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Monthly Archives: July 2007

Bushophobia

July 24th, 2007 - 7:56 pm

The Gonzales Hearings…

True, the Attorney General appeared as the proverbial deer in the headlights as he was hammered by the Democratic Senators of the Judiciary Committee. But I was struck by the ineptness of Sen. Feingold, the scholar and erudite inquisitor: he grilled ad nauseam Gonzales by reading his talking points from a prepared written script, punctuated by turns and awkward poses into the camera, while the latter did his best to answer complex questions ex tempore. Which is the harder task?

Is that Hillary?

After watching the Democratic debates, I was struck by the appearance of Sen. Hillary Clinton. She has changed her appearance as much in the last six years as George Bush; but whereas the President has turned grey and white, and aged with the wear and tear of the job, Sen. Clinton looks far younger, her skin much whiter and smoother, lines gone, and mouth tighter.

Are They Serious?

Sens. Jack Reid and John Kerry replied to the President today. Their arguments were quite astounding: that the good news that suddenly Sunni tribal leaders are joining the Americans to defeat al Qaeda is proof that we need not be there and can now turn over the fight to Iraqis and Special Forces. But wait, that is precisely what the surge was for: a sudden conventional knock-out blow, to give the Iraqis enough confidence to take over the job, as the Americans begin to downsize in the next two years. The suggestion that the surge hasn’t had positive effects with the Sunnis is lunatic. And more to the point: throughout this entire year in Iraq, not a single Democratic leader, other than Joe Lieberman, can either appreciate some good news, or voice any resolve that we can defeat the enemy. The net result is the Democrats are positioning themselves into a corner in which any good news from Iraq de facto is fatal to their election prospects. No wonder the room was nearly empty as the Senators droned on.

Gen. Petraeus

Lincoln went through Gens. Burnside, Halleck, McClellan, McDowell, Pope, and Rosecrans before finding Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas. In World War II, we never did get Mark Clark out of Italy. No need to mention the train of generals in Vietnam before Creighton Abrams turned things around. Good generals study the errors of their predecessors as they wait for history’s call. In the case of Sherman and Grant, the key difference that marked them as great men, other than an instinctive genius for tactics and strategy, was insight into the mind of the enemy, especially his motivations and contradictions, and a complete calmness in the face of the battle hysteria around them and the backbiting at home.

I preface all that by saying I believe Gen. Petraeus is the right commander after Franks, Sanchez, and Casey, unflappable in the face of bad news at the front and politicking at the rear. If we can give him a year, he will stabilize the country—and the US will have pulled off the impossible of establishing some sort of consensual society, analogous to a Kurdistan or Turkey, in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

How will we sense any progress? Mostly to the degree which Democratic rhetoric insidiously lessens, as Sens. Like Biden, Clinton, Obama et al. begin to hedge their bets in fear that good news will embarrass them around midyear next. Some more thoughts:

Republicans Bad, but Democrats Worse?

That might sum up polls that show overwhelming anger at President Bush—and even more disdain for the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Why the general anger at government?

Seventy percent of the American public now thinks Iraq is a mistake. That’s about the same majority that four years ago once thought it was a wise idea to go in to remove Saddam Hussein—and the result of a narrative that is only the IED and suicide bomber, interspliced with Abu Ghraib.

In addition, a weak dollar, continual budget deficits, and huge foreign debt to China and Japan don’t faze most Americans directly. But they do tend to add to general doubt over the economy—a depression only made worse by high gas prices.

It matters little whether Americans are hypocritical about illegal immigration—wanting closed borders and cheap labor all at once. They still feel angry that American sovereignty on the southern border has been lost, while millions of illegal aliens among them simply ignore the law.

As a result of this discontent, President Bush has barely a 30% approval rating. Yet the leading presidential candidate of his party, Rudy Giuliani, still runs ahead of Democratic leader Sen. Hillary Clinton in tracking polls.

Why Haven’t Democrats Taken Better Advantage Over the Anger at a Lame-duck Republican President?

First, things are not quite as bad as they first look. Americans are frustrated over Iraq, but not quite sure that we can precipitously leave—or that Iraq won’t be stabilized.

Last year the Democrats wanted new tactics, more troops, a change in command, and a new defense secretary—and got all that with the surge, Sec. Gates and Gen. Petraeus. If the Sunni insurgents of Anbar keep turning on al Qaeda, and the government can achieve some compromises—Iraq could devolve into something like present-day Afghanistan: messy and an irritant, but far better than the alternative of either a Taliban theocracy or Saddam-like dictatorship.

