Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Introverts versus Extroverts – A Personal Take

July 1, 2015

imagesAre you an introvert or extrovert? I sure know which I am. (Why do you think I’m sitting here by myself writing a blog?)

One of my book groups has read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The basic theme is that introverts aren’t defective, just different, indeed in some ways superior, and the world can benefit from that. There are more introverts than you think; many hide it.

I believe we read books like this to better understand people, but especially to find ourselves in their pages, and ponder the comparisons and contrasts with others. Certainly true for me. I had many flashes of recognition reading Cain’s book.

A repeated motif is how introverted children and youths suffer, trying to fit in. This I did not experience at all. Why? I think I was such an extreme introvert, so socially isolated, that other kids, and their attitude toward me, just didn’t matter to me; hardly even registered with me. Maybe that was good because I grew up uninjured. Albeit socially clueless.

UnknownOne take-away from the book is that it’s complicated. There are so many convoluted and seemingly contradictory points about intro/extroversion that one’s head spins. It’s no clear-cut, either/or thing. It’s a spectrum, and moreover, what Cain calls intro- and extroversion each entails such a host of disparate characteristics that any given person can mix-and-match.

Surely true of me, despite my childhood. I’m not a down-the-line introvert (or libertarian or conservative). But I do tick a lot of the boxes. One in the book that really rang my bell: “I often prefer to express myself in writing.” images-1Bingo! E.g., this blog again. But it also brought to mind how often in my romantic history I’d felt compelled to take pen to paper, composing some immensely long screed trying to set things right with a woman. (It never worked, except for the last time.)

One introvert profiled in the book, who experienced childhood agony, but wound up successful and happy, says he frequently imagines going back to tell his nine-year-old self how well it will all turn out. Another flash of recognition for me: I do this too. But for my self in my twenties. If I didn’t suffer as a kid, I did then – over women. images-2So I like to go back and tell that earlier self about the fantastic wife he’ll wind up with. I even show him a photo. (But, unlike the guy in the book, I don’t think the message actually got through.)

Another profile, of an introvert-and-extrovert married couple, also gave me an aha! moment, and fresh insight concerning my relationship with Pam, who lived with me unhappily and finally left after twelve years. She was initially attracted to me because I did something much out of character (as a “bad boy;” I’ve written about this), but I didn’t live up to the promise of that episode, and she came to peg me, understandably, at the wrong end of the cold/hot spectrum. Interestingly, that needle moved in my favor (temporarily) when, toward the end, I again did something uncharacteristically hot blooded – a play for another woman. But meantime, our frequent quarrels much resembled those of the couple in the book. Pam was a volatile let-loose type, whereas I, always futilely seeking to dampen conflict, would try to be as restrained as possible in responding. This actually drove her nuts – just like the husband in the book.

So – how did the ultra-introvert child become a seemingly more or less almost normal adult? The book talks a lot about the coping strategies of introverts for achieving their goals, mostly faking extroversion at times. But in my own case, my saving grace was ultra-rationalism. Whereas the book portrays introverts as often struggling with fears, phobias, and anxieties, I never did. Unknown-1A salient example is the extremely common fear of appearing in public. I’ve done it fairly often; I know I’m okay at it; so I’ve never had any stage fright. I think I’m really good at sizing up risks rationally and seeing them in proper perspective.

(Not that I claim perfect, consistent rationality. E.g., with Pam; and (see below) my career choice.)

The book makes a strong case for free will – emotions may be hard to control, but we can and do control our behavior. Introverts especially, tending to be sensitive and reflective. When I finally got out of school (and, importantly, my parents’ home), like many introverts I changed my behavior to get what I wanted. It wasn’t a social life, exactly; what I wanted was girls. Unknown-2So I started doing social things, to meet them (this was pre-Tinder); and brazenly asking out any girl on any pretext. If she laughed in my face (it happened), would it be The End Of The World? That was again my ultra-rationalism at work, figuring the potential gains outweighed the costs. (Though it did take persistence, it paid off in the end, with a jackpot.)

Career is a particular problem for introverts, in a world where “hail fellow well met” is the ideal and flash often trumps substance. While one can, again, fake it, up to a point, the book emphasizes that there are actually a lot of ways for introverts to succeed. It profiles one classic introvert who became a super salesman – basically by perfecting the art of listening to customers. The thing is to seek a career path that actually fits one’s personality type. imagesI became a lawyer – a big mistake of my clueless youth – yet luckily stumbled into a job where most of my work was solitary. (No law firm would hire me; I must have been abysmal in interviews.) Later I stumbled into a different remunerative career (coin dealer) where I rarely even have to encounter other humans in the flesh. Perfect!

