Archive for the ‘history’ Category

DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

October 20, 2019

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Understanding America’s right

October 14, 2019

Since 2016 I’ve striven especially hard to understand what’s happening in America. Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley professor who, in the same quest, immersed herself with “Tea Partiers,” as told in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Every Democrat should read it.

In the Tea Party’s heyday, I was still a Republican and could understand, even sympathize with it. But how did it transmogrify into blind support for a lying con man with ruinous divisive policies? Including a trillion dollar annual federal deficit — blowing off the Tea Party’s ostensible signature issue?

Our most basic ideological divide has long been that Democrats look to government to address societal problems, while Republicans don’t want government meddling in our lives. The Tea Party — a driving force among Republicans — demonized government as an outright enemy. This was a backlash against Obama’s presidency. Yet his administration was hardly radical. His real offense seemed to be governing while black. More broadly, Tea Partiers saw government as working more for non-whites, outsiders, and moochers than for good ole true-blue hard-working Americans.

 

Hochschild went to Louisiana, to dive into the culture she sought to understand. And this is really a matter of culture. Most people tend to situate themselves psychologically within a culture and shape their personal identity from it. Politics is part of this. In fact, as told in Bill Bishop’s book The Great Sort, many Americans gravitate into communities of like-minded people, accentuating the red/blue divide.

Hochschild sought to unravel what she deemed a “Great Paradox.” That people most hostile to government are often the ones most apt to need it. She focused particularly on the environment, especially pollution, Louisiana being one of the worst affected states, with widespread human harm. Yet Louisiana Tea Partiers opposed EPA pollution regulation. Louisiana also ranks at the bottom on measures like poverty, health, education, etc. Federal money helps. This too they oppose.

But this doesn’t seem so paradoxical to me. Hochschild discusses Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (which I’ve unfavorably reviewed). Frank was exasperated at people voting against their economic interests (as he saw them). But how often are we told (by lefties) that homo economicus is a mythical creature? While people do sometimes pursue perceived self interest, life is more complicated. Voters are often expressing values rather than interests.

So you can oppose big government despite suffering from pollution. Yet Republicans actually favor bossy government when it suits them, like prohibiting abortion. Indeed, Hochschild notes that they’re fine with thusly regulating women’s lives, but not man stuff like motorcycle helmets, liquor, and of course guns. And also keen for regulation when aimed at blacks. A local Louisiana law regulates how they wear their pants. Talk about intrusive government. Louisiana has the nation’s highest percentage of people incarcerated, and those are disproportionately black.

What right-wing Louisianans mainly dislike is the government in Washington. Not only physically distant but, more importantly, culturally distant. There’s a fundamental sense that the elites calling the shots in America lately have not been their kind of people.

Hochschild discusses one big Louisiana environmental disaster, the 2012 Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Locals felt state officials were asleep at the switch and did nothing for them. Feeding their general cynicism about government. But Hochschild sees that attitude itself as the cause of state government being weak in the first place.* They want minimalist government, yet want it doing the job. That may again seem contradictory, but only partly. There’s a sense that government can’t be trusted to do what’s right. Maximalist government that gets the job done is something of a fantasy too. Hochschild herself lists some big ways government has betrayed her liberal values, while saying her “criticisms were based on a faith in the idea of good government.” Talk about paradoxes.

Underlying everything is what Hochschild calls “the deep story” — the “feels as if” story — embodying these Louisianans’ “hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety.” Valorizing work as a source of personal honor. The grit of enduring — including enduring the pollution harms discussed. Religion is a big factor, their endurance strengthened by believing God has their backs. This is part of the cultural divide too, vis-a-vis secular coastal liberals.

And key to the “deep story” is the idea of “line cutting.” People see themselves lined up for the American dream by working hard and playing by the rules. It’s very tough and many feel stuck; maybe even slipping back in the line. And then others are allowed to cut ahead of them. Often by government, taking from good hardworking people and giving it to less worthy ones. Especially ones “not like us.” Blacks especially, but also immigrants, and women, even animals (endangered species). Obama was seen, and the Democratic party in general is seen, as on the side of those line cutters.

