When I Was a Kid America Was Like Africa

November 11, 2014

images-2Waiting for the TV news,
I caught the end of “Homework Hotline.”
A little girl called in;
She said she’d come from Africa.
So the host asked her:
“How does Africa differ from America?”
“Well,” the girl explained,
“In Africa your mom lets you
Walk to school by yourself.
And your mom lets you go out
And play with your friends,
All by yourselves.”

When I was a kid, America was like Africa.
I walked alone to school,images
We played in the street,
With no parental bodyguards;
And lived to tell the tale.
Today kids are driven everywhere,
Sequestered in their homes;
A South Carolina woman was arrested,
And her nine-year-old taken away,
For having left her in a playground.
Talk about the Nanny State.

Each year a quarter million American kids
Are hurt or killed in car crashes,
Many while being driven to school;
Whereas, based upon statistics,
To be abducted by a stranger
A child would have to be left
Out on the street
For seven hundred and fifty thousand years.

images-1The South Carolina case was real (click here). We let pass parental conduct far more dangerous than leaving kids in a playground – like driving them to school. Walking would be not only safer but healthier, while inculcating independence and self-reliance. Furthermore (as the linked article notes), a child is far likelier to be molested or brutalized with a single mother’s boyfriend hanging around than being left in a public park. Yet it’s the latter that freaks people out and gets a child taken away.

UnknownHere the “nanny state” is almost literal: government decreeing how to parent your kids. In some places even smacking a child is criminalized. I was liberally smacked as a kid, and the conventional thing to say is that I wasn’t harmed. Well, it did teach me one lesson: never hit your kid. But should it be illegal? That goes way too far.

As did the South Carolina case, with the child actually taken away by the state. That itself is far likelier to harm a kid than being left in a playground – the whole foster care system is a snakepit for children. In most cases they’d be better off left with even lousy parents. The worst mom of all is government.*

We want government to protect people, but that requires power, and it’s hard to draw the line. And giving it a little power often morphs into a lot.
images-3* See also my review of Carl Strock’s book, showing how government’s “child protective services” do more harm than good.

November 9 – 25 Years Later – Save The Wall

November 9, 2014
1962

1962

I was a kid when I went by myself one time to the 1964 New York World’s Fair – I lived nearby – and wandered into the West German pavilion. There was a film about the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961). I was stunned. Until then I hadn’t truly grasped the evil. It made me a cold warrior.

Twenty Five years later. Remodeling at my office had resulted in a stupid partition blocking my window view. In chatting with my wife about my efforts to get it removed, I called it “The Berlin Wall.”

Then one day when she walked in, I greeted her by saying, “The Berlin Wall came down today.”

“The one at your office?”

“No,” I said. “The real one. In Germany.”

imagesShortly before, I had switched on the evening TV news, and saw people dancing atop the wall. I will never forget that moment, and the pictures of people flooding through those gates, whooping with exhilaration at the freedom they’d gained. It was November 9, 1989 – the world became a new and better place. It was an unambiguous triumph of my dearest beliefs. Life doesn’t give us too many like that. There are tears in my eyes now, writing this.

A lot has happened in the ensuing 25 years, and some pessimists believe the world is now worse. Well, it sure ain’t perfect. But the great sweep of history is the titanic efforts of human beings to make things better. November 9, 1989 was a milestone in that eternal struggle.

images-2My wife later gave me, as a gift, a little box containing a souvenir – a chunk from the Berlin Wall. Then we visited Germany, and I could actually stand, upon a patch of rubble where once the wall had been, and raise my arms in triumph.

At first the Germans left a little of the wall intact, for remembrance. But now even that bit is under threat of demolition. Some people are saying, “Save the Wall!” and I agree. This should be kept as a monument to the evil it represented – and a monument to the human beings who overcame it.

In 1964 I could not foresee the day when that wall would come down. And I certainly could not have imagined the day, 50 years later, when I’d write a blog post saying, “Save the Wall.”Unknown

The Earth Moves

November 6, 2014

UnknownEarly peoples might be forgiven had they viewed the stars as just a kind of wallpaper, without significance. Yet we always sensed something important out there, and struggled to understand it.