The End of (Working Class) Men*

June 23, 2015

UnknownAmerican women earn only 78% of what men do. We’ve all heard this cause celebre. It’s utterly bogus. Women’s pay averages less than men’s because they do different jobs. But for comparable jobs, women who work as long as men earn virtually the same. And women tend to have different careers not because of discrimination but mainly because they’re different from men, with different temperaments, proclivities, talents, and goals. (If businesses really could hire equally qualified women cheaper than men, why would they employ any men?)

Meantime, all the nonsense about underpaid women misses something very important happening to men: their elimination from working class families.

imagesAnother cause celebre is inequality. But resentment against the 1% similarly misses the real problem, the growing societal divide between the well educated and the less educated. The former group tends to be affluent, and married, with stable families whose children repeat this. The less educated do not.** There’s your real inequality.

This story is complex. The pill, and entering the workforce, freed women from a lot of social and economic constraints toward getting and staying married. Unwed motherhood lost its stigma. Divorce got easier. And, while among the educated affluent, men remained attractive marriage partners, working class men did not. Indeed, lower income women can lose government benefits if they marry.

Unknown-1More: with educational opportunities equalized, females are proving better than males at school. That difference of temperament again. And a recent piece in The Economist showed how misleading is the idea of a pro-male pay gap, when it comes to the blue collar world. It profiled a Louisiana town where a lot of conventional “man jobs” have disappeared, leaving many males as unemployed layabouts. Yet, The Economist observes, plenty of the town’s women are working (and getting by, with no help from men): in motels, restaurants, shops, clinics, hair salons, government offices, etc. Unskilled, poorly educated men are unlikely to get, or even seek, many such jobs; less apt to be punctual, or pleasant to customers.

images-2This drains the pool of marriageable blue collar men. Jail drains it further (especially among blacks). And that marriage market imbalance between the sexes gets magnified because “when women outnumber men, men become cads” (according to a study quoted by The Economist). That is, men in this social milieu, in a seller’s market, sensing they have the upper hand and access to sex, tend to treat women more abusively and less faithfully.

Further, whereas educated affluent males have gotten with the program of gender equality, helping with housework and child care, typical blue collar guys haven’t received this memo.

images-3All this makes working class women get fed up with them (recalling Gloria Steinem’s line, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”). Even when they do marry, they report significantly less marital happiness than better educated and affluent couples, hence they’re more likely to split.

So it becomes a vicious circle in which mothers without husbands raise sons to predictably repeat the syndrome: no education, no job, no wife, no family, no nothin’. A much bigger societal problem than that phony 78% pay gap.

What can be done? The Economist suggests making school more boy-friendly. Certainly it’s criminal how many don’t even finish high school. For those, all other public policy ideas are probably futile. I’ve noted, too, how kids can be educated to pass the marshmallow test – imbuing a personality trait shown to be critical for life success. And, of course, we could at least correct the daft welfare and tax policies that, to this day, still penalize marriage.

But in the long run, men are probably doomed, with science enabling women to procreate without them.

Unknown-2* Hanna Rosin has authored a book called The End of Men. This recalls a riff in David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, chronicling the rise of an imagined public intellectual, whose first book is always titled “The End of” something. It’s indeed remarkable how many there are: The End of History; Faith; Blackness; Plenty; College; Poverty; Self-Help; Stress; America; Nature; Fashion; Socialism; The Suburbs; Normal; Science; War; Dieting; Illness; Everything. That’s just a sampling.

** A recent news story reported data showing marriage raises incomes, with married men earning much more than bachelors. Surely this has causation backwards: higher earning men are the more likely to be married.


June 23, 2015

The irony of such blows for “white supremacy” is their demonstrating its fallacy — showing what better people the blacks are than the shooter. (Also, he might have finally succeeded in getting his beloved Confederate flag removed from the state capitol.)

America’s Political Decay

June 19, 2015

UnknownA favorite book of mine is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992). He argued that centuries of ideological conflict had essentially ended with the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets — because they fulfill deeply felt needs for self-realization and dignity. A beautiful story.

Unknown-1Not so fast, says . . . Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay. Not that we’re going back to tyranny or socialism. But there’s trouble in paradise, and it’s right here in River City (America), poster boy for the political decay of the title.