While the left resents the rich, the right resents government beneficiaries. And rubbing salt in the wound is disrespect, offending their sense of honor, cultural marginalization, being called backward, racist, etc. They don’t consider themselves racist; don’t use the N-word or hate blacks. Hochschild says it’s more like belief in a natural hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom, and whites’ self-worth based on distance from that bottom.

She notes half of all government benefits actually go to the richest 20%. And blacks have not in fact jumped the queue — in recent decades, statistics show, if anything they’ve fallen further behind whites economically. Women have moved up but still lag behind males. So who are the real line cutters? Robots. (Automation and technological change, that is.)

Democrats need to make clear they’re for fairness for everyone. Not just ethnic minorities, women, LGBTs. But especially hard working Americans. Should explicitly disavow condoning “line cutting.”

Having written in 2016, Hochschild tacks on a section about Trump — who exploited the “deep story.” With Trump, they no longer feel like strangers in their own land. This is not about issues or policies so much as feelings. (Thus the deficit is forgotten.) It’s the music, not the lyrics. Trump does seem to speak their language, yet it’s less about Trump himself than the solidarity they feel with fellow Trumpers. He is a totem, a symbol. It’s really a battle of their culture against the other one they consider degenerate. “Send her back!” served as a battle cry, intensifying their sense of unity in moral superiority.

All this Hochschild likens to an anti-depressant drug, even a drug giving them a high. Which they don’t want to lose.

They’re (mostly) not bad people. Reading this book made me feel a lot of empathy for them. I can understand why they feel the way they do about Trump, and refuse to let go. Yet it’s a national tragedy that they’ve so blinded themselves to fall for so wicked a man, so bad for the country they so love. Who’s in many ways the biggest line-cutter of them all.

*She cites data showing red states generally, due to weaker regulation, tend to have worse pollution problems than blue states.

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story

October 12, 2019

Ethiopia’s leader Abiy Ahmed has received the Nobel Peace Prize. Those prize choices sometimes seem strange, but not this one, it’s a bull’s eye. I’d been meaning to write about Abiy, as a rare good news story among national leaders; but attention gets monopolized by our own vile one.

Ethiopia’s longtime Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by a brutal Communist gang (“The Derg”). They were overthrown in 1991, by less brutal rebels. Meantime, after a long insurgency, Eritrea broke away; though the Eritreans had fought together with the new Ethiopian leaders against the Communists, they soon feel out. Eritrea’s boss, Isaias Afwerki, instituted one of the world’s worst tyrannies and fought a pointlessly bloody border war with Ethiopia. Whose own regime then faced enormous protests, and responded with much repression.

Enter Abiy Ahmed, becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018. He swiftly made peace with Eritrea, even went to meet with Isaias; this is what he got the Nobel for. But Abiy’s done far more, transforming the Ethiopian regime’s ugly repressive character, making it more open and democratic, freeing the press, and thousands of political prisoners, some of these former dissidents now even brought into government.

Why do this — unlike so many African leaders? Most humans act, one way or another, to serve their own well-being. Dictators dictate because they can; power and wealth and all it can buy, a fleet of Rolls-Royces (and women), people licking your boots, provide undoubted satisfactions. But, for a different sort of person, there can be different and actually greater satisfactions. Like actually doing good. This can serve one’s psychological needs better than power, wealth, and sycophancy. An Abiy can enjoy a more rewarding life than a Mobutu or a Mugabe. Maybe it’s surprising more leaders don’t see this.

I am realist enough to know how often good news goes bad. A former Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a hero of mine, until she wasn’t. But I’ll take good news where I can and root for Abiy to keep up the good work.

Not everything in Ethiopia is now perfect, nothing ever can be. And with Abiy doing so much so fast, inevitably there’s pushback; a lot of people who had power are losing it. There’s a lot of ethnic tension and violence. Recently there was an episode of armed revolt. But Abiy seems to be riding the storm, continuing to make Ethiopia a better place.