Unknown-2It was not stupid to think the heavens revolved around a stationary Earth. A few early theorizers saying otherwise were considered crackpots, and for sound reasons. If the Earth moved, why wasn’t everything on it jostled? And wouldn’t something thrown straight up fall at a distance? But the killer argument was parallax. If the Earth travelled, the stars should appear at different perspectives at different times. Yet they didn’t! Nobody realized how vastly distant the stars are, making the parallax effect infinitesimal.

While the heavens appeared to revolve in unison, a few stars didn’t follow the program, instead moving in seemingly crazy patterns. They were called “planets” (Greek for “wanderers”). This anomaly really bugged the ancients.

images-1Eventually the Second Century astronomer Ptolemy came up with a model with the stars moving on fixed spheres, but the planets using some complicated extra circles (“epicycles”) to account for their oddball movements. It was actually brilliant. But unfortunately, as astronomical observations got ever better, the scheme had to be continually rejiggered, growing ever more convoluted.

Copernicus

Copernicus

Copernicus thought of trying a radically different construct. If the Earth were a planet, circling the Sun, a lot of the complications went away. But he was reluctant to publish (he first held the book in his hands the day he died in 1543), partly because the calculations still wouldn’t work out. That was because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.

images-3Then Johann Kepler took up the challenge. Kepler was obsessed by “the harmony of the spheres” — that in God’s perfect Heaven, everything went round in perfect circles. With access to Tyche Brahe’s immense store of accurate astronomical observations, for a decade Kepler bashed away at it, trying to somehow make the circles work. And then something truly amazing happened. Kepler realized he was wrong. He went back to it — and teased out the truth. The planets travel not in circles, but ellipses; their speeds vary with their closeness to the Sun; but for equal time intervals, they sweep out equal areas of their ellipses. (See picture.)

It was beautiful; it finally perfectly explained the movements; and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck to think that Kepler, despite craving a different  answer, could transcend his own preconceptions and figure it out.

Unknown-1Meanwhile, Galileo’s telescope proved Copernicus right about the Earth circling the Sun. The Church — having in 1600 burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno alive for saying so — browbeat Galileo into publicly denying it. “And yet it moves,” he supposedly grunted under his breath. And the Church was unable to suppress his book, Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) which persuaded intelligent people who was right.

But we were not done yet. Why did the planets move as Kepler showed? What made them move at all?

Aristotle had theorized that anything moving had to be somehow pushed. But why a thrown object kept moving was a vexing puzzle for two millennia. Eventually, Galileo and Descartes developed the idea of inertia — anything moving keeps on moving unless something stops it (commonly, friction). And that movement would be in a straight line, unless something deflects the path. But why then didn’t the planets fly off in straight lines? What was deflecting them?

images-4It was a 23-year-old Isaac Newton who, in 1666, finally put it all together. What reconciled the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo was yet another new idea — gravity. Of course we’d always known apples fall downward; but had never guessed this force was universal, acting even on planets. Newton worked out that gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between objects; and, voila, that this explained Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

And so, at last, those little creatures who’d gazed with puzzlement at the cosmic wallpaper punched their way through to understand it. Again my neck hairs stand up.

Unknown-3Of course, even today, we still don’t know everything. Not even, in fact, why gravity does follow Newton’s law. Einstein got us closer, with the idea of mass bending space; you’ve seen the illustrations, with bowling bowls on mattresses. But that seems to me more metaphor than explanation; and physicists continue struggling to integrate gravity with the other fundamental forces to produce a “theory of everything.”

Yet the story I’ve told is the story of humanity growing up: our evolution from a mentality shaped by myth and superstition, steeped in mystery, to one of dispelling mystery by application of reason to observed reality. images-5I’ve read about it in Richard Tarnas’s eloquent book, The Passion of the Western Mind. And he points out that the new modern mindset was not just limited to science. Just as the old cosmology, tethered to religious dogmas, was replaced by a new rationalist view, so too everything in civilization, previously grounded in tradition-bound ideas of divine sanction — absolute monarchical power, aristocratic privilege, arbitrary laws, exploitive economics, etc. — could likewise be supplanted by new and better systems founded upon rationalist concepts of independent human dignity. And so it is coming to pass.