Our political divide is between government lovers and haters – big government “progressives” versus small government conservatives. Yet the size and scope of government is not the whole story; quality matters. Big government wouldn’t be so bad if it were good government. imagesBut what gets lost between the two camps is that, as Fukuyama explicates, America’s quality of government has deteriorated steadily and markedly over the last half century.

Why? Ironically, a big factor is the distrust of government built into America’s DNA, which actually makes it hard for government to function well (thus fueling more distrust). Born of revolt against an imperious king, we created a cat’s cradle of checks and balances. That was fine as long as government didn’t do very much. But as its remits proliferated in the modern era, so have the societal interests wanting a say and making demands. The result is what Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy” – a system with so many points where one force can block others that meaningful action becomes impossible.Unknown-2

A related problem is that, by way of example, the relatively few farmers who gain greatly from farm subsidies will fight hard for them, while the mass of consumers and taxpayers, each harmed only a little, do nothing. Bad programs become impervious to change because someone always benefits.

Unknown-3Also, things weren’t too bad when one party had clear dominance and could, within limits, work its will. But now America is closely riven between two parties, each more ideologically cohesive than ever and ruled by activists seeing the other as satanic. Forget about conciliation and compromise.

Distrust of government furthermore leads us to circumscribe the actions of bureaucrats by a welter of rules, curbing their discretion. This produces exactly what we hate – a bureaucratic bureaucracy so tangled in overly complex red tape that common sense is lost.

images-1The U.S. Forest Service illustrates the syndrome. Fukuyama discusses how it began as a model for effective government during the Progressive era, led by the great reformer Gifford Pinchot. But gradually its mission got confused by layers of congressional mandates (often contradicting each other) and submerged under increasingly inflexible administrative procedures; all worsened by pressures from disparate interest groups with conflicting agendas. Our guide on our recent Yosemite tour remarked that the Forest Service doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing anymore. (See also my post about the TSA, whose mission quickly degenerated into one of following dumb procedures rather than actually targeting threats.)

Unknown-4Then there’s something unique to America. Our separation of powers gives a bigger role to courts than in any other country. This has made us peculiarly a nation of lawyers and litigation; exacerbated by legislation that often effectively delegates policy initiatives to implementation through litigation by private parties. (A good example, not mentioned by Fukuyama, is the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawyers are a major interest group.) This is cumbersome, costly, and opaque, not very efficacious, and lacking in democratic accountability. No other country operates like this. They think it’s bonkers.

All these factors lead Fukuyama to deem America an outlier on the spectrum of difficulty of decision making. We have the most rigid, ineffectual, and reform-proof governmental model of any advanced democracy. This is why so many problems cry out for action – crumbling infrastructure, the immigration mess, and our glide path toward fiscal ruin, to name a few – but nothing can get done. (See my review of That Used to Be Us.)

Is there any hope of fixing this? No. (Sorry – I am an optimist, but a rational one.) Fukuyama pretty much agrees. Americans revere our constitution but frankly, while it worked great for most of our history, now it’s broken. But given that reverence, radical change (like switching to a parliamentary type system where government is much more able to accomplish things*) is inconceivable. (Yet a conceivable and important reform would be to eliminate the Senate filibuster rule and consequent need for 60 votes, not in the Constitution.)

For all I’ve written here, America’s saving grace is that government isn’t everything. Thank God for the private sector. Unknown-5This country’s dynamism is rooted in the energies and imaginations of its people, finding ways of getting on with things, regardless of bad government. Fukuyama, in the end, recognizes this; and moreover concludes by saying that despite the problems of democratic government, it still feeds the basic human hunger for agency – control over our lives. If government transmogrifies into controlling too much**, the remedy isn’t authoritarian rule, which controls even more; and those countries retaining it are still on the wrong side of history.

I can only sadly shake my head when people blithely talk of turning over yet more responsibilities, like health care, to government. “Progressives” never seem to learn from how often government tramples their professed values. There’s a wide gap between their lofty ideal of government and its reality.

* It does work well with a strong two-party system like Britain’s; but with fractured politics like Israel’s, not so much.

** I recently attended a talk about negotiating the bureaucratic gauntlet to move a patient from hospital to long term care. I asked, when and how did this stop being the exclusive province of family members? “I don’t know,” the speaker said, “but it isn’t right.”

Yosemite Rocks

June 15, 2015

IMG_5255California is full of exceptionally cheerful people – judging from our recent trip there. Store clerks, flight attendants, passers-by, etc., all over.