Can America follow its example?

The Bible: a book of fiction

October 8, 2019

Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Noah’s Ark. Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph and centuries of Egyptian slavery. Moses, Passover, the Red Sea, forty years in the desert. The tablets from Mount Sinai. Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. Kings Saul, David, Solomon. And so on.

Possibly there was a “King David,” though just a chieftain of a minor tribe. All the rest of these Biblical stories were fictional, resembling nothing that might have actually happened.

That’s archaeology’s conclusive verdict. Generations of Bible-obsessed searchers (like the ridiculous Ron Wyatt) have scoured the terrain, grasping for some shred of confirming evidence. Their claimed “finds” have always proven to be misinterpreted or simply faked. While proper archaeology has actually turned up loads of proof that the Bible’s “history” never occurred.

The Hebrews were never in Egypt. The pyramids were built long before, anyway. The Egyptians left massively detailed chronicles that mention no Hebrews (let alone the Bible story’s vast horde). In fact, no Jews existed that early.

They only emerged somewhat later (in the 1200s BCE), as one tribe among many quite similar in Canaan; they grew apart religiously. The Bible’s bloody conquest tale — a monstrous crime against humanity — fortunately never happened.

The standard ancient belief system entailed multiple deities. Tellingly, the Ten Commandments did not say Yahweh was the only god — rather, the only one Jews should worship. Originally, he seems to have been married to one of those other deities, Asherah, and it took a while to ditch her.

Some see the move from polytheism to monotheism as some kind of advancement. But it was just going from one variety of superstition to another. Though at least getting closer to the true number of gods.

Then there’s Mormonism, whose book depicts ancient Israelites sailing to America, leading to huge empires and thunderous wars, in what would actually have been relatively recent times. Not a single artifact has turned up. And then it says Jesus had his second coming in America.

We know Joseph Smith was a consummate con artist who wrote the book for self-aggrandizement. Multiple wives may always have been part of his plan, or maybe the happy thought was inspired by his unexpected initial success. Exploiting religious power for sex seems always to go with the territory.

And why was the Old Testament written? Those human authors weren’t trying to record actual events, they were consciously making the stories up. Which people are always doing — we call it literature. And the Bible was not necessarily written as a sacred thing, as we think of it today. Ancient people did not have our concept of a clear distinction between the secular and religious realms. For them it was all just part of life, mashed up together in their storytelling. Which typically featured superhuman characters; Yahweh was just another.

They also had a different mentality toward violence. The Canaanite genocide story is just one example. Another is when some kids mock an old man’s baldness and are punished by being torn apart by bears. The “good book” is full of such horrors. Richard Dawkins called Yahweh the most unpleasant character in all fiction.

The Old Testament apparently first came together, as a book, during the “Babylonian captivity,” in the 6th century BCE, when some of the Jews were in exile and cut off from their ancestral roots. It was not surprising that they’d latch onto these stories as a cultural glue, a collective mythos, to hold them together and sustain a connection to those roots. But that’s very different from believing in the book’s literal truth. They probably had more sense in that regard than modern evangelicals.

(Some points in this essay recap one by Neil Carter (“Godless in Dixie”), reprinted in the CDHS newsletter.)

Greta Thunberg is wrong

October 1, 2019

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior, berates the world (“How dare you?”) for pursuing a “fairy tale” of continued economic growth — putting money ahead of combating global warming. A previous local newspaper commentary hit every phrase of the litany: “species decimation, rainforest destruction . . . ocean acidification . . . fossil-fuel-guzzling, consumer-driven . . . wreaked havoc . . . blind to [the] long-term implication . . . driven by those who would profit . . . our mad, profligate  . . . warmongering . . . plasticization and chemical fertilization . . . failed to heed the wise admonition of our indigenous elders . . . .”

The litany of misanthropes hating their own species and especially their civilization.