Midterms, Obamasis, and Cuomosis

November 3, 2014

UnknownTomorrow is Election Day. Republicans may well take the Senate, mainly because President Obama is so unpopular. That unpopularity, unfortunately, is justified. He is extremely cerebral, but it seems to make him smugly feel he needn’t bother to actually assert leadership. As Leon Panetta, his former Defense Secretary, writes in a new book, Obama has trouble making decisions, let alone gutsy decisions. And he wants to have everything both ways – as with his declaration of war against the Islamic State – without actually fighting a war, in a conventional sense. Aiming to have the best of both worlds – victory without blood – we’ll likely end up with the worst of both – blood without victory.

This is only the latest symptom of Obamasis. The first was to blow off the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles commission. That’s not some arcane inside-the-beltway matter. It was probably our last best chance to avoid long run fiscal disaster. Don’t be lulled by transitory deficit declines. A growing imbalance between Americans productively employed and those collecting various benefits puts us on an unsustainable path.

Unknown-1Another, of course, was Obama’s drawing a “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons use, and then making a fool of himself when it was crossed – shredding America’s international credibility.

As Panetta’s book elucidates, while of course one must carefully weigh the consequences (and unintended consequences) of action, inaction equally has consequences.

Unknown-2Meantime, as my blog readers know, I’m no great fan of today’s Republicans. One particularly ugly thrust of theirs is voter suppression – making it harder for disadvantaged citizens (assumed to favor Democrats) to vote, through restrictive ID requirements and the like – on the blatantly phony pretext of preventing (almost nonexistent) voter fraud. I wish Republicans would think harder about how to attract voters than blocking them. This is not a strategy that befits a serious political party.

The conventional wisdom (on the left, anyway) says that a Republican Senate would just worsen gridlock. But I doubt this. No longer could Harry Reid be blamed for political paralysis. Obama might be forced to get serious about accommodation with Republicans, on such urgent issues as tax reform and immigration, to avoid his second term being even more conspicuously a failure than it already is. And if Republicans hope to win the White House, they might seek to avoid an image as masters of dysfunction.

A word about the campaign. With much of the electorate divided between immovable partisans, close elections come down to battles over the others, who tend to be much less politically sophisticated; resulting in campaigns, via TV ads, that insult intelligence and demean our democracy.

Unknown-3Everyone decries negative ads, but virtually all candidates (in contested races) use them, because they work. And the standard for what they feel they can get away with, in abusing truth, continues to fall, a real race to the bottom. Ohio actually passed a law banning inaccurate political ads, which was overturned in the courts – thankfully – I take a dim view of any governmental regulation of political advocacy. But I would like to see some public service announcements, on billboards, buses, and the airwaves, something like this:

VOTERS BEWARE! TV ADS SLAMMING POLITICAL CANDIDATES ARE OFTEN VERY MISLEADING! THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY!

Unknown-4Here in New York, exactly as I predicted, our loathesome Governor Cuomo has blanketed the state with ads smearing his opponent, Rob Astorino. Also as I predicted, the New York Times and Albany Times-Union, despite previously excoriating Cuomo, held their noses and endorsed him, being congenitally incapable of backing a Republican. For my case against Cuomo, see my 9/7 blog post.*

The T-U did at least urge a “no” vote on the phony redistricting “reform” on the ballot; though while lamenting Governor Cuomo’s “settling” for this cynical charade in lieu of genuine reform, could not bring itself to call this a black mark against him. In fact it’s a smelly disgrace.

Though I rarely vote for any incumbents, let alone Democratic ones, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has earned support. He has shown himself a straight-shooter, and seems immune from infection by Albany’s political culture. He has come out strongly, in an op-ed, against the redistricting referendum. Cuomo seems to despise DiNapoli. That should certainly recommend him.

imagesAnyhow, even if you do see all politicians as rotten scalawags – vote. And remember that voting for a minority no-hoper is not “wasting” your vote. You waste a vote if you bestow it on a candidate you don’t actually prefer. This is not a game, of trying to pick a winner; there are no prizes for that. And your vote doesn’t really have more weight if cast for a major candidate. We don’t participate on the theory that one’s individual vote will actually affect the outcome. Rather, this is our one great communal civic sacrament.

My wife's Halloween costume. Has nothing to do with this topic, but I liked it so much I'm posting it anyway.

My wife’s Halloween selfie. Has nothing to do with this topic, but I enjoyed the picture so much I’m posting it anyway.

