Archive for August, 2015

The Beautiful 14th Amendment, Birthright Citizenship, and Racism

August 30, 2015

In the question period after my recent slavery talk, someone asked, weren’t even Northern whites, after the Civil War, very racist?

images-3No! In fact, the so-called “Radical Republicans” then controlling Congress were the opposite of racist. Having fought a bloody war to free the slaves, they were determined to do right by them. Thus in 1868 they passed the 14th Amendment. Remember that an amendment requires two-thirds votes in each house of Congress plus ratification by three-quarters of states – hence a broad public consensus.

imagesIn the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court majority had stated that being “altogether unfit to associate with the white race, and so far inferior,” blacks could not be citizens, and indeed had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The U.S. Supreme Court. Actual quote.

images-1But in 1868, the nation decided, with the 14th Amendment, that those people – of a different race, their ancestors dragged here in chains, despised and subjected to the most brutal degradation – would now be citizens. We stipulated that everyone born on this soil is a citizen.

Wow. What generosity of spirit. (You won’t find this mentioned in Howard Zinn’s rancid book, A People’s History of the United States.)

Birthright citizenship was actually not an obvious concept at the time, nor is it even today, in many countries. This was a truly radical enactment.

But there was more:

images-2“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Equal protection of the laws – a concept at the very heart of the American idea. The Fifth Amendment had already applied it to the federal government, but the concern in the 14th was to protect ex-slaves, against injustices by state authorities. (And note that it extends the protection not just to citizens, but to “any person.”)

And still further, the amendment contains this little gem, in Section 2: if, in any state, the right to vote is denied to any citizens, “or in any way abridged,” its congressional representation shall be reduced proportionately!

images-4Here again the aim was to protect blacks (whose vote was given by the imminent 15th Amendment). But Section 2 of the 14th was never enforced. Why not? While certainly black voting was long “abridged” throughout the South, it is easy to envision the practical and political obstacles to implementing Section 2.

Nevertheless, the 14th Amendment is a thing of great beauty. It burns with a crystal flame. It embodies the essence of what this wonderful country is all about. Its enactment leaves me awestruck at the broadmindedness and high moral purpose of the Americans of the time.

So you might think this amendment would be held sacrosanct – especially by people who spout talismanic reverence for the Constitution. But no. In fact, I doubt the amendment could pass today. Some Republicans, including several presidential contenders, call for repealing part of it. What a sad contrast with the Republicans of 1868. (So Trump “says what he really thinks.” Unfortunately what he thinks is disgusting.)

It’s birthright citizenship they hate. This is how far their anti-immigrant hysteria has gone. It’s not madness enough to build a wall, nor even to try to deport 11 million productive residents. Now they want to deny citizenship to people born here. Think how crazy this is. If not every child born here is automatically a citizen, then what makes your child a citizen?

But all this, like almost all talk of amending the constitution for various pet causes, is empty posturing, given the high ratification bar which, again, requires a broad national consensus.

images-5But I am confident that America rejects the view of the narrow-minded, bigoted few who would desecrate the Constitution by punishing people for their ancestry.

The Speech Hillary Won’t Give

August 26, 2015

My fellow Americans:

I am going to level with you about the e-mail controversy.

I did not have inappropriate e-mail with that server."

“I did not have inappropriate e-mail with that server…”

No, really, this time.

There is a kind of personality that finds it hard to admit making a mistake, let alone wrongdoing. The ego gets in the way. And I have come to recognize this in myself. Well, the first step in fixing a problem is to see that you’ve got one.

Let me start with something obvious – America has bitter political divisions. And there is an unfortunate tendency to believe people you disagree with are not just wrong but wicked – which contributes mightily to government dysfunction. Alas, I now realize that I myself have fed this syndrome.

So when the e-mail controversy began, I waved it off as just more political crap, a nefarious effort by my foes to cook up points against me – you know, “the vast right wing conspiracy.” Well, it is a fact that many people do hate me and my politics, and will do anything to bring me down. However – there’s a big difference between that and pursuing a legitimate issue. I have failed to recognize and respect that difference (until now).

Since 2009 federal regulations require all e-mails be preserved as part of an agency's record-keeping system

Since 2009 federal regulations require all e-mails be preserved as part of an agency’s record-keeping system

So let me be clear, once and for all, with no more defensiveness, self-righteousness, dismissiveness, political posturing, or legalistic hair-splitting: my handling of my State Department e-mails was wrong.

