"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Systemic Nonsense–The Hysteria Of The Wokest Of The Woke

Betty Farmer was convinced that she had expunged the last trace of her own systemic racism until a quick, unrelated search on Ancestry.com revealed that her great-great grandfather did not only own slaves but was a Southern grandee who had owned, bought, and sold at least a thousand slaves for and from his Georgia plantation.  How had she missed this critical piece of family history? More importantly, now what?  It was one thing to call out Uncle Harry, a loudmouthed Trumpist, for his racism – Harry after all could listen to her screeds and defend or justify his beliefs in real time – but what about a long-dead relative whose legacy was permanently on record?  How much penance, denial, and refusal would it take to expiate the guilt?  How much abject obeisance to her progressive handlers would be required for them to keep her in the fold?

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At first she thought she could keep the family skeleton in the closet, but the Internet being what it is, leaks not only happened, but always happen.  A cousin who for years had resented Betty’s hammering of family heroes for their greedy capitalism, misogyny, and homophobia and who had been pulled out of line for her own racial ignorance and indifference, had got a hold of a printout of one of Betty’s searches and went with it.   The slave-owning, Confederate flag-waving, Simon Legree story of the Farmer family was out of the bag, public, and sensational.

It was one thing to tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis; but another thing entirely to remove the Hon. Hiram W. Farmer from the records.  Betty became obsessed with the man, his family, and Rosewood, the 1000 acre cotton plantation along near Augusta.  The grainy photographs of him with his daughters, all decked out in crinoline, ribbons, and fancy hats,  Seeing Negro servants behind and attentive to them and elegant men standing on the steps of the mansion  beneath the tall Georgian pillars of the 25 room, elegantly furnished antebellum home, looking out over the tonsured and manicured lawns made her cringe with guilt and shame.

“What can I do to make amends?”, she asked LaFarge Johnson, the local representative of Black Lives Matter in her home town of New Brighton who simply sneered and dismissed her with a “Nothing”.  Not only was she a systemic racist by upbringing, community, and education; she had racist blood in her veins and nothing short of a revolutionary transfusion would rid her of that taint. “Defile their graves”, he said. “Pull up and topple their gravestones. Spit on hallowed ground”.

And so she obeyed and found the ancestral Georgian home and the Farmer plot under a grand magnolia overlooking the river and fertile bottom land nearby.  “Here lies Hiram Farmer, father, patriot to the Southern cause, Christian, and true believer” said the tombstone; but she hesitated.  Defilement of her own personal history would hurt and add to the already ponderous guilt she bore.  Wasn’t there some other way, she wondered, a way to honor her dead ancestors and protest what they stood for?

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Absolutely, unequivocally ‘No’, said LaFarge, using spicier and more unaccommodating street language. She simply had a longer row to hoe, racially speaking, than others.  In religious terms, it was 100 Our Fathers, 50 Stations of the Cross, and 1000 Hail Mary’s just to get off the mark. 

Another Black Lives Matter brother had a better idea.  She would make the perfect poster child for the Movement.  Who could be more convincing than a descendant of slave owners who renounced completely slavery, the South, and American history before 1965? Compliant and tearful, she stood before conventions of white, liberal, equally guilt-ridden BLM supporters and beat her breast in a thousand mea culpas imploring them to renounce their systemic racist sentiments.  “If I, the descendant of slave owners can renounce my family, my legacy, and my history can do it, so can you”.

She was a great success.  She conjured images of great-great-grandfather Hiram beating black men, sodomizing black women, and whipping black children; rose to theretofore unrealized oratorical heights, and yelled, “Black Lives Matter” again and again until she was hoarse.

LaFarge wondered how many other repentant white folk there were within reach.  If Betty Farmer had been gifted to him for the asking, there could be others.  Like a pimp on 125th Street, hustling for trade for his stable, he scanned his white supporters and asked them with Biblical reference, “Who among you is innocent?"  Once again, he used much saltier and hip language, but the message was clear.  Any white person with a questionable past should step forward and be known.

Robert L. Mouselle, a Yale academic had been on the front lines of the fight for racial, gender, and economic justice since the early days of the civil rights movement  There was no liberal cause that Prof. Mouselle did not espouse.  He and his equally committed wife, Leona, had championed every fight for social reform that had come across their desks.  The problem that Bob Mouselle had had to overcome was his storied American heritage.  

