My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

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Are you not entertained?

Richard Sahn

I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.

Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.

Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But  spectator sports  is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.

And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score.  Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are  a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males  I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I  would call meaningful concerns.

In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.

Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior.  I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.

My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.

Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to  defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”

The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan?  Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?

Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching.  The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat.  Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome.  Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.

Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality.  Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.”  Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words.  People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.

It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing.  I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”

Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists.  Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.

My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection.  Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation.  I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.

Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”?  Is it higher learning?  Or football?

Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.

Wrapping Oneself in the Flag

W.J. Astore

As soon as American athletes win an Olympic medal, it’s seemingly obligatory for someone to give them a flag so they can wrap themselves in it.  Here’s Nick Goepper, who won a silver medal in skiing:

Freestyle Skiing - Winter Olympics Day 9

I’ve seen athletes from a few other countries do this, but not with the uniformity and urgency of U.S. athletes.  Maybe American athletes just love their country more?

I vaguely recall “wrapping oneself in the flag” moments from previous Olympics that seemed spontaneous.  What gets me today is how routine these moments have become.  The American snowboarder Shaun White, for example, wrapped himself in the flag for his photo op, after which he dragged it on the snowy ground as he walked away, a transgression for which he apologized afterwards.

I understand athletes are proud to represent their countries, and understandably pumped after winning a medal.  But do all U.S. medal-winners now have to pose with a flag draped about them?

The official medal ceremony features the flags of the medal winners, with the national anthem being played for the winner of the gold.  I always thought that ceremony was more than sufficient as a patriotic display, and more consistent with the idea of the Olympics as an international event of diverse athletes.

What would happen if athletes, after winning their respective medals, wrapped themselves not in the flag of their respective countries, but in the Olympic flag showing the five interlocked rings?  Would heads explode?

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Diversion by Aspersion: Trump’s Latest Tweet

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Donald Trump’s twitter image

W,J. Astore

Give the hobgoblin with the bad comb-over his due: He knows how to divide and distract, to divert attention by casting aspersions on others.

The latest Trump tweet that showcased this tactic came today at the G-20 Summit when Trump tweeted the following:

“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”

The Washington Post analyzes why this tweet is so wrongheaded and misleading, but a factual analysis won’t matter to Trump’s legion of followers.

There’s a method to Trump’s madness.  By continuing to vilify Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and smaller fish like John Podesta, he’s distracting Americans from his own problems with the FBI.  He’s saying the real crooks, the true inept leaders, are Democrats. Somehow, he thinks this “look over there!” misdirection ploy will work.  And he may well be right.  Trump learned a lot from “reality” TV and wrestling shows, including how to entertain people even as he exploits them.

When I think about Trump, I come back to one of my father’s favorite sayings: the empty barrel makes the most noise.  Trump always makes a lot of noise, but there’s nothing there.  There’s no substance.  The noise, because it’s so loud and annoying, briefly grabs your attention, then it’s gone.

Yet the damage it does isn’t gone.  Even as we become accustomed to the thunder of Trump’s tweet storms, we’re slowly losing our hearing.  By hearing, I mean our ability to discern truth, or at least to block out the thunderous distraction of big lies.

When the president is a walking (or golf cart-riding), tweeting, fabricating, drum-beating clown, democracy can’t help but suffer.

More and more under Trump, discourse in America is being degraded. But the bigger problem may be that so few Americans seem to care.

Remembering the Quiet, Unsung Heroes

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I posted this article for Memorial Day 2011.

This Memorial Day, let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).

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My parents on their honeymoon

Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.

My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.

America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.

There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).

My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.

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An old polaroid of me and my dad, circa 1980

And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.

God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.

Donald Trump and America’s Confused Values

Better days are here, for some of us.

W.J. Astore

Joe Bageant was a remarkable writer, the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus” as well as “Rainbow Pie.”  A self-confessed “redneck,” he worked his way into the middle class as an editor, but he never forgot his roots in Appalachia and the subsistence farming of his Scots-Irish family. Bageant had a brutally honest and unadorned way of speaking and writing, and also a great affection and deep respect for traditional communal values in America.

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The other day, I was reading an old essay Bageant wrote, “Live from Planet Norte” (June 2010), long before Donald Trump was even remotely considered to be presidential material.  As usual, Joe nailed it:

[I]n the process of building our own gilded rat-cage, we have proven that old saw about democracy eventually leading to mediocrity to be true. Especially if you keep dumbing down all the rats. After all, Dan Quayle, Donald Trump and George W. Bush hold advanced degrees from top universities in law, finance and business.

The head rats, our “leaders” (if it is even possible to lead anybody anywhere inside a cage), have proven to be as mediocre and clueless as anyone else. Which is sort of proof we are a democracy, if we want to look at it that way. While it is a myth that virtually anybody can grow up to be president, we have demonstrated that nitwits have more than a fighting chance. During my 40 years writing media ass-wipe for the public, I have interviewed many of “the best of my generation,” and, believe me, most of them were not much.

Naturally, they believe they are far superior by virtue of having made it to an elevated point in the gilded cage, closer to the feed, water and sex. Because they believe it, and the media–sycophants waiting for quotes–echoes their belief, discussing their every brain fart, we tend to believe it, too. Nothing shakes our belief, not even staring directly into the face of a congenital liar and nitwit like Sarah Palin, or a careening set of brainless balls like Donald Trump or a retarded jackal like George W. Bush.

Americans are unable to explain why such people “rise to the top” in our country. We just accept that they do, and assume that America’s process of natural selection – the survival of the wealthiest – is at work. These people are rich; therefore, they should run the country. God said so. It’s a uniquely American principal of governance, which in itself, makes the case for our stupidity.

Donald Trump is best at selling a certain image of himself: the self-made billionaire, the savvy deal-maker, the populist patriot who sides with the little guy.  But Joe Bageant had him pegged: a careening set of brainless balls is maybe the best, and certainly the most colorful, descriptor I’ve come across for Trump.

Bageant’s larger question is clear: How did Americans come to value such nitwits, halfwits, and dimwits? Just because they have money? Just because they have a veneer of “success” about them, when this “success” is evidenced by nothing more than money or fame and the sly charm of grifters?

Americans, who worship at the altar of success as measured by the almighty dollar, are kneeling to pray before the empty suits of men like Donald Trump.  Bageant knew better than to join that mindless cult; so should we all.