Saturday, August 19, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A History Lesson

There are two aspects to how we understand history.

One is history’s facts, especially those facts which can be
established by physical evidence such as photographs, tapes,
and recordings, films and videos, and written evidence. Most
of history beginning in the second half of the 19th century
can be so supported. Before that, physical evidence is usually
partial or incomplete. First-hand accounts are often very
helpful, but sometimes they are incomplete or biased.

The second aspect of how we view and understand history
comes from the interpretation of history’s facts, either
contemporaneous or, as is often the case, by historians and
other interpreters after the facts --- sometimes long after the
events.

The U.S. Civil war was one of the world’s earliest heavily
recorded events --- this due to the then recent availability of
photography and the telegraph.

The nation today is currently going through an orgy of trying
to reinterpret history --- despite overwhelming evidence and
facts that rebuke efforts to manipulate public opinion, primarily
through an uncritical media and mob tactics.

I will address here just one case in point.

Robert E. Lee was a career U.S. army officer who distinguished
himself over decades of service in early U.S. armed conflicts.
There is no dispute about this. In early 1861, with civil war
looming, the elderly Winfield Scott, then the top commander of
the U.S. army, told President Abraham Lincoln that he wished
that Robert E. Lee, a 32-year veteran of the army and former
superintendent of West Point (from which he had earlier
graduated second in his class), to take command of the Union
army. In March, Mr. Lee accepted the rank of colonel. He then
ignored offers of a command from Confederate officials in the
states that had already seceded.  Colonel Lee’s views opposing
secession were widely known. On April 18, Lincoln offered Lee
command of the Union army. On April 21, Virginia, Lee’s home
state, seceded from the Union, and Lee declined Lincoln’s offer,
saying that his highest loyalty was to his home state of Virginia.
He soon accepted a role as advisor to the new president of the
Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and in 1862, he was made
commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, a post
he held until his surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at
Appomattox in April, 1865.

During the Civil War, General Lee distinguished himself in
numerous battles and campaigns, although he made some major
mistakes and lost some major battles. He is generally regarded by
most military historians as an illustrious commander, although he
fought for a losing cause. During and after the Civil War, he was
the most admired man in the South.

His father, General Henry “Lighhorse” Lee had been one of the
heroes of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

His father-in-law owned slaves on their Virginia estate before the
Civil War, but late in life decided to set his slaves free. When he
died in 1858, his family (including Robert E. Lee) decided to honor
his request to set all of the family slaves free in five year’s time. In
a letter to the New York Times that year, Lee confirmed his and the
family decision to set the slaves free in 1863. There is a controversy
about the timing of this emancipation --- some say that on his death
bed, Lee’s father-in-law said the slaves should be set free
immediately. Lee said this wasn’t true.

Robert E. Lee personally opposed slavery, and letters to his wife
written before the Civil War, attest to this. On the other hand, he
did not ever publicly denounce slavery, as several prominent
southerners did do. In the end, of course, he took the side of those
who wanted to preserve this human evil.

Because he did fight for the South, which was considered at that
time an illegal and treasonous act, many then considered Lee a
traitor. Many do so today, although others contend that he was
guided by his stated principle that he was first a Virginian.
The Civil War settled that question once and for all, but in 1861
there were many Americans, citing states rights in the U.S.
constitution, who felt that state identity was equal to or higher
than federal identity. (The only reason he was not hanged as a
traitor, however, was because of the magnanimity of President
Lincoln and General Grant. He then lived in declining health as
the head of a small Virginia college, and died at age 63 in 1870.)

Those are the facts.

Robert E. Lee was wrong about the greatest issue of his day. 
His failure to publicly renounce slavery, though he personally
opposed it, was also a wrong choice. Moreover, his failure to
emancipate his father-in-law's slaves (of which he was now
part-owner) was by today’s standards a mistake --- and I will go
further --- even by the standards of his own time, inexcusable.