We visited my mom, a Costco fan, so we made the obligatory expedition. It’s fun because of all the free samples given out. One big promotion was for a line of health drinks. The colors looked like you might want to paint military vehicles with, but not put in your mouth. However, an attractive young black gal was so upbeat about it, assuring me the drinks are “really really good,” that I agreed to a sip. “’Really really good’ is not the phrase that comes to mind,” I said. “Maybe ‘barely palatable.’”

IMG_5212Even the woman behind us in line with children seemed cheery in saying, “Don’t ask about my troubles.”

So of course I asked, “What are your troubles?”

“Too many kids.”

“How many is that?”


“I agree, too many. How old are you?”

“That’s an inappropriate question!”

“Well, seems relevant to having five kids.”

“Thirty six.”

IMG_4949Maybe it’s the weather out there that makes people extra cheerful (despite all the problems, like a major drought, or five kids). But one reason I love America is that a positive attitude is a part of our culture. This includes black people who we’re told are (or should be) full of resentment against whites. Not in my experience; to the contrary, blacks (like that Costco gal) seem perfectly cordial and often smile at me. Maybe it’s my fuzzy beard.

IMG_5159Then we went to Yosemite; my wife made all the arrangements, booking a suite at the lodge so our daughter (this was our last trip with her before she goes up over Jordan) could have her own room. At check-in we were given a map to find our unit. Perusing it, I remarked, “This seems to show we have a private pool.” And we did – a beautiful full-size resort pool, with patio, deck chairs, umbrellas, hot tub, and even a barbecue installation. The house – our “suite” was a house – was as big as our home – and much nicer.

IMG_5040After oohing and aahing, I finally said to my wife, “Um – how much are we paying for this?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I forgot to ask.”


Back at the front desk, I said, “Ahem, there seems to have been a wee misunderstanding . . . . ” Naturally, no other rooms were available just then. However, our luxury suite turned out to cost much less than I’d guessed, so we agreed to stay two nights there before switching to more plebeian digs.

Yosemite is basically just a valley that was reamed out by a giant glacier. But what a valley. And what an artistic glacier.

IMG_4913We didn’t see the companion park, Antisemite. Actually, the continuation is Hetch Hetchy which, controversially, was flooded a century ago to create a reservoir. John Muir fought it. Yet life is all about trade-offs. People need Yosemites; but also reservoirs. Now California has both, and I think Yosemite is big enough. In four days we didn’t nearly see it all.

IMG_4905We started with an excellent one-day van tour with Close-Up Tours. The guide, Ira Estin, was yet another cheerful fellow, and we liked him enough to hire him for two more days as our private guide. Ira was very knowledgeable about the best spots, especially for photography. (Check out his own beautiful work at his website.)

IMG_5071Yosemite has a lot of rocks. Big ones. Truly big, tossed about by that glacier. Gives you a real respect for glaciers. If you like rocks, this is the place for you.

There are also a lot of trees, and some of those are pretty humongous too. But as Ronald Reagan said (quoted by Ira, though I assured him Reagan was being facetious), “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” However, one spot Ira took us to was a recently burned forest, which was different, and very cool. (Cooled, at least.)

bearWe also saw waterfalls, deer, bears, a coyote, daredevil climbers (through Ira’s telescope), whitewater, squirrels, ducks, lots of Chinese tourists, and so forth.

I recently reviewed Sam Harris’s Waking Up; “mindfulness” and losing the self feature prominently. In Yosemite I overheard a woman tell her little boy, “ . . . I meant losing yourself in the scenery – not getting lost literally.” (She enjoyed my laughter.) But the scenic surroundings were indeed so awesome that it was just about possible at times to lose myself and just be “in the moment.” Our Vernal Fall hike was like that. But even while being “in the moment” there, I was still conscious of anticipating the cold coke I’d have afterwards.

IMG_5134Anyhow, it’s a spectacular place. We give Yosemite five stars.

(The Yosemite photos here were all by Elizabeth Robinson, except those with her in them, taken by Ira.)

Human Hubris and Skyscrapers

June 11, 2015

Unknown“Hubris” is a favorite word of misanthropic cynics. For the Greeks it meant overweening pride – that presages a fall. For many moderns it means humans too uppity, too full of themselves, foolishly imagining they can overcome nature. (Here’s an example.)

The Wright Brothers had this hubris.

Recently my wife and I watched a PBS documentary about the 2011-13 construction of London’s Leadenhall Building, nicknamed “The Cheese Grater” for its unusual shape. (How great to have a wife who, while totally feminine, enjoys a show about building construction.) Those builders too had hubris.

imagesIsn’t “skyscraper” a splendid word? The first was the Tower of Babel, an attempt to build up to the sky – whose hubris God knocked down. But that was mythical, and didn’t daunt future builders from trying again – and reaching the destination. Thumbing their noses at that God and the hubris-mongers.