Mayflower | History, Voyage, & Facts | Britannica

Although his maternal ancestors had come over on the Mayflower and his paternal family had settled Jamestown; and although his great-great-great grandfather had fought against the British in the American Revolution; and although his great-grand uncle had been given a silver star for bravery against the British in the War of 1812; and although his great maternal grandfather was a Colonel, aide to General Sherman in his march to the sea, his history was tainted and in need of reform. 

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While most Americans would have been proud to have had such a rich American legacy, his academic associates were suspicious.  Wasn’t the War of 1812 simply a reason to ‘repatriate’ Choctaw and Chickasaw allies west of the Mississippi? Weren’t his New Bedford militiamen formerly slave traders in the Three Corner Trade?

In fact, as irony would have it, one of Bob’s ancestors not only participated in the Three Corner Trade, but was one of New England’s biggest slave traders.  He profited enormously from the sale of Africans to the Caribbean and from the rewards of the collateral rum and molasses trade.

So Bob, more fraught with racial guilt than Betty Farmer – Bob was a scion of the progressive movement and Betty was only a handmaiden – went on the hustings with LaFarge Johnson to denounce America’s slave-holding past and serve as the perfect example of how systemic racism could be expunged.  If Bob, with his patriotic American heritage could call out his compatriots and denounce America, then the message would get across loud and clear.

Bob, a professor at Yale, made no bones about his progressive, reformist agenda; and for his English literature classes, he chose works not for their artistic merit but for their political import.  He was a Deconstructionist’s Deconstructionist.  Every line from Chaucer to Faulkner was parsed, reviewed, and taught to make a point – racism and anti-social, imperialist thinking was pervasive, historical, and inevitable.  University administrators were delighted to see such an outspoken advocate for black justice, gay rights, and ethnic pride. 

Whether by happenstance or Movement insight, Bob and Betty were put on the same docket.  Not that they would speak on the same platform, to the same crowd, or in the same venue; but they were an independent vital tag-team.  BLM were delighted to have two generationally different, gifted and passionate speakers.  Both had the credentials BLM was looking for.  Although there were many well-known supporters of the movement, they did not have the historical weight of Bob and Betty.  Noam Chomsky and many other older liberals were Jewish immigrant/refugees; and while they could speak to prejudice and oppression, they could not do so within the American context.  Direct descendants of slave owners meant something which the shtetl never could.

400 years' anniversary of slaves arriving in America - does it ...

Betty and Bob never met, but both would have been delighted at each other’s wokeness.  Bob demanded compliance from his Yale colleagues and thanks to his energy, passion, and credentials even the most diffident of Associate Professors signed on to his radical socialist agenda.  As before, if an American blue-blood, heir to a historical legacy dating from the Mayflower, could be so passionately insistent on taking down the American citadel, so could they.

Betty rallied the minions.  If a simple hometown girl with patriotic roots could switch sides, color allegiance, and political philosophy in pursuit of a woke, righteous cause, so could they.

Betty’s cousin- the one who discovered and displayed her cousin’s slave-owning, racist past – never budged an inch.  She was proud of Hiram Farmer, not necessarily for his slave-holding, but for his cavalier tradition, his insistence on cultural sophistication, gentility, manners, and respectful honor of the past.   She, unlike her woke cousin, was able to look holistically at her forbears.   What was the sum of their lives, their accomplishments? Certainly not just additive numbers in a social column.

The two squared off at Easter and Christmas dinners, stared each other down, but out of respect for Aunt Elizabeth and the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, said nothing.   They each had gone their own ways.  Poor, innocent, gullible Betty had been co-opted by the an-historical forces of BLM, shanghaied from a storied American family by an inchoate mob.  She had been forced to reject her heritage, her family, and her history; but she was complicit since the flaccidity of her character had always led her to unsavory places.  BLM was a convenient cover for grievances which had nothing to do with racism but community dysfunction and social desuetude; but Betty was too na├»ve, gullible, and susceptible to see it.

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One can only admire Betty’s cousin who refused to be cowed by demands to disavow her heritage and feel sorry for Betty who out of  a consequential insecurity of character and a desperate need to belong hooked her wagon to whatever popular juggernaut that happened to push its way through the crowd.