Like virtually every prominent figure in history, Robert E. Lee
was a flawed individual. His flaws, I think, also led to the tragedy
of a life that appeared headed to greatness --- and almost surely
would have concluded in greatness if he had accepted President
Lincoln’s offer. Instead, he died ultimately in failure.

However, to suggest that Robert E. Lee was not a great general,
and not adored by troops, and not an iconic figure of that tragic
national occasion known as the U.S. Civil War, is simply an effort
to erase history.

Those persons, for example, who deny the Nazi Holocaust of
World War II, or those who deny the barbarity of Soviet dictator
Josef Stalin, also want to erase history.

History cannot be erased without dangerous consequences.

Whether or not there should be statues of Confederate figures,
or other memorials through the use of their names, is a question
to be decided by the community where they exist. The idea that
small, unelected and extremist mobs (and egged on by some
in the media) should determine what we can remember is
unacceptable in our Republic, and no matter if one is a Democrat,
a Republican, an independent a liberal a conservative or a centrist,
any American should be offended when a mob, on the far right or
the far left, presumes to take away our rights and freedom.

Robert E. Lee is no hero of mine. He fought for the wrong cause,
and he shared in the responsibility of the deaths of thousands of
his countrymen. My heroes in the Civil War were Mr. Lincoln and
Mr. Grant. They, too, had flaws; they, too, shared the burdens of
responsibility, but they chose the right principle.

We should remember that when making judgments about our
own leaders.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Mitch McConnell Is Right About Being Wrong

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely correct
when he says that President Donald Trump does not
understand how the U.S. senate works. The problem for the
top GOP senator is that the way the U.S. senate works in the
past decade (under the leadership of both parties, it must be
noted) is not to do its work. The record of the senate, and of
the whole Congress, is almost entirely about stalemate and
inaction in the face of  so many very clear and present
national problems.

The U.S. senate has a strong tradition of not being the U.S.
house of representatives, the”people’s representatives” in
a body that number 435, and are elected from individual
districts across the nation. From 1789 to 1913, many
senators were not even popularly elected, but appointed by
the individual states. Their number is only 100, and their
terms are three times longer than U.S. house members. The
nation’s founders intended the senate to act as a check on
the “people’s” house, and so it has mostly (but not always)
functioned for two centuries. Over that time, the senate
adopted a myriad of rules which initially functioned as
intended, but over the years have become arcane obstacles to
the functions of the legislative branch, especially when one
party does not have a very large majority.

Both parties have taken advantage of these rules, but it was
then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who
exploited their technicalities so as to bring the work of the
senate effectively to a halt after Republicans retook control of
the U.S. house in 2010. He constrained debate on proposed
laws, and made it almost impossible to make amendments
he opposed. When Republicans regained control of the senate
in 2014, and kept control of the house, they faced certain vetoes
from the Democratic president.

In 2016, Republicans not only kept control of the Congress, they
won back the White House. To attract voters, they made certain
promises to repeal Obamacare, replace it, and pass legislation
concerning major issues of tax reform, renewing infrastructure,
immigration, restoring our military defense and education to
name a few.

Except for a much-needed overhaul of how the nation treats its
veterans, very little has been done that requires congressional
action (the veterans reform was bipartisan).

The U.S. house, after initially faltering, did pass Obamacare
repeal with modest replacement. The senate has now failed
twice to do even that. We are also told that there are not enough
GOP votes to pass tax reform, much less deal with the budget.
A single senator can prevent a presidential nomination to the
federal judiciary from even coming to a vote. No, longer valid
rules exist that can hold up presidential appointments almost
indefinitely.

To be fair, Republicans often did this to President Obama,
especially later in his second term.

That, it seems, is how Washington works.

Mitch McConnell is an honorable and able man, and usually
agrees with President Trump on what should be done. He did
almost pass Obamacare in the senate, but was thwarted by one
last-minute grandstanding vote change.

