Police

In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on. 

I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese. 

After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia. 

RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Photo by Tim Felce, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.

The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators. 

Revolution

Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester. 

Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.

“The Pigs”

One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.

Pig. Photo by BadgerGravling, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.

He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”

“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint  of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.” 

For me, this was a long speech.

Policeman. Photo by rocor, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”

A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution?  Fat chance.

If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this. 

The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.

Kent State, Sterling Hall

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.

Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.

Today’s Crises

“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.” 

Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s  confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.

Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles. 

When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police. 

Then and Now

The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then. 

Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.

I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.

Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.

Defunding

But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.

In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society. 

Mao Zedong in 1963. Public Domain.

The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.

George Orwell in 1943. Public Domain.

George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.

Protectors

What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.

Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.

My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far. 

Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described. 

So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.

Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments. 

Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?

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What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.

But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.

Intrinsic authority = character. 

There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem. 

When can we start working on that?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Book Review

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

A novel by Amy E. Reichert

In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?

A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.

No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three  generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms. 

The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving  gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.

Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.

I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.

The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.

The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying. 

I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.

And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.

Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Regional Books: Shotgun Lovesongs and Cold Storage, Alaska

“DSC00011” by Neil Rickards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

One of the endearing things about experts is how much escapes their notice. I’m not talking about peripheral matters outside their sphere of expertise. Even things smack dab in their wheelhouse may elude them. 

Sometimes, the oversight may be merely geographic.

Take literature. In the United States, “literary fiction” resides in one or two postal codes on the island of Manhattan. The Big Five Publishers and most of their subsidiary imprints are located there—not to mention most of the editors, agents, reviewers, and listmakers (That’s you, New York Times!) who define the genre. 

Once, American Literature may have radiated from Concord, Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. But since the Civil War or even earlier, New York is The Place. Even otherwise sophisticated people seldom look beyond their own desk and dinner table. Ergo, “literature” is that which is written by people in New York City. Or at least, written by people who know the folkways of the Five Boroughs or could feel themselves at home there—and who write that way.

Kate Chopin. Public Domain.

However: A funny thing happened on the way to the twentieth century. New York critics discovered “regional” writing (also called “local color”). After the Great Conflagration of the nineteenth century, a few southerners (e.g., Kate Chopin), westerners (Mark Twain), and New Englanders (Emily Dickinson) wrote works surprisingly worth reading, despite their focus on far-flung American localities—perhaps, even, because of it. In view of the Recent Unpleasantness, the literary world recognized some kind of national duty to make believe that We Were All Americans, even though some of us were entangled in local allegiances. 

By the time I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the literati had digested this wave of regional literature and had reduced it to a few specimens in high school anthologies; a few required books, such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia; and a general recommendation to read works by Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, William Faulkner, August Derleth, Erskine Caldwell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett. The tacit assumption behind this neat packaging of regional literature was that its efflorescence had been temporary, and literature could now revert to normal.

Today, however—more than fifty years later—almost every bit of what’s called “literary” (meaning serious and well-written) fiction is regional, in one way or another. “Local color” writing turns out to have been a hardy varietal that could not be weeded out.

Take Shotgun Lovesongs, a 2014 debut novel by Nickolas Butler. It presents four friends raised in the fictional hamlet of Little Wing, Wisconsin. Three had left to pursue careers in the wider world; one, Henry, had stayed in town to work the dairy farm his parents left him. Now some years have gone by. Kip the Chicago commodities trader, Ronny the rodeo rider, and Lee the music star have all returned—each drawn back by the mystical lure of home. With lots of scenes set in the VFW hall and in the town’s once-derelict (now gentrifying) feed mill, the book has plenty of the familiar cheese curds-peppermint schnapps-cow manure atmosphere that says Wisconsin. But it’s less about local color, less even about the varied career paths the four main men have taken, and more about their loves and friendships—among themselves, with various neighbors, and with the women and children in their lives. So yes, Shotgun Lovesongs is about the glory of the Wisconsin life, but it’s also about the hard things that we Badgers can inflict on one another. It’s not just a Wisconsin book, it’s also a full-fledged “literary” novel in the usual sense, and a fine one at that. It may not be coincidence that the author was educated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has influenced so many other fine writers.

Another good regional book is John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska. Though just as “regional” as Shotgun Lovesongs—maybe more so—and just as deserving of the “literary” label, Cold Storage, Alaska is quite different in tone and approach. For one thing, it’s at heart a crime novel. Most of the characters who move the plot are crooks, writ large or writ small. At the same time, there is something worthy of redemption in each of them. The non-criminal central character, Miles, a health care provider in the Alaska village of Cold Storage, is more reactive than active—yet he’s the stable tentpole around which the whole circus revolves. His arc, though subtler than those of his brother and the other grand and petty crooks in this book, is also perhaps more profound. His great challenge is to remain human while also honoring his compulsion to care for others. Those others, in a place like Cold Storage, are not always easy to serve. If you like crime bosses who aspire to be screenwriters, rock bands who get paid in fish, and an innkeeper-impresario whom wild creatures address in English . . . be sure to pay a visit to Cold Storage.

These are but two among hundreds of books published these days—and in an unbroken train since the beginning of literature in America—with both regional attributes and unmistakable literary talent. It is a great time to be an author . . . or a reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author