump instead of a dollop.

I was actually disappointed enough to write to the Pond's company, outlining my complaints and asking why they had changed the formula. Some one from Quality Control wrote me back, apologizing for my experience and insisting that it did not reflect the standards that Pond's is determined to maintain. And wouldn't I please accept a coupon for a free jar, which I would soon find in my mail, while my letter was forwarded through proper channels, etc. I can imagine the person writing this thinking, "get a life, you no doubt ninety-year-old relic."

In a few weeks an entire package of coupons arrived, for all sorts of products. I had no idea that the Pond's people either own or are owned by all sorts of other people -- the people who make Suave shampoo, and Dove soap, too, if memory serves. I didn't use any of the coupons because I don't want two dollars off a soap or a shampoo. I want, at the least, Pond's to confide in me that they have changed the formula, and at best I want them to go back to the old one.

Let me tell you why I love Pond's. (Do I sound as if I am dunning for more coupons? I am not.) Of course every family with women in it is likely to keep a jar in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. It takes off makeup beautifully, and is safe to use even around the eyes. When I was growing up we always had a jar on hand, which seemed to sit half used for years, with the same black swipe plunged into it, from some already mascara-laden fingertip that some woman hadn't bothered to clean off before dipping in for her second helping you might say. Since I don't wear makeup, however, I thought no more about Pond's until it was time to buy a jar, in adulthood, to have on hand to remove my own children's Halloween makeup. And then I opened it and smelled again that scent.

And I was instantly transported back, in the powerful and ridiculous way that scents can do this, to the bathroom of my childhood home. Summertime, the open bathroom window, the heights of the green trees outside, and even the sound of bird calls returned to me in one split second sensation. Because of Pond's. Ridiculous.

So now I, too, kept a jar on hand. Still, apart from Halloween, I had no particular use for it -- tried makeup, found it aging on me -- until I happened to receive a book for a present, called Letters of the Century: America 1900 to 1999. It's a collection heavy on left-wing canonic documents, everybody eyewitnessing civil rights, Vietnam, and so on, but in the middle of it (pp. 368-371) is the best letter in the book. It was written in 1951 by a lady named Myrna Chase to another lady simply named Mary. Miss Chase had no grand national agenda to discuss. She was a medical secretary who was leaving her doctor's practice in order to get married, and her letter was one of instruction to her replacement. Miss Chase obviously loved her job and was very good at it, but she was also a fine writer. Her style is simple, delicate, just verging on the waspish but so intensely ladylike that it remains great fun to read. "I'm sure," she warned Mary, "I don't need to caution you against the horror of a dark slip under a white uniform." "Remember that white in a doctor's office must always be just a little whiter than white." "I know you will not feel it beneath you to supplement the efforts of the overworked janitress with a good dust cloth of your own." "When the doctor is ready to leave, usher him out and tell him good night as if he were the guest of honor. Your respect and admiration can never be too great for a man who is following the finest profession in the world."

And this, at the beginning of the letter: "Your day really begins the night before, when you take a warm bath, brush your hair, cream your face, and relax in bed for at least eight hours' sound sleep."

Now doesn't that sound delicious? It takes us right back to 1951, when -- so we fancy -- women relaxed in the evening in fur-trimmed peignoirs and low-heeled mules, gave their hair a hundred strokes before bed, and laid out a soignée uniform of dress, hose, gloves, hat, stole, and who knows maybe a fresh orchid, for the next day. And "creamed" their faces above all. Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), in the old movie Dodsworth, creams her face and wipes it all off savagely while having an argument with her husband Sam (Walter Huston) in a European hotel room. She's forty, and about to become a grandmother.

Ah hah. What is the point of cold cream, anyway, and where does it come from? I imagined it as somehow a product of nineteenth century Victorian leisure and chemistry, or as another brilliant invention of one of those hardscrabble ladies of the early twentieth century, who simply created whole cosmetics and fashion industries from scratch and sheer brainpower -- Estée Lauder was one, Chanel another. Not so, it seems. Cold cream, so named "because it leaves the skin feeling cool and refreshed" (a bit pat, no?) is credited to the classical Greek physician Galen. He stirred together the simple ingredients olive oil, beeswax, water, and rose petals, and arrived at what the French still call le cérat de Galien, Galen's wax. Modern formulas eschew olive oil, because it spoils too quickly. Its replacement is mineral oil.

Do we trust Wikipedia on this important little issue? My French dictionary includes no such word as "cérat"; the word for wax is la cire. That same dictionary also translates cold cream forthrightly as le cold-cream (masculine, oddly). However, my French dictionary is not the only source of information on skin care on the planet. A French website called Huiles & Sens Aromathérapie agrees that, with this invention Claude Galien, "un médecin grec de l'Antiquité," did indeed give us one of the oldest of all cosmetic recipes. And they call it le cérat de Galien.

I was so charmed by Miss Chase's retro advice to cream your face each night, and so pleased by the rediscovery of Pond's at about the same time I was given that book, that I have been cleansing with "the cool classic" religiously every night since. Letters of the Century came out in 1999, so that makes a good ten years of the ritual. And now they've changed the formula, the fragrance is gone or almost gone, and I continue to use it though half the pleasure of it is also gone.

If you wish to follow up on this little, this positively Lilliputian (Boswellian?) matter, if you want to achieve true cold cream geekiness, you may do so by surfing the net for websites which actually are devoted to makeup and makeup reviews -- and reviews of products that remove makeup. While embarked on this sub-project I found someone who knows more about the nice chemists at Pond's than I do, but whose information confirms my suspicions, and frightens me a bit, too. Hear this, dated 9/11/09 from

"However, I am disappointed that Pond's reformulated the product by adding toxic ingredients like the preservative DMDM Hydantoin. The upside of this change is that the original Pond's cold cream is still manufactured [update, as of at least 2014, no it isn't]. You just have to look harder. My local drugstore has it while one major drugstore carried the new reformulated one. Good luck!"

I can't tell what is more extraordinary, this confirmation that I'm not crazy, or the news of toxicity in my Pond's, -- or other reviewers' complaints about the cold cream's intense, "been around for decades," "granny" smell. "I despise the smell of roses," one woman huffed.

Really? It still contains Galen's roses? I almost think I'm better off not noticing them, rather than being such a poor soul as to dislike them. Meanwhile, it's almost time for my nightly ritual. Bring on the DMDM Hydantoin.