Donald Trump was elected, however, to shake up the stalemate
in the nation’s capital, and apparently he won’t take “no” for
an answer. Whether or not he “understands” how Washington
works is not the point. The point is that the voters want action
--- and if it is necessary to change how Washington works to
bring about action, THAT is the point. Mr. McConnell’s job, Mr.
Trump contends, is to make things  happen in the senate, not to
complain that the senate cannot do it because “it’s not how the
senate works.”

Some might not agree with what President Trump wants to do.
In fact, it is the duty of the opposition party to “oppose” when
it disagrees. Fair enough. But this issue is not about the
Democratic Party. It is about the Republican Party, the party
now in control of the federal government and most state
governments.

No more excuses. No more complaints, Mr. McConnell.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reerved.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Doing Division

It is by now a commonplace that the nation’s voters are
acutely divided on ideological lines. One party temporarily
controls the federal government and most of the state
governments, but the other party controls the largest cities
and most of the largest states. The party now in power is
considered the “conservative” party; the other party is
considered the “liberal” party.

This circumstance has occurred with some regularity in
our political history. At the very outset, there was a strong
difference between the views of Thomas Jefferson and
Alexander Hamilton --- although the first two major parties
did not appear formally for more than a decade. The divide
between North and South then festered until the Civil War.
In the depression years before World War II, the contrasting
political philosophies hardened, and during the Viet Nam
War and its aftermath, the major parties once again felt
a greater divide between them.

Of course, each political era has its own character and its
own issues.   In the national campaign of 2016, forces
within each party arose to attempt to direct public opinion
to new thinking on the populist left and the populist right.
The outcome of that election, following years of stalemate
under presidents of both parties signaled the genesis of a
political transition to directions which are not yet clear, but
the accompanying public discourse has seemed especially
bitter and polarizing, reverberating with an intensity
reminiscent of earlier periods in the 19th and 20th centuries
already mentioned.

The notion, however, that the nation and its voters are
somehow divided in an unprecedented way is simply a media
and academic fabrication. Polar opinions about presidents
and political parties is a permanent condition of American
public life. The names change, the issues change, but the
division goes on and on.

We hear today pompous assertions that the current president
is “unfit” to hold the office. The very same word and meaning
was used against such presidents as Andrew Jackson,
Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman,
Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Somehow, despite those ominous contemporary judgments,
the republic survived their tenures. Most of them, in fact, left
an indelible political mark.

Bipartisanship is usually a good thing, but it is always
provisional and limited. At key moments, bipartisanship might
be necessary to pass legislation or make social change, but it is
always followed by a resumption of the timeless political
arguments which run through the history of any democratic
republic --- and especially ours.

We should not be fearful of admitting to, or participating in,
differences of opinion, political arguments, and divided
partisanship. They are as natural as breathing; they are the
aspiration and respiration of freedom.

It’s time to stop being obsessed with the mere fact that we
have disagreements. Instead it’s time to use our debates to
solve our problems, meet our challenges, and adapt to the
remarkable changes taking place all around us.

Vive les differences!

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 4, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Does The Party Switch By The West Virginia Governor Mean?

The announcement by Democratic West Virginia Governor
Jim Justice that he is now a Republican does not likely
portend a sudden series of prominent party switches, but
it does tell us something about the contemporary U.S.
political environment.

First of all, party switches are quite rare, and usually, when
they do occur, they are responses to very local circumstances.
West Virginia in the past decade has gone from being a
reliably liberal Democratic state to being a conservative one.
Except for Mr. Justice and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, there
were no other truly prominent Democrats holding office in the
state. Mr. Manchin, it should be noted, is probably the most
conservative Democrat in the U.S. senate, and has frequently
himself been mentioned as someone who could switch
parties.

Liberal Democratic Party policies precipitated West Virginia
political transformation from a blue state to a red state.
The Obama administration effort to replace coal and coal
mining was the most obvious factor in this coal mining
state, but a whole range of social and economic liberal issues
contributed as well. West Virginia was an early warning sign
of this trend which climaxed in the upset election of Donald
Trump in 2016 when he swept most of the hitherto Democratic
rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and
Wisconsin.

