Ukraine: How Does This End?

September 29, 2022

The wanton, callous destruction, death, and suffering sear the soul.

Having denied that Russia’s Ukraine aggression is a “war,” Putin now denies that it’s going horribly, with atrocious Russian casualties. Causing him to throw in another 300,000 men. Hardly crack troops, they’ll be given derisory training, just cannon fodder. They won’t help much to win this misbegotten war.

Unsurprisingly, these new victims aren’t gladly marching into the meat grinder; they’re flooding all paths to leave Russia. Putin promises harsh punishment for that. And protesters are threatened, too, with being sent to the front. All part of his escalating crackdown and destruction of civil society. While casting this war as somehow an assertion of Russia’s greatness. A wonderful country.

Hitler and the Nazis were bad too. And Stalin and Mao and their henchmen. But give them this — they were honest inasmuch as they really believed their shit. That can’t possibly be true of Putin and company. Like Foreign Minister Lavrov — too intelligent to actually believe what comes out of his mouth. I’m not suggesting, of course, that nobody ever really lied before. Yet this actually seems different, carrying the brazenness to a new plateau. That surely applies also to Trump and his apologists.

Although the Western sanctions against Russia were surprisingly strong, Russia is doing well weathering them. The Rouble first crashed, then recovered. Oil and especially gas prices spiked, and those are major Russian exports. While sales to Europe are way down, Russia is able to sell elsewhere, notably to India and China, albeit with discounts. Despite that, Russia is still profiting hugely. And even while Europe too has done a lot to adapt to these new circumstances, the reduction in gas supplies, and the resulting stratospheric prices, presage a very tough winter there. Which Putin may be counting upon to weaken Europe’s resolve.

Meantime, even as Ukrainian forces roll back Russia’s hold on the country’s east, Putin has conjured “referendums” for inhabitants to vote to join Russia. Another desperation move in his war against reality. The voting, conducted at gunpoint, so obviously a cynical sham. Why even bother with actual ballots? Just announce the vote was held, with overwhelming assent. Would be no different in substance.

But note this about the phony “referendums.” They enable Putin to now claim it’s not a “special military operation” against Ukraine but, rather, a defense of (what is now notionally) Russia itself. The war did originate with the ridiculous lie that Ukraine, and NATO, were somehow threatening Russia’s security. Now Putin can seemingly validate the lie by asserting that Russia’s security is directly threatened — by what are actually Ukraine’s efforts to recover its own stolen lands.

Note too that Russia’s longstanding nuclear weapons doctrine says they can be used only against an existential threat to the nation. But with the ruse that eastern Ukraine is now Russia’s own territory, Putin could use attacks upon that territory as a seeming pretext for nuclear strikes. Mooted as his last ditch move to avoid defeat.

He does keep threatening that. Is it bluffing? In a recent zoom briefing, leading Ukraine analyst Alexander Vindman suggested that even if Putin actually wanted to use nukes in Ukraine, his ability to actually execute on that would be questionable. There’s a lot of logistics involved, and battlefield conditions with Ukraine doing so much to disrupt Russia’s operations make it doutbtful they could bring off a nuclear strike.

Ukraine’s giving Russia a bloody nose is gratifying. Showing us idealists there is, after all, some justice even in today’s fraught world. But there’s still a very big question about how this ends. Even short of the nuclear option, it’s hard to see Putin swallowing defeat, coming out of it with nothing gained. It would be pretty to imagine Putin ousted, though that scenario too is very problematical. I wouldn’t want to be the guy in the Kremlin who tries to plot a coup. And furthermore we shouldn’t imagine Putin being replaced by a Nelson Mandela.

“If the guy had done anything wrong, it would have come out by now”

September 26, 2022

He now says he declassified the documents in his mind, just by thinking it, no sort of “process” being necessary. Also that the FBI, in its judicially authorized search, planted evidence. (Just what, he doesn’t say.)

The special master, Judge Dearie, chosen at the behest of Trump’s own lawyers, has given them a tight deadline to back up the claims about declassification and planted evidence, or else drop them. The lawyers, mindful of professional ethics, are silent.