For all the shrill rhetoric about the excesses of wiretaps, the Patriot Act, renditions, and Guantanamo, the Democrats for now won’t end these security measures. It’s hard, after all, to complain too much when al Qaeda hasn’t attacked us in six years. House Speaker Pelosi didn’t help the Democrats’ case by flying to meet with Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator who helps terrorists to murder democratic reformers from Lebanon to Iraq.

On the economic front even with climbing gas and food prices, overall inflation remains relatively low. So is unemployment. There are no longer cries of a “jobless recovery.” Interest rates are tolerable. The stock market has reached all-time highs. Most displeasure is over others doing better, rather than not doing well yourself.

Illegal immigration is still a hot button issue. But recent beefed-up enforcement, some economic progress in Mexico, and worries about deportation have made it harder to cross the border. And the public is optimistic that there will be a lot more, not less, border enforcement.

And Something Else…

There is a second reason why the Democrats should be careful. Most of the corrections for Mr. Bush’s perceived mistakes are not necessarily liberal ones. A lot of anger over the war—the first pullback from Fallujah, the reprieve given Moqtada Sadr, the restrictive rules of engagement—is voiced from the political Right: talking loudly while carrying a small stick.

Ditto the nature of criticism of the economy. Americans don’t want new federal programs, higher taxes and more spending. Instead, they fault the Bush administration for its vast new entitlements, bloated budgets, and growing national debt. Again, the outrage comes mostly from conservatives.

On immigration, most Americans want a fence, strict enforcement of the law and more security. Hot-button issues like amnesty and guest workers can come later. In other words, the recent Bush immigration reform legislation, backed by most Democrats, was seen as too lax rather than restrictive.

In sum, most voters wanted President Bush to give the military more leeway on Iraq, balance the budget, and close the border. And they still can’t quite decide whether a Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton would be more likely to do what the President did not.

So what will determine the next election? If Sen. Clinton or another Democrat can make the case that George Bush was too directionless on Iraq, spent too much money, and left the border wide open, she will probably win. But if Iraq calms down and Gen. Petraeus succeeds, while Sen. Clinton and others call for more taxes, more programs, amnesty, etc. then they will achieve the unlikely: three continuous Republican administrations.

The Furor Over Bush

Spent a week with some diehard conservatives, what one might call his hard-core base. All of whom seem to detest Bush. Part of it is immigration, big spending, federal programs, bad or rather embarrassing appointments, and Iraq. But part of it is simply piling on and hoping not to be seen as the lone nut who thinks Bush can pull off a successful presidency. I was very disappointed that we pulled back from Fallujah, let Sadr off, saw Franks quit almost as soon as the insurgency started, kept seeing Bremer everywhere on TV with his blazer and hiking boots, and all the other half measures that empowered the insurgency—but not to the degree that I lost hope we could win. The US military is too good for that.

So the real irony is that should Petraeus stabilize Iraq, if Korea really has given up its weapons, if the world comes together on Iranian proliferation, Afghanistan gets quieter, and either bin Laden or Zawahiri gets captured—while the economy stays strong and an immigration fence is built, then mirabile dictu Bush will leave office in a good position to be praised in 10 years for preventing another 9/11, removing Saddam and the Taliban, decimating al Qaeda, and stopping nonproliferation. He needs some luck, must not listen to his short-term politicos who always choose apparent advantage over principle, and must keep his resolve. I told all that to some prominent Republicans—and was laughed at for it.

Defeat and Flight from Iraq

July 16th, 2007 - 2:45 pm

Defeat in Iraq?

There is a growing call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq with the assumption that the ensuing chaos would be manageable. A few reminders.

1. 1975 Vietnam is not the proper referent. By 1973 essentially all American ground troops were gone from Vietnam. The 1975 collapse was a defeat of the South Vietnamese military, in part brought on by cutbacks in US air and material support. The point is that the US did not suddenly abandon a theater of ongoing operations in the face of enemy aggression. Leaving Iraq with the enemy in control of the battle space would be the first time in our nation’s history that a US military army group had abandoned an entire battlefield (a Somalia or Beirut were withdrawals of only a few hundred troops). Indeed the last time an entire army group lost such a theater was probably the Philippines in 1942 when thousands were killed or captured, and the Philippines lost.

