Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon

Anti-Government Protestors Occupy National Wildlife Refuge In Oregon

There’s been a lot in the news lately: a record blizzard in the eastern U.S.; President Obama’s controversial executive action on guns; Vladimir Putin’s reputed involvement in the assassination of a former Russian spy; the Middle East; the death of David Bowie; and the whacked 2016 presidential horserace, which the U.S. news continually obsesses over.

But there’s also an ongoing, “B-grade” story playing out in rural eastern Oregon at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Like a shy prairie dog, the story keeps poking its head out of its hole. On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that significant (thus far, nobody’s been killed). But it’s a tinderbox loaded with the stuff that makes many Americans salivate: domestic terrorism, the potential for violence, land rights, and (supposedly) the U.S. Constitution.

First, some background:

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Teddy Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Did he violate the U.S. Constitution?

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a 293 square mile area located in Harney Basin in southeastern Oregon. It was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. For thousands of years, the land had been occupied by Northern Paiute Indians.

White settlers began farming and ranching this land in the late 19th century. In 1872, President Grant issued a presidential order that all Paiutes in southeastern Oregon be herded onto a reservation there. But the farmers and ranchers insisted the reservation boundaries be shrunk, and after the Bannock War of 1878, most Paiute were exiled to land in Washington State.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built roads and buildings on the refuge. Over time, federal purchases increased the size of the refuge. Since 1935, cattle grazing has been allowed on portions of the land. But such grazing has potential for doing harm to sensitive wildlife, and for decades a low-grade tension has existed between cattle ranchers and wildlife managers.

In addition to providing a haven for 320 species of birds and 58 species of mammals, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge also encompasses volcanic fields and geologic strata containing Pleistocene-era fossils.

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The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: a diverse habitat (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).

In 2013, a compromise was reached between the cattle ranchers and refuge managers, where limited grazing is allowed in certain areas that do not threaten wildlife.

Then came Ammon Bundy and a group of armed militants. On January 2, they seized the refuge headquarters at Burns, Oregon, to protest the sentences of two ranchers who were convicted of arson on public property in an attempt to hide their poaching activities. But Bundy and his sycophants have a higher calling:

We warn federal agencies, federal judges and all government officials that follow federal oppressive examples that the people are in unrest because of these types of actions.

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Franklin Roosevelt established the CCC, which created jobs at the refuge. Did he violate the Constitution?

Bundy obviously likes – or doesn’t like – the word “federal.” He’s also used the word “Constitution” a number of times. But it’s unclear to what part of the Constitution he’s referring to at any given moment.

Bundy is the son of 67-year-old Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who made news in 2014 when he took up arms against the U.S. government over $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy Sr. became a hero to conservatives who are opposed to what they perceive as federal overreach (though, like frightened rabbits, many quickly scurried after he made a remark that “the Negro” may have been “better off as slaves, picking cotton…”).

Ammon Bundy is a Mormon, and occasionally invokes his religion to defend his militant actions: “I ask you now to come participate in this wonderful thing in Harney County that the Lord is about to accomplish.”

If the Lord is supposed to accomplish “this wonderful thing,” why do Bundy and his bunch feel the need to wrap themselves in artillery? Bundy’s Lord evidently approves of armed insurrection.

The Bundy occupation began three weeks ago and is ongoing. The initial protesters have been joined by other militant groups who are drawn to the spectacle like wolves tearing into red meat. The FBI has been reluctant to use force on the several dozen still remaining because it understandably doesn’t want outright violence, like that which occurred at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993). But Oregon Governor Kate Brown, after initially keeping mum at the FBI’s behest, finally went public with a plea for an end to the occupation:

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Have gun, will travel.

“The very fabric of the Burns community is being ripped apart by this occupation…the situation is absolutely intolerable.” Brown also plans to demand that feds reimburse the state of Oregon for the costs being incurred, which currently hover around a half million dollars.

The fact that the occupiers – and let’s be honest, they are domestic terrorists – have been allowed to come and go as they please, including making uninvited and unconcealed-carry appearances at a town meeting at the high school gymnasium… well, it’s surreal to the point of nausea. Kind of like “Twin Peaks”  meets “A Clockwork Orange.”

burns residents

Many Burns residents agree with the terrorists’ anti-government politics, if not their tactics. But they now want the feds to intervene and kick them out.

The confrontation in Oregon is an example of right-wing extremism gone awry. Angry, under-educated white males who are caught in the crevasses of a changing American demographic and its values, and who stubbornly cling to a warped idea of what constitutes “individual freedom” and invoke the Constitution (and sometimes God) to defend their often violent actions.

At its ugliest, it’s Timothy McVeigh. At its more genteel, it’s opportunistic politicians like Matt Shea (R-Wash), who sympathize with the militants and, over objections from local officials, actually meet with them.

Maybe we should just turn Harney Basin back over to the people who knew best how to manage it, and who did so for thousands of years without either wrecking the environment or once uttering the word “Constitution”: the Paiute Indians.

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American avocet and chicks at the refuge (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).