Monday, October 26, 2015

The Parable of the Selfish "Hero"?

There are so many strange little stories coming out of the US presidential race that it’s hard to keep up with them all. However, one involving Ben Carson has stood out in my mind.

In the wake of the fairly recent school shooting in Oregon on October 1st, Carson, the soft-spoken ex-neurosurgeon and Christian patriot, made some news by offering his advice on how not to get shot. I say “fairly recent school shooting”, since there have been at least three others in the ensuing three-odd weeks, though none as deadly.

In his reaction to the Umpqua Community College shooting spree in which nine people were killed and eight wounded, Carson instructed future victims of such tragedies to be proactive. He said that rather than waiting to be gunned down, the students in Oregon should have rushed the shooter.

On the face of it, this advice makes sense, but was seen by some people as being insensitive, as basically accusing the victims of being too passive. Others have suggested that in extreme-stress situations, such as facing an active shooter, humans often react differently than someone sitting comfortably in a TV studio might think they should. Even if that someone is a famed brain surgeon.

What is enlightening is that Carson, currently number two in the GOP race, does have some experience in facing someone with a gun. Following the kerfuffle over his remarks, Carson related a story from thirty years ago of how he himself had the barrel of a gun jammed in his ribs by an armed robber. He said it was no big deal.

It happened in Baltimore in a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant, where Carson was presumably a customer. As Carson has told the story, an armed man held a gun to him until Carson helpfully pointed out that the robber should be threatening the restaurant's cashier, not a mere patron like himself. Carson explained, no doubt patiently and with a wry smile, “I believe that you want the guy behind the counter”.

The robber apologized for his mistake and proceeded (perhaps sheepishly) to force the hapless restaurant worker at gunpoint to clear out the cash register.

To say this all sounds a bit off-kilter is not the least of it.

Imagine someone, intending to rob a fast-food joint, walks in and threatens the first customer he sees waiting in line to order his meal of Handcrafted Spicy Tenders. Maybe we can assume that the would-be robber had, in fact, never been in a fast-food restaurant. Maybe he didn’t realize how a retail business works and – unlike Willie Sutton – had no clue where the money actually was. The man’s potential for a life of crime at this point would have suffered an unfortunate setback, if not for the sage advice of the good Dr. Carson that he should instead stick up the cashier, or as Carson has phrased it the “appropriate person”.

The entire scenario sounds unreal. What’s more, reporters have not been able to find any official record of this particular robbery ever taking place. When confronted with this fact, a Carson spokesperson speculated that perhaps the police didn’t file a report. Right. Popeye’s must be a very forgiving corporation if it doesn’t require some kind of official paperwork to explain the disappearance of a whole day’s worth of receipts. With a laid-back work environment like that it's perhaps a nice place to work, though maybe prone to get robbed often, not least by its own employees. In other words, the notion of no police report being filed doesn’t ring true.

To my mind, it’s much easier to believe Carson’s little narrative never happen, or at least that it didn't happen the way he "remembers" it. It's called stretching the truth, and many a public figure has been caught out doing it (see Brian Williams, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, etc.). 

Now, of course, a narrative doesn’t have to be true to be “true”. I went to Sunday School enough to know that Jesus supposedly told many stories that were not likely true, but had a moral point to them. I’m talking about parables, such as the Parable of the Talents, which apparently illustrates the moral of compounding interest rates and investing through the tale of a servant who came to ruin by burying money in the ground rather than plowing it back into the economy. (The same moral was put to music in “Mary Poppins”, though in that case it was portrayed in a negative light compared to the simple joy of “feeding the birds”).

Maybe Ben Carson sees his Popeye’s story as a parable, not factually true, but serving a larger purpose. The trouble with that generous interpretation is the moral to Carson’s story can be summed up this way: “When faced with a dangerous criminal, it’s best to redirect the danger away from yourself towards someone else.” The Parable of the Selfish Non-hero?

It’s baffling why someone running for president would trot out such an unflattering story, even if it were true, especially if it were true. Maybe he really believes it. Or maybe he sees no reason to let reality stand in the way of a good story, even if the story's not truly that good.  

Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Honoring Tater Patch

This summer, President Barack Obama made a much-publicized trip to Alaska, during which he emphasized the effects of climate change on the state. In addition to photo ops involving glacial backdrops and face-to-face meetings with native Alaskans on the verge of losing their village to rising sea levels, Obama’s trip took him above the Arctic Circle, making him the first sitting US president to venture so far north.

Obama also attended an international conference named GLACIER, as in “Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience”. Kudos to the PR person who managed to make that cumbersome acronym work. Mostly.