Lookit. There’s no free lunch. Call it “raping the planet” if you like, but we could never have risen from the stone age without utilizing as fully as possible the natural resources available. And if you romanticize our pre-modern existence (“harmony with nature” and all), well, you’d probably be dead now, because most earlier people didn’t make thirty. And those short lives were nasty and brutish. There was no ibuprofen.

This grimness pretty much persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Only now, by putting resource utilization in high gear, could ordinary folks begin to live decently. People like that commentator fantasize giving it up. Or, more fantastical, our somehow still living decently without consuming the resources making it possible.

These are often the same voices bemoaning world poverty. Oblivious to how much poverty has actually declined — thanks to all the resource utilization they condemn. And to how their program would deny decent lives to the billion or so still in extreme poverty. Hating the idea of pursuing economic growth may be fine for those living in affluent comfort. Less so for the world’s poorest.

Note, as an example, the mention of “chemical fertilization.” This refers to what’s called the “green revolution” — revolutionizing agriculture to improve yields and combat hunger, especially in poorer nations. It’s been estimated this has saved a couple billion lives. And of course made a big dent in global poverty.

But isn’t “chemical fertilization,” and economic development more generally, bad for the environment? Certainly! Again, no free lunch. In particular, the climate change we’re hastening will, as Thunberg says, likely have awful future impacts. Yet bad as that is, it’s not actually humanity’s biggest challenge. The greater factors affecting human well-being will remain the age-old prosaic problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, conflict, and ignorance. Economic growth helps us battle all those. We should not cut it back for the sake of climate. In fact, growing economic resources will help us deal with climate change too. It’s when countries are poor that they most abuse the environment; affluence improves environmental stewardship. And it’s poor countries who will suffer most from climate change, and will most need the resources provided by economic growth to cope with it.

Of course we must do everything reasonably possible to minimize resource extraction, environmental impacts, and the industrial carbon emissions that accelerate global warming. But “reasonably possible” means not at the expense of lower global living standards. Bear in mind that worldwide temperatures will continue to rise even if we eliminate carbon emissions totally (totally unrealistic, of course). Emission reductions can moderate warming only slightly. That tells us to focus less on emissions and more on preparing to adapt to higher temperatures. And more on studying geo-engineering possibilities for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and otherwise re-cooling the planet. Yet most climate warriors actually oppose such efforts, instead obsessing exclusively on carbon reduction, in a misguided jihad against economic growth, as though to punish humanity for “raping the planet.”

Most greens are also dead set against nuclear power, imagining that renewables like solar and wind energy can fulfill all our needs. Talk about fairy tales. Modern nuclear power plants are very safe and emit no greenhouse gases. We cannot hope to bend down the curve of emissions without greatly expanded use of nuclear power. Radioactive waste is an issue. But do you think handling that presents a bigger challenge than to replace the bulk of existing power generation with renewables?

I don’t believe we’re a race of planet rapists. Our resource utilization and economic development has improved quality of life — the only thing that can ultimately matter. The great thing about our species, enabling us to be so spectacularly successful, is our ability to adapt and cope with what nature throws at us. Climate change and environmental degradation are huge challenges. But we can surmount them. Without self-flagellation.

Thinking like a caveman

September 18, 2019

 

What is it like to be a bat? That famous essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel keeps nagging at us. What is it like to be me? Of this I should have some idea. But why is being me like that? — how does it work? — are questions that really bug me.

Science knows a lot about how our neurons work. Those doings of billions of neurons, each with very limited, specific, understandable functions, join to create one’s personhood. A leap we’re only beginning to understand.

Steven Mithen’s book, The Prehistory of the Mind, takes the problem back a step, asking how our minds came to exist in the first place. It’s a highly interesting inquiry.

Of course the simple answer is evolution. Life forms have natural variability, and variations that prove more successful in adapting to changing environments proliferate. This builds over eons. Our minds were a very successful adaptation.

But they could not have sprung up all at once. Doesn’t work that way. So by what steps did they evolve? The question is problematical given our difficulty in reverse-engineering the end product. But Mithen’s analysis actually helps toward such understanding.

