Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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!

Sex, religion, and perversion

February 14, 2019

It started with civilization’s Middle Eastern beginnings, with the idea not that sex is dirty, exactly, but that afterwards you had to cleanse yourself, as part of an overall purification, before communing with the divine. But, as people will, some eventually carried this idea to an extreme, seeing sex as indeed dirty altogether.

There was a slight problem, inasmuch as sex was necessary for procreation (which everybody thought good). Well, okay, they said, so sex is acceptable but only for making babies, not to gratify lust. This is the Adam-and-Eve story. God did tell them to be fruitful, but Adam’s sin was doing it lustily rather than mere dispassionate fulfillment of duty. And note that it’s usually called Adam’s sin. There’s a reason. Ancient peoples didn’t read their biology books. They thought impregnation entailed a miniature person, in the sperm, being seeded into the woman’s body. They didn’t understand her genetic contribution. So while Adam’s “sin” was transmitted down the generations via repeated lustful couplings, that was only through the male line. Thus, voila, Jesus — immaculately conceived without sperm — was born free of original sin! Neat!

Eventually though, the Church realized this didn’t square with biology. So to fix the story, they belatedly (in 1854) posited that Mary too was — somehow — herself immaculately conceived.

You might be confused here, thinking the original sin was not lust but disobeying God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Same thing, said Saint Augustine (around 400 AD). The whole convoluted nonsense about “original sin” is traceable to him. Because he was tortured by his idea that the lust he himself experienced was a dirty sin that kept him from true communion with God. And, as Augustine’s legacy, Christians to this day torture themselves over this.

This attitude is itself a kind of sexual perversion. It loads ordinary, natural sex acts with a meaning and significance that make no sense. And, by the way, if humans were made in God’s image, does She feel lust? How does she handle it?

But actually we are products of biology. Even if you close your eyes to evolution, you cannot close them to biology, and the role of genes — with their be-all and end-all the promotion of reproduction.

One thing an organism needs to do to reproduce is to eat. Obviously. But (with very few exceptions) organisms aren’t smart enough to realize that. They need to be programmed by genes to eat; otherwise they’d just die without knowing why. So genes make organisms feel hunger, and feel good when eating.

What has this to do with sex? Everything. Would organisms even think of copulating (a pretty bizarre activity, really) if not biologically programmed to feel the analog of hunger, i.e., lust, and to feel good when satisfying it?

Nobody thinks hunger and eating are dirty or sinful. That would be nuts. So by what logic are the analogous lust and sex deemed sinful? Only by Augustine’s very twisted thinking.

Well, sex does bring a second person into the picture, which complicates matters. There’s always the key principle against gratifying oneself at another’s expense. So rape is a sin. Likewise assuaging hunger by eating another person. But that wouldn’t mean feeling hunger, or sexual desire, are themselves wrong. Only gratifying them in wrongful ways could be. (Which we don’t need God to tell us.)

Yet we so get our knickers in a twist over lust. The irrationality is exemplified by masturbation. Here (generally speaking) there’s no issue of harm to others.

An offense against God? Of course there’s no God, but even if there were, what kind of perverted human logic imputes to her a disapproval of self-gratification? What kind of perverted God would create us with powerful sex drives and punish us for expressing them in harmless ways that come naturally? It’s all hopelessly fucked up.

The ancient idea that conversation with the divine requires purification eventually got transmogrified into the Catholic Church’s priestly celibacy. As though sex is so profoundly dirty that no amount of pre-liturgical cleansing could suffice, hence our interlocutors with divinity must abjure sex altogether. So crazy extreme is this idea that the unsurprising result is to attract into the priesthood a disproportionate share of men whose own relationships with their sexuality are messed up.

Indeed, with more than just sexuality. There’s something deeply awry in the souls of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives to God’s work yet somehow convince themselves molesting choir boys is okay. Or that protecting rapists somehow serves God. Still holding themselves out as moral shepherds of their flocks. And what of the sheep who look to such men as their shepherds?

The Catholic Church may be a special case, but other faiths have similar fundamental hang-ups about sex. They condemn homosexuality as a sinful perversion, while loading up on guilt even over normal heterosexual feelings. Thus denying gays — and themselves as well — the right to feelings which cannot be willed away. Who are the real perverts?

Sholem Aleichem and my Jewish roots and American identity

January 18, 2019

We watched a PBS documentary about Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) — making me ponder what I feel as my personal identity.

People used to be securely rooted in distinct cultures, but those boundaries have become fluid in today’s cosmopolitan world. Yet many still crave the belongingness of cultural identity. (It’s a big factor in Trumpism.)

Sholem Aleichem’s roots were in the Jewish shtetl culture of Russia and Eastern Europe. Mine too. My mother (now 98) arrived in America in 1938 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. My paternal grandparents were apparently born here, but their ancestry was in Sholem Aleichem country. “Robinson” was presumably anglicized from something like Rabinovich (which was Sholem Aleichem’s original name too).

I had long supposed that all these Jews were traceable back to the Holyland. But when I wrote an autobiography, research indicated that isn’t likely. We may well have derived instead from the Khazars, a Central Asian people whose ruler, for some reason, decided to go Jewish around a millennium ago. (Making “anti-Semitism” a misnomer; the Khazars were not Middle Eastern Semites.)

Sholem Aleichem bopped around various European locales but finally wound up in America — like a couple million other Jews. The documentary said most jettisoned their traditions. “Tradition”  is the insistent refrain of a lead song in Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Sholem Aleichem’s work. Again we see the powerful role of cultural tradition in delineating one’s personal identity.