But whether the documents were declassified is not the issue. Taking even non-secret government documents was an indisputable criminal offense. Likewise surely criminal was Trump’s originally lying to the government about having them (obstruction of justice).

A further issue concerns folders labeled “classified” but found empty. And there’s still no explanation for why Trump took all that stuff in the first place.

He also now says that the FBI, in searching Mar-a-Lago, may actually have been looking for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.

I’m not making that up. The psycho actually said this, and not in jest, on Fox, to Hannity.

Meantime, New York’s Attorney General is charging Trump and his family with criminal fraud in their real estate operations. The stuff he pled the Fifth about, several hundred times. His whole business a giant tangle of scams. Among the lengthy list of allegations: he lied about the size of his inaugural crowd. Er, excuse me, the size of his own Trump Tower residence, 30,000 square feet versus an actual 10,000.

Notice that in all charges against him, Trump (and his backers) never actually claim innocence. His legal machinations never aim at clearing his name but, rather, obstructing and dragging out the proceedings. Thus that “special master” business, to handicap the FBI’s investigation of the recovered documents. And remember his forever battle to hide his tax returns?

The other strategy, of course, is to cry “witch hunt.” All investigations called politically motivated and illegitimate. Claiming that from the start, they were simply out to get him, some “deep state” conspiracy. Thus lately he more openly endorses the QAnon lunacy. The “stolen election” lie fits with this too: all of it feeding his cultist’s notion that they’re a beleaguered force for good battling to save America from corrupt, evil ones.

Here’s something perfectly encapsulating their imperviousness to reality. The PBS Newshour recently sent reporter Lisa Desjardins to interview Trump rally attendees. And one said, “If the guy had done anything wrong, it would have come out by now!”

Worst Candidate I’ll Have Ever Voted For

September 24, 2022

Last winter, New York State’s government bought 52 million Covid test kits for $637 million, or $12.25 each. Right after, California (with a bigger population) bought 10 million of exactly the same kits for $67.6 million, or $6.75 each, direct from the maker. New York spent nine times as much, buying through a middleman. Whose Tebele family just happened to have donated nearly $300,000 to Governor Kathy Hochul’s campaign.

She insists the one thing had nothing to do with the other. That she and her “team, they have no idea” who’s contributed. In fact, we now learn that Tebele threw an in-person fund-raiser for Hochul — only days before the Governor ordered that the state’s Covid test purchase be exempt from normal competitive bidding rules.

It’s also argued that the size of New York’s purchase required costlier production exigencies. Though ordinarily in commerce, a bigger order nets a bigger discount. And why did New York need so many tests, compared to California? Well, we didn’t. Seems somebody wildly miscalculated, and the bulk of them went unused and wasted.

Hochul seems to have devoted an immense amount of her time in office to campaign fund-raising, mostly from people doing business with state government. And I previously wrote about the Bills’ Billion — Hochul’s huge gift (at taxpayer expense) to the plutocrat owners of the Buffalo Bills football team to build them a boondoggle of a new stadium.

New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town. And state. No wondering why we have the highest costs and taxes, and the worst business climate.

In the last gubernatorial election, Andrew Cuomo was so odious — exemplifying the worst of New York’s rotten governing culture — that I reluctantly voted for the Republican, Marc Molinaro. But since then the GOP has become so much more hateful, a threat to democracy itself, that it must be opposed unfailingly. And their candidate for governor, Zeldin, is a Trumpster who voted in Congress to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.

Sometimes in the past I’ve voted for Libertarian candidates; and their gubernatorial offering this time actually seemed appealing. However, New York has now changed ballot access rules in a cynically disgraceful ploy to lock out third parties. Yet one more way its political ruling class has conspired to make our civic culture better for them and worse for citizens. The Libertarians, despite a strenuous effort to gather the newly raised petition signature requirement, fell short. The Green Party, and several others, also failed. This will be our first election in 80 years with NO third party candidate on the ballot.