He uses two metaphors to describe what our more primitive, precursor minds were like. One is a Swiss Army knife. It’s a tool that’s really a tool kit. Leaving aside for the moment the elusive concept of “mind,” all living things have the equivalent of Swiss Army knives to guide their behavior in various separate domains. A cat, for example, has a program in its brain for jumping up to a ledge; another for catching a mouse; and so forth. The key point is that each is a separate tool, used separately; two or more can’t be combined.

Which brings in Mithen’s other metaphor for the early human mind: a cathedral. Within it, there are various chapels, each containing one of the Swiss Army knife tools, each one a brain program for dealing with a specific type of challenge. The main ones Mithen identifies are a grasp of basic physics in connection with tool-making and the like; a feel for the natural world; one for social interaction; and language arts, related thereto.

This recalls Martin Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences. Departing from an idea that “intelligence” is a single capability that people have more or less of, Gardner posited numerous diverse particularized capabilities, such as interpersonal skills, musical, spatial-visual, etc. A person can be strong in one and weak in another.

Mithen agrees, yet nevertheless also hypothesizes what he calls “general intelligence.” By this he means “a suite of general-purpose learning rules, such as those for learning associations between events.” Here’s where his metaphors bite. The Swiss Army knife doesn’t have a general intelligence tool. That’s why a cat is extremely good at mousing but lacks a comprehensive viewpoint on its situation.

In Mithen’s cathedral, however, there is general intelligence, situated right in the central nave. However, the chapels, each containing their specific tools, are closed off from it and from each other. The toolmaking program doesn’t communicate with the social interaction program; none of them communicates with the general intelligence.

Does this seem weird? Not at all. Mithen invokes an analogy to driving while conversing with a passenger. Two wholly separate competences are operating, but sealed off from each other, neither impinging on the other.

This, Mithen posits, was indeed totally the situation of early humans (like Neanderthals). Our own species arose something like 100,000 years ago, but for around half that time, it seems, we too had minds like Neanderthals, like Mithen’s compartmentalized cathedral, lacking pathways for the various competences to talk to each other. He describes a “rolling” sort of consciousness that could go from one sphere to another, but was in something of a blur about seeing any kind of big picture.

Now, if you were intelligently building this cathedral, you wouldn’t do it this way. But evolution is not “intelligent design.” It has to work with what developed previously. And what it started with was much like the Swiss Army knife, with a bunch of wholly separate competences that each evolved independently.

That’s good enough for most living things, able to survive and reproduce without a “general intelligence.” Evolving the latter was something of a fluke for humans. (A few other creatures may have something like it.)

The next step was to integrate the whole tool kit; to open the doors of all the chapels leading into the central nave. The difference was that while a Neanderthal could be extremely skilled at making a stone tool, while he was doing it he really couldn’t ponder about it in the context of his whole life. We can. Mithen calls this “cognitive fluidity.”

The way I like to put it, the essence of our consciousness is that we don’t just have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. That’s the integration Mithen talks about — a whole added layer of cognition. And it’s that layering, that thinking about our thinking, that gives us a sense of self, more powerfully than any other creature.

I’ve previously written too of how the mind makes sense of incoming information by creating representations. Like pictures in the mind, often using metaphors. And here too there’s layering; we make representations of representations; representations of ourselves perceiving those representations. That indeed is how we do perceive — and think about what we perceive. And we make representations of concepts and beliefs.

All this evolved because it was adaptive — enabling its possessors to better surmount the challenges of their environment. But this cognitive fluidity, Mithen says, is also at the heart of art, religion, science — all of human culture.

Once we achieved this capability, it blew the doors off the cathedral, and it was off to the races.

Dan Rather on “What Unites Us”

September 15, 2019

Dan Rather, at 87, is still actively in the news game, running an outfit called “News and Guts.” He appeared recently in Albany, discussing his 2017 book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, with the NY Writers Institute’s Paul Grondahl. The book doesn’t mention Trump.

