Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Is China our enemy?

June 15, 2019

In 1989, China’s regime followed Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” shooting many hundreds of democracy proponents in Tiananmen Square. (Trump has called this a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot.”) Since then, even as China has modernized in many ways, its regime has become increasingly repressive, tolerating not the slightest chink in its absolute power. Its police state in Xinjiang is an Orwellian nightmare. Xi Jinping has made himself president-for-life. China bullies its neighbors, tightening its unlawful grip on a wide swath of the Pacific. It abuses world trade rules, its advance fueled by theft and dishonesty.*

So is China our enemy? Not exactly.

The Communist bloc, during the cold war, was our enemy. Its aim was world domination, ideologically, seeing the U.S. as a bete noir and wanting our failure or destruction. Putin’s Russia today, while non-ideological, has a similar outlook.

This again is not exactly true of China. While some regime elements do see us as conspiring to keep China down, that’s not exactly true of America. Wise heads in both countries understand there’s room in the world for both to prosper; indeed they’re in it together. Not a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is the other’s loss. China becoming more prosperous and powerful doesn’t necessarily require America becoming less so. To the contrary, trade with a prosperous America is good for China. Thus a win-win mentality.

It’s not Trump’s mentality. This is why he’s a bull in the China shop. A lot of voices say he’s right to confront China on trade, and I actually agree, up to a point. However, Trump sees every thing we buy from China as China raping us; he wants it to stop. That’s idiotic.

The win-win logic is a key concept of economics, called comparative advantage. We buy from China what China is better at producing; China buys from us what we make best. Both countries benefit — even if one buys more than the other.

Do we lose some jobs to China? Sure. But the money U.S. consumers save buying cheaper Chinese goods enables more spending on local products and services, creating jobs. More than are lost. By messing with that dynamic, Tariff Man loses us jobs.

Nations are enemies when their interests clash, in a zero-sum sense. That’s not our situation with China. Again, we have a mutual interest in our bilateral trade. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight China on intellectual property theft, human rights, or territorial aggression. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but you still have intercourse.

The tragic stupidity of Trump’s China stance is that it’s the opposite. He wants no fights with his “great friend” Xi over things like Xinjiang or silencing dissent. Nor is he even really confronting China over intellectual property theft, which is the trade fight we should be having. Instead, it’s the intercourse he wants to curtail.

“Intercourse” doesn’t even begin to cover it, as elucidated in a recent Thomas Friedman column (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/opinion/us-china-trade.html). Our two economies are totally intertwined. We have huge investments in each other. Both economies rely heavily on vast, interlinked supply chains, each supplying to the other things necessary for their productivity. For example, Apple has products assembled in China; Chinese technology firms need U.S.-made chips. If we rip all that apart, Friedman says, “we’ll all end up living in a less secure, less prosperous and less stable world.”

But he fears that’s happening; stumbling into a new cold-war-enemy relationship with China that’s totally unnecessary. “The erecting of an equivalent of the Berlin Wall down the middle of the global technology market,” dividing it into separate and mutually hostile spheres.

Instead we should be working to coax China into full partnership with the rules-based globalist economic order. Which is really in China’s own long-term best interests. In this, a united front with all our allies would help. But Trump has antagonized them, picking trade fights with them too. (Britain, for one, now sees its trade relationship with China as economically central.) So we’re on our own.

Bad enough that Russia is a big enemy. China would be far bigger. Its economy is already as large as America’s and will soon outstrip it. Its population is more than thrice ours. China’s increasing global importance is an inevitability we must live with; making the best of it. And we can. If instead we opt for all-out battle, we will lose.

* Counterfeiting is a big industry — a major problem in my own business field, rare coins. Maybe bigger than we even know.

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Fantasyland — My talk Tuesday, June 18

June 10, 2019

Next Tuesday, June 18, at noon, I will give a talk at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue, focused on Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It’s about the whole phenomenon of false and wacky beliefs. This will be fun, I promise!

I’ve been told the free cookies and brownies should be better than usual this time too.

Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)

Abdi Nor Iftin: American

May 11, 2019

I was only half listening when the story began on NPR. But soon it was riveting. Abdi, a Somali refugee barely surviving in Kenya, struggling to reach America. Didn’t sound like he’d make it. Incredibly, he did.

I was moved to write a poem. And to find Abdi to send him a gift. Then he authored a book and I was able to connect personally with him at a book fair. It was like meeting an alien from another planet.

The book is Call me American. It begins on what does seem another planet, another epoch, with Abdi’s 1985 birth into a Somali nomad herder tribe. Drought forces the family into the city, Mogadishu. Abdi is six when it becomes Hell. The word seems inadequate. Thomas Hobbes wrote of the social compact forestalling the “war of all against all.” In Somalia in 1991 that social compact broke down, and that war exploded.