* I forgot to mention there Cuomo’s egregious statement that “right wingers” have no place in New York State. I would say that people with that kind of intolerant attitude have no place in America. Meantime, progressives see Cuomo as pandering to them while actually selling out to moneyed interests who fatten his campaign war chest. T-U columnist Fred LeBrun baldly calls Cuomo a “fraud.”

Americanah — Please Smack This Woman

October 31, 2014
Adichie

Adichie

Ifemelu didn’t know she was black – until, as a teenager, she came to America from Nigeria. She’s the focus of Nigerian/American Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah. It’s garnered great reviews as penetrating social commentary about both countries.

Many novels are non-chronological, often starting with a dramatic scene and then going to the backstory. I get that. But Americanah cut back and forth so much that I had trouble keeping things straight.

Ifemelu’s teenaged Nigerian boyfriend was Obinze. It was no casual attachment, but portrayed as obviously quite deep. Yet soon after arriving in America, she stops reading or answering his e-mails and letters, cuts him off without a word. Why? No reason I could see. Near the end she gives a reason; but (to me) a lame one.

article-1162718-03F37C2E000005DC-317_468x377Soon she’s in a fairy tale romance with Curt – handsome, rich, charming, warm, smart – white – and mad for her. They’re jetting to London and Paris on whim, etc. Then Ifemelu, for no particular reason, has a one night stand with a pallid grunge musician. Credible? Maybe. She informs Curt. Credible? Not so much. Curt throws her out. Credible? Well – I had a similar experience once (for a different, stupider reason).

Unknown-1Then Ifemelu starts a blog on race matters from the perspective of a non-American black. Many blog postings are given verbatim. We’re apparently supposed to think they’re highly insightful and provocative. I did not. To me they flogged tired, whiny racial tropes we’ve heard a thousand times. Yet Ifemelu’s blog is wildly successful, she actually gets a living from it, attracting contributions and advertisers, speaking gigs proliferate, and she winds up with a Princeton fellowship.

Unknown(How does this happen? Someone please tell me – my blog, since ’08, obviously has highly excellent content, but its readership could fit in a phone booth (well, OK, a big one, and it would be very tight), and I’ve never earned a cent. Of course, I do it for love.)

images-1The book is full of party scenes — populated by effete, politically hip intellectual poseurs. They’re mildly satirized, which is mild fun, up to a point, but enough is enough.

Ifemelu’s next live-in boyfriend is Blaine, a black Yale professor, another Prince Charming. So maybe it’s not an epic passion, but c’mon, a lot of folks would kill for such a nice mellow relationship. Yet after several years (and 13 in America) Ifemelu decides to chuck it all – Blaine, blog, Princeton – to return to Nigeria. Why? Beats me.

images-2It’s not as though Nigeria has improved since she left. Indeed, it’s gone downhill, growing even more dysfunctional and corrupt. The typical American hasn’t the faintest idea how different a nation like that is. Adichie does illuminate a lot of Nigeria’s rottenness. And yet, another thing I disliked about the book is its narrow portrayal of the country – the only Nigerians we meet are middle or upper class or intelligentsia.images There’s no sense that this is a thin crust atop a vast populace at best just eking out an existence. Those Nigerian masses are invisible here.

(Also unmentioned is Boko Haram, now in control of a large territory – showing that Nigeria’s government and army exist only for predation, and are useless to help or protect the populace. Yet, doing end-runs around their useless government, Nigeria’s creative and enterprising people are bubbling with entrepreneurship.)

Once back there, Ifemelu starts a new blog, about Nigeria (or at least that thin crust) – again a roaring success. She has an old friend, Ranyi, in fact a very good loyal friend who helps Ifemelu a lot. Ranyi is the kept woman of a married “big man,” a common Nigerian situation, which Ifemelu scathingly blogs about, the portrayal of Ranyi being unmistakeable. Ranyi complains. Ifemelu blows her off, saying she really had in mind her own Aunty Uju, whose being a general’s mistress “destroyed” her life.

Say what?

Destroyed? Aunty Uju, when her general suddenly croaked, got out of Nigeria with enough to reach America and became a doctor. And brought up the general’s child as her well beloved son.

I found Ifemelu unlikeable. If that was the author’s intent, she succeeded, but somehow I doubt it was. This novel had a very autobiographical feel.