Still, voting is a sacred obligation. I must cast my vote against the monstrous Republican party. At least Hochul’s corruption is merely business-as-usual for New York, not as far down on the vileness scale. So I will vote for her. I’ll bring a barf bag.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . .

September 21, 2022

So Governor Abbott grabs human beings — mothers and children, who have already suffered horrific ordeals fleeing nightmares in places like Venezuela — and puts them on a grueling two-day bus trip from Texas to New York. Governor DeSantis uses Florida taxpayer money to fly ones never even in Florida to an isolated island. Both cynically tormenting unfortunate human beings as political pawns. Both luring them with lies.

Like the Nazis did when putting Jews in cattle cars.

But what fools those Republican governors are, seeking brownie points for cruelty when the standard was set by Trump confiscating children from parents at the border. In comparison, the Abbott and DeSantis atrocities are chickenshit.

They thought they’d “own the libs” and show them up as hypocrites. Instead, blessedly, people in the destination places have stepped up and welcomed the refugees with compassion and help. Acting like human beings, toward fellow human beings.

Unlike Republicans who cheer Abbott and DeSantis. Actually not even most Republicans are that callous. Those governors are playing to the worst of the worst. Sad and sick.

And by the way, their victims are not “illegal immigrants.” Under international law, refugees fleeing peril have a right to cross a border to seek asylum. In fact, they can’t request asylum unless they’ve done that. And we have a legal obligation to receive them.

The New York State Writers Institute’s recent Albany book festival featured an immigration panel. One panelist, Jason Riley, a Black “conservative” from the right-wing Manhattan Institute, had written a book shredding every Trumpist anti-immigration trope. Riley virtually quoted my own past blogging, saying that economic migrants are self-selected for enterprise, grit, and gumption: “I want them here.”

The point was driven home by another panelist, Susan Hartman, who studied Utica. A classic rustbelt town, hollowing out, dying. Until Utica made a decision to go big for refugees. And that influx of refugees gave Utica rebirth.

Another panelist was Rosayra Pablo Cruz, whose husband was murdered in Guatemala. With her two children, she fled north and made it to America in 2018 — where her kids were taken away by Trump’s policy. A months-long effort, with activist help, managed to reunite them. Rosy is now a contributing member of American society. Even served as head of her local PTA! And wrote an acclaimed book about it all.

I want Rosy here too.

The right keeps saying they’re all for legal immigration, while bashing the Biden administration for border chaos. The border mess really goes back to Trump — whose policy of deliberate cruelty simply did not work, to keep people away. It’s true the current administration has not got to grips with this; the issue’s political fraughtness, with Republicans screeching “open borders” at them, makes Democrats squeamish. We desperately need Congressional legislation, with no chance of getting it, to sort out this mess.

It’s all well and good to intone about legal immigration, getting in line, doing it the right way, etc. But the reality, as Jason Riley pointed out, is that our legal immigration system pretty much now exists only on paper. With the bureaucracy bogged down, and encrusted with Trump-added restrictions and monkey-wrenches, in practice the legal route to America is almost impossible to travel.

Making that statue in New York harbor look like a fraud.

My Birthday Gift – A Marriage Culture

September 19, 2022

For my recent 75th birthday — in a addition to a cake, a new cushion for my outdoor recliner, a mermaid sculpture, a piece of furniture, and a mess of chocolate — my wife Therese presented me with a book of poems.

A handmade gem of a volume she’d written and painstakingly crafted. Titled My Beloved Lebensabschnittsgefahrte (that’s German for “life travels companion”). She’s a serious poet. But these poems were not grave in tone. She said her aim was to hear my laughter. Indeed, my laughter was itself a key theme in these poems.

They succeeded. I howled. She’d spent a year perfecting these poems, and it showed. Not “roses are red” type poems but beautifully conceived and expressed, a true work of art.

Having a wife who’d go to such effort to please me, to such good effect, would have been blessing enough. But the content furthermore described virtues galore that she values in me — a sense of humor again holding center stage. All ridiculously flattering — and not tongue-in-cheek.