The family tries to escape Mogadishu, but ultimately winds up back there. Along the way Abdi’s father is taken by gunmen. They eventually meet up again; he’s a shell of his former self. His mother is pregnant. No way that baby will survive.

Abdi’s sole education is Koran memorization, in a Madrassa run by a sadistic fanatic. But meantime he learns English by careful watching of American films; starts teaching English; becomes known as “Abdi American.”

Then the actual Americans arrive. “Ugly Americans?” Not to Abdi. But soon they’re gone, and Somalia goes from horrible to worse. The murderous warlord militias are supplanted by murderous hardline Islamists; and being “Abdi American” is no longer a good thing. Caught swimming with a girl at a beach, he’s sentenced to twenty lashes. Eventually he escapes to Kenya, where Somalis are hated and persecuted; it was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Thomas Friedman writes of the “world of order” versus the “world of disorder.” And how the latter’s inhabitants are desperate to reach the former. Pessimists view civilization as a thin veneer upon underlying human beastliness, but it does enable “the better angels of our nature” to flourish. We take this too much for granted, and Abdi searingly depicts for us the other side of the coin.

He’s an excellent writer, his seemingly matter-of-fact tone effectively conveying the horror. Death is so constant and routinized, you have to remind yourself it’s actual people dying. Reading the account, in my comfortable chair in my comfortable American home, brought to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Its point was that we can’t really know. What was it like to be Abdi?

English was his salvation. Brazenly accosting a western journalist leads to his supplying stories to BBC radio, and then “Team Abdi,” a network of Brits and Americans helping him. That, plus extreme effort, and huge luck, does finally get him to America. Most in his situation would have failed.

Abdi writes that exiting the plane in Boston felt like an historic moment. “Like when the first man walked on the moon.” Airport TV screens were showing news of the Ferguson protests. To Americans this signaled something bad. To Abdi it showed a freedom to challenge police unimaginable where he’d come from. Then, in a car, instructed to buckle his seatbelt: “I couldn’t believe I was in a place where people actually obey laws.” From the world of disorder to the world of order.

Most Americans today have no notion of this. For all their flag-waving, no grasp, indeed, of what this country is really all about. People like Abdi keep that idea alive. They make America great.

It’s fortunate he got here before Trump’s Muslim ban.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).

Notre Dame and humanism

April 16, 2019

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.

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Szukalski: the glory and strangeness of the human experience

March 18, 2019

We stumbled upon this fantastical Netflix documentary: Struggle — The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

Glenn Bray stumbled upon a fantastical volume in a bookstore in 1968. Bray was into various artsy stuff. This book, published in 1923, contained work by a Polish artist, Stanislav Szukalski, whom Bray had never heard of — and it blew him away. He showed the book to anyone who would look.

Then in 1971, in another California bookstore he recognized a Szukalski poster. Inquiring, he was told it was a gift from the artist, still living — in fact, quite nearby!

In obscurity. His monumental artistic career forgotten. Bray became the nexus of a new friendship circle around him, filmed many hours of Szukalski holding forth, and eventually published a book trying to revive interest in him. This documentary was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987) was born in Poland, coming to America as a child. An artistic prodigy, primarily in sculpture, he became a leading figure in the 1920s Chicago avant garde art scene. What’s shown in the film is fantastic and fantastical. Not effete mannered works but their antithesis — bold dramatic images that grab you by the balls. (Or by the —– if you are female.)

Szukalski’s style was much influenced by ancient Mesoamerican art. But Polish identity was also central. Repeatedly traveling back and forth to Poland, he saw himself as the inspirator for a Polish national renaissance. His country had only gained independence after WWI, then becoming a nationalistic authoritarian state. Szukalski fit right in, his works infused with grandiose mythologizing. In the 1930’s, summoned by the regime to become its artistic star, he moved (seemingly) permanently back to Poland. Flooded with commissions for stupendous works, he became a revered national icon.

Even the German regime took notice and solicited Szukalski to immortalize Hitler. He agreed and pocketed the check; then delivered an image of Hitler in a ballerina costume. The Germans were not amused.

Yet a darkness seemed immanent in the film, and it duly materialized. In Poland Szukalski published a virulently anti-semitic periodical. The film-makers hadn’t known this when they’d started. Actually, Szukalski seemed to exude contempt not just for Jews but for all other artists, and indeed for all other humans apart from himself and his beloved wife Joan.