Such is the spectrum; but it is hard to wonder at the hysterical nonsense of the wokest of the woke, and at those who ignore history, disavow parentage and legacy, and assume a righteous but never-earned place at the American table.  This too will pass.  American fads are notorious and play themselves out within months if not years; but meanwhile it is taking its toll.  It is twisting the good sentiments of Americans like Betty Farmer, taking the intelligent likes of Bob Mouselle out of circulation, and forcing Betty’s cousin into a defensive activism she never sought.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The End Of Sports As We Know It–The Politicization Of Our Only Free Space, Our Only Refuge

It all started with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling for the National Anthem at a professional football game.  His refusal to stand – regardless of the reverence he claimed for his cause, he was not out of sympathy but out of defiance to the America which was being honored.  His insistence that kneeling was a profound  and very American religious expression in the tradition of Martin Luther King rang untrue for everyone in the stands who knew immediately and instinctively  that this was an act of dishonor and disrespect, not one of Christian sentiment.  More and more NFL players followed suit and refused to stand for the Anthem, they said, in a prayerful spiritual unity against racial injustice, and more and more Americans turned away.

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When criticized and attacked for what many considered was an unpatriotic gesture, especially by those who had benefitted from America’s culture of opportunity, the racial tolerance of the League now over 90 percent black, and who had made hundreds of millions of dollars in doing so, the players cited ‘freedom of expression’.  Once again no one was fooled.  Such overtly political and disruptive displays of protest would never be allowed in their offices or workplaces. Workers who pulled out of an assembly line and let the gears, cans, or car parts pile up would be summarily fired.  Anyone consistently disrupting department meetings through political protests unrelated to the workplace would be warned, disciplined, and dismissed.  Freedom of expression has its place, but not when it is counter-productive, divisive, and damaging to the cohesive environment necessary for productive work.  The streets have always been the place for peaceful protest and demonstration, not the office, the factory, or the sidelines of NFL football games.

The violent, uncivil, and largely disjointed protests that have turned many of America’s cities into war zones are products of the principle of minority rule according to which any action by anyone formerly ‘oppressed’ is not only justifiable but called for.  Progressives have championed Kaepernick and his colleagues for their long-overdue protest against racism and institutional whiteness. They have stood by while callow local politicians have heeded calls for the dismantling of the entire system of law and order and watched their cities burn.  Ordinary Americans have been the victims of this riotous, destructive, and murderous rampage; but progressives say that because of their systemic, innate, and deeply-rooted racism, they deserve whatever they get from these righteous mobs. 

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Politicians have sat back like Nero when Rome burned, whistlin’ Dixie while courts, businesses, police and fire stations have been destroyed; and have agreed with the violent cancel culture which has provided cover for vandalism and anarchic revisionism.  Every accusation of ‘racism’ is taken on face value, due process abrogated, and no historical figure is safe from accusations of prejudice and racial hatred.

The media have been complicit in both the riotous protests and the cancel culture.  Commentators on all but the most conservative outlets have likened the violence to the Boston Tea Party, the righteous indignation of Americans oppressed by the British.  Violent protest is at times necessary and called for, they say.  Progressives have ironically espoused the philosophy of ultra-conservative politician and former Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater who said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  This laissez-faire attitude towards incivility, violent revisionism, and venal demands, has increased the divisiveness which has riven America in the last decade.

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It gets worse.  Now owners of professional football and basketball teams have agreed to allow symbols of political protest to be displayed on jerseys and helmets.  Any player in the NBA or NFL can affix the logo of Black Lives Matter, a silhouette of blacks who died in police custody, and presumably any other anti-image.  Once the door to ‘individual symbols of protest’ has been opened, there will be no stopping the excess.  Uniforms will be as festooned with political images and slogans no different from the commercial advertising covering every inch of race car drivers, but unlike them, they will be selling nothing but angry, inchoate protest. 

This permissiveness is expected from owners whose teams are almost completely black.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, they say, by letting players be themselves.  Self-interested owners disingenuously assert that political expression around a common cause may in fact be a good thing for solidarity and teamwork.  Yet they do have something to lose.  Not only are the vast majority of those who follow football and basketball white, but they are middle-class, middle-American whites who feel increasingly badgered and hectored by coastal elites who assume their ignorance, their primitive conservatism, and their mindless faith.  Most have had enough of this universal criticism and this promotion of the interests of the few to the disadvantage of the many.  Just as the NFL saw attendance and viewership decline after the Kaepernick episode, so will it see further declines once the professional sports season resumes.