The GLACIER conference agenda reads like a workshop for high-level bureaucrats, which it kind of was. I was a bit surprised to see on the evening news Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini hosting one of the GLACIER panels. But, of course, that does make sense, as Finland is in that select group of eight nations with territory within the Arctic Circle, or as they say in Finnish, Napapiiri.

Still, it seems that the thing that got the most attention in the US during Obama’s trip was the announcement just before the trip that he was renaming the highest mountain in North America.

It was amusing to see how some American conservatives fell over themselves to complain about the move, though this act by the Obama administration has, in fact, long been desired by the people of Alaska, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The mountain previously known as McKinley.
Courtesy the National Park Service

Denali, as the mountain has traditionally been called locally (and will now be known officially nationwide), was given the name Mt. McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who was a supporter of presidential candidate William McKinley. The prospector favored McKinley’s strong position on the gold standard (as any self-respecting gold prospector would), so his christening of the mountain was a bald-faced act of branding for political purposes. The name caught on, however, especially after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. 

Caught on, that is, except in Alaska, were locals have reportedly always referred to the mountain as Denali, its name in one of the local indigenous languages. Since 1975, the State of Alaska has lobbied the federal government to change the name, but politicians from McKinley’s home state of Ohio have successfully prevented any such “disrespecting” of their native son. It is the very essence of petty politics.

Anyway, this whole episode brought to mind something I read recently, something much closer to home than Denali.

I have a book about the history of my home county in Georgia, published in 1965 by George Gordon Ward, the husband of my second grade teacher. The book is not a straightforward history, as such, though at some 600 pages it is in many ways a comprehensive one. It consists of a sometimes randomly organized collection of interesting bits and pieces about Gilmer County and the people who lived there in the past. As the author was also something of a small-town “booster” with an eye toward advancing the county’s prosperity and economic progress, he even included in his book some suggestions for improving the county’s image. One such suggestion was the renaming of a mountain.

Mr. Ward felt that some of the local mountains had decidedly hillbilly-sounding names that reflected poorly on the up-and-coming prospects of a county like Gilmer. As he saw it, "some of these early-day designations were temporarily applied by pioneers as a joke or without thought the names would stick." Sounds a bit like how Mt. McKinley got its name. 

As an example of an "absurd" pioneer-era name, he singled out "Tater Patch", as locals usually refer to Potatopatch Mountain, a high ridge dominating the horizon north of my teenage home. For this 3560-foot (1085m) knob on the edge of the present-day Cohutta Wilderness area, Mr. Ward proposed the more respectable name of “Mount Ivan Allen”, in honor a prominent Georgian at the time. 

Tater Patch Mountain, the ridge line to the right in this photo.

Reading about this long-forgotten proposal-in-passing made me cringe a bit. While someone bearing the name Ivan Allen had been active in public life in Georgia for some 70 years, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the name, even now, is office supplies. As in paper, pencils and desks.

The company founded by and named after Ivan Allen was an Atlanta institution, I guess, and well-known far beyond the city. In my youth, the company’s adverts reached across North Georgia, though perhaps not quite as far as the secluded and forested summit of Tater Patch. At least, they must have stuck with me somehow.

When I ran across our homegrown historian’s suggestion of assigning Allen’s name to natural spot I remember well, it struck me as very wrong. For my taste, the Allen’s name reeked too much of commercialism to deserve being honored in that way. 

As I researched (read, "Googled") Allen's background, I learned that he was quite the civil booster himself, active in service organizations and writing booklets promoting business in Atlanta. He also donated land that he owned on a mountaintop near my home for the creation of Fort Mountain State Park, a recreation area I have a long history with. This act of charity is probably what prompted our homegrown historian to think of bestowing Allen's name on a different, but (as he felt) poorly named, mountain nearby. 

So ingrained was the name of the Ivan Allen Company in my mind that I didn’t even remember that Ivan Allen's son, Ivan Junior, had been a leading light in his own right during my childhood and a two-term mayor of the big city a couple of hours south of my birthplace. Obviously, I didn't follow the news a lot back then. 

I have now come to realize how progressive, for the times, Ivan Junior was as mayor. He evolved from his early segregationist leanings to embrace civil rights in a sincere way and ushered in a relatively smooth racial transition for Atlanta during the turbulent 60s. He was even asked by President Kennedy to advise Congress on the creation of what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He deserves recognition for, if nothing else, defeating the hard-core segregationist politician (and Georgia’s best-known embarrassment) Lester Maddox, who was then also running for mayor of Atlanta. Sadly, Maddox went on to become governor. My hometown, to its discredit in my mind, named a prominent street after Maddox.

Still, despite gaining some long-overdue appreciation for the legacy of the Ivan Allen name, especially Allen the Younger, I’m grateful that Mr. Ward's notion of changing the local map never caught on. I still prefer “Tater Patch”, a fine name just as it is.