But GOP gains in urban rust belt areas, and rural areas,
were offset by Democratic gains in the urban coastal areas
and states. Just as Senator Manchin and his Democratic
colleague North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp serve as
conservatives mavericks in otherwise Republican states,
Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins serves as probably
the most liberal GOP in the senate, and along with Senator
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, often fails to vote with the GOP
majority on key issues.

Although it was not crucial to the presidential election,
there was a larger Democratic than Republican popular vote
in 2016.

It is not just that the nation has been divided politically; the
evidence from West Virginia is that this division will continue.

Not only that, but President Trump’s base is holding, even as
his political problems and challenges mount. Governor
Justice would not have made his announcement at a Trump
rally if that were not the case.

That does not mean this circumstance cannot change. Mr.
Trump obviously has repair work to do at the White House,
and both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential
election are ahead. But, as I have pointed out repeatedly,
writing off this president has so far been just wrong. The
primary reason, as I have also suggested, is that Mr. Trump
(notwithstanding his foibles) is also the agent for a major
political transformation that is slowly but persistently taking
place.

Governor Justice’s party switch in West Virginia was his
recognition of this political fact on the ground.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Would This be A Brilliant Move By President Trump?

We now live in a time when almost anything is possible in
the imagination of journalists. As someone whose
undergraduate university degree was in creative writing
(with honors no less), I don’t want to be left out of this new
media sport.

So I have come up, during lunch with a friend, with an idea
that, as far as I know, no one else has publicly suggested (I
would stand corrected if I’m wrong about that).

Since good writing often has some ambiguity, I’ll let the
reader decide how serious I am about this.

Here is my idea:

In the face of published reports that Jane Sanders, wife of
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (and very serious 2016
Democratic presidential candidate), is being investigated by
the FBI for her actions as president of Burlington College in
Vermont circa 2010, I suggest that President Donald Trump
pardon Mrs. Sanders before any investigation goes any further.
Inasmuch as Senator Sanders himself could be involved in this
matter, President Trump could pardon Bernie as well.

This would, of course, end any further investigations in this
matter. Since everyone is innocent until proven otherwise, and
no indictments have been made, I want to make it clear that I
am not suggesting that either Senator or Mrs. Sanders are
guilty of anything, But an FBI investigation does indicate that
something is awry, especially after the media reports it. Just
look at all the investigations and allegations about Mr. Trump
and his family --- without yet any hard evidence of wrongdoing.

President Trump, after pardoning Jane Sanders (and Bernie)
would hailed for his political magnanimity, and his popularity
among the populist left wing of the Democratic Party could
soar (although his favorability in his own party might take a
hit).

Oh well, there is always a trade-off in politics when you take
a bold action.

It would have the effect of enabling Mr. Sanders to freely
pursue the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, an
outcome GOP strategists might favor. It might also have the
effect of totally confusing the massive effort of the establishment
media to ruin Mr. Trump’s presidency.

I say, Mr. President, go for it.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The New Restaurant?

In the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis there is a
significant new environment for their downtown, inner city
and neighborhood restaurant industry. As a result of a surge
in new regulations, local tax surcharges, minimum wage
and paid-leave laws, the very form of the restaurant and
dining-out experience is changing noticeably.

These changes are taking place across the nation, especially
in the largest cities, but I can only describe with some
precision the urban Minnesota experience.

So-called progressive (leftist) local government elected
officials, the bureaucracies they oversee, and union activists
are precipitating the changes in response to what they think
is a general urban mood that is unsympathetic to the small-
and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs which serve
the community.

The market system, however, is not indifferent to changes
imposed on it through regulations, taxes and required worker
conditions.

As a result, the dining-out experience in the Twin Cities is
rapidly changing.