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Perhaps the worst, incalculable damage done by these protests is the infection of the one area of American life untouched by political anger – sports.  One could formerly tune into college or professional sports knowing that it would be free space, an issue-free sanctuary. Players, announcers, and fans had only one thing in mind – playing the game and winning.  Viewers were thrilled by a broken-field run, an acrobatic catch, a graceful leap to the basket, precision three-point shooting, aggressive defense, and quarterback field intelligence.  Sports were exciting and fans were passionate about their teams. College football in the South was as close as anything comes to religion.  Saturdays were days of celebration, enthusiasm, and camaraderie.  Over 100,000 fans filled Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa very week to watch the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.  It was an exuberant, happy three hours of respite from the increasing emotional ravages of the outside world.

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Now that unique, very American, and absolutely necessary refuge has been denied.  The innocence of sports has been sullied.  The anger, resentment, and hostility forced upon Americans by the unrestrained, ambitious, and violent few and their white supporters has now invaded Boston Garden.

Some sports have been relatively unaffected by these protests; but hockey, a sport with few black players, has a relatively small fan base.  Baseball, thanks to its large number of Latin and white players has seen few racial protests, but its once dominant demographics have eroded over the years, and its fan base is aging.

One can only envy the skier who takes the first lift to the double-blacks at Aspen and carves a trail in the newly-fallen snow; or the fly fisherman on the Yellowstone, or the solitary hiker in the Absarokas.  Escape from the raucous, insistent noise of political protest, unremitting social demands, and continued hostile criticism is increasingly impossible.  We are invaded by invidious attacks, pursued by insistent demands.  Refuge, solitude, peaceful reflection is impossible and joyous, collective sports celebration is now a thing of the past.

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This political anarchy and divisive hostility is infectious.  No family gathering, no Sunday dinner, no religious observation is immune.  Families are divided, children all too quickly lose their innocence and optimism.  Conversation is avoided rather than sought out.  We have become besieged.

This too will pass, say progressive instigators of civil unrest and racial protest, once white America has been purged of its insidious, innate racism and a new, more just and equitable nation emerges from the social revolution.  Most others, however, feel that the nation will never recover; and that it will become one of constant irritability, dissatisfaction, and anger.  The damage has already been done, and it is irreparable.

Many looked forward to first pitch of Opening Day, the first tip-off of the NBA season, the first down of the new football season.  Many fewer will do so this year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Outrageous, The Oversized, The Arrogant, And The Indifferent – The Surprising Rise Of An Unlikely Political Genius

Baxter Lennon had been brought up properly – to color within the lines, to go to Mass, to respect his parents, and to act appropriately.  He was a member of an important family and whatever he did reflected well or badly on it.  There were to be no rough edges, nothing that ever chafed or irritated, a sense of decency, moderation, and reserve.

He was an Honor Camper at Camp Wanaweta awarded for his good behavior, his example of respect and obedience, and his sense of allegiance and duty.   He got all A’s on his report cards, singled out by his teachers not only as a good student but polite, orderly, and congenial.  He was an altar boy and soon the principal acolyte to Father Brophy at High Mass, an honor and tribute given to very few.

 was kind to his sister, never complained about his chores, went to bed on time, ate everything on his plate, and was careful not to soil his clothes or scuff his shoes.

In Sophomore Year in high school, something snapped in Baxter.  Perhaps it was because of Arnie Boone, the music teacher that the very proper private school hired because of his reputation - he had been once feted as one of Connecticut’s rising stars and been graced with a recital at Bushnell Hall at a young age – but barely tolerated because of his eccentricities and willful disobedience of school rules. 

 Baxter had some talent in music, and although his parents, not wishing to waste a semester on a below-average, non-high tier college track course objected, they demurred.  After all their son was near the top of his class and excelled at more ‘proper courses’, so one semester off the grid couldn’t possibly hurt.

Perhaps it was Bobby Inman, the son of an influential industrialist and scion of one of New England’s first families, but who – unlike Baxter – resented his parents dutiful respectability and was considered by school administrators as a ‘bad seed’ – an incorrigible, disruptive, and corrupting influence.  Bad boys having a sexual allure that was irresistible to good girls,  it was no surprise that Bobby was the school’s Valmont; and because of his popularity, his conquests, and his Olympian status at Bradley, he was Baxter’s hero. It was one thing to have praise from teachers, priests, and parents; another thing entirely to be adored by girls.