2. There is criticism that nothing good came of our initial success in the Middle East following the removal of Saddam. One way of ascertaining the truth of that allegation is to withdraw, and then to see what Syria (would it then stay out of Lebanon?), Libya (would it still cooperate with its disavowal of terrorism and WMD?), and Pakistan (would Dr. Khan’s network stay shut down?) would all do.

In fact, a US flight, would send the message to Iran that there is no obstacle to nuclear acquisition, to al Qaeda ‘why stop in Iraq when there is a green light to the Gulf States and their oil wealth?’, to Syria that Lebanon can be reabsorbed, to Turkey to do what it wishes with Kurdistan, to Israel ‘You’re on your own from now on,’ and to the world that America can’t guarantee Taiwan’s safety or stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation or protect Japan.

3. Democrats said we took our eye off Afghanistan. But if we flee from Iraq, would they then insist on redeploying the 160,000 troops in Afghanistan and engaging in hot pursuit across the nuclear Pakistani border to capture bin Laden’s lieutenants? Or, as we suspect, is the liberal charge that we are neglecting Afghanistan mostly a ploy to criticize operations in Iraq rather than a sincere call for tougher, riskier, and more substantial war making on the Pakistani border?

4. If we get hit again comparable to 9/11, after we have fled Iraq, what would be our response, should we learn that the perpetrators received cash or sanctuary from a Middle Eastern nation? Go back into Iraq to hit the camps in Anbar? Punish Syria or Iran? Or a simple return to cruise missiles? For that strategy, I suggest we all review the 1990s record of such retaliations, perhaps rereading the relevant chapters of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.

5. The US military. To do what the New York Times suggests—skedaddle from Iraq now—would destroy the reputation of the US military for a generation. We forget that after Vietnam, there was the failed Iranian hostage mission, the spectacle of the Cambodian holocaust, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, communist inroads into Central America, and flight from Lebanon—all in the gloom of defeat of Vietnam. By 1991 observers were still doubting the efficacy of US arms. Defeat in Iraq would suggest to the world that the US could only be successful in conventional wars that are rarely fought, and utterly paralyzed by insurgencies that are frequent.


Angry Readers

I get a lot of letters and emails about writing on the need to establish secure borders and end massive illegal immigration. I have no idea what the significance of capital letters conveys in these frequent emails of hate. Here are two examples.

“F—-NG HEATERS.”

WELL I CAME HERE ILLEGALLY WHEN I WAS 3 YEARS OLD ,BY THE WAY I’M MEXICAN AND PROUD! I LOVE THE U.S.A YES, I MADE DOCTOR I WORK FOR THE LOS ANGELS ORTHOPEDIC HOPITAL I MAKE MORE MONEY THAN ANY OF YOU CAN IMAGINE BUT I’M NO RACIST LIKE YOU, YES WE ALL KNOW MANY PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD ARE HERE ILLEGALY NOT JUST MEXICANS AND YES MANY ARE NOT THE BEST CITIZENS BUT LOOK AT YOUR LAST NAMES!!! COME ON WHAT R YOU TALKING ABOUT YOU THINK BECAUSE YOU WEREBORN HERE YOU PARENTS WERE NEVER ILEGAL? HUMM WELL MEXICANS,EUROPIANS,AFRICANS,ASIANS, ARE HERE ILLEGALLY. SUCK IT UP GET YOU FAT ASSES UP AND COMPETE WITH THEM DONT YES CRY LIKE LITTLE GRILS. THEY ARE BETTER THAN YOU BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO LICENSES OR DOCUMENTS OR MONEY AND THEY STILL HAVE HOUSES CARS AND THEY STILL EAT OUT GO TO THE MOVIES THE ONLY DEFFERENCE IS THAT YOU FUCKING RACISTS HAVE A 9 TO 5 JOB AT A FANCY OFFICE YOU WEIGTH LIKE 300LBS AND DON’T FUCK EVERY DAY AND MY PEOPLE HAVE TO WORK THEIR ASSES UP WORKING HARD EA!
RLY MORNING OR GRAVEYARD SHIFTS, BUT THEY ARE HAPPY BECAUSE THEY HAVE PRIDE AND JUST TO REMIND YOU THEY ALSO PAY TAXES.
SO PLEASE LEAVE THEM ALONE FUCKING HEATERS.

Here is another eloquent email.