Rather said he’s an optimist by nature and experience. This, he averred, is not “fuzzy brained” but rooted in a confidence in the American people doing the right thing (after exhausting all the alternatives, Churchill said). But Rather believes it’s something we must do day in and day out. And we are in very perilous times. With certain persons — for ideology or power — seeking to exploit our divisions. We’ve gone far down the road of enabling them.

Rather was asked about parallels to 1960s societal divisions, and Watergate. I remember them well. This is different. Rather noted that the Watergate crimes involved no foreign enemies. Nixon went down because Republicans then still had the integrity and true patriotism to put country above party. And through all the ’60s social turmoil, I never saw so many Americans so impervious as now to facts and reason. Never so many moved by hate.

Rather’s aim is to give us the strength to overcome our divisions by reminding us of certain core values most Americans share:

Rule of law (applied equally to all); one person one vote; leadership in science and discovery; and empathy and compassion.

But this high-minded litany made me queasy because here in fact is the heart of what ails us.

Rule of law? We’ve seen a direct assault upon our key rule-of-law institutions like the FBI, Justice Department, and Judiciary. Crimes dismissed as “hoaxes;” even unambiguous crimes shrugged off; laws twisted to favor the powerful.

One person one vote? Preventing opponents from voting, and gerrymandering to dilute their votes, are integral to the cynical Republican playbook.

Science and discovery? Trump and Republicans are actively anti-science, not just on climate and environmental matters, but a whole range of others. Now even weather forecasting.

Empathy and compassion? Seriously? Treating suffering refugees, especially innocent children (and indeed other disadvantaged people) with a vicious calculated cruelty. Rather spoke of skeptics doubting a nation with our ethnic and cultural diversity could work. For a while it did. But history shows playing on such divisions is playing with fire.

Rather also talked about a free press, crucial to a democratic society; something every tinpot dictator tries to undermine. They kill many courageous journalists. You might think a free press too would be a shared American value. Today, not so much — “the enemy of the people.”

And how about opposing Russian aggression? Not so much either. Not even Russia’s attack on our own society.

Upholding human rights globally? No again. Instead, standing with murderous tyrants.

Just plain truth as a shared value? Twelve thousand documented lies by Trump and counting. A war on the very concept of truth.

Or how about just plain civility and decency? Nope. “Grab them by the pussy.” Here too the standards and norms that used to prevail in American civic life have been shredded.

Far from uniting us, each and every one of the mentioned values are tossed aside by a sizable part of today’s American population. For what? For the sake of some other enduring values? No, instead it’s just for the sake of their tribe winning. And indeed it’s the trashing of those fundamental values that defines their tribe. Blinded by their partisan tribalism.

What’s happening here is mirrored in Britain, whose society and institutions are being torn apart by partisan antagonisms over Brexit.

Rather seems to believe America will somehow right itself. But both here and in Britain, I think the poison will persist for decades.

Norman Rockwell’s America

September 6, 2019

On Labor Day we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Rockwell was an “illustrator” who disclaimed producing “fine art.” And some see his oeuvre as a mythologized, sanitized, saccharine picture of a past America.

Yet what is art if not an image that elicits an emotional response? And Rockwell’s pictures are not false. To the contrary, they show us some truths about human life. While cynicism is fashionable, there is reality in Rockwell’s vision. His work reflects a deep love for his fellow humans. And an emotional response was certainly forthcoming in me.

Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long prolific career, starting professionally in his teens; over nearly half a century he produced around 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Seeing the entire sequence, all in frames in one room, was almost dumbfounding, considering how much meticulous care went into each. Many were preceded by full charcoal drafts (also displayed), and fastidiously reworked.

Looking closely, I was struck by how insightfully Rockwell captured facial expressions. His pictures were generally set-pieces almost akin to cartoons. Yet the characters portrayed were not caricatures or archetypes; rather, real people, caught in real moments. I soon found myself looking at fellow museum visitors and imagining them as painted by Rockwell.

