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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 22, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Vultures, Nero Wolfe, Court Jester, Inglis's Hobbit

The whole tragedy at Virginia Tech made me so sad I could hardly watch any of the ghoulish news coverage. Every life that ended left a terrible hole in the world. Even Cho left behind devastated parents who once embarked on the raising of this child with the same hope that most parents have.

I felt a different kind of sadness as I watched the commentators zero in on this tragedy as a means of proving what they already believed about the world. They all talked as if these events "changed everything," but of course the commentators themselves were living proof that the shootings changed nothing whatsoever.

Those who already believed that America has too many guns felt completely justified; surely now people would see that guns need to be more tightly controlled so people like Cho could not have obtained any.

Those who already believed that America doesn't have enough guns likewise felt that their case had been made; surely now people would realize that if a significant number of Virginia Tech students had been packing heat, Cho would have been stopped much sooner.

There were plenty of commentators eager to blame the school administration for not having noticed Cho's mental problems and "warning signs" -- though not a one explained what legal process would be used to expel someone from school for crimes he had not yet committed.

Do we really want to have the machinery in place for officials to be able to impose severe penalties on people who have done nothing wrong except behave oddly? Any system that would have removed Cho from campus and confined him where he could harm no one would certainly be used against people whose only crime is having unpopular opinions or behaving in nonstandard ways.

Since that describes me and I have plenty of mail proving that there are people who regard me as "insane" and my ideas as "dangerous" and my books as "sick," I take the idea of such laws personally.

Yet if I were the father or brother or friend of any of those slain that terrible day, how could I weigh the danger of misusing such processes against the life of this hopeful young student or dedicated teacher?

In a climate like this, what's a moderate to do?

It makes perfect sense that arming many students with liberal concealed-carry laws would certainly have ended Cho's rampage much earlier, saving many lives.

But I can also see that if all campuses contained a significant percentage of people carrying guns, then quarrels, depression, romantic break-ups and rivalries, drunkenness, heated sports rivalries, thwarted ambitions, road rage, and many other circumstances would result in a murder here, a suicide there.

How long until as many students and teachers would die because of the instant accessibility of concealed weapons as died on one day at Virginia Tech?

When our esteemed editor used as his example of the need for liberal concealed carry laws the notion that if passengers on the airplanes on 9/11 had been armed with pistols, those planes would not have crashed, I could only shake my head.

It's as if he forgot what it was like when every few months some hijacker took a plane to Cuba or some other destination.

Besides, if the passengers had been allowed to carry guns onto the plane, the hijackers on 9/11 would not have been using box cutters, and would almost certainly have begun by systematically shooting all the passengers. Armed with box cutters only, they would not have dared to get close enough; armed with firearms, it would have been easy.

Yet I am also a firm believer in the importance of citizens retaining the means of resisting illegitimate authority, which is what the Second Amendment is all about. If our nation should ever have a would-be Saddam or Stalin, the knowledge that there are many millions of deer rifles out there would have to have some effect on his thinking.

Balancing our nightmares, that's what moderates want to do. You're scared of this? Well, that other guy is scared of that. How do we make a law that deals with both your fears?

The Patriot Act, for instance, helped calm a lot of people's nightmares -- obviously, or it wouldn't have passed Congress. But it awakened other people's fears, who then talked and wrote as if the Patriot Act were identical to a Nazi takeover of America.

Extremists want to make laws as if their fears were the only fears. But the more extreme a law is to protect against one danger, the more dangerous the law becomes.

Sometimes, when one danger is urgent and another is more distant or rare, we shift the law sharply in one direction or another. Inevitably, though, as that first danger recedes, the other danger becomes more visible.

If we liberalized concealed-carry laws, it might prevent other mass shootings like Virginia Tech's; but as more and more people died from the insane overprevalance of weapons in ridiculously inappropriate places (airplanes, bars, freeways), we would have such a public outcry: "What are we doing, allowing so many guns everywhere?"

But the fury that would come from removing from our citizenry any means of self-defense against well-armed and organized crime, making us fully dependent on the police (whose trustworthiness has been so well demonstrated in the recent fiasco in the Greensboro Police Department, where the forces of law seem to have been ousted by criminal conspirators within the force), could certainly lead to just as much terror and tragedy.

I find it bitterly amusing that the very people who claim that the Patriot Act has already made America a police state are also the ones who insist that the citizenry should be completely disarmed. If they really believed we were in a police state, they would not entertain such a notion even for a moment.

Meanwhile, I keep switching away from the profiteers, who pontificate on what should have been done or ask "challenging" questions of university officials, implying that they "should have done something," though if they had done "something" and the shootings had never happened, we would probably see the same pundits and reporters talking about how the civil rights of poor innocent harmless student Cho had been taken away by a fascist school administration.

The only winners in a war are the vultures. And in our society, the vultures are the media and the politicians, who view all human tragedies as a means of advancing their ambitions.

