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Peter Porcupine Rides Again

July, 2012
By John Huckans

Political talk has gotten really nasty of late, which must mean we’re approaching the peak (or depths) of the campaign season and I can’t help thinking that in recent years the down time between one presidential election cycle and the start of the next has been shortened to about six weeks.  An exaggeration, obviously, but doesn’t it seem that way?  Unlike your average autocrat, most democratically-elected politicians have to watch out for their political backsides – voters need to be influenced and that takes money, whether it comes from wealthy individuals, special-interest groups, or the taxpayers themselves who are obliged to fund government programs that benefit targeted constituencies.  Yet once in a while elected leaders behave responsibly based on what we must hope is some sort of inner moral compass combined with sound economic judgment. It can get complicated.

Was there a campaign break after the 2008 election?  If so, it didn’t last very long.  At first there were faint glimmers of hope and a lot of us were heartened by an apparent change or constructive shift in Middle East foreign policy away from military aid to repressive oil-rich dynasties and tax-payer support of the ongoing colonization of the West Bank.  That turned out to be illusory and after a few months the realities of campaign finance trumped everything and it was back to business as usual.

Were you hoping for a single-payer health care option?  Many, if not most, European countries offer one and at less cost per patient, in terms of a lower percentage of GDP spent on health care compared to the United States.  In Spain, where we lived for a while back in the ’70s, there was a basic system of social security-funded health care that existed alongside traditional fee-based care and a network of HMO type private clinics.  We investigated all three options and chose the third which worked out well for us.  Easy to get appointments, effective treatments, and all at very reasonable cost.  And almost best of all, there were no opaque and arcane  “explanation or denial of benefits” statements from an insurance company that took months to sort out.  I suspect the present European economic crisis may have more to do with bloated pension schemes combined with earlier retirement ages than it does with health care costs, but then I don’t pretend to be expert in such matters. 

From everything we’ve read so far, the reason the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare) will probably make medical care more expensive and less affordable down the road, is that the insurance and pharmaceutical companies played a major role in controlling the outcome.  In my opinion they and the present administration have put paid to any notion of hope and change in that department.

I apologize for the digression and only mention two hot topics of current political interest because in the past few years it seems that public debate has become coarsened to the point that thoughtful or calm discussion is being increasingly replaced by name-calling... and worse.  Wherever you go it confronts you – dueling bumper stickers or inflammatory e-mail messages that we’re supposed to forward to everyone in our address books.  After all, they’re headlined in colorful 24-point bold-face type, mostly in caps, and with exclamation points throughout.

Electronic pamphleteering makes it easier to spread political opinion these days, but in the 18th and 19th-centuries, polemicists had to think a little about what they wrote because printing and distribution took time and money.  That didn’t stop Thomas Paine.  Benjamin Franklin Bache inherited his grandfather’s printing establishment, which certainly was a help.  William Cobbett, writing as Peter Porcupine, set up as a bookseller in Philadelphia to make it easier to publicize his political views.

Born in England (near Farnham in Surrey), Cobbett spent part of 1792 in France, before coming to the United States where he supported himself by teaching English to French immigrants, among them Talleyrand.   Based on his own observations while living in France, contact with emigres, and reading of contemporary accounts of the French Revolution such as Abbé Barruel’s History of the French ClergyThe Relation of the Cruelties Committed in the Lyonesse, etc., all quoted extensively by Cobbett in a pamphlet called The Bloody Buoy...he had strong opinions and left little doubt as to where he stood.  The complete title, lifted from the copy at hand, deserves quotation in full and requires almost a paragraph to get the job done.  In the present age of tweet-speak and short attention spans, it would be hard getting many readers past the title-page which reads, in part, as follows:

The Bloody Buoy, Thrown Out as a Warning to the Political Pilots of All Nations: Or, a Faithful Relation of a Multitude of Acts of Horrid Barbarity, Such  as the Eye Never Witnessed, the Tongue Expressed, or the Imagination Conceived, until the Commencement of the French Revolution. To Which is Added an Instructive Essay, Tracing These Dreadful Effects to Their Real Causes...

You get the idea.

