Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Cancel culture and “The Human Stain”

March 20, 2021

Coleman Silk was a dynamo college dean who put his school on the map. Now he’s teaching a classics seminar; two students enrolled therein have never attended. “Does anyone know them?” he asks. “Do they exist, or are they spooks?”

That’s the set-up for Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, The Human Stain.

Turns out the students were Black. A complaint is lodged. Silk insists “spooks” meant ghosts, not a racial slur. He digs in; nobody backs him; winds up resigning in a huff. Which only seems to corroborate the odor of racism.

Making a big deal out of so obviously innocent a word usage might seem outlandish. Yet cases like this have proliferated since Roth wrote; “cancel culture” prosecutors lacking all sense of their extremist aburdism.

The subject was explored in Skidmore Professor Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue (which I’ve reviewed). Since its publication another Skidmore prof met with calls for his firing, after his silently observing a “Blue Lives Matter” demonstration. Now even silence can be construed as “hate speech.” 

Whose definition, of course, is any idea or opinion not rigidly conforming to the ideological catechism of today’s “woke” left-wing political correctness. Whose culture warriors are ever on the warpath for heretics to persecute.

More recently, Skidmore’s student government refused to allow Young American Libertarians to organize on campus. Saying YAL might make some students feel unsafe. Because YAL might engage in “hate speech.” Not that it has; it might. While in fact, what really makes everyone feel unsafe on campuses is this atmosphere of intolerant repression, with dire consequences for any perceived verbal misstep. 

The woke Thought Police seem oblivious to how this horrifies normal sane people. “Cancel culture” hands the right an issue they exploit. Meantime, there’s almost nothing else in today’s right-wing belief system that doesn’t flout reality. Take your pick between those ugly extremes.

Roth’s own view is clear. Near the end, Coleman’s teacher sister delivers a damning indictment of how the modern education establishment betrays the essence of what education should be. Opening minds, not closing them.

Back to Coleman himself, his grievance against the college intensifies when his wife dies, killed by the “spooks” controversy, he feels. One of his children, Mark — always estranged, with some deep attitudinal problem — says the whole mess could have been defused by Coleman simply apologizing for the word. Roth doesn’t dwell on this, but Mark is, oddly enough, dead right. However, Coleman could not have apologized because of who he was.

And who was he, really? That’s what the novel is mainly about.

Coleman was, you see (spoiler alert), Black. Passing for white for half a century. How central (or not) to Coleman’s inner reality was his great secret? The narrator (Roth’s alter ego) poses the question, but cannot answer it. 

A white girlfriend of two years didn’t know. When Coleman finally takes her to meet his family, she freaks out and is gone. He won’t make that mistake again, and tells his mother so. Resulting in his banishment from the family.

But it’s not a simple story. Roth, a consummate novelist, peels away layer after layer, and not just for Coleman, but other characters too, probing and probing what makes them tick.

One is Faunia, half Coleman’s age, become his lover. Seemingly the very picture of a beaten-down woman. Some assume Coleman is likewise ruthlessly exploiting her. But that’s not so. What is it, exactly, that they have together? Not simple either. Sex is key, and there are denials that it’s more than just sex, but saying “just sex” is wrong because their sex carries a heavy load of more fundamental human intimacy. How the author juxtaposes and balances these almost contradictory aspects of the relationship is a novelistic tour-de-force.

Indeed, he’s a master word-slinger, playing the language like Yefim Bronfman plays a piano. The book describes Bronfman himself doing just that at a rehearsal. Here is the passage, the power of Roth’s prose mirroring the very thing it describes:

“Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything out there in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody — not if Bronfman has anything to say about it!”

Bronfman is not the only actual personage popping up in the novel. I was tickled to see there someone with whom I myself had a recent phone conversation. 

How to write a blog

March 16, 2021

I think about things. About what’s happening in the world, my life, things I read, etc. Being exposed to much thought-provoking content, it literally provokes thought. And I feel I have by now gradually developed a framework of sound basic ideas and perspectives about life and the world, to put such thoughts into proper context.* 

This is the impetus for my blog writing. I have a lot to say. Self-expression is a common enough impulse, but the idea of possibly influencing, enlightening, or just entertaining other people is an important propellant for my writing. But actually I do it mainly for myself. I love language as well as ideas, so putting the two together, finding just the right words to express ideas, has become part of my very being.