UnknownThere’s still Obinze, Ifemelu’s teen heart-throb. We’ve been following his adventures too. He’s become quite rich – the Nigerian way, that is, by sucking up to a “big man” who lets him in on a deal plundering the public treasury. Despite this, Obinze is yet another guy portrayed too good to be true, a saint so bursting with virtues and devoid of faults that it made me gag.

Ifemelu finally contacts him before her return to Nigeria. And then, once there, fails to follow up. Would someone please smack this woman upside the head? But maybe it’s just my biased perspective. I worked so hard to get a good partner, and value her so much, that Ifemelu’s insouciance rankles.

Unknown-2Of course I won’t reveal the ending, but you can guess it. Such endings are supposed to be satisfying to the reader. But I felt a less saccharine conclusion would have been truer to what preceded it.

Used Book Sale Review

October 28, 2014

images-2I love used book sales. Locally, the Schenectady and East Greenbush libraries have great ones. Both are (to quote a local car dealer’s ads) huuuge. Schenectady’s is very well organized by category; while what distinguishes the Greenbush sale is a lot of books in new condition, excellent for gifts.

The latest was Greenbush. It starts on a Thursday from 5 to 8:30 PM. Previously I’ve gone on Thursday, knowing these sales get pillaged fast, so it pays to be early. But books cost $2 on the Thursday ($1 afterwards), the rush hour traffic is terrible, the parking impossible, and the room overcrowded. So this time I decided to go easy and waited till Friday morning.

images-4I’m always amazed at what other people take, often baffling choices. I primarily look for ancient history and archaeology, which few others seem to want. So even on the Friday I still found 43 books, a pretty good haul.

These ancient history books I sell. It started serendipitously years ago when I received a box of such books from one of my customers together with some ancient coins to sell. “What the heck will I do with these books?” I thought. Well, I listed them in one of my coin auctions and they did quite nicely. So ever since, I’ve been buying and selling that stuff.

I also watch for poetry books for my wife, which is generally pointless because she is very advanced and I am a poetry naif (we argue regularly over whether Invictus is a good poem). I saw one general book about poetics that looked promising; I opened it at random and my eye fell on four words: “If Byron had rhymed . . . .“ Not for my wife.

Unknown-1And I also seek books to actually read. At this point, those I see come mainly in two categories: ones I’ve read, and ones I don’t want to read. This time I strangely had a bee in my bonnet for Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, which I recalled had gotten stellar reviews. You’d think a best-selling book like that would turn up, but I didn’t find it. (I did find two more copies of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, a good item for group lots in my auctions. I’d been impressed at how much buzz Schiff was able to gin up for this publication, which was far from the first one about that 2,000 year old gal. I recommended it to one of my book groups; but found it disappointing.

There were innumerable copies of Eat, Pray, Love, another book group book I really disliked. images-6And the tables were just groaning with David Baldacci, book after book after fat book. What is it with David Baldacci? He’s not even on my radar screen. Likewise Dean Koontz, Jodi Picoult, James Patterson; enough of their books to sink a battleship.

But I did find a few: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs (I’ve reviewed his memoir, Elsewhere); Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (remembering rave reviews); Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; and, lest you think I’m highbrow, Alan Alda’s Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, and Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? (After reading it, I’ll let you know the verdict).

imagesAnd I did snag one true treasure: the rare 1973 first edition of Albany’s O’Connell Machine. Unfortunately lacking the dust jacket; I don’t even own one with an intact dust jacket. (Recently, on the radio news, I enjoyed hearing our new Mayor on some political shenanigans, saying it was just like what she’s been reading about in a book on the O’Connell Machine published back in 1973.)

Talk about ancient history! Makes me feel kind of ancient myself. images-3

Who Gets to Sit in First Class Airline Seats?

October 25, 2014

This was a question exercising Richard Wolff, a self-styled Marxist economics professor, in a recent talk on Alternative Radio. Its programs monotonously demonize capitalism or U.S. “imperialism.” Wolff’s talk was in the former category, mocking the idea that the market is some perfect mechanism for producing ideal economic outcomes (an idea nobody actually holds).