There. I’ve said it.

Let me be more specific. The key point is that in America we have a fundamental principle of open government; and that applies to communications by public officials on public business. I should have realized I was violating that principle by using a private server, under my exclusive personal control, for my State Department e-mails. And that it would look like I was hiding something. Me – Hillary – hiding something? Who could imagine such a thing? (You do understand irony.)

And then – then – after this thing blew up, and I was indeed accused of hiding something – what did I do? I erased all the e-mails that I – yes, I alone, with no oversight – judged to be personal. The nation was supposed to just take my word that they were personal. And then I had the server wiped clean, to make sure those thousands of e-mails could never be seen. Hiding something? Who, me? What was I thinking?

Me, who served on the Watergate committee, and well remembered the infamous 18-1/2 minute erasure on Nixon’s White House tapes.

Unknown-1Now, I have tried to explain before why I thought what I did made sense at the time. I could go through all that again, but you know what? To quote a certain Secretary of State, “What difference does it make now?” Because the bottom line is that for all my rationalizations, it was a big boo-boo, and if I could have a do-over, I’d do things differently.

Well. Whew. This has been hard for me. But I feel better now. Confession is cathartic. And the silver lining in making mistakes is that you can learn from them. Let me tell you, I’ve learned a big lesson – which I truly feel will make me a better person, and a better public servant, in the future.

images-1Let us now move forward and see what we can do about tackling together the challenges our nation faces.

So please, please, please forgive and forget, and give me power, you goddamned bunch of ingrates, saps and morons . . . is this mike still on? Oh shit.

The Big Apple Nipple Crisis

August 24, 2015

So it has come to this.

What do you get when you mash up a) prudishness, b) a nanny-state mentality, and c) politically correct gender neutrality?

Legislation to ban public toplessness – male and female!

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

The casus belli is the “desnudas” of New York’s Times Square – gals with breasts covered only with body paint who pose for tourist photos, for tips – which Bronx Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz* (a pentacostal minister) wants to banish. Casey Seiler’s droll reportage in the Albany Times Union quotes Diaz: “If equality laws are in the way, let’s push for equality so neither men nor women can go topless in our streets.” He seemingly said this with a straight face.

Missing from the story is why this is a problem requiring legislative action and penal laws. Diaz says, “so families can enjoy New York.” Many members of families enjoy seeing breasts (I do). But seriously – okay, semi-seriously – if the concern is about children, I doubt that any, in today’s American culture, will truly be morally corrupted by seeing painted breasts. Indeed, it could be a good teaching moment. And if you’re Amish, or whatever, and really want to shield your kids’ tender eyes, why then, don’t visit Times Square. Which is, after all – hello – Times Square, for cryin’ out loud.

imagesIn the Twenty-first century, this story would have been ridiculous enough, without the added fillip of banning male toplessness too, in some brain-dead application of gender equality. Need I really explain (well, I guess I do) that it’s not invidious discrimination when laws make reasonable distinctions based on differing facts and circumstances? And that male and female chests differ? (Vive la difference.)

As to the latter point, please refer to an incisive and erudite discussion in my 8/14/14 blog post.

The Times Union also notes that NYC Mayor de Blasio “has convened a task force” to address the desnuda crisis. It’s reassuring that New York is so free of serious problems that public officials have time for nipple issues.

* Not Assemblyman Felix “Mr. Nanny State” Ortiz!

Proust and the Mystic Chords of Memory

August 22, 2015

UnknownMarcel Proust was an odd cat. Poor health immured him for much of his life in his bedroom, whose walls he had lined with cork to keep the world out; he succumbed at 51. And yet he managed to be something of a social prodigy with keen insight into human psychology – displayed in his monumental seven volume opus A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (commonly translated as Remembrance of Things Past).

This was my first birthday gift to my wife-to-be, just weeks after we met, in 1988. Unknown-1We started reading it aloud to each other in the evenings, a few pages at a time – with some significant gaps in our dedication to the task. In the last few years we became more assiduous, and finally just finished.

I did most of the reading. It helped me comprehend better, and I enjoyed the challenge. The problem was that Proust is famous for his long, convoluted, digressive sentences – so one had to plunge into a sentence without knowing where it would go or what its logic would turn out to be, making course corrections of tone and inflection as one went along.