The way it works is that the seed for a piece, its theme, will lodge in my head and start sprouting limbs — concepts and tropes connected to it. My mind commences to play with the pieces, seeing how to fit them together into some cogent whole. When it’s something in the news, further things I’m hearing or reading about it add to the stew.

After these ingredients slosh around my brain for a while, the thing jells sufficiently that it’s time to put pen to paper. I like to sit back in a comfy chair and write longhand. A discrete concept can take several sentences to express. Doing so can be challenging. Words are, of course, a tremendous tool for thinking. Yet I’m in awe that a mind can instantiate a complex concept before it actually has words to express it.

First is just getting the ideas on paper. Normally any one essay actually strings together a number of individual concepts. Often for me they just flow in a logical sequence. But sometimes that takes work, figuring out what goes where.

So now I have a draft. Which I go over several times, crossing stuff out, adding stuff, changing stuff. Moving paragraphs around. The directive “insert” occurs a lot. Often I didn’t initially cover every nuance. The process of writing itself, and then re-reading, can bring to mind points I hadn’t previously thought of. 

Strunk and White tell the writer, “omit needless words.” An awkward locution for a writing guide, I’ve always thought. But I take it much to heart. Conveying a message in six words rather than eight makes it more direct and powerful. The reader gets it quicker. So I ruthlessly search out ways to condense my prose. Like right there: I originally wrote “shorten what I write.” One word longer.

The opening should grab a reader’s attention. The ending should be a smack on the table.

I try to examine sentence structure to ensure clarity. And to avoid repeating any word. Anything that might cause a reader to stop and notice, however fleetingly, something about the language will impede communication. I also try to replace fancy words with simpler ones. And bland expressions with punchier ones. A thesaurus is a great tool.

There are certain words I’m partial to. “Indeed,” “actually,” “in fact.” Very useful words that can do a lot of work. But I try to go easy on these, not to overdo it. Another is “somehow.” Actually a very useful word too (oops, there’s an “actually”).

However, in writing, all rules are made to be broken. But you have to know when and why.

I take my squirrely handwritten draft to my computer and type it up. Of course, while doing so, I keep tweaking it, aiming for better, shorter, stronger verbiage. Once typed, I go over it again. Maybe even print it out, to review it back in my comfy chair.

Then I let it sit, at least overnight, often longer (I always have a backlog of pieces to post). During that interval it will continue to percolate in my brain. More thoughts will come to me, which I’ll go back and incorporate. (This one was first written many months ago; since then, I’ve returned to it several times and fiddled with it.)

All this may sound like work. But I enjoy it enormously. I feel it keeps my brain alive. Doing it gives me the kind of experience psychologist Abraham Maslow called “flow.”

Also fun is adding pictures, to liven it up. Mainly I use “Google images.” Amazing what you get with the right search terms; and how often the first of many pictures is the best one. When I wrote about reading aloud, with my wife, The Brothers KaramazovI entered “man reading to woman” and the first image coming up was an old Russian man reading to a babushka. Perfect. 

Finally comes the moment to actually post the thing. Then I get the infuriating comments. Or, worse, none at all.

* While single, I saw a gal’s personal ad saying she was “interested in ideas.” Wow, I jumped to reply! But our date was disappointing. I asked what she’d meant by “ideas.”

“Oh,” she said, “new ways to cook spaghetti, things like that.”

“The Statue”— my short story video

March 6, 2021

My tale, “The Statue,” was a winner in the Hudson Valley Writers Guild’s recent short story contest. Originally written around fifty years ago, it might have some resonance for contemporary America — rather more in the months since submittal! 

My friend Frank Wind recorded my dramatic reading (about 24 minutes). View it at this link: https://www.facebook.com/frank.s.robinson/videos/10157619299512633

My zoom short story reading Saturday 1 PM

February 19, 2021

Hi,

At 1 PM tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 20, on zoom, The Hudson Valley Writers Guild will have public readings of three prize winning short stories from its recent contest. Mine will be first: THE STATUE. Though actually written almost 50 years ago, it might have resonance for contemporary America. Rather more so in the months since I submitted it!