“Stolin”

It worries me that you have time to write such ignorant opinions, because that’s all they are,just opinions.You must be a senior- citizen looking for some attention. Look buddy we are all human, except our monster, I mean our President,G.W.Bush. Get over it, you and your ancestors,Emerson,Hitler,Stolin… well you’ll be dead soon, so who cares. Oh yeah you are one of those Americans who believe in god huh? You do not deserve to be called American because we all know that the orinal Americans were the Indians. Don’t think I’m old , I’M 23 YEARS OLD AND MORE CAPABLE OF REASON THAN YOU. PINCHE VIEJO PENDEJO, I ALSO WRITE CHINESE TO BAD YOUR “american” computers can not.

Gen. Clark

In a recent City Journal response to a New York Times editorial calling for the rapid withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, I mentioned in passing that Wesley Clark had supported the war (http://www.city-journal.org/html/eon2007-07-12vdh.html). That earned a flurry of emails, most of them vehemently angry, denying the general had ever expressed such support for the invasion. In response, consult these quotes taken from the January 19, 2004 National Review Online article by Byron York (http://www.nationalreview.com/york/york200401190949.asphttp)

1. “Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of Milosevic in Belgrade flood back”?

2. “Liberation is at hand. Liberation — the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, eases lingering doubt and reinforces bold action. Already the scent of victory is in the air”?

3. “The operation in Iraq will also serve as a launching pad for further diplomatic overtures, pressures and even military actions against others in the region who have supported terrorism and garnered weapons of mass destruction. Don’t look for stability as a Western goal. Governments in Syria and Iran will be put on notice — indeed, may have been already — that they are ‘next’ if they fail to comply with Washington’s concerns”?

4. “If there is a single overriding lesson [from the campaign in Iraq], it must be this: American military power…is virtually unchallengeable today. Take us on? Don’t try! And that’s not hubris, it’s just plain fact”?

5. “President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt”?

6. “Let’s have those parades on the Mall and down Constitution Avenue — but don’t demobilize yet. There’s a lot yet to be done, and not only by the diplomats”?

Triangulation

Recently I gave a talk that got some in the audience a little upset, especially the assertion that a vast majority of Americans supported the war by April 2003, that pundits, save those from the Nation and American Conservative, were heady with glee, and generals such as Wesley Clark had made statements that could fit either defeat or victory.

In truth all that is needed from erstwhile supporters is something other than “they fooled me with lies about WMD (cf. the 22 other Congressional writs for war)” or “my perfect war was lost by their lousy occupation”. Such an honest and understandable exegesis might go as follows: ‘I was for the removal of Saddam and stabilization of Iraq if it could be accomplished through minimal loss of life and financial outlay. But when by sometime in 2004 I realized that was impossible, then I changed my mind, and realized the effort was doomed and the original invasion was not worth the subsequent losses. That happens in war, as we saw in Vietnam.”

I doubt we will get that honesty, however, and instead will continue to hear of the neocon conspiracy, or how a few sneaky Jews hikacked the government from Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell, and Rumsfeld, or how a conspiracy was waged to trick the American people, involving Hosni Mubarak, Tony Blair, Tommy Franks, French Intelligence, the Democratic Party, et al. who were all on record about Saddam’s WMD, or how ignoramuses in the government had no plan at all how to stabilize Iraq after they promised they had and as I expected.

War and Peace, Peace and War

July 8th, 2007 - 4:00 pm

The Nature of Our Enemies

Last week’s war-on-terror reports were blood-curdling: the Thyestean feast reported by Michael Yon, albeit second-hand, of al Qaeda in Iraq apparently serving up a son for lunch to his parents; the Johnny Torch image of the bomber in Glasgow still shrieking to Allah as he tried to ignite his gas cargo; the destruction of men, women, and children—and, Mycallesus-like, animals as well—in an Iraqi village. And all this in addition to the usual fare from Afghanistan to Baghdad to London to Thailand of beheadings, attempted car bombings, random executions, IEDs, etc.

Meanwhile, we in the West bicker whether Islam, radical Islam, or Islamism is at the heart of this—that is, those of the sane fringe at least argue, who don’t, Jimmy Carter-like, indict the US for bringing it all on ourselves by not talking to Iran, snubbing Syria, forsaking Hamas, marginalizing Hezbollah, being in Iraq, supporting the Jews, etc.

Apparently what gives these pre-modern fascist killers a pass from widespread Western censure is their purported impotency—as long as their grotesqueries don’t match 9/11 we have the luxury to blame-game Guantanamo, still puff up about the black hoods at Abu Ghraib, and spout off about Halliburton—while having latte uninterrupted by Ahmed and his suicide vest.