My all-time favorite painting was not there, traveling temporarily elsewhere: Freedom of Speech, one of his WWII “Four Freedoms” pictures. But the museum did display a large wartime poster of it. It depicts a real episode Rockwell witnessed (he’s in the picture, peeking out in the upper left corner). The main figure, a very ordinary everyman, rose in a town meeting to speak against a measure most others favored. Yet they gave him a respectful hearing. A lesson for today.

There was also Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not the familiar image; one I’d somehow never seen before. And no typical portrayal of womanhood. This is one tough babe. A real riveter. (The pose is an exact homage to a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. And her foot’s on Mein Kampf.)

And about that idea of a sanitized America: I noticed an explanatory label mentioning that Rockwell was once forced to paint out an African-American on a magazine cover because you could only portray blacks in menial roles. However, later in his career, Rockwell felt free to be forthright in addressing the race issue in his paintings. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” depicts a couple of young black children, just arrived, warily confronting a trio of white kids. The gap between them is wide — literally. But both sides hold baseball gloves, and you have the sense that it’s going to be all right.

One point I noticed is that Rockwell’s black children were always immaculately dressed: painted with respect.

Then there’s his iconic picture, “The Problem We All Live With.” This too was out traveling, but on a large reproduction I noticed a detail I strangely didn’t remember: the word chalked on the wall.

Afterward, in Stockbridge, we stumbled upon the little Schantz Galleries (3 Elm Street, “behind the bank,” the sign says). The ground floor had a display of Chihuly glass art. Nice enough; but upstairs: WOW! Also all glass art, but absolutely amazing. Remarkably too, by a large number of different artists.

Modern art too often actually rejects any ethos of beauty. Not so here. The sheer aesthetic beauty of these pieces was breathtaking. It was hard to believe human beings could create such wondrous things.

Making me feel exalted to be human.

A vision for America

September 2, 2019

Trump has a vision of America. It says the real Americans have been under assault — economically and, mainly, culturally — by “others.” From outside, and from within. That there was some halcyon greatness lost. Mainly, frankly, it was whiteness. It’s white supremacy in all but name.

This vision, David Brooks has written, “contradicts the traditional American idea in every particular. In fact, Trump’s national story is much closer to the Russian national story . . . an alien ideology he’s trying to plant on our soil. Trump’s vision is radically anti-American.”

It opposes a vision rooted in our founding ideals. “American exceptionalism” is a contentious phrase. But America is indeed unique among nations in being constituted on a set of ideals rather than on blood-and-soil.

They’re embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Which, remember, was addressed to the world. Because our founders saw this nation as forging a new path for all humanity into a brighter future. They were looking forward — not backward to make something “great again.”

What were those ideals? Democratic self-government, all people being equal in their freedom to pursue happiness, and in their diversity all coming together to build our city upon a hill. As expressed too in our national motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one. An ideal of openness and generosity.

The Declaration said “all men,” not all people, but that’s what was meant. And meant fully and sincerely, despite some writers being slaveowners. No humans could have transcended all the bounds of their time and world all in one leap. Yet their leap was great indeed.

It did transcend their consanguinity, in their recognition that the nation they launched would grow beyond it. One of the Declaration’s stated grievances against the British was their impeding the naturalization of newcomers to America!

So theirs was indeed a vision for the future. And the America they set in motion did, through the years, ever more fully come to realize their vision. To realize its motto. Uniquely a magnet for people coming from all over to enrich this nation with all their variety.

Brooks again: “This American idea is not a resentful prejudice; it’s a faith and a dream.” And Trump’s vision, he says, “is an attack on that dream.”

This is our choice, standing at an epochal historical crossroads. Will we follow Trump’s dark path — leading to everything our founders actually rebelled against? Or resume our journey along the brighter path they marked out?

But how many Americans today still see that path? Have that vision in their hearts?

Brooks ends by quoting the black poet Langston Hughes, writing at a time when the Declaration’s equality was much further from fulfillment:

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath

America will be!

Is the novel dead (or dying)?

August 31, 2019

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.