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Perhaps it was ‘still waters run deep’, and that Baxter’s moral probity was only an add-on to a naturally rebellious, independent personality.  Whatever the reason, in short order he became as bad a seed at Bobby Inman.  He was ‘short-circuited’ said his teachers, who thought they had seen everything.  He was basically a good boy whose circuit breakers would quickly be switched back to ‘On’, and he would be off to Harvard.

He was never happier, and felt liberated -  finally freed from the respectability of right behavior.  It was a feeling of euphoria, fantastic release and satisfaction.  For the first time in his life he was doing what he wanted, when he wanted, and nothing could be better. Because behind all the tattoos, delinquency, and ill-mannered, resentful behavior, he was one of Bradley’s best students.  Not just for his year but for any year.  He whizzed through the most advanced math courses the school could provide, wrote fiction like a professional, won the Bonner Fielding Prize for the best historical essay on Puritan New Haven, and learned two languages well.  The school couldn’t very well dismiss him.

Whether this rebellious indifference to the norm was a matter of genes, psychology, or environment, Baxter left Bradley relentlessly anti-social, anti-establishment, and anti-normative.  He joined the Harvard Conservative Union, not because he was a an advocate of Hayek, Friedman, Buckley, or Reagan but because it felt good to mold the Union into the most radical student organization on the East Coast and to defy the stale and boringly predictable campus liberalism.  Theirs was a philosophy of Nietzschean will, Kierkegaardian determinism, and social Darwinism.

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He dated wild Ashkenazi Jewish girls from Radcliff – girls who had dumped the radical Judaism and Gompers socialism of their parents into the Charles.  He took drugs, slept with goomba townies from the North End, invited them – all gussied up in bouffant hairdos, low-cut dresses, costume jewelry, and cheap perfume -  to Adams House teas, defied professors who inserted their reformist agenda into the most apolitical courses, and was the most outspoken pro-life, pro-heterosexual advocate Harvard had ever seen.  He reveled in his classmates opprobrium and encouraged it.  His sarcasm and bitter, dripping irony became his trademark.  Few had the ability let alone the temerity to challenge him.

He was a master of duplicity, a genius with a silver tongue, a persuasive orator who loved to see a rapt audience, nodding in agreement, and becoming his.  As hard as the Harvard establishment tried to marginalize him, ridicule his ideas, and separate him from the community, they could not.  Baxter simply didn’t care either about the radical ideas he professed or the increasingly virulent attacks against him. 

Politics, of course, was the best place for Baxter once he left Harvard.  There he could find a constituency, build it, expand it, and move up the political ladder.  Even before he graduated, he was noticed by conservative political operatives who saw in this smart, engaging, and influential young man a rich future.  He became their advance man for youth.  His charisma, polish, and mesmerizing presence would easily win over the gullible young and make waves among the hidebound liberal establishment.  Before long he was elected to public office at the state level, and then won a seat in Congress.  Before long he was considered as an enviable candidate for President.

Baxter’s story has been abridged here.  His rise to power was not quite so meteoric as it might appear – American politics are a dirty, venal, and brutal business and only the most durable and savvy survive – but the nature of his ascendancy is important.  Americans – a bourgeois, settled lot indifferent to all but Hollywood, money, glitz and glamour – would not seem to be ripe for a man like Baxter Lennon; and yet they took to his bombast, outrageous assumptions, defiance of cant and received wisdom like a duck to water.  He tapped something in them, awakened his dormant independent spirit just as Percy Boone had done for him at Bradley.  There was nothing really settled about these Middle Americans.  They were marching in place because they had to, were obliged to, and resented the arrogant dismissal of politicians who took them for granted, laughed at them, and relegated them.

Baxter could care less about the plight of the forgotten American.   They were as uninteresting as his Harvard classmates – both suffering from pedestrianism - and while his constituents might deserve more understanding because of the inevitability of their lot, he had none.  He was in all this for himself.  He delighted in the adulation of increasingly large crowds not because of any arrogance or self-importance but because of the exercise itself.  Manipulation was the means and the end.  There was no final idyll at the end of the road – progressives had staked out that fabulist territory for themselves – nor any satisfaction in any adoption of the platform he treated as a Hollywood script, complete with villains, heroes, damsels in distress, power, and glory.  He simply loved the fact that he could get people to do his bidding without them having the slightest idea that they had been brought to his trough by him and him alone.