I had actually read it all before, after a friend strongly recommended it. But that didn’t help much, as it was in the ‘70s when I did not know, to use the technical terminology, my ass from my elbow. In particular, the topic of homosexuality pervades the work, but mostly that had gone right past me without really registering. Indeed, in part at least, this is indicative of how “under the radar” the whole gay thing was in those ancient times, in contrast to today.

One thing I did vividly remember, after slogging through all seven prolix volumes without, frankly, getting all that much out of them, was the ending. imagesTo be exact, the final passage – the final line – which even at the time struck me as a perfect, fitting coda. I didn’t remember the exact wording (something like “on the shoulders of Time”), but certainly recalled the feel of it, the sense of it, as well as the final word itself – Time, with a capital T.

So I was somewhat surprised when my wife and I at last reached the final line, without the dramatic thunk (or “shoulders”) I thought I’d remembered. Now, we were reading the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981, the best known one; so naturally I wondered whether what I’d read before was simply a different translation. So I went online and learned that prior to 1980 there was only one other English translation, of the last volume only. It’s unlikely I read that; more likely what I had read before was the Scott Moncrieff version prior to Kilmartin’s revision. With some further effort I was able to find a different translation of the book’s ending, but that didn’t conform to my recollection either.

Unknown-2So I wind up simply confuzzled. A la Recherche, as the title suggests, is in the main a meditation upon memory. Be careful next time you insist you remember something with absolute certainty. The brain does not work that way. (See this further post about memory.)

Anyhow, at my wife’s behest, having after 27 years pretty much forgotten the book’s early chapters, we have started again from the beginning, albeit with the new translation of the first volume by Lydia Davis, which we got from her very own hands.

Next Door to the Dead: Poems, by Kathleen Driskell

August 20, 2015

(This is a guest posting, written by my wife, Therese L. Broderick, and appearing on her own poetry blog.)

Located on the same grounds where my father is buried, a nearby cemetery’s headquarters is the site for a variety of public discussions and activities. Once, I sat in attendance while a visiting lecturer explicated “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s powerful poem of loss.

9780813165721Poetry has a long affiliation, of course, with human loss—our trivial daily relinquishments as well as that final and most consequential loss, our voyage from Life to Death. Conversely, poetry has also sung for thousands of years about that other voyage, that cosmic law-defying journey that only a few departed souls succeed in making: a safe return to the greening Earth from a stay in the barren Underworld. And yet, every contemporary poet who writes or vocalizes an elegy, dirge, ode, or threnody is performing that very miracle, resurrecting someone—however briefly— by means of a ritualized trinity (Art, Art’s subject matter, Art’s witness).

All these currents and more run through the eloquent, graceful, vivifying new book of fifty-one poems by Kathleen Driskell entitled Next Door to the Dead (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Over the next few days, this blog will focus on that highly admirable book. Today’s spotlight focuses on my own observations.

Conceptually, this impressive collection guides us first to a cemetery boundary, then through the gate, and then inside the graves in order to summon forth their spirits. Along this path, Next Door to the Dead unveils a cultural desecration, descending to that particular hell of funereal skullduggery. Thankfully, this talented poet knows how to guide us back to a proper reverence.

Humanistic as these poems are in orientation, they also honor the spiritual imagination, escorting the reader through multifarious encounters with disembodied personalities, some of them eternally in limbo. (The human lives envoiced in this book recall, for me, the personal dramas within The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.) These pages peopled with ‘’Border State” individuals—Kentuckian and/or everywhere existential—explore matter-of-fact loss, grievously tragic loss; witty epitaphs, profound laments; family tales, town gossip; occasional ceremonies, timeless myths; skeleton-closet celebrities, anonymous worthies; gods and clergy, saints and sinners; and the (perhaps fallacious) empathetic mourning of critters and Nature.

Kathleen Driskell

Kathleen Driskell

Those character portraits are made expansive and vivid by Kathleen Driskell’s talents for weaving the textures of lyrical narration, persona, and monologue. Also by her utterly trustworthy shaping, her dynamic phrasing, her melody of vowels plus peal of consonants, the palpable tug of her versified lines, her strikingly true turns-of-phrase, and her images both rooted and revelatory.