The Leadenhall Building was an extraordinary project. It exemplifies my own watchword for humanity, rejecting the hubris canard – “the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.” That building overcame a lot of seeming impossibilities, yet went up in record time to boot.

The problem was the site: hemmed in by existing buildings, thus far too cramped to allow construction of a new one by normal methods. So they had to do something different: building it off-site.

images-1That’s right: much of the construction work that would conventionally be done in situ was indeed performed hundreds of miles away, creating pieces of a monumental jigsaw puzzle that was shipped in and assembled within the site’s space constraints. That was only the beginning of the innovation. The unusual tapered shape was necessitated by the requirement to preserve views of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This limited upper floor space. To compensate for that, whereas a standard skyscraper is built around a supporting core, this one instead employed an outer exoskeleton, to maximize useable interior floor space. Also, whereas normally a building’s “works” of air conditioning and heating equipment, and so forth, goes in the basement, this one put it on top – requiring quite a tricky ballet to hoist it all up and then insert it through just-large-enough roof apertures.

A similar maneuver in New York recently saw a massive air conditioning unit fall 28 stories; 10 people were hurt. Accidents happen. This doesn’t deter us. Crashes don’t stop aviation either. We learn from them and go forward. Hubris? No, perseverance.

images-2After completion, the Leadenhall Building settled a bit out of alignment. But this in fact had been planned for too. They jacked up the building – yes, the entire edifice – in order to remove some structural components and thereby correct the one-inch misalignment. The guy in charge of this little operation was quite matter-of-fact about it. No problem.

It was mind-boggling to contemplate the project’s immensity – the amount of insanely complex pre-engineering and planning required to make this construction go off like clockwork, all the problems and challenges and inevitable glitches that had to be overcome, and the coordinated efforts of so many disparate workmen, both at the site and in the factories that created the colossal prefabricated modules for assembly. What an impressive illustration of what is really, evolutionarily, humanity’s great “killer app” – social cooperation.

If this be hubris, take pride in it.

P.S. I can’t resist noting, this was not a government project.


Police, Blacks, Prisons, Drugs, and Neighborhoods

May 18, 2015

UnknownAmerica – “Land of the Free” – leads the world in locking people up. Yes, our incarceration rates exceed those in the most repressive countries like Russia or China.

Can it be that Americans lead the world in criminality? I think not.

Our over-incarceration is really a case of black over-incarceration. The black percentage of inmates way exceeds their percentage of the general population. It’s a holocaust for black communities and a significant contributor to our gaping socio-economic divide. I’ve written about how single motherhood exacerbates that divide. Over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers – partly because so many black men’s marriageability is reduced by the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee, over half the black men in their thirties have been in prison.

It’s tempting to say, well, all this does reflect a higher rate of criminal behavior – if blacks didn’t do so many crimes they wouldn’t fill the prisons. But, in partial answer, blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for comparable offenses. And one reason for that is blacks are more targeted by police. Discrimination? Rather, it’s mainly because they live in more crime-ridden areas.

imagesNow we get into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Citizens in crime-infested neighborhoods need more police attention, for their own protection. And obviously it makes sense for police to deploy resources to locales where crime is concentrated. But on the other hand, if you go looking for something, chances are you will find it – so heavy police attention in black neighborhoods means that a lot of blacks will get caught up in that net, whereas quiet white neighborhoods are lightly policed with consequently fewer arrests.

UnknownThis sounds like a hopeless dilemma. But there’s another big fact: a lot of black arrests and imprisonments are drug-related. This is a huge wound for America that is self-inflicted. Whatever may be the harm of drug use, the harm of the “War on Drugs” is vastly greater. And if decriminalization led to more drug use – very doubtful – the harm of that increase would be vastly outweighed by the societal benefits of stopping the misguided drug war.images-1

Citizens in crime-ridden black neighborhoods do not benefit when police pull out half the males for drug-related offenses. They would benefit, greatly, if police could stop doing that, to concentrate their efforts instead on combating the violent crimes, muggings, burglaries, etc, that plague these neighborhoods. That would go far toward mending the broken relationships between the police and the policed.