Religion is a big element of that. And many Jews in America have — like me — eschewed the religion. A big issue for Fiddler’s main character Tevye was his daughter’s marrying a non-Jew. As many American Jews have — like me — also done.

But a great thing about the human animal is our adaptability, always changing ourselves to fit new circumstances. And if we Americans of Jewish ethnicity have cast off old traditions, it is to create new ones.

Yet my lineage is by no means irrelevant to who I am. My Jewish immigrant heritage is important to it — not the Jewish part so much as the immigrant part. I feel spiritual kinship with all those who made the journey; the leaving behind and the creating anew. That indeed is the very essence of what America represents. This country was conceived as a new human beginning, free of all the stifling old baggage of the lands from whence we came.

So my identity is as an American. I feel embedded in that American story of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” to reinvent not only themselves but the world. Creating a great society where human beings can best flourish. America has indeed enabled me to have a wonderful life, and that’s thanks to its openness and fundamental character, which has been such a magnet for others to come here.

Many Americans today, however, see their identities rooted not in such universal ideas and values but rather in an ethnic parochialism. Thus the hostility to those migrants who are the latest legions of “wretched refuse” knocking on our golden door. Thousands of children, taken away from their parents, are in detention camps, in horrible conditions. This cruel inhuman treatment, by an America that seems to have forgotten its own true identity, breaks my heart.

UPDATE: I received a message from Kevin Alan Brook who authored a book addressing recent DNA evidence about the origins of European (Ashkenazic) Jews. He says there actually is no material Khazar connection after all. I will quote his e-mail: “About 45-50 percent of Ashkenazic DNA derives from the ancient Israelites. The deep-ancestry calculator Eurogenes K36 has categories called “Near Eastern”, “East Mediterranean”, “Arabian”, “Armenian”, and “West Caucasian” and Ashkenazim always score big amounts in those.”

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

Jamal Khashoggi, and murderers we love

October 16, 2018

The rule used to be that you could murder all the people you liked within your own borders, but doing it elsewhere was a no-no.

Or was it?

Trotsky

In 1940, Stalin’s arch-nemesis Trotsky, having been thrown out of Russia, lived in exile in Mexico. But Stalin still wanted him dead, and an agent of the Soviet secret police killed him with an ice axe. Exiled Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed in 1978 in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. Alexander Litvinienko, a defector from Russian Intelligence, was murdered in London in 2006 with radioactive poison. More recently a similar defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived a nerve agent attack that wound up killing a British woman. Iran’s regime has perpetrated the overseas murder of many opponents including a former prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, killed near Paris. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his half-brother murdered in a foreign airport. Israel has done an overseas job on a Hamas terrorist. China has grabbed an inconvenient person in Thailand to whisk him back.

Khashoggi and fiancee

The latest, of course, is journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, who had left the country in 2017, relocating to America and writing for the Washington Post. On October 2, he went to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey for some routine paperwork relating to his upcoming marriage, while his fiancee waited outside. Apparently knowing of Khashoggi’s plans, the Saudis had flown in 15 operatives, on two private planes, arriving and leaving the same day. Inside the consulate, they tortured Khashoggi to death, chopped up his body, and somehow disposed of it. These facts are pretty much beyond dispute.

Saudi Arabia’s nominal king is Salman (the last of the numerous sons from the harem of the founding King Saud), but the real ruler is Salman’s 33-year-old son and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”).

MBS

This family’s rule has never been exactly benevolent. But MBS, under the guise of modernizing and reforming the Saudi state, is actually taking it to the next level of viciousness. (Women are now allowed to drive — while advocates for their driving are being locked up.) Apparently MBS’s model for a modern state is Putin’s Russia.

And apparently this young genius MBS either imagined nobody would notice 15 guys flown in and out and Khashoggi missing, or else imagined that the world would simply yawn and move on. As to the latter, he might yet turn out to be right.

With the fact of the murder no longer plausibly deniable — facts do actually still have a toehold in this world, imagine that! So retro!! — now the Plan B is the “rogue elements” line. That is, MBS had no knowledge of those 15 guys and two planes, of course he would never have countenanced such a horrible crime. Of course not. Or maybe they never intended to kill Khashoggi, just a little good-natured horseplay, and it got out of hand. Something like that.

Trump, with his usual eloquence, said what the Saudis did was “not good.” He said there would be “severe punishment” if it were proven true. Of course, in Trumpland, words don’t necessarily mean what you or I might think they mean. Especially the word “true.” But anyhow, the “severe punishment” would not include canceling our arms deal with the Saudi regime, because that might cost us money. So now we know exactly how much, in dollars, America’s morality, principles and ideals are worth. (And never mind that the Saudis use our weapons to commit horrendous atrocities in Yemen.)

But now Trump is himself mouthing the slimy “rogue elements” lie to get MBS off the hook. Trump is not going to smack MBS, because he loves dictators, bad guys, ruthless villains, and killers. Because looking at them is like looking in the mirror. At least he fancies himself in their tough guy image.

This is in fact the Trump who recently stated that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love. (“No, really!” Trump added; “He wrote me beautiful letters.”) Yes, our president has fallen in love with the blood-soaked North Korean dictator who had his uncle killed with anti-aircraft guns and his half-brother poisoned in a Malaysian airport. Melania, asked recently about Trump’s affairs with porn stars, said that doesn’t faze her. But what about this thing with Kim Jong-un? This is different; Trump never said he’d fallen in love with any porn stars.

Is there a new “first lady” in our future?

(Note to readers: nothing in this blog post, unfortunately, is satire.)

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.