Here is the zoom link:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84854202344?pwd=ejJ2ZkpFYi85a2VFNUI1dEc1T2pmdz09#success

Biden restoring America’s moral sanity

February 4, 2021

Tuesday I saw a news clip of President Biden, masked, at his desk, announcing a task force “to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers, and fathers, at the border, and with no plan — none whatsoever — to reunify” them.

Thousands of children were snatched away. So mindlessly depraved and chaotic was what Trump did that we’re still trying to figure out just how many kids remain in limbo.

This is part of a broader unwinding of Trump’s vicious persecution of migrants that President Biden called a “stain on the reputation” of America. It’s an enormous undertaking, requiring much care, examination, and thought (also contrasting with Trump’s modus operandi). An accompanying briefing document said the effort is “centered on the basic premise that our country is safer, stronger, and more prosperous with a fair, safe and orderly immigration system that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together, and allows people — both newly arrived immigrants and people who have lived here for generations — to more fully contribute to our country.” All fulfilling President Biden’s personal promise to me.

Seeing that clip yesterday recalled a Billy Crystal Saturday Night Live bit — asked why he’s hitting his head with a hammer, he says, “because it feels so good when I stop.” Stopping our national degradation feels so good. Now we’ve learned what not to take for granted. I’m once more proud to be an American.

UPDATE: President Biden has just raised our quota for refugee admissions to an all-time high.

Gofundme for Somaliland rape and torture victim

January 1, 2021

Cawo, a Somaliland medical student, while living with a host family in order to pursue her university studies, was stalked by a relative of that family, who finally raped her and stabbed her repeatedly. In a coma, she needs medical treatment Somaliland cannot provide. Hajira, a student from that country we’re hosting, is participating in a Gofundme for the needed treatment. Here is the link: https://gofund.me/ea3578a7

George Will: What is conservatism?

December 27, 2020

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation/

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

Remember when you got a full meal on domestic flights? When you’d board a plane with no security line? When female flight attendants were called “stewardesses” (and they all were female)?

Remember flying?

On Netflix my wife and I stumbled on the 1980 film “Airplane!” Remember when comedies were actually full of laughs?

Of course not all were. But this one sure was. The gags were sometimes lame, yet funny for their very lameness, with puns abounding. This film’s iconic signature piece of dialog:

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

“Airplane!” was, again, very much a time capsule. There was political incorrectness you couldn’t get away with now. Like two Black passengers using dialect so thick it needed subtitles. When a stewardess can’t understand them, a white passenger (played by Barbara Billingsley, who my wife remembered as Beaver’s mom) steps up to interpret, saying, “I speak jive.” Hearing her do so was jarring.

Both pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated by sickness, and stewardess Elaine takes one of their seats. Instructed to press the “automatic pilot” button, it inflates a pilot-shaped balloon into the other seat. The sexual aspects of Elaine’s relationship with the automatic pilot are tastefully explored.

Meantime, Elaine’s (other) boyfriend, Striker, couldn’t get past his WWII fighter pilot tragedy. This couple didn’t seem to have aged in the intervening 35 years, but never mind that detail. Anyhow, Elaine, finally having had enough of Striker’s crippling emotional baggage, left him behind when boarding the plane. He determines to overcome his fear of flying and go after her.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the ticket agent asks him. (Remember smoking on planes?)

“Smoking,” Striker answers, so he’s handed a ticket that’s literally spewing a plume of smoke.

My wife chimed in, “He’s going to save the plane.”

She’s always right; of course he does. And they live happily ever after. (It helps if you never age beyond twenty.)

The autopilot, it seems, also lives happily ever after, with an inflated female counterpart.

We give this film two thumbs up, four stars, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Trump: a damning indictment

October 21, 2020

The Albany Times-Union’s Sunday presidential endorsement editorial was quite extraordinary in multiple respects.

It was unusually early. Filled an entire page. And was superb.

Of course, endorsing Biden was no surprise. Last time, practically no paper in America endorsed Trump. Unprecedented then, it will surely repeat this year. Trumpsters will say that merely shows the press’s bias against him. As if it’s somehow just a baseless prejudice. In fact journalists, whose business it is to understand public affairs, do so far better than the average citizen. Far less susceptible to disinformation, lies, and propaganda. Thus they see the reality of Trump — and in consequence almost unanimously oppose him.

Much good it did in 2016. That such responsible voices are nowadays drowned out by a cacophony of crazed shouting (like Trump’s