UnknownHis airline seat conniptions were prompted by being flown First Class to some speaking gig. He liked it – in contrast to flying “steerage,” and as a card-carrying leftist was rankled by the inequality.*

What we have here, Wolff said, is a “distributional problem.” And he held forth at some length with alternative, putatively fairer ways to (re)distribute First Class seats. Anything but just selling them, to people willing to pay.

manna-from-heavenThis “distributional” fixation shows the fundamental mistake of lefty economics. Wolff sees First Class seats – and, by extension, any other good or asset – as just out there, as though created by some sort of spontaneous generation, like manna falling from the sky, the only question being how to divvy them up (with everyone, presumptively, having equal entitlements).**

Wolff recognized that if First Class seats are conferred by one of his egalitarian methods, rather than sold, airlines would make less profit. But, he said, “who cares?”

images-2This too shows the magical thinking of leftist economics. As though profit is somehow ill-gotten, illegitimate, exploitative, and all goods and services ought instead to be forthcoming, somehow, free of profit. Magically.

Now here’s reality. If airlines couldn’t profit, they wouldn’t fly. You wouldn’t have seats, First Class or Sardine class. And all the people who work for airlines wouldn’t have jobs.***images-3

Maybe you think air travel, and all other goods and services, should be provided by government, for public benefit, with no dirty profit. Some countries actually do have government-run airlines. They tend to be mismanaged white elephants that suck money from taxpayers and out of public budgets, subsidizing air travelers at the expense of everyone else.

First Class seats, that Wolff calls a “distributional problem,” are not in fact some good that’s out there waiting for an economics professor to allocate. They would not exist if they weren’t profit centers. And, while it’s true that to fetch high prices UnknownFirst Class seats have to be cushy, the takers are less beneficiaries than they are victims, albeit voluntary victims; sheep being sheared. Because in relation to “steerage,” and the amenities First Class seats entail, they are stupendously overpriced (that nice glass of wine effectively costs you hundreds). It’s really an extortion racket: pay up or suffer the indignity of mixing with the peasants.

In fact airlines get the bulk of their profits from First Class. Without that, regular seats would have to cost much more, probably pricing out most travelers, who wouldn’t fly at all, making the whole enterprise unviable. images-1First Class travelers subsidize the rest, so air travel is affordable to ordinary folks, and planes get filled, airlines can operate and make a little profit, and everyone is better off.

That, Mister Marxist Professor Wolff, is market economics, and it’s a damn good thing.

By the way, when I said “a little profit,” I wasn’t being cute. In fact, the airline industry, over its entire history, has made very little profit at all, in relation to the vast amount of investment. Unknown-4Competition has seen to that. So the public has received the colossal benefit of trillions of miles of transportation, provided essentially at cost. The meager profit garnered by airlines is surely a small price to pay for what we gain.

That again is market economics. A damn good thing.

* Though, as my wife noted, he didn’t refuse the seat, switch with some more deserving traveler, or fly economy and donate the difference to the poor.

** I’ve written about John Rawls’s famous book, A Theory of Justice, similarly treating wealth as just something out there, to be distributed, with nary a word about its creation.

*** On one flight I was treated to an ad wherein the airline’s head extolled all the numerous employees who made the flight possible, many unseen by passengers. I was indeed struck by the vast complexity of the enterprise, and how oblivious most of us are to all the cooperative efforts of the legions of people who make our civilization work.

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” – Puritan History

October 22, 2014

imagesAs this 2008 book’s title suggests, Sarah Vowell is a funny writer. Yet also a serious one. She writes serious books in a funny way. This one is actually a substantive chronicle of, and rumination upon, the Puritans who founded Boston. She quotes liberally from original sources. Interspersed with wisecracks.

images-2I wonder if her name – it means a type of letter, after all – had something to do with Vowell’s becoming a wordsmith. Such serendipities are more common than chance alone would produce. That a disproportionate percentage of people named Lawrence are lawyers, and Dennises are dentists, is a documented fact. (Or perhaps an urban legend.) Though her own name is misspelled, Vowell is a very good writer. The book’s last few sentences are a killer.

Unknown-2Boston was founded in 1630 by a different lot from the 1620 Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Their leader and governor was John Winthrop; he’s the main character in this book, mostly portrayed sympathetically. (Vowell confesses she fell in love; though later she calls him a “monster.” Fickle woman!)

Also prominent is Roger Williams. Now, I have a thing for Roger Williams. I happened to live for 11 years with his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.* So I almost feel kin to him, or as much as a Jewish kid from Queens could.