But should the latter be able to penetrate all of cowboy George Bush’s nightmarish anti-constitutional measures like wire-tapping the phones of terrorists, locking them up in Guantanamo, or pursuing them with provisions of the Patriot Act, then these measures will suddenly be reinvented as shockingly too little when all the “intelligence” made it clear that we were in jeopardy. Yes, I think after the next attack the media will go, without a blink, from the dangers of a police state and Gulag-US to the negligence of open borders and poor terrorist tracking.

Ag Mysteries

Few can figure out why almonds—over planted for years as farmers in California diverted to them from low-price vineyards, row crops, and stone-fruit—continue to be profitable. Everyone had thought there was a limit to Chinese, or is it Indian or European demand? Or that EU subsidies to Spanish or Greek growers would end almonds’ success? But year after year, the crop defies traditional ag logic by being continually planted—and continually being profitable.

In contrast, stone fruit like plums and nectarines keep losing money—even as more farmers leave the business. The same is true of Thompson seedless: fewer farmers, worse or static prices for wine, raisins, and table grapes.

There are eerie truths to scarce water as well. The more farmland that goes out of production in the irrigated San Joaquin Valley, the more water seems to become available for houses. I don’t mean that simplistically. Rather, each acre of vineyard that is uprooted seems to create an overall water surplus, despite the six or so houses that replace it. So the logic is terrifying: our beautiful eastern Central Valley, with its rich natural aquifer and Sierra snow-run-off, can in theory support 20-30 million people—as long as they don’t farm and the world’s richest agricultural acreage is paved over.

Change Coming

We will soon devote one of every four acres in corn to ethanol. And that most radical change will be interesting, despite the controversy over the energy needed to produce a gallon of corn-based energy. Corn prices are already rising for foodstuffs. Acreage from wheat, soy, or cotton is being diverted. Prices for meat, milk, and staples are climbing.

Is this a perfect storm of sorts for agriculture, in which sizable US acreage is diverted to fuel production, land is being lost to suburbanization, and farms are facing water shortages, all resulting for the first time in years of sustained high farm prices?

I remember only one such—very brief— period of the late 1970s and the hyper-inflation in which everyone suddenly wanted to get into farming, and land prices soared before crashing in the 1980s. It was a surreal time, bewildering to see farming magazines at the dentist office, strangers talking about farm profits, and real estate ads with exclamation points like “20-acre vineyard!!!! Buy now before the next rise!!”

A Greek Tragedy in the Making

Vietnam has been evoked so many times for Iraq that most snore when they hear it.

But the real parallels are the images of an orphaned war (Vietnam circa 1972-5) when the public had given up, the politicians had begun getting most troops out, and after Watergate, begun to cut off funds in a series of Congressional actions.

Few cared then to hear that the South Vietnamese government, corrupt as it was, was far superior to the alternative, or was viable in a way that late 1950s South Korea had become (compare the modern state there to the present alternative to the north), or that Saigon could evolve in a way Hanoi could not.

Much less did anyone want to hear of possible consequences of defeat and flight. Indeed, talk of camps, executions, and refugees were written off as right-wing scare stories. The last five years of Vietnam before the fall were largely the work of a small dedicated group of military people and diplomats who finally figured out counter-insurgency, had trained and supplied the South Vietnamese effectively, and very slowly drew down while providing air and material support—until the cutoffs.

Something similar is happening in Iraq. After a zillion evocations of “fiasco”, “mess”, and “disaster” any good news is either ignored or written off as Pentagon fantasies, all lost in the tragic weekly American body counts. “Civil War” is the party line. We may have “factionalism” in Gaza or “unrest” in Lebanon, but only in Iraq is there a full-fledged “civil war.”

In any case, by late summer, there will be enough Republican defections—Lugar, Domenici, Alexander, etc.—to shut down funding for the war. The Republicans may not vote for direct cut-offs, but there will be ways to get out of the way of the Democratic juggernaut that will ensure a veto-proof and filibuster-proof majority. Such is the natural way of democracies and no one can object to its expression of the undeniable anti-war sentiment of the present public. Whether this stampede will preempt Gen. Petraeus’s reports to Congress in September is the only suspense.