Much can be said about “Tchaenhotep,” the book’s extended signature piece. A probing and subversive journey, this poignant monologue arrives in the voice of a female mummy exhumed, displaced from an ancient Egyptian tomb to a modern American museum. The unlikely speaker lived as a marginalized woman, a proletariat. Her ancient chant-like accounting of her own commonplace virtues and vices is a time-tested paradigm for judging innocence and guilt.

This prominent poem, then, weighs the merits of all other poems, of memorial poetry in all forms. And also of how respectfully our surviving cultures redeem the crimes committed by our forebears. Just as importantly, of how fruitfully you and I the readers have spent our own days and decades.

Thankfully, the highly deserving poet Kathleen Driskell is an artist, not an evangelist for any single faith tradition. In Next Door to the Dead, she devotes her artistry to sanctifying the natural dignity of her subjects, renewing for us all a vision of communal care and understanding. Blessed be every single one of her neighbors, in-the-flesh or otherwise.


Piketty, Inequality, Envy, and Fairness

August 16, 2015

Unknown-1The rich-hating left went orgasmic over Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I previously discussed the controversy. Now I’ve read the book.

Not the thunderbolt of lefty wet dreams, it’s mainly dry economic history and analysis. Much I found interesting and informative. But it’s one of the most poorly organized books I’ve ever read, meandering repetitively to and fro.

Piketty’s big “revealed truth” is r>g – that is, return on capital (r) exceeds economic growth (g), which leads to capital accumulation, and thus rising inequality. His data does show r>g through most of history. Well, not data exactly, but mostly assumptions and estimates. UnknownBut never mind. A bigger problem is that for the last century, 1913-2012, g>r! Piketty says this was due to the 1914-45 “shocks” (wiping out many fortunes) but that past norms are returning. So the future will more resemble the 19th century than the 20th? However, taxes were negligible before the 20th century. Thus in order to project future after-tax r>g, Piketty makes the heroic assumption that taxes on capital and its return will fall to zero! Even while he advocates greater taxation.*

imagesThat r exceeded g through most of history is hardly news because g (economic growth) was practically zero, while capital would nevertheless earn some return, typically farm produce or by lending money at interest. Now we have significant growth that, for the past century at least, has exceeded return on capital. But why let facts spoil a pretty theory?

Inequality may also rise from pay gaps. Piketty focuses on corporate “supermanagers,” whose pay he doubts is justified by merit or productivity. Unknown-2I agree – it’s due to incestuous boards of directors. But even if “supermanager” pay were drastically cut, would that money then flow toward the bottom of the income distribution? Surely not. It would go to shareholders; the rich would still get richer.

Much inequality talk casts the rich as squeezing the share of productivity begrudged to employees. That’s not how the economy works. By and large jobs pay what the market dictates, in order for businesses to attract and keep the needed workforce. They can’t just arbitrarily pay less; but nor can they pay more; if they want to stay competitive and employ anyone at all. Worker pay is not what’s left after the rich have “taken” their “share” (or more than their share).

Piketty’s constant use of the words “take” and “share” implies a zero sum game where one person’s larger share makes others smaller. Similarly, the language of “distribution” implies a pot of pre-existing wealth to be divided up, as though some god ladles out portions. But that’s not how an economy works either. In the main wealth is not “taken” but gained from other people handing it over willingly – in exchange for something (a product or service) they value even more. No zero sum game, that makes everyone richer. The pot grows.

Unknown-3In today’s world, not just “supermanagers” but top performers in any field earn much more than the nearly-as-good. Take LeBron James. It might seem absurd to earn so much for something so meaningless as getting a ball through a hoop. But millions enjoy watching it, and willingly pay, in various ways. So LeBron gets rich. Is that social injustice?

We can debate who deserves what income, and I’d agree with Piketty that much high pay is undeserved. But should it be forcibly confiscated (as Piketty urges) in conformance to those debatable opinions? By what right may I (or anyone) dictate what’s fair for others to earn? I eschew such arrogant presumption.

Meantime Piketty acknowledges that bare mathematical inequality tells us little. In the past a small minority lived well (to the extent technology allowed), while most lived wretchedly. Today the whole picture has shifted dramatically to a higher level of overall societal wealth: the rich are even richer (hence mathematically more unequal), but the rest are much richer too. Indeed, their living standard is actually comparable to that of the past’s wealthiest (if not better, considering health and longevity).** That today’s inequality might mathematically equal 1800’s says nothing.