In 1939, Nazi aerial bombing obliterated much of Warsaw — including Szukalski’s studio, and with it, most of his lifetime artistic output. Two days later he literally crawled out from under the rubble. Eventually he and Joan arrived back in America; with nothing.

He was never able to put his public artistic career back on track, and spent the next half century in Southern California, subsisting mostly from odd jobs, never feeling at home.

Meantime the holocaust of WWII seemed to sear out his anti-semitism, turning him into something of a universalist humanist.

Meantime too, while his public artistic career did end, his private one did not. Szukalski spent four decades on his grand project, an effort to tie all of history together into one unified story, through art. He called it “Zermatism,” based on his idea that ground zero for the spread of human civilization was . . . Easter Island. (Actually one of the most isolated places on Earth.) He also believed we’re the product of primordial rapes by apelike yetis, accounting for all our ugly qualities.

This is pure crackpottery. Similar grand syntheses have long been a common enterprise for loopy autodidacts. That sad species was personified by Middlemarch’s Casaubon, who spent his life researching his projected masterwork, “a key to all mythologies.” When he died before completing it, his widow attempted to organize his notes and drafts, and found it all rubbish.

In Szukalski’s case, he produced homemade volumes filling a bookcase, with 25,000 pages and 14,000 meticulous and beautiful self-drawn illustrations. All identifying parallels among artistic images from disparate cultures. (Of course such parallels, even striking ones, are inevitable just from chance, if you compare many thousands of images.)

Yet his actual achievement remains. While much of his Polish output was destroyed, much was photographed, and other works survive elsewhere. A stupendous artistic legacy. Truly, Szukalski went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Ilhan Omar, Israel, anti-semitism, politics, and BDS

March 12, 2019

Newly elected Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar caused a furor when saying some politicians support Israel because of money from the Jewish lobby. That was simply incorrect (it’s politics, not money), and Omar was decently forthright in acknowledging her error. Then she re-inserted her foot by talking about “dual loyalties” (Israeli versus American).

Omar, a former Somali refugee, is one of only two Muslims in Congress. That should invest her with a special responsibility to demonstrate good citizenship in refutation of Islamophobia. I wish she hadn’t spoken so carelessly. But it’s phenomenally hypocritical for Republicans in their glass house to throw stones at Democrats, while their own Congressman Steve King defends “white supremacy” — and Trump spoke of “very fine people on both sides” when torch-bearing Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.”*  Et cetera.

Omar may not have realized what a hoary old anti-semitic trope “dual loyalty” is. The Nazis used it, painting Jews as less good Germans. (My Jewish grandfather took a bullet for Germany in WWI, but that didn’t help him later.) Many U.S. Jews are indeed “supporters of Israel.” Some even give money to Israel. That doesn’t make them less loyal Americans. Indeed, the U.S. government itself is a supporter of Israel; first to recognize Israel’s statehood in 1948, and since then giving it many billions in aid.

But now Israel has become a flash-point in left-right political polarization. While American “support for Israel” used to be concentrated among U.S. Jews who were mostly Democrats, in recent decades the Republican religious right has latched onto Israel as central to some sort of end-times return-of-Jesus fantasy. And on the other side, the left has fetishized the plight of Palestinians, with Israel thus cast as an arch-villain, engendering the “BDS” movement — to subject Israel to boycott, sanctions, and divestment.

My own ancestry is Jewish, but I’ve been very critical of Israel. Here’s an example: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/israel-triumph-and-tragedy-past-and-future/. And four years ago I penned an imagined Israeli election speech (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/i-have-a-dream-israeli-election-speech/) with a very different approach for the Palestinian issue. I must say, re-reading it now, it seems really eloquent. And really sad because its vision is farther than ever from possibility.

But the Israeli/Palestinian situation is not a good guy/bad guy story. It takes two to tango here, and Palestinians are victims not only of Israel but of Palestinians; their own leaders serving them as badly, and myopically, as Israel has done.

Anti-semitism is the idea that Jews have certain undesirable racial characteristics. One can certainly criticize Israel’s policy toward Palestinians without being anti-semitic. But it’s a fine line. Britain’s Labour Party, for example, has taken a hard left turn, with the obligatory Israel-bashing, metastasizing into what is blatant anti-semitism. Meantime these lefties, posturing as champions of downtrodden people, are suckers for regimes (like Venezuela’s) that trod people down, if they wrap themselves in anti-American, anti-imperialist, or anti-capitalist rhetoric.

There’s actually something downright crazy about singling out Israel as uniquely odious — when it is, after all, a basically democratic nation with rule of law, freedom of speech and press and religion, etc. (and a U.S. friend). That election speech I wrote could in fact have been given in Israel; Jamal Kashoggi was chopped in pieces. Does Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinians remotely compare with the pervasive human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Congo, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, Turkey, Myanmar, or Iran, not to mention Russia and China? Where are the BDS movements for all these countries?