While few would believe there is any good news from Iraq, in fact, there is. Finally, we are mastering counter-insurgency, partly due to trial-and-error, partly due to the sheer exhaustion of the Iraqis who went through the embraces of Arab nationalism, ex-Baathism, and al-Qaedism that at various times fueled the insurgency. On occasion now, Sunni tribesmen for the first time are helping Americans and want a cessation of random violence. Kurdistan is by all accounts a success. The south will be infiltrated by Iran, given its Shiite population and proximity, but Iran itself is tottering and may be as destabilized by Iraq as it can destabilize Iraq.

In short, Gen. Petreus has gone right to the cancer in the Sunni Triangle, and for the first time we are starting to see real results. Another thought: just as the malignancy in Sunni Iraq is right where the Americans are now fighting, and Iraq itself—in addtion to being the Mesopotamian ancient caliphate and oil-shipping nexus of the Gulf—was the great malignancy of the Middle East under Saddam and the Baathists, the stakes are very high for the entire region.

Already Gulf States are lining up against Iran. The Arab presses are far more hostile to Hamas, Syria, and Ahmadinejad than are the Western media. And, again for the first time, there is a grudging Arab desire expressed to see Iraqi constitutional government succeed.

And now the Vietnam parallel again. Are we going to read books in the next decade with titles like “Triumph Forsaken” and “Victory Lost”, whose themes will be that the US had almost done the impossible by going into the worst place in the Middle East and, all at once, addressing Saddam’s reign of terror, Islamic fundamentalism, ex-Baathism, religious sectarianism, Iranian and Syrian infiltration, and seeing something far better emerge—and then at the climax quit in recrimination and despair over the terrible loss in blood and treasure?

Gen. Petraeus rightly talks of two clocks—Baghdad and DC time—for Iraq. But suddenly the DC hands just skipped a few hours, and we are five minutes to midnight. His dilemma: how to convey to the troops that their strategy and efforts are at last working, despite the increased panic at home, and to the Iraqis: keep joining us despite the fact we all may be leaving much more quickly than we have assured you.

Silent Sierra?

In the 1960s driving to the Sierra National Forest—about half way between California’s Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks—was a family event. Campgrounds over the 4th were crowded; the tiny store at Huntington Lake was packed, and Highway 168 was often jammed. My mother and father used to time our trips carefully to avoid the crowds, and bring up almost everything we could since facilities were rare and crowded.

But I’ve noticed a subtle change coming up there now—fewer people despite more cabins, stores and facilities. I hiked to some places in the Kaiser Wilderness over this 4th of July holidays: not a soul there. Lakes like Edison and Florence were empty; didn’t see anyone on traditional day-hikes to Nellie Lake and only a few to Twin Lakes. Even during the 4th Huntington Lake was not jammed as in the past.

I’ve asked a lot of people in the area about these impressions—businesspeople, rangers, cabin owners, backpackers—and all sort of agree that the Sierra if not less visited, is at least not as visited at the rate one would have expected given California’s increased population over the last 50 years in general, and the sudden explosion of greater Fresno area right below to nearly over a million people.

Some of the reasons cited are, of course, transitory: high gas prices, dry conditions, low water levels in some of the lakes. But most causes are not and I think are more long-term and permanent since the phenomenon seems true of the last decade. Better reasons are simply that a new generation has other things to do—not just things like theme parks such as Universal Studios and Disneyland, but cut-rate vacations to Cancun or Baja or even Hawaii and Europe.

Another factor are the billions of collective hours spent by millions of youth on video games and electronic toys; youth today seem happy enough to stay near the mall, Starbucks, and their video consoles and don’t know a pine from a fir, much less Sequoia Park from Yosemite.

A lot of old timers up here claim that the federal government’s 1980s conversion to radical environmentalism—not repairing back roads, not increasing camp sites, expanding wilderness areas, and a general sense of ‘leave nature be’ has made the mountains more an elite activity of the Sierra Club rather than open to Joe-Six-pack hopping in his SUV to race up for the weekend.

Whatever the causes, there are downsides for the local businesses, but upsides for those who do come. In little more than two hours from Fresno, one can hike anywhere in the million-acre plus Kaiser wilderness and see vistas of fifty miles or so of absolutely empty forests and mountains—after seeing almost no one on the road up, and literally no one on the camping trails.

Sometimes the complete absence of other humans can get a little iffy: went around a turn on a hike to the Devil’s Bathtub above Edison lake and saw a very large brown bear charging at a fast rate. At about ten yards away—I chose not to move rather than run—it jumped into a tree right in front of me and froze about 5 feet from the ground. Couldn’t figure out why—until I saw two cubs about twenty feet above her dangling on a limb: only then I decided to backpeddle and detour around.