The back cover is a compendium of catch phrases in our marriage — that we laugh together about. Like “Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.” They’re funders for PBS’s “Nature” series, and every time we see that on the screen I say the names aloud. Wachenheim is kind of a funny name, but that “III” really does it. Suggesting they’re a third generation of Sue and Edgar Wachenheims.

“Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.” Spoken to us by a New Orleans Maitre d’ when we pointed out lack of a bread basket. A useful metaphor phrase in many subsequent situations.

“I see nothing.” The refrain of German Sergeant Schultz on TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes,” shutting his eyes to what American inmates in his POW camp were getting up to. A useful phrase in a marriage.

Also included were the first and last lines of my favorite jokes:

“A bald man walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head . . . ” (The doc says, “What seems to be the trouble?” And the frog says, “I’ve got this man stuck to my butt.” Note that his baldness is important for visualization.)

And —

“Well,” the masochist says impatiently, “you gonna whip me?” And the sadist says, “No.” (You see, he wants to inflict pain, but the masochist enjoys pain, so the way to make him suffer is to deny him pain. Yet actually, if that does make him suffer, isn’t that giving him what he craves after all?)

It was really impressive to see, embodied in this book, the breadth of the mutual culture we’d created in our 34 years together. How much binds us together. Not just laughs, of course, but so much more. This book shows how much Therese loves me. And why I love her so much. For all the right reasons.

Thank you, Therese.

The Real Story About Inflation

September 16, 2022

Inflation is a bad thing. The whole point of money is as a receptacle of value; fluctuating value defeats the purpose. The $10 you put in the bank a year ago has now lost you a dollar. Things you buy cost more. The poor — who always seem to get the short end of the stick — are especially hurt.

No wonder voters are angry. Republicans are having a field day banging the inflation drum. But how to fix it, they haven’t a clue. (While actually bearing much blame for inflation, as we’ll see.)

Inflation ramped up in the ’70s. Nixon tried wage and price controls. Bzzt, wrong answer, as any good economist would have predicted. Then Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve succeeded in wringing inflation out of the economy by raising interest rates high enough to induce a recession. A big part of the problem was public expectations of inflation, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially as workers demanded higher wages (with unions often still strong enough to get them). And Volcker also succeeded in whacking those inflation expectations.

Interest rates remain the Fed’s key weapon against inflation. The Fed, and central banks elsewhere, have for decades now generally targeted inflation rates around 2%, considered a benign level — particularly to steer clear of deflation, a different nasty problem. Until lately they were succeeding. But while today the public still does not expect persisting high inflation, mounting worldwide government debt levels cause financial market concerns that they’ll deal with it by printing money — i.e., to inflate the debt away.

Republicans do have a fair point in blaming current inflation on the 2021 stimulus legislation; that probably was over-generous, and a contributing factor. But so was the very similar stimulus passed under Trump in 2020. And his tax cut, way over-generous to the rich and corporations, driving up government debt and borrowing. Republicans remember fiscal virtue only when out of power.

More money sloshing around in the economy spurs inflation because in effect purchasers bid up the prices of things they buy. And businesses paying more for raw materials forces them to raise prices. They also buy labor; and when inflation makes dollars worth less, businesses must offer more to attract and keep employees. And meantime, another big factor is pushing up wage costs — a worker shortage.

We see “Help Wanted” signs all over. In particular, customer service type jobs go begging. Understaffing is ubiquitous. Flights are cancelled for lack of personnel.

Some of this is lingering fallout from the pandemic, which discombobulated our economy in myriad ways. One concerns productivity, which seems to have stalled. The productivity effects of increased remote working are yet unclear. And the “quiet quitting” phenomenon doesn’t help. It all forces labor costs, and thus prices, higher.

Another giant workforce factor is demography. Population growth is slowing or even reversing in the rich world. And with Americans getting more education (delaying work), retiring earlier, and living longer, the working share of the population inexorably shrinks.