Yet Piketty writes as though modern inequality exactly parallels that of centuries past. Relative living standards are no part of his analysis. images-2Piketty’s focus is entirely upon the wealthy, analyzing their situation in depth; the non-wealthy are present only as shadows, with no discussion of their situation and its changes. A Martian reading this book would have no idea how much ordinary lives have improved.***

The book indeed omits any analysis of economic inequality’s goodness or badness. The answer might seem self-evident. But clearly, perfect equality of wealth and income would not be just but unjust because different people earn/deserve differing outcomes; not to mention the matter of incentives for people to be productive (hardly theoretical in the experience of communist societies). The real question is what kind of inequality is acceptable. Some writers have attempted to grapple with this, but not Piketty. All he does is to project rising mathematical inequality – which he himself cautions tells us little.

Yet he’s terrified that the 1% will monopolize all wealth, with the 99% having nothing. The absurdity of such dystopian fantasies is simply this: who will buy all the goods and services whose sale undergirds the 1%’s wealth?

Unknown-4Their wealth is not a problem, nor is high inequality, so long as most people can live decent lives; and helping those who can’t does not require knocking down the rich. They don’t get their wealth at the expense of the rest. Steve Jobs impoverished no one but got rich through products that benefited millions. Had he not, all that wealth would not have been “distributed” to others. It would never have existed. Indeed, we would all have been poorer.

This book, obsessed with the rich and oblivious to the lives of others, would be better titled Envy. unknown1 Resentment at others’ success (especially when seemingly undeserved) is a powerful human emotion, often underlying egalitarian politics. Life is unfair, and we must work for fairness – but by building people up, not tearing others down. Envy and fairness don’t mix well.

* Rising inequality is often blamed on tax cuts, the top mid-century U.S. income tax rate having exceeded 90%. But never discussed is what rich people actually paid. Piketty himself notes they can legally avoid having taxable income, allowing returns to accumulate untaxed instead. So in practice nobody ever paid anything like 90%. Yet Piketty forgets this in claiming that lower taxes have raised inequality. (Rich people still pay far the lion’s share of income taxes.)

** This actually applies even to the poorest in advanced societies; especially taking into account government benefits. Today’s U.S. “poverty” line equates to a middle class living standard of just a few decades ago. Poverty ain’t what it used to be. And even in developing countries, the almost universal abject deprivation of the past is inexorably going away, afflicting now only a small minority of world population.

Photo by Walker Evans

Photo by Walker Evans

*** Nor would many Earthlings, romanticizing the “good old days.” But read, for example, Evans and Agee on the extreme poverty of rural 1930s Alabama. The work was grinding; the food disgusting; clothes made from used burlap sacks; copulation the only recreation. And those were white folks.

Human Life, and Death

August 13, 2015

Laura Valenti decided to starve herself to death. It took two months.

Her mind was deteriorating, but her decision wasn’t crazy. She had Huntington’s disease, and was bound to get much, much worse. There’s no cure or treatment. Laws being what they are, Laura had no other real option. What she did was brave.

Laura and Danielle (Times-Union photo)

Laura and Danielle
(Times-Union photo)

With Laura through this ordeal was her daughter Danielle, around thirty. Huntington’s is hereditary, but until this, Danielle had no idea it was in her lineage; turns out Laura’s biological father was, well, not part of the family.

So Danielle’s chance of having the Huntington’s gene was 50-50. And if you have the gene, your chances for an eventual horrific decline and death are 100%; with nothing you can do except wait for it. Some with Huntington’s in their families eschew testing, preferring not to know for sure. But Danielle decided to be tested. This too was brave. She tested positive.

How much time she has, no one can say. But it’s a lot less than for others her age. Yet more than for the average person throughout history. And every one of us knows our time is limited. It’s the great fact of the human condition, and in spite of it, we live our lives. That’s what Danielle is doing. She’s moved in with her boyfriend and they’re talking of having children. “I’m going to live,” she said. “This is my time to live.”

So ended the article in the local paper about Laura and Danielle. It moved me deeply.

imagesThe story noted that proposed NY legislation would permit physician-assisted suicide, for mentally competent patients with less than six months left. But the Catch-22 for Huntington’s sufferers is that by the time you have only six months left, you won’t likely qualify as mentally competent. So in no state with assisted suicide would it have been available to Laura. That’s why she starved herself to death.