Baxter Lennon had been out of office for many years by the time Donald Trump became president; but the two were identical twins.  They both were outrageous, irreverent, manipulative, amoral and brilliant to the core. 

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The Left never understood Baxter Lennon nor could they figure out Donald Trump.  They were continually surprised at his appeal.  How could this ignorant, retrograde, immoral man possibly have any following at all? The answer of course is simple – bad boys, the outrageous, attractive, irrepressible, and very confident men, always win the crowd. 

Baxter spent his retirement years as happy as could be watching Donald Trump infuriate the Left and excite his crowds.  In his first term and especially in his second, he was one of a kind.  No matter how progressives whined, there Donald Trump was on Twitter, on the podium, and before the cameras – not only touting a conservative agenda but doing it with braggadocio, flair, and fireworks.

There is most definitely a place for outrageous, amoral, indifferent willful Nietzschean man in American politics.  Just as we prefer Hollywood and Las Vegas to reality, we prefer the likes of Trump.  The quiet, respectful, men of moderation like Joe Biden may win the hearts of the already-committed Left, but no one else.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

“Watch Your Edges”–The Joyful Risk-Taking Life Of A Liberated Woman

“Watch your edges”, warned Martha Lassiter; and little Bonnie Lassiter moved away from the edge of the chair, climbed down, too small to reach the sink, unable to reach the bubbly water and soapy dishes, looking up at it with tears in her eyes, wondering again why her mother was no fun at all.

“Watch your edges” became a useful catch-all warning in the Lassiter house.  Be careful walking down stairs, hold on to the bannister, don’t get too close to the railing, lie in the middle of the bed, never touch a knife don’t hit your head on the counter.  There were dangerous edges everywhere, Bonnie learned.  There were edges outside too, her mother warned. Stay in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t get too close to the curb, don’t go down the slide, run on the path.  Soon the little girl saw nothing but edges and the world a frightening place. Her classroom was not a friendly but treacherous.  Friends’ houses were dangerous places where there were new edges she had never seen before.

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By the time she was five, she had to be coached to cross the threshold, to lose her fear of the sharp, tonsured edges of the lawn, and the rattling, creaky edges of the mailbox.  By the time she was six, she was a psychotic wreck.

The story would be very depressing and sad if Bonnie had not emerged from this horrible miasma of scary edges, but she did.  As happens to some precociously smart girls, they figure things out sooner than everyone else.  If every step was perilous, she thought, then all steps were perilous; and if all steps were perilous than none were.  At worst a tautology, at best a recalling of Epimenides’ “All Cretans are liars”.  That plus a realization that her mother was rarely right about anything, and just plain advisory overload gave her an ‘Aha!’moment.  The world of edges was only a dark fairy tale - Little Red Riding Hood about to be eaten by the Big Bad Wolf.  Hansel and Gretel fattened up to be Sunday’s roast.  Edges grew up like huge trees, their limbs hanging over a dark, narrow path in the woods; or ghoulish sharp things coming at her in the night. 

Epimenides of Crete

Many children come to their senses sooner or later and realize that as much as they might love their parents, it didn’t do to pay attention to everything they said.  Now that she thought about it, her mother was indifferent to edges.  She always put her martini glass too close to the edge of the counter, knocked it over, and picked up the shards with her fingers; or after three martinis closed her fingers between the edge of the door and the edge of the closet.  How could she had been so stupid to listen to her?

Many of those same children who learn to disregard the obsessions of their parents, make a sharp about face.  Not only did Bonnie pay no attention to edges, she sought them.  Now that she understood that edges were her mother’s lame metaphor for risk; that risk was everywhere and unavoidable; and that edges were there to be tried, she became a bad girl. As a teenager, she was a holy terror - rebellious, dismissive, arrogant, and willful.  Those classmates who too had been hectored and badgered by obsessive mothers were her groupies.  They could never come close to her petulance, misbehavior, and sexual liberty but knew she was on to something.  Bonnie was the girl who, according to their mothers, was to be avoided at all costs.