That labor gap used to be filled by work-hungry immigrants. But guess what? Thanks to Trump and Republican xenophobes, immigration is way down. Another big reason for the worker shortage, forcing businesses to raise pay, and prices. A cause of inflation which Republicans don’t want to talk about.

We’ve also foolishly been waging war against globalization and trade. Buying cheap stuff from other countries kept prices and inflation down. Trump put the kibosh on that too. His tariffs equate to direct rises in consumer prices. In fact, globalization and trade benefited all participating countries — a “gigantic shock absorber” for the world economy, said Isabel Schnabel of the European Central Bank, by keeping supply and demand in balance through adjustments to production rather than price swings. That factor too is crumbling.

All these inflationary pressures are only minimally amenable to the Federal Reserve’s interest rate tweaks. (Which President Biden, by the way, doesn’t control anyway.) So when you hear Republicans rant about inflation, ask what’s their plan.

Frontline — How MAGA maggots ate the GOP

September 13, 2022

PBS’s recent Frontline documentary, Lies, Politics and Democracy, I thought would just be old hat. Instead it was a compelling and revealing eye-opener.

For six years my hair’s been on fire. But maybe I’ve been too mild.

The film began with clips from every presidential election concession speech, back to 1940. Every loser graciously congratulating the winner and wishing him well. The contrast with 2020 unspoken.

The main theme was the Republican party’s moral collapse as Trump’s accomplice. Its base consumed by extremist true believers, with its politicians recoiling in horror but lacking the intestinal fortitude to resist. Realizing their political futures required posing as Trumpist cheerleaders. Some also saw it as a faustian bargain to get legislation and judicial appointments they wanted. Mitch McConnell explicitly made that deal with Trump.

Particularly profiled was Ted Cruz, who sought the 2016 nomination. Cruz won in Iowa. Trump insisted that result was a fraud — something, Frontline pointed out, he’s claimed regarding every bauble he’s ever failed to win. Trump also viciously smeared Cruz and even his wife, which Cruz deemed unforgivable.

Come the national convention, Cruz had to decide whether his speech would endorse Trump. Depicted as a crisis of conscience (as if Cruz actually has one). His speech described what an ideal leader should be like — a thinly veiled indictment of Trump, who flouts all that. The room roundly booed Cruz, shouting “Get off the stage!” or to have his mike turned off. No longer your father’s Republican party.

Later, Cruz did suck it up and campaigned for Trump.

The film’s every scene noted how many years, months, and days, until January 6, 2021. Giving that event its due salience. Recently I answered a telephone poll, being asked what issue is most important to me. About ten choices were offered — not including January 6 and the ongoing threat to our democracy.

Indeed, voters fix on issues like inflation, immigration, abortion, crime, etc. Not democracy, which ought to be a supervening concern, trumping all those others. If we lose our democracy, you can stick all those others up your butt.

Interestingly, despite claiming fraud, Trump was portrayed, right after the 2020 election, as more or less giving up; and it was Giuliani who pushed the coup plot. What a case study he is, squandering a once heroic reputation. Why? One of so many who, like moths to Trump’s flame, destroyed themselves.

The film highlighted successive hinge points where a responsible core of the GOP might have finally declared, “enough is enough.” One was Charlottesville of course. Many Republican officials did tut-tut, but that was all. Nothing changed.

Then came January 6. And right after, “enough is enough” did seem to take hold at last, even for the likes of Lindsay Graham and Kevin McCarthy. But that swiftly melted away, despite Trump leaving office. McCarthy pilgrimaged to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring. Which, says Frontline, brought the monster back from the dead.

And so, few GOP lawmakers voted for the second impeachment. A majority had already voted against certifying the 2020 election, on the night of January 6 itself.

This, Frontline indicates, was not mere political cowardice, it was physical cowardice. Many of them feared for their lives. One of the film’s most powerful takeaways is the frightening depth of vicious extremism among MAGA maggots. Proliferating threats of death (and, for women, rape) directed at anyone seen as a traitor against Trump. They really did try to hang Mike Pence.

