Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I read recently that Rand Paul and other Tea Party members newly elected to Congress want to return to a literal reading of the Constitution and eliminate a number of Federal departments and functions: Education, I believe, is one; Housing and Urban Development another. There must be more, but I can't keep up.

At first I was alarmed. It's going to be hard enough losing NPR, public television, and school lunches, which I'm sure are on their list. But then I sat back and thought about it for a while, and came to the conclusion that they weren't nearly ambitious enough. When I was putting together my edition of the Lewis and Clark journals I read up on the Louisiana Purchase, and learned all about Thomas Jefferson's struggle with his own conscience about the Constitution and its interpretation when Napoleon offered him the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson could not find the authority anywhere in the Constitution for him to buy the Territory, and he didn't have time to go to Congress and obtain that authority because Napoleon wanted a decision, and the money, right away, so he could resume his war with Great Britain. Jefferson made the purchase, but suffered a great deal of anguish in the process. He did indeed violate the Constitution, which nowhere gives a President the right to buy land and double the size of the country. Don't think the country was thrilled by it, either. Whole sections, especially in New England, objected to it. As they saw it, Jefferson had overstepped his authority, and the move must inevitably diminish their own power as population and opportunity shifted west.

Now the Tea Party seems to have the balance of power; therefore now, if ever, we have a chance to redress the wrong Jefferson did to the Constitution. I suggest that we offer to sell all that land back to France. I'm quite serious about this. I can see all kinds of benefits.

A/ We could sell it back at the same price, but with interest. The money must come to several billions by now, and we could put that toward reducing the national deficit.

B/ The move would immediately save us billions as well in the agricultural subsidies we now pay to farmers in what would become, once more, French territory. I haven't looked closely at a map, but I believe that would encompass all of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana, Colorado--all the lands, in short, drained by the Missouri River. Plus Louisiana, Arkansas, and the City of New Orleans. Just think of it: next time a hurricane blows into New Orleans and drowns it, the problem wouldn't be ours. Nor would Midwest droughts. The French are famous for subsidizing their own farmers, and protecting their interests with high tariffs on imported farm goods; they've been doing that since Jefferson's time.

C/ By eliminating so much of the so-called Heartland, the sale would move the location of the "real" America and "real" Americans, with their "real" values, which appear to have relocated to the Midwest sometime in the nineteenth century, much closer to the East Coast again, making those of us who live there feel authentically American again.

D/ It would move French influence, French culture, French educational savoir, not to mention French food, much closer to us, with results that could only be beneficial. French schools, for example, are rigorous about spelling. There would be no more embarrassment about the signs that show up at Tea Party rallies, which must inevitably raise difficult questions about the intelligence and sophistication of Tea Party members.

E/ Closer means easier to reach. It would take a while for French cities to spring up in Kansas or South Dakota, but I can foresee a future in which Americans, who would now all be living east of the Mississippi or West of the Rockies, would find a place like Des Moines very attractive, if only for its three- or even four-star restaurants. Turn a French chef loose on a good Midwestern steak and who knows what new levels of culinary pleasure might emerge.

F/ And the French are known for not being obese, even though they eat so well, and so much cheese. Again, it might take a while, but surely French influence would work miracles on the current level of obesity, and all the costs associated with it, now found in the Midwest. And speaking of health, I'm sure the Midwest, instead of losing population, would gain; people would emigrate just to get in under the French health care system, one of the world's best.

G/ Last but not least, millions of the residents of this territory would learn French. It's an elegant language, an advantage in itself, but more than that it has been known ever since the Enlightenment as the language of Reason (yes, with a capital R). These new French citizens would be encouraged to read the Enlightenment philosophers, up to and including Jefferson himself, and learn something about the principles on which the United States of America, their former homeland, was founded.