Conveniently situated in Philadelphia, Cobbett attended sessions of Congress and recorded many of the speeches of Washington and other politicians of the day in his Prospect from the Congress Gallery, the Political Censor and Porcupine’s Gazette.  Throughout, Cobbett doesn’t try very hard to conceal his views – somewhat like today’s television news reporters.  His accounts of the Western Insurrection or rebellion in the four western counties of Pennsylvania (aka the “Whiskey Rebellion” in high school text books) are filled with detail and his Observations on the Emigration of a Martyr to the Cause of Liberty, was a brilliant lampoon of Joseph Priestley’s complaint of his treatment in England (i.e. leaving Birmingham after being burned in effigy, which Cobbett compares to the disembowelment of live persons, and worse, by the French revolutionists so admired by Priestley).

In A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats and other pamphlets he becomes increasingly personal in his attacks and he was sued several times for libel, once by the Spanish ambassador for his attacks on Spain, and most famously for saying that Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was known to frequently prescribe blood-letting, killed nearly all of his patients.  The latter suit was not settled until 1799 and Cobbett was ordered to pay $5000.00 – a lot of money now, it was a huge settlement at the time.

Things got pretty hot, so in 1800 he headed back to England, took on a partner, and opened another bookshop in London.  He also owned a farm and wrote on aspects of country life – Cottage Economy, Rural Rides, etc.   Never far removed from politics and polemic, he managed to accumulate a lot of debt so in 1817 he took off again for the United States.

He also wrote histories and biographies, mostly with a monarchist and anti-Reformation slant and, while in the United States, an English Grammar that sold 10,000 copies in a month – certainly a best seller for those days.  One of his weirdest projects involved the exhumation and removal of the skeletal remains of Thomas Paine, a former adversary suddenly deemed worthy of lionization in verse, whose bones were brought back to England and offered for sale.  Good taste prevailed, a buyer was not found, and Mr. Paine was allowed to remain in peace.

His political ambitions inevitably led to his seeking membership in the House of Commons and, after at least one unsuccessful attempt, he was finally elected to represent Oldham, a safe constituency.  Because of his unusual background he was not taken very seriously by many of his colleagues and in 1835, while still in Parliament, he became ill and died at his farm.

In Praise of Marigolds (and other annuals)

After a very warm March and an unusually cold April, the gardening season promises to be somewhat of a challenge.  Cool weather veggies planted on St. Patrick’s Day are doing well, but frost-sensitive annuals had to wait until mid May.

“Friends Don’t Let Friends Plant Annuals” bumper stickers are occasionally seen around here, smugly displayed, I suspect, by perennial garden advocates who hire others to do most of the work.  We have our fair share of perennial beds so I know that maintaining them involves a lot of weeding.  Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), garden phlox, bee balm, Japanese anemone, crocosmia, and even some Asiatic lilies can be very invasive if not kept under constant control, while delphinium, alpine lupine, and others, tend to be a little more manageable.

For massive displays of color that last for most of the gardening season, nothing beats many of the bedding annuals, especially the common marigold, famously promoted by the late Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) who tried unsuccessfully for years to have it adopted as the national floral emblem.  They come in all sizes and shades of yellow and russet-orange, from the dwarf double French hybrids to the giant crackerjacks.  The only downside, in my view, is that marigolds require deadheading in order to maintain peak bloom all season, but this is more than compensated for with less time spent weeding the beds – unwanted vegetation doesn’t stand much of a chance against massed plantings of the dwarf varieties.

Impatiens (busy lizzies) and wax begonias remain an old, reliable and low maintenance source of season-long color and neither require deadheading. Readers of this segment know I’ve long favored many of the taller dahlias with blooms that come in different sizes, configurations, and colors – nearly all of them interesting, even though lacking in scent.  And, as with all annual beds, the advantage is that by starting with cleanly tilled ground each spring, noxious weeds have less chance of becoming established.  In my opinion well tended gardens, flower or vegetable, are pleasing to both eye and spirit and the process can be as rewarding as the results.

Garden styles come and go and Robin Lane Fox (classicist and gardening columnist for the FT), always manages to poke fun at some of the displays at the annual Chelsea flower show.  In recent years, his victims have included some of the unfortunate garden designers who have come up with “natural” displays of vegetation that as much as anything, tend to resemble an overgrown parking lot of a long-abandoned Detroit automobile factory.   I happen to agree with Mr. Fox, but would also allow for Charles Rogier’s variation on an old Latin phrase, “de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum”.

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