UnknownWe first meet Williams among the early Boston Puritans. These people took their religion very seriously. I’ve always felt that if religion really were true, folks should take it more seriously. But Roger Williams took religion to an even higher level of seriousness than even your standard Puritan. Vowell quotes the letter he sent his wife upon learning she was very ill – not just a sermon, but one exhorting her to prepare for death. Nice.

I’m always struck by the certitude such people felt about their faith. Didn’t they realize millions of others had entirely different beliefs? Indeed, they spent a lot of effort massacring them. Yet never seemed to ponder the impossibility of knowing who’s right. (Most believers still don’t.)

Roger Williams was a titan of certitude. His inability to soft-peddle his convictions – he considered his neighbors insufficiently Puritan – got him kicked out of the colony. Thus was Rhode Island founded.

images-3Now here is the stunning thing. People then were typically killed over religious minutiae. Vowell talks of Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston for religious boo-boos. In Europe the Thirty Years War was raging, with vast slaughterings for God. Williams might have been expected to run Rhode Island as a theocracy brooking no dissent from his harsh views. Yet, zealot though he was, he also – bizarrely, for the time – fervently opposed coercion in matters of faith. Thus Rhode Island was established as a haven of religious tolerance. There, truly, was born this wonderful American idea of letting people think what they like.

images-4Religious liberty was enshrined by Williams in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. And RI was the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution – holding out for the addition of a bill of rights.

One criticism of this book. Winthrop was famous for his “city on a hill” sermon, so often invoked by Ronald Reagan. Vowell takes this as a pretext for a vicious diatribe against Reagan (and drags in Bush 43 as well). She quotes liberally from Mario Cuomo’s speech mocking Reagan because in America’s “shining city on a hill” there are people suffering. Unknown-1But Reagan never meant the metaphor to describe an achieved state. To the contrary, it was aspirational – what America aims for, and works for. To do a Cuomo on him for that is just mean spirited, as is Vowell’s attack. It is neither clever, enlightening nor amusing. Why does she see fit to introduce (and hammer at length) her partisan political opinions in a book about the 17th century?

But to some people nowadays everything is political, and they are so imbued with (what seems to them) the righteousness of their views, they cannot ever desist from being in your face with them. They’re almost like . . . well, the Puritans.

* Not really special. A typical person 11 generations back would have a lot of modern descendants. And conversely, everyone today has a lot of ancestors back that far – 2,048 to be exact. The number doubles with each generation going backward; so after a few dozen your roster of ancestors would exceed the entire human population. How can that be? Well, your family tree is tangled with everyone else’s. We are all related.

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.

Our Jordan Adventure

October 14, 2014
Elizabeth, going native

Elizabeth

This seemed a good time to visit the Middle East. So we went to Philadelphia. That was the ancient Greek name. Before that, Rabboth-Ammon; thus, today, Amman.

The country is named for the River Jordan – the river of metaphor – “I’m only going up over Jordan” – The Ur-River – “Michael, row the boat ashore.” Would’ve been nice to see it. We didn’t.

Therese and me at Petra

Therese and me at Petra

The “we” included my ever cheerful ace travel partner Therese. Up at 5:30 and out the door at 5:40? Sure, no problem.

We were visiting our daughter Elizabeth, 21, living in Amman studying Arabic. Having an Eid holiday break, she organized a tour for us. English speakers being rare, it was great having Elizabeth as our Arabic-speaking guide; especially negotiating with cab drivers. (It’s a point of honor for Elizabeth not to overpay.)

She is also studying the Zaatari refugee camp, near Amman, a reminder that conflict is not far away. And helping out at Questscope, an NGO, developing a “youth empowerment” program. Amman is full of seemingly unoccupied young men – potential jihadist recruits. The project aims to give them better outlets for their energies.

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Historical context: In 1948, the UN partitioned the British-run Palestine territory, creating Israel and an Arab state – Jordan. Israel, in the 1967 war, took a big piece of Jordan – the West Bank. (In the national museum a large map labeled all the surrounding nations; Israel (including the West Bank) was called “Palestine.”)

Monarchy is not my favorite system, but Jordan been blessed with unusually enlightened monarchs. After the ’67 war, King Hussein did something astoundingly smart – renounced all claim to the West Bank. So Jordan could get on with life, not wasting its energies in futile irredentism. (Palestinians take note.)