Restaurant operators have limited options when new costs are
imposed on them. Sometimes, those costs have nothing to do
with local government intervention. Specifically, I am referring
to the always-occurring fluctuating prices for the fruits,
vegetables, meats, poultry and fish and other food products
they must buy for their kitchens which produce the food dishes
they sell in their dining rooms. In this instance, either menu
prices are raised or expensive food products are replaced on
their menus. This has always been a common occurrence in
this industry.

But whatever, the cause for increased costs in the food business,
the basic reality always remains, as it does for every other
business in our society --- the business has to make at least some
profit and/or enable the businessperson to make a living. It’s a
simple law of economic gravity that bureaucrats, elected officials
and political activists often try to ignore.

There are other basic laws.  One of them is the law of supply and
demand. As prices rise, fewer and fewer customers are willing to
pay for the products or services offered. When a restaurant 
raises its prices, it loses customers, especially in a highly
competitive industry like the local food industry.

As is true of every large urban area in the U.S., the Twin City
dining out experience has made enormous strides in recent
decades. The public demand for fresh produce, imaginative
menus, and attractive physical dining venues has precipitated a
food revolution that brings delicious and affordable dining
experiences for most residents. So-called fine dining, hitherto
available only to very affluent Americans, is now available to
almost anyone. Very high-end restaurants, with menus at very
high prices, still exist, but there are fewer and fewer of them.
There is, however, a larger and large group of Americans who
make large incomes, and for whom menu prices do not matter.
They, and a number of business and special occasion diners,
make the very high-end restaurant still viable, but these are
also very sensitive to changing diner habits and tastes. As a
result, many high-end dining rooms in the Twin Cities have
closed --- and very few new ones are opening.

As the clientele for dining out has expanded and grown much
more sophisticated, opening new restaurants has become very
problematic. Individual entrepreneurs are disappearing, and
are being replaced by groups of investors, many of them who
make their money in other fields. In the Twin Cities, new
quality restaurants have been opening and closing in days and
months rather than years. Recently, for example, a cluster of
ambitious upscale Italian restaurants opened in downtown
Minneapolis and its environs --- and a few months later, most
of them are closed.

Caught in the middle of this change are the food servers, the
wait staffs. Imposing dramatic increases in the minimum
wage and paid leave for these workers, as demanded by their
unions and sympathetic political activists, has produced a
predictable but negative consequence --- the disappearance of
the traditional dining out experience of ordering  a meal from
a waitperson. Virtually all major new restaurants opening in
the Twin Cities today, even some higher end ones, have diners
ordering from the menu at the cash register, and having their
meal delivered to their table or even being asked to pick it up
at the kitchen counter. Many diners, required to do this, are
either leaving no or much-reduced tips, and those tips which
are given are shared with both the wait and kitchen staffs.
Restaurants are thus reducing their wait staffs, and often asking
those who remain to do more work. Many already established
restaurants are also by necessity adopting this practice. This
can only produce a net reduction of service staffs, that is, fewer
and fewer jobs waiting on tables.

Part of dining out today is the whole experience, not just a
particular cuisine or menu, but the service and the decor and
the sense of a special occasion. Because food preparation is
so popular today, with myriads of cookbooks, TV food shows,
and increased private dinner parties, eating well at home is
definitely an option. The prices at the grocery store of
top-quality produce, meats, seafood, and wines also makes
home cooking by wives, husbands and singles increasingly
attractive. If you remove important elements of dining out,
such as table service, the incentive to prepare meals at home,
or else buy the food prepared for take-out is magnified
dramatically.

Thoughtful voices by some progressive public figures in the
Twin Cities are already sounding the alarm at the political
cave-in to demands for huge minimum wage increases,
costly paid leave and other requirements which small food
businesses cannot easily absorb. Former Minneapolis
Mayor R.T. Rybak, former Council Member (and now
president of the city’s Downtown Council) Steve Cramer,
and at least one 2017 mayoral candidate, Tom Hoch, are
counseling caution and common sense while so many others
just seem to nod their heads at every demand.

The same is occurring in St. Paul, Meanwhile, there is a
predictable exodus of restaurants from the center cities, and
often premature closings of those new ones which dare to open.
And everywhere, the restaurant experience is shrinking.