But overriding all these considerations, however beneficial, is the fact that the move would correct one of the major historical errors in American history and return the Constitution to its proper place as the sole source, the only guide, by which the country can be governed. Not only would this return us to a state of absolute purity, it would make the current members of the Supreme Court supremely happy.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I've been reading Jules Witcover's book about 1968 and it has brought it all back, not just the turmoil in the nation but my own pesonal turmoil. That was the year my first wife and I bought our big old house in Shrub Oak, the year I almost left her and did, actually, stay away a couple of nights, and... well, not a good year. Mid-life crisis? Hardly; I was only 31 years old. The mid-life crisis came later. But otherwise, out there in the world, a huge crisis. The protests against the war in Vietnam were getting bigger and bigger, blacks were continuing to march, demanding a chance to live the life the rest of us took for granted, the pressure on Lyndon Johnson to end the war was growing unbearable, finally forcing him out of the race for the Presidency, and then the assassinations: first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy. Unrest on a scale not seen in this country since the Civil War.

If you look at a crisis as a teaching tool, however, you can learn a lot from it. I had grown up as part of the Silent Generation, so dubbed in Life magazine, I think it was, or maybe in Time, because we didn't speak out about much of anything and stayed out of politics. But there wasn't much to speak out about. Our elders had invented and used atomic weapons, we were raised to dive under our school desks when the sirens went off, and when the Beats came along most of us watched from a distance. I was a child during World War II. My brother and I read the papers, two of them in the house every day, and thus at an impressionable age learned something about the world and what kind of place it was, and what human beings were capable of. In college I went by myself to see the famous Holocaust documentary Night and Fog and there were the piles of human skin destined for lampshades, the living skeletons in the camps and the horror, all of it sickening beyond belief. I think we all collectively concluded that the private life was best. Human beings are irredeemable. We retreated into ourselves.

Then the Sixties came and we watched the draft age kids march and riot and occupy university buildings and demand change and reform and freedom. Freedom, the old cry. And I, for one, thought, what is this? Freedom? In this country we're all pretty much free already. At bottom, I believed, what they wanted was to be free of the draft. And I was right. When the draft ended, so did the marches and the protests. The war went on, but the Sixties and all they supposedly meant were over. The net result of the Sixties was Sixties style, blue jeans, a whole new kind of music, and the nostalgia for those things that crops up in revivals like Hair. Otherwise little had happened in this country. Our politics was the same. No significant portion of the population retreated to countryside communes. It was all about the draft. After the Sixties came the Me Decade. I wrote about this for GQ in the late '80s, and made enemies among the editors; but they printed the piece. We do not live in a revolutionary country. We live in a rather staid, commercially minded, conservative country where most citizens just want to make money--as much as they can. The rest is relatively superficial.

So it remains today. I try to tell my liberal friends, hey, guys, we live on the East Coast among our kind and the rest of the country is different. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison calls New York and the West Coast the "dream coasts." In between, the "real" America. It's actually no more "real" than the dream coasts, but it is definitely different, another country, really, and it is a miracle we've stayed one country for so long. Right now things look very bad for liberals, and I am one, but I think in the long term not much will change. What will the result of this election be? Stalemate. Gridlock. The sentiments of the country will remain deeply divided, the human chain saws on the cable channels will rev up and do their absolute best to make as much noise as possible, and volcanoes will continue to erupt and floods come and the news will be dire.

But hey: they've got nothing on the Nazis. Injustice of all kinds is prevalent and the people are ignorant and delusional, but that's always been the case, here and everywhere. It's contentious, but so far it's not killing, and we've been relatively lucky: no recent assassinations.. And yes, there's Abu Ghraib, but even there they didn't make lampshades out of human skin. We should all calm down. My brother was a Republican all his life and you couldn't walk into his house without Fox News being on the tube, but I loved him anyway. His kids are mostly Republicans, I suspect, but I love them, too. And with luck the economy will improve and Obama will wise up, having learned lessons from this particular crisis of his own, and next time things will go better for those who believe that it is possible to bring a little more justice into the world, even though this world is pretty much out of anybody's control.