Our modern medical and health care system is great, except for the wee fact that it, in effect, sometimes tortures people to death. A big reason is because attitudes are still shaped by underlying religion-based shibboleths; that it’s God who should decide these things, and we humans shouldn’t presume to trump him; that life is God-given and should only be ended by God.

UnknownNever mind that our entire medical system, nay, our entire civilization, is all about taking control of our own fates, not leaving them to the not-so-tender mercies of a Nature that gave us – or was it that “loving” God? – the horror of Huntington’s Disease.

The Great (?) Debate – Fox News Trumped

August 8, 2015

imagesIf (as we’re told) Fox News was aiming to derail Trump, they sure weren’t clever like a fox. The “debate” could hardly have been better contrived to boost him. When he afterwards complained of his treatment by Fox, did I detect a wink?

Previously I’d labeled meaningless Trump’s 20-25% poll standings. Hardly broad support, mostly mere name recognition, and anyway a certain percentage in polls will always endorse craziness.* It seemed a given that Trump would never win the nomination (and David Brooks still thinks he’s not truly a candidate). But now I’m not so sure.

I would have asked questions like, How will you deal with the looming explosion of Social Security and Medicare costs? A rising China and a stroppy Russia? UnknownISIS and the Mid East? Millions of undocumented residents? Our dysfunctional tax system? Foreign economic competition? A growing divide between the more and less educated? But while some of these issues were touched upon, most questions were more like When did you stop beating your wife?

Starting with the very first, which was tailored to spotlight Trump and his bombastic pugnacity — actually attractive to many voters. Unknown-1Likewise for the other seemingly taunting questions lobbed at him. That kind of mud-wrestling is his forte. Better to have probed wonky policy nuances (at least revealing his ignorance).

And it was not your imagination that Trump got more airtime than anyone. I checked. He did, by a lot; more than double what some other candidates got. Great going, Fox.

But one suspects the true aim was not fairness, nor to dent Trump, nor to inform. It was to entertain. Fox did gain a huge audience. The Romans threw Christians to lions; Fox threw pols to Trump.

Anyhow, the debate simply served to make Trump seem a larger, more powerful personality than all the other (comparatively) anodyne, pale, typical politicians, sucking away all their air. Unknown-2I’m reminded of Osama bin Laden’s dictum: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

Never mind what happens when you try to ride that bucking bronco.

*Also, many Trump backers are quintessential non-voting types.

Are Men Necessary? (Is Hillary?)

August 6, 2015

UnknownWhen I reported buying, at a used book sale, Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? I said I’d let you know the verdict after reading it. I bought it because Dowd is – can I say this? – one bitching writer. In her columns she’s a zingermeister who loves playing with words (though that can get wearying at times).

imagesThe book is basically about what used to be called “the battle of the sexes.” Dowd, calling herself a feminist, unsurprisingly takes the side of women. But she’s an equal-opportunity cynic, skewering both sides of every controversy. While she doesn’t like Clarence Thomas, she thought his feminist critics were disingenuous, using the sexual harassment stuff as cover for what was really a (failed) political take-down. Unknown-1And Dowd is scathing about the hypocrisy of those same feminists, so censorious toward Clarence Thomas, but all too willing, because of politics, to give Bill Clinton a pass regarding Monica (not to mention Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Kathleen Willey). Dowd’s chapter on the episode has a pages-long riff about how he became obsessed, deranged, by thoughts of Monica and sex. But it turns out the “he” is Kenneth Starr (Clinton’s prosecutor).

Dowd also drops a dime (writing in 2005) on Hillary. It’s a good reminder (I haven’t forgotten, though most people seem to have) about all the unseemliness: the mysterious profits trading commodities futures; her healthcare debacle; images-1and how on leaving the White House the Clintons “backed up the truck” and made off with $86,000 worth of furnishings. Et cetera. Dowd doesn’t even mention the mystery of the subpoenaed Rose Law Firm records, the Marc Rich pardon, the Lincoln Bedroom, and to me the most disgraceful of all, Travelgate.)

If you’re counting, that’s eleven past scandals (not even considering Whitewater, or the new one, e-mailgate). Do we really want these grifters back in the White House?

But the book is mainly about the male/female thing. images-2One chapter concerns orgasms, with Dowd wondering why women have them at all, evolutionarily speaking, since they’re unnecessary for procreation. She winds up theorizing that it makes women favor men considerate enough to pleasure them, who will probably be better daddies too. But my wife pointed out that orgasmic contractions help move sperm toward the business end of the plumbing. Unknown-2And I thought Dowd missed the most obvious explanation: orgasms make women want to copulate. (Any Muslim practitioner of female genital mutilation would have told her that.)