This is an ongoing story; let’s see where it leads.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Under The Surface Of A Summer Sun

Under the surface of the 2017 summer sun, a surface of an
orderly calm punctuated by provocative headlines and a
nagging awareness of some undefined disorder, the
significant disruption of an aging world order is taking
place.

I am one who doubts that world order is accidental or
casual. Incidents and personalities superficially might
seem random occurrences, but my reading of history
tells a different story.

The transatlantic world is now preoccupied with Donald
Trump and the agonies of European alliances while
simultaneously the transpacific world is notable for the
emergence of two new superpowers, China and India.
These two nations come from ancient and enduring
cultures that were then sublimated until relatively
recently by transatlantic powers. When a small but
ambitious Asian power, Japan, attempted to assert itself
almost eight decades ago, it set off half a world war. But
Japan, despite its presumptions, did not have the
resources to become a true superpower. Both China and
India, especially with their enormous populations, do
have requisite resources.

At the same time Japan made its historic power grab,
a malign and ambitious Germany made one of its own.
But, like Japan, the resources were not available to enable
a perverse Nazi ideology to impose more than a temporary,
albeit insanely murderous, domination of Europe.

The difference then was the nation in the middle of the
two oceans, the United States of America. Having dabbled
in colonial ambitions of its own, and found them
unsatisfactory, the U.S. reluctantly but forcefully entered
both theaters of the World War. It did have the resources
to make a difference and to restore a new world order. I
do not in any way want to diminish the contributions of
the valiant British, Russian (who took the greatest
military losses) and other Allied forces in that war, but it
was the U.S. intervention that made the difference.

In the Cold War that followed, it was the U.S. which
protected Europe and other parts of the globe from
ideological communist aggression, a role that eventually
led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the world’s first capitalist representative democracy, the
U.S. gradually grew into its role as the global economic
model and protector of the universal notion of human
freedom. It made mistakes along the way, and had to
systematically rid itself of its own unacceptable
shortcomings of slavery, gender discrimination, voter
inequality, and human rights violations.

At the peak of its global influence, it must be said, the U.S.
did not do what superpowers had almost always done in
the past, that is, dominate and impose itself. In fact, as U.S.
power began to diminish at the end of the 20th and the
beginning of the 21st centuries, it continued in its role of
rescue and protection in the face of natural and man-made
global disasters.

There is a heated debate going on these days about the the
notion that the United States is an “exceptional” nation.
Those who attack this notion misunderstand it, I believe, and
do so against the facts on the ground. But, like all other
aspects of history, the role of the U.S. is changing. The
basic economic U.S. model continues to be the only viable
operating model in the world. To verify this, one has only to
look at the recent adoptions of it by the two largest Marxist
(China) and socialist (India) economies.  China remains
politically totalitarian, but its economy is now a market one.
Culturally, in music, films, and entertainment in general,
U.S. influence is remarkably global.

None of these facts on the ground, however, are static.
The world order increasingly dominated by the U.S. for about
a century is not what it was. The role of the U.S. remains as a
mediator and protector, but new powers in the world are
emerging. Those which are predatory will be resisted, and it
is unimaginable that this can successfully occur without the
United States of America.

Predatory forces are always at play in the world, but not ever
in human history have the tools for infamy been so available
to so many. If one see the human family as a global organism,
beneath the surface of daily life there are always forces at work
to keep a viable equilibrium, as there are forces in the human
body which protect from and fight disease and infection.

We still do not fully understand how the individual human body
works. Human civilization, now about 7.5 billion of us, not so
long ago a collection of relatively disconnected outposts, has
entered a stage of almost instant connection and awareness
through technology. There is no way this indelible circumstance
is not altering what we describe as “the order of the world.”

Under the summer sun this year, that fundamental circumstance
is reordering itself as it always does --- out of sight and under
the surface of our daily lives.

That is the real breaking news.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.