*I invite commenters to disgrace themselves by trying to excuse or defend this.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — a novel of identity

February 22, 2019

Min Jin Lee

I read this 2017 novel for a book group. A nice thing about such groups is exposure to rewarding reads you’d never otherwise pick up.

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Sunja is born there around 1916. Her mother subsists running a humble boarding house. Teenaged Sunja is pursued, and impregnated, by businessman Koh Hansu. She vaguely expects marriage; but surprise surprise, he already has a wife back in Japan.

Then an ethereal young Korean Christian minister, Isak, rescues Sunja by marrying her. They relocate to Japan, where he has a posting waiting, and live with his brother and sister-in-law. The child is named Noa; later Isak and Sunja have their own son, Mozasu. (Their names are derived from Noah and Moses.) Both eventually wind up running pachinko parlors; pachinko is a pinball-like game very popular in Japan.

But the book’s main focus is on Korean identity in a Japanese culture that despises Koreans. They are stereotyped negatively and suffer systematic discrimination (despite the impossibility of identifying Koreans by appearance). Japan’s forcing many thousands of Korean women into brothels for soldiers during WWII is well known. Japan (unlike Germany) has been recalcitrant on repentance for this and other crimes.

The novel barely mentions those “comfort women,” but describes much other mistreatment suffered by Koreans. Isak is jailed, suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Emperor, and dies from his horrible ordeal.

Koreans living in Japan remain distinctly second-class citizens — if allowed citizenship at all, after generations of residence. Mozasu’s son, in 1989, works there for an investment bank, until he’s screwed over because he’s Korean.

But what really prompts me to write is Noa’s story. (BIG SPOILER ALERT) He didn’t know Koh Hansu was his real father. Koh reappears, now quite wealthy, as Noa’s benefactor, financing his much coveted university education. Noa and his mother Sunja are resistent, but accept Koh’s largesse. But then Noa’s girlfriend meets Koh, sees the resemblance, and taunts Noa with the obvious. Also that Koh must be a yakuza— a gangster.*

These revelations crush Noa. Cursing what his mother did, he runs away to start a new life, cutting all ties to his family, and starting his own new one, with a wife and children (and passing as Japanese). He sends Koh money to repay what he’d received. He also sends Sunja money but never divulges contact information. For sixteen years.

Finally Koh locates Noa, now 45, and Sunja goes to him, in his office. The reunion is difficult but doesn’t go too badly. Noa promises to come visit her. Then he shoots himself.

He had thought he’d escaped his parentage, but now must have realized he could not. And he could not live with that.

Koh was indeed a gangster. A nasty piece of work, as revealed in only a few glimpses. But as far as Sunja’s family knew, he was just a “businessman.” Noa’s girlfriend could not have known the truth about Koh, nor could Noa, it was just an unsubstantiated suspicion. Perhaps Noa should have probed further before shooting himself.

Or perhaps that’s nitpicking. The real issue here is the heart of human identity. Noah felt himself irremediably contaminated. He had bad blood.

This idea of “bad blood” reverberates throughout human history. The sins of the father visited upon the sons. How many people have indeed been punished for crimes or derelictions (real or just imagined) by forebears?

It’s the heart of racism. The notion that all members of some group are birds of a feather, sharing some (stereotyped) characteristics. As vividly depicted in this book, where the antipathy of Japanese toward “those people” (Koreans) is a constant.

Here’s some science. Biology is not destiny. Even where genes are indicative of certain behavioral traits (and there are such), genes never determine how any individual will behave in any situation. At most, they may delineate proclivities, but an individual’s actual behavior results from too many variables to be predicted by genes or anything else. And it’s certainly untrue that any human subgroup shares biologically determined behavioral traits (different from other subgroups).

Of course there are human behaviors, genetically evolved, which we share as a species. But they don’t differ among subgroups. And even if there were such subgroup-specific genes, their effect would be overwhelmed by all the other factors influencing a given individual’s personal behavior.

That’s not to deny cultural differences. Cultural groups do have their own characteristics, that’s the definition of culture. But it’s not genetic. Remove an individual at birth from their specific culture, and there’s no innate biological reason for replicating behavior particular to that culture.

So Noa’s human identity was not dictated by his father’s gangsterhood. His blood was no more bad than anyone else’s. It was up to him to shape his own life. And, even if there were gangster genes inherited from his father (a dubious idea), those genes would not anyway determine his own character, which would still be his to create.

You can be what you choose to be.

*An echo of Great Expectations? Noa studies literature — he loves Dickens!