She was too smart and too savvy to get dismissed from the prestigious schools she went to.  School administrators admitted during student performance reviews that they had no idea what to do with Bonnie Lassiter.  Her grades somehow put her near the top of her class, and she always stopped just short of overt disrespect of her betters.  They simply would have to put up with her, for they had no grounds for dismissing what they concluded was a very bad seed.

The Law of Unintended Consequences works every time, and because of her mother’s edges – the obsessive, neutering, avoidance of all risk – she at first went overboard and did whatever; but soon became more selective.  There was no point in being stupid; but then again there was no point sitting at home.

Peter Beaumont is a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber.  He recounts the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks.

So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."

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Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:

Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.

Moreover risk-taking can be liberating, and meaningful:

So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.

For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.

Risk is what makes life bearable.  Without it there would be nothing but lunch pails, cubicles, and stale sex. Extreme risk-takers are part of an exclusive club.  No one takes the same risks, but all share in the adventure of leaving ordinariness behind.

The Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov tells Ivan that without him – a vaudevillian, mischievous provocateur – life would be intolerably boring.  Goodness has his limits, he tells Ivan.  No one wants a life of nothing but churches, mass, and the sacraments.  Taking risks – deliberately avoiding the ordinary and the predictable – breaks up the necessary and unavoidable routine of life.  Without taking chances, shaking up the moral order, life would be a post office. 

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There is a third, perhaps most common and understandable aspect of risk – not seeking it, but never avoiding it.  The current COVID pandemic provides a laboratory for reaction to risk.  There are those who scrub surfaces until their fingers are raw and bleeding, whose homes smell like disinfectant, who wear masks in the open, free air, and are so fearful of contamination that they seal themselves off from family and friends.  They are afraid of dying.  They cannot see the pandemic as simply their generation’s universal risk – dying on the battlefield, raped and slaughtered by barbaric invaders, choked and bleeding from the plague, decapitated by Robespierre’s zealots.  Death is inevitable, a necessary triage, making room, giving way.  

There are others who know that death is inevitable but that dying in an ICU attached to ventilators is definitely far worse than a heroic death at Borodino or Waterloo.  They take care to avoid the most obvious and certain risks, are never cavalier, macho, or arrogant, but are not timed Nellies afraid of their own shadows.

Bonnie Lassiter had a bit of all three.  As a bad girl she was cast as irresponsible, undisciplined, and careless; but her risks were calculated.  There was indeed room in a world full of edges for reasoned risk. 

As an adult she chose her profession not for the risks it posed but despite them.  Virulent disease, violent accidents, corrupt and venal governments and the civil unrest, wars, and criminal assault were common where she worked.  The risk of any of them, if reasonable precautions were taken, were manageable; but there was something else.  Africa was a world filled with edges – real edges – and living among them, aware of them, never fearful of them, but appreciative of them made it all worthwhile. 

Josef Conrad knew this best.  Kurtz, the main character in his Heart of Darkness, willingly and deliberately enters a primitive, savage, and dark world.  He expects one thing – power, superiority, and wealth – but gets another.  “The horror…the horror”, he says before dying.  The world and everything in it is violent, amoral, and savage.

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Her response to COVID was conditioned by her life in Africa where nothing could be more risk-saturated and dangerous.  For Rene du Chaillu, Mungo Park, Sir Richard Burton, and the British Geographical Society’s other great explorers, risk was part of the adventure, the sine qua non of their reward, praise, and merit.  COVID by comparison had risk but no rewards – a completely different challenge.  It was an environment the only reward of which was some measure of spiritual or philosophical equanimity; or at best an assessment of individual courage.

Americans were told that there was no such challenge.  It was wrong, foolish, and irresponsible to macho up, wear no masks, and intermingle.  Those politicians who badgered, hectored, and threatened their citizens were right in one respect – COVID was definitely not worth dying for; but they underestimated another kind of courage.  An acceptance of risk and possible death with equanimity.  Such centering and self-awareness was lost in the hysteria – but not on Bonnie Lassiter.

Bonnie cheated on her husband, took Ecstasy with her Adams Morgan lover, refused to die ‘an emotional virgin’, and although she doubted some Lawrentian sexual epiphany, was not shy about looking for it.  She was a good mother, more or less; a good although often indifferent wife; a good worker who took liberties, and never looked back.