Jerash

Jerash

In Amman we joined up with one of Elizabeth’s Questscope pals for a car trip to Jerash. Along the way we saw many roadside pens with sheep and goats, often with a skinned carcass dangling from a scaffold, apparently for sale for Eid holiday feasting. One also continually saw little cubical concrete or cinderblock structures, some utilized for storage or mini-stores, but more often rubbish strewn, never completed, or half ruined. Aborted construction seemed ubiquitous. Also used tires – sometimes arranged in decorative megaliths.

powerlineMostly we traversed bleak scrubland desert, whose most notable feature was electric power lines and telephone poles. But this is important. In many places (particularly Africa), lack of such infrastructure is a big factor inhibiting economic development.

bagpipes

Jerash was ancient Gerasa. (In Roman times, the area, including Philadelphia, was called Decapolis, part of Syria.) The ruins are well preserved. In the amphitheater, two guys in full Arab regalia performed rousing Scottish (!) music on drums and bagpipes. I told my wife, “Here’s what we missed with no Scottish independence celebration to go to!”

Amid the ruins, a local fellow latched on to us and helpfully pointed out various details. Of course I knew he expected a tip, but was taken aback when he insisted on 30 Dinars (while repeating, “I’m a Muslim”). I wound up giving him 20 Dinars ($28), and though he feigned displeasure, it was wildly excessive. Well, it was our first day.

Petra

Petra

Then we took a bus to Petra, the amazing capital of the Nabataeans (flourished in the first centuries BC and AD). Access is through a long, very narrow, deep gorge; the city’s main features were mostly carved right out of the rock. We had to climb for hours, a more strenuous challenge than I’ve had in years; but my 67 year old carcass managed it.

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coins are very cool and I’d have liked to find some nice ones. Many tchotchke sellers there did have coins – garishly made to look like what a tourist might imagine for ancient coins. When one guy pressed his fakes at me and I laughed them off, he asked if I would recognize real ones. Then he showed me two coins – one, an Aelius denarius (rare), at least a realistic fake, the other a little bronze, genuine but miserable and worthless.

imagesThat Petra and the Nabataeans are integral to Jordanian identity was evident from our later visit to Amman’s national museum. Really nice, especially on linguistic history. One placard called the advent of alphabetic systems the democratization of knowledge, since it made reading and writing much easier to learn. Also noteworthy there were the oldest large-size human statues ever found, dating before 7500 BC.

At Petra, Elizabeth asked a guy at the visitor center what we should expect to pay for a taxi to Wadi Rum. Not only did he find an answer, he made some calls and arranged the ride, for a price at the bottom of the range. Such helpfulness is something we’ve found throughout our many travels (except of course in France). The Jordanians were lovely, save only for one kid who threw garbage at us, shouting “haram!” (“Non-kosher”)

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

That taxi trip – an hour and three quarters – cost all of 30 Dinars ($42; made me wince again at what I’d given the “guide” at Jerash). The car radio was tuned to a Russian talk show. I asked the driver if he spoke Russian. He said no.

Wadi Rum was our desert “Bedouin camp” experience. Well, it was no tarted-up dude ranch. The guys in Arab dress lounging and conversing around the camp fire looked like they came out of some old picture book.

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Next, like Lawrence and his 1917 Arab rebels we marched on camelback across the forbidding Nefud desert to Aqaba. Actually, we took another taxi (one hour; 25 Dinars; but the guy had to drive to Wadi Rum from Aqaba to get us). Aqaba has become a major seaside resort town.

We took another bus back to Amman. Midway there was a smoking break, when almost everyone got off to puff.

Amman’s main art museum (privately funded) was eye-opening – contemporary art from developing nations, nearly all Muslim. Not ethnic ghetto stuff, but interesting and accomplished work at the highest level. But ordinarily we never see it, not even at the international art fair we recently attended in Dubai. Yet another aspect of how the Muslim world is cut off from the wider global culture.

UnknownOn our last day we took yet another bus trip, to the Dead Sea. Swimming in it was a bizarre experience, like floating atop a vat of jello. Also bizarre was observing the Dead Sea mud bathers.

Jordan is a good country. If ISIS attacks it, mine had better be there. With boots on the ground.


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