As much as sane people decry them, they double the contempt in return. “Basket of deplorables?” We’ll show you, you sons of . . . .

And thus did the stolen election lie become a matter of faith unto death. Of course it was just made up, because Trump’s psychosis couldn’t accept losing. Frontline noted that while practically all Republican office seekers mouth the lie, practically none really believes it. The whole party is one big fraud built atop a fraud.

It’s horribly damaging to our democracy. A core element of a democratic society is acceptance of majority rule. We no longer have that. Too many have lost trust in the election process. Too many Republicans consider it legitimate only if their side wins.

Faulkner on Race

September 10, 2022

I’ve written about William Faulkner (1897-1962) as my favorite novelist. A Mississippian, his books were all set there, between Civil War times and the early 20th century. The characters and their stories ain’t pretty. Yet the books exuded a love for humanity. I chose a Faulkner quote as the epigraph for my Optimism book.

Though the novels did include Black characters, they never really get into the race issue. Indeed, all the nasty stuff was white-on-white. The situation of Southern Blacks was a background fact, but so unremarked there seemingly might have been no such situation. So much a “given” of Faulkner’s milieu that it required no acknowledgement. Or maybe it just wasn’t what he wanted to write about.

I recently read a Modern Library volume titled William Faulkner – Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. One fairly long piece discusses the American dream, where the individual is “free of that mass into which the hierarchies of church and state had compressed and held him.” But in our sleep “it abandoned us . . . what we hear now is a cacophony . . . babbling only the mouthsounds; the loud and empty words which we have emasculated of all meaning whatever — freedom, democracy, patriotism.” A sickness that “goes back to that moment in our history when we decided that the old simple moral verities over which taste and responsibility were the arbiters and controls, were obsolete and to be discarded.” And “Truth — that long clean clear line . . . has now become an angle, a point of view having nothing to do with truth nor even with fact, but depending solely on where you are standing.”

All cogent about today’s Republicans, I thought. Though written in 1955. And what got Faulkner’s bile boiling? Some magazine had the temerity to run an article about this Nobel laureate against his wishes!

But some of these pieces do address race matters Faulkner sidestepped in his novels. For a Mississippian of his era, he was on the enlightened end of the spectrum. But that’s not saying much.

Faulkner truly loved the place, and not just the scenery. He expressed love for its people, culture, and traditions. Now, I believe most people are mostly good. But unfortunately susceptible to shaping by the culture embedding them. I’m sure Faulkner could have expatiated on the virtues in Mississippi’s culture and traditions. But that would omit key realities.

He actually had nothing to say about slavery. Yet did imbibe the South’s “Lost Cause” mythology, that there was something noble in their fight, though what, exactly, is never very clear. He definitely considered the Northerners the bad guys, unjustified invaders. That too elides much historical reality.

Faulkner actually endorsed racial equality. But not right away. Urging the civil rights movement — then just starting — to go slow. He was “strongly against compulsory integration.” Seemingly, he didn’t want Southern racists to gain the sympathy that underdogs accrue. Saying they’d come around eventually. (But after a century . . . )

In 1931, a Memphis newspaper published a Black man’s letter endorsing a Mississippi anti-lynching organization. Noting that there’d never been a lynching before Reconstruction. Faulkner found it needful to reply.

He explained, “there was no need for lynching until after reconstruction days.” (He suggests the influx of Northerners then was responsible for lynchings.) And asserted that “Blacks who get lynched are not representative of the black race, just as the people who lynch them are not representative of the white race.” Indeed, he believed anyone lynched must have done something wrong, to provoke it.

Faulkner did state, “I hold no brief for lynching.” But (my paraphrase) — it’s just one of those things. He said a lynching “requires a certain amount of sentimentality, an escaping from the monotonous facts of day by day.” And if a few Blacks suffer thusly from “white folks’ sentimentality,” he adduced a convoluted scenario of such sentimentality indulging a Black debt cheat. Also mentioning a Black man supposedly living for fifteen years on public charity, impossible in any other country — which he said is why they have no lynchings. Then he made fun of foreign press accounts of U.S. lynchings.