Then again, I've just devoted all these inches of Rhino-space to the topic myself, haven't I?

*

Mystery writer Rex Stout died years ago, after producing many dozens of novels about the fat, home-loving orchid-raising genius detective Nero Wolfe and his brilliant "leg man" Archie Goodwin, who gathered information and brought it to him.

I first began reading Nero Wolfe mysteries before I was in my teens, when my older sister brought some home from the library. I remained a fan until I started reading Ross Macdonald and other more novelistic mystery writers.

Recently, though, I was in the Borders in Westwood, Los Angeles, and found a shelf of "Audio Editions Mystery Masters" that included some recordings of Nero Wolfe mysteries.

I was just finishing up a book on cd, so I bought Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, read by Michael Prichard. Now I wish I'd bought all the recordings on that shelf, because I haven't found these recordings at other Borders stores -- and I want to listen to more of them!

The story is a traditional puzzle mystery: A person has died, the detective starts probing, more people die as the murderer tries to cover his or her guilt, and finally everyone is assembled in Nero Wolfe's office, where he explains his reasoning and then names the killer.

But it's so much fun along the way! The characters are fascinating, the narration is witty, and the puzzles are intriguing. Just because mystery writers today are doing something different, and wonderful, does not change the fact that the old masters also created delightful entertainments using the tools they had.

*

Speaking of delightful entertainments, my wife and I are continuing through our ongoing program of making sure our youngest is exposed to the "great movies" -- as defined by us.

In other words, we've decided to actually watch some of those hundreds of DVDs that line our wall; and if there's a movie we never want to watch, we're going to give it away, because there's no point in using up real estate just so we can look at a title on a shelf.

The Court Jester was one of the joys of my childhood. My brothers and sisters and I went around saying the catchphrases to each other and even now we can earn a laugh just by saying, "Get it?" "Got it!" "Good!"

How many of you can recite "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true"?

This film is a survivor from an era when "comedy" included the possibility of exuberant wit, and Danny Kaye combined physical and intellectual comedy so brilliantly that his like has not been seen since. Maybe that's why I find myself disgusted by Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey -- I have Danny Kaye as a standard of comparison, leaving these latter-day clowns looking like witless imitators.

The Court Jester also has Angela Lansbury, who is brilliantly funny as a spoiled-brat princess; Glynis Johns as the husky-voiced tough girl; and Basil Rathbone in a parody of his traditional villain role.

There is also a hereditary purple pimpernel on a baby's left buttock, to which everyone bows, and a hilarious sped-up dubbing scene, and ...

Aw, get the movie and watch it yourself. I can't think of a single comedy that came out this past year that comes up to this level of intelligent farce.

*

Several years ago I listened to Lord of the Rings on tape, as read by Rob Inglis. It was a marvelous experience, because Inglis is not only a superb voice actor, he also has tunes for all the songs and performs them well.

Reading Tolkien, it's so easy to skip the songs -- they never advance the plot. Yet when you hear Inglis sing them, you understand the role that music played in the societies Tolkien depicts.

Remember that Tolkien based his stories on the preliterate era of the sagas and eddas. There were no cds to sing along to. If there was to be music at a gathering, those present had to produce it themselves.

Today, if we have a party, we put on recorded music or, if we're more ambitious, hire professionals. There's a certification of quality.

Only in worship services do we make an attempt at producing music ourselves, and movies have done a good job of showing that such religious music is always ridiculous and incompetent.

But there's something wonderful about knowing that the people around you, besides their regular jobs and social roles, can also be counted on for a song or two. I grew up in a family where we sang together constantly -- on car trips, for hours on end.

Tolkien's novels take place among people who expect to sing and to be sung to, even if they're not terribly good at it.

So when I saw Rob Inglis's recording of The Hobbit in the Roanoke Barnes & Noble the other day, I was tempted.

The trouble is, my memory of The Hobbit included three unpleasant facts:

1. The Hobbit begins so slowly and boringly that it took me three tries to get into the book back in my late teens, when I first read it.

2. While I enjoyed the story greatly, once I read Lord of the Rings, that work was so magnificent that The Hobbit receded into a very minor position.

3. Tolkien thought of The Hobbit as a children's book, and so there's a lot of dear-readering in it -- the narrator addresses the readers directly and, alas, patronizingly.

Well, after hearing Rob Inglis read the book, I can tell you -- all those memories are correct. The dear-reader stuff is still off-putting; the opening is still tedious; The Hobbit is not the equal of Lord of the Rings.

But guess what? It's still an absolutely wonderful story. I could see why his publisher -- and the public -- demanded a sequel to The Hobbit.

I'm also grateful that as Tolkien flailed about, trying to find another Hobbit story to tell, he found Strider in the inn at Bree and Lord of the Rings grew out of it. Without The Hobbit, there would have been no Lord of the Rings.

But even if there had been no Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit would, I believe, still be remembered, still be read, and continue to bring a great deal of pleasure and even wisdom into the world.


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