Here’s an example of Dowd’s sardonic style: “deep down, beneath the bluster and machismo, men are simply afraid to say that what they’re truly looking for in a woman is an intelligent, confident and dependable partner in life whom they can devote themselves to unconditionally until she’s forty.”

That’s a good description of my own marriage, minus the last bit (at 56, my wife is still a keeper). But it may be true for the kinds of people Dowd hangs out with in her high-powered life as a big-time syndicated columnist.

Unknown-3This was a problem I had throughout the book. For example, Dowd talks about cosmetic reparation, like Botox, which everybody now does – everybody – men included. Well, maybe everybody in Maureen Dowd’s fey cocktail party milieu. But she has nothing to say to, or about, ordinary “everyday” folks. The book is mildly amusing, but if you want to find out whether men are necessary on Main Street, look elsewhere.

House of Sand and Fog

August 2, 2015

UnknownMassoud Behrani, 56, is a California garbage man. He used to be an air force colonel; in Iran; fled with his family when Khomeini took over. A man accustomed to deference, now he works demeaning jobs while running through the family’s savings to keep up appearances of prosperity for the sake of his daughter’s marriageability.

This 1999 novel, by Andre Dubus III, starts off when a life-changing break comes. Unknown-1With the last of his funds, he manages to buy a nice bungalow very cheaply at auction, after the county seized it for nonpayment of taxes. Behrani believes he can triple his money and use this as a springboard into a dignified real estate business.

But . . .

Then we meet the property’s dispossessed former owner: Kathy, 36, with a history of substance abuse which she seems to have more or less overcome. Her husband (whom she met in rehab) has left her, and she is hunkered down, just trying to hold things together. When she’s dunned for a puzzling business tax, she goes to the county and files paperwork explaining she owes no such tax. Thinking that’s the end of it, Kathy discards, unopened, subsequent letters from the county tax office.

imagesOne lesson of this book is: don’t ignore mail from tax authorities.

So Kathy suddenly finds herself ousted from her home by sheriff’s deputies. She goes to a legal aid lawyer. Turns out the county screwed up, big time: had the wrong address. But Behrani insists he’s now the legal owner, won’t budge, and tells her she should go sue the county.

A fine mess. Dilemmas of justice are often not right against wrong but right against right. Behrani isn’t entirely in the right, but he has so much invested in this bungalow, not just money but hopes and dreams, that his unwillingness to kiss it off is at least totally understandable.

Of course, this story is only beginning, and portends no good outcome. Especially once Lester is in the picture.

Unknown-2He’s one of the deputies, and he’s really fallen for Kathy. They commence an affair. Lester feels ready to ditch wife and kids for her. And he wants to help get her house back.

Things “spiraling out of control” is a cliché, but that’s what happens. One thing leads to another. Lester is not a bad person – actually noble in some ways. Nor is he a psychological “case.” Just a pretty normal, ordinary guy. But one thing does lead to another.

Yet I had trouble quite buying it. I know how good people can have lapses of judgment – been there and done that myself in fact. And up to a point Lester’s actions almost make sense, until they don’t. Finally he crosses the line and does something he absolutely shouldn’t. I thought an inner voice ought to have screamed No! But I guess, in the moment, people can ignore such voices. And the reader, already suspecting this story won’t end well, now knows it will end very badly indeed.

Unknown-3Storytelling is as old as language. Something in us craves it. Why? We evolved as the most social of creatures, our very lives dependent upon interaction with others. And it’s to help in that, to help us understand people, that we love stories. It’s why we read books like this: to understand a little better what makes people tick.

Yet ironically it often makes me feel like a Martian. One thing we do when reading a story is to compare ourselves to its characters, measuring ourselves and our lives against them and theirs. And it’s like I live in a bubble, antiseptically, cordoned off from real life lived by real people, like those in House of Sand and Fog.*

 But maybe it’s just that I had the operatic drama in my own life decades ago – so long ago that it’s as though it happened to a different person.

images-1* Recently I ate dinner at a bar (long story), next to two guys who, fueled by more beers than I could imagine drinking, were having heated guy talk. Very ordinary guys. And again, beside them, I felt totally like a visitor from Mars.