His final paragraph conceded “that mob violence serves nothing.” Yet ended saying, “Some [people] will die rich, and some will die on cross-ties soaked with gasoline, to make a holiday. But there is one curious thing about mobs. Like our juries, they have a way of being right.”

Now, I had to consider the possibility that this ostensibly execrable piece was actually a wicked satire of people who excuse lynchings, to expose their bad thinking.* But no, this was 1931 Mississippi. With its distinctive people, culture, and traditions to which Faulkner was so attached.

What the post-Civil War Reconstruction period introduced was the idea of Black people having rights. Lynchings were one way whites fought that. The point was not to punish Black crimes, but to terrorize any Blacks trying to assert any rights. To keep them “in their place.” Accusations were mere pretexts. A high proportion of lynching victims were completely innocent. There were thousands; more in Mississippi than in any other state.

Yes, lynchings did become festive “holidays.” Revealing they had nothing to do with justice, they were celebrations of white supremacy. And — mostly accompanied by hideous torture — revealing the inhuman cruelty of the perpetrators’ “culture and traditions.”

Mobs “have a way of being right?” How about the one that lynched Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, in Georgia on May 19, 1918. Her husband had been lynched the day before — one of seven innocent Blacks lynched for supposed complicity in the death of a white farm owner who had abused them. Mary Turner’s transgression was to protest against her husband’s murder. For that — to teach a lesson — a mob bound Mary’s feet, hanged her upside down from a tree, threw gasoline on her, and burned her clothes off. Then took a butcher knife to cut her baby from her body; one man crushed the crying baby’s head with his foot. Finally Mary was killed by a fusillade of bullets. No one was ever charged with a crime.

“Sentimentality?” Culture and tradition, Mr. Faulkner?

I can’t say I’ll never read Faulkner again. But it will be with lessened pleasure.

* To be sure here, I did some googling, and turned up a master’s thesis discussing Faulkner’s 1931 letter in depth. There’s no basis for thinking it wasn’t straightforward.

The Metaphysical Club: Religion and Democracy

September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.

Agassiz

Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.

Goodbye Gorby

September 3, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most consequential personage of the 20th century’s latter half. And in a good way.

Now that is really saying something. The 21st century’s biggest personages (so far) are big not in good ways at all.

Just look at this verbiage from one report of Gorbachev’s death* — “vision of humane communism liberated millions, bridled the global arms race and knocked down walls dividing East and West . . . systematically dismantle[d] the machinery of repression . . . freed political prisoners, lifted the Iron Curtain, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts . . . forged disarmament treaties . . . removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships.”

And on the seventh day he rested.

But he was thrown out of power, and when he ran again for president in 1996, he got one percent of the vote. Gosh that tells us something.

What made Gorbachev’s story so extraordinary is that it went completely against the grain of the society and system that had produced him. It’s in the nature of human life to travel along the tracks on which you find yourself. Gorbachev had the insight to see where those tracks were leading, and he rerouted the entire railroad.

He was made leader following a succession of wretched characters, because by then the system had so run out of steam that it couldn’t see how to do anything else. With a dead ideology no one any longer believed in. Gorbachev was the one who said the emperor had no clothes. When Ronald Reagan, in Berlin, intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he did (in effect). He went to the UN and said the Cold War was over — and that the West had won.

What a vast blessing for humanity. And it was not inevitable. Nothing ever really is, my own study of history suggests. Individuals and their choices and actions make history, and Gorbachev was a singular exemplar. Absent Gorbachev, a far uglier story would have likely ensued.

But he was a giant among Lilliputians, evidenced by that 1% presidential vote, and his vision was eclipsed with him — a vast tragedy for humanity. What ultimately did follow was a reversion to form; indeed, with a vengeance. His successor Putin restoring, doubling down, the evil Gorbachev tried to end. As though there is some malevolent force operating that not even so protean a figure as he could truly defeat. Yet Russia getting a Putin was not inevitable either. It was a choice.

* By Carol J. Williams in the los Angeles Times.