Another point: kids growing up in bad neighborhoods tend to do badly, and bad neighborhoods are hard to fix (as half a century of well-intentioned social programs proves). But The Economist recently noted some pilot programs giving people vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Voilà, their children did better. But, the magazine lamented, giving every poor black family such a “golden ticket” would cost about $30 billion a year. Unknown-1My reaction: Say what? Only $30 billion?! Why, the government loses more than that between its sofa cushions. (Almost literally: it’s estimated the feds make $125 billion in improper payments annually.) Thirty billion is less than 1% of the federal budget. Sounds like a no-brainer bargain to me, surely a better expenditure than all those other social programs mentioned.

“I Want Frida Kahlo’s Face Tattooed on my Ass”

May 13, 2015

images-1We recently attended Albany’s Tulip/Pinkster-fest, with numerous vendor booths. The first modern one was held in 1972, reviving an old festival; I was actually one of its organizers, and I set up myself there, displaying my surrealist paintings. Untitled-1A gal painter had set up next to me, and we wound up going home together. Nice. However, our relationship didn’t get too far, as she was an ex-nun, and I, of course, was not.

Prominent at this year’s fest was soap – booth after booth featuring fancy soaps. Are we developing a Japanese-style cleanliness fetish? One might snigger at the consumerism that makes such a big thing of soap. But actually, though we take it for granted, soap was one of Mankind’s greatest inventions. You might have thought it would put the perfume industry out of business, but no, that still seems to flourish as well. Anyhow, I think it’s absolutely wonderful to be living in a society so affluent that fancy soaps can sustain so many enterprises. If folks enjoy soap, I don’t want some holier-than-thou anti-consumerist scolds telling them they’re wrong.

A snippet of conversation overheard while wending our way through the dense crowds: “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass.”

images-2Now, I frankly don’t get all this tattooing. I happen to think it messes up the appearance of girls who would otherwise be quite attractive. And for that matter, I don’t get the Frida Kahlo thing either. OK, she was maybe an interesting artist, but was she, like, the female Picasso? I don’t think so. Seems she’s been raised to some kind of iconic pedestal because she was treated like dirt by her more famous artist boyfriend. This is feminism?

Anyhow, hearing “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass” was the highlight of my Pinksterfest experience. You can’t make up gems like that.

Or maybe I mis-heard it.

Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – A Humanist Monument

May 9, 2015

Unknown-1It was a little before 10 AM; I was enjoying the lovely weather, in my comfy lounge chair outdoors, working on a coin catalog, when my wife drove up and, with tears in her eyes, said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Recently on a New York jaunt we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was impressive and moving.

UnknownThe memorial pools have a beautiful grandeur that photos do not convey. The museum too is, of course, a memorial to the 2,977 people lost; and one alcove, displaying all their photos, gives a sobering sense of just how many people that was – real people, not faceless numbers.

But mainly it is actually a memorial to the buildings. Now, we have visited numerous sites and museums with ruins, but this is different. Here are the ruins of buildings that were part of my own life. The PSC where I worked had offices there, and over many years I attended numerous hearings there, sometimes for weeks at a time. Also, the annual international coin show was held there; the last in December 2000.

Unknown-2Yet this is a profoundly humanist monument. In memorializing those buildings, the museum memorializes the people who built them, showing what a stupendous undertaking and achievement this was. The contrast, though unstated, is inevitable, between the soaring ambition and effort of those people, and what can be said of the ones who authored the destruction.

Of them the museum is, fittingly I thought, silent (except for a solitary exhibit case concerning the Abbottabad mission). The destroyers would have said they acted for God, and that was another thing fittingly absent from the museum – the word God. Given America’s pervasive religiosity, the omission reflected remarkable restraint by the museum’s creators, who eschewed all sorts of mawkishness that would have detracted from the solemnity. They seemed instead to follow the principle of res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself.

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

I am proud to be part of a society that conceived and built those buildings, as well as this memorial – and the new tower. It’s a better society than the one that spawned the destroyers.

Slavery and American Capitalism

April 29, 2015

imagesRecently I presented a book review talk at the Albany Public Library; the book was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Before being asked to do this, I well remembered the review in The Economist. It concluded, “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” I said to myself: Whoah!

And I also remembered what happened next — something I’d never before seen in The Economist. An “editor’s note” appeared, apologizing for, and withdrawing, that book review. images-1Particularly regarding those quoted final lines, the editor said there had been widespread criticism, and rightly so; that the great majority of slavery’s victims had been blacks, “and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”

Thus spake The Economist. If you’d like to see my review of the book, I have uploaded the text (unsuitably long for a blog post); click here. Mostly, it’s a portrayal of slavery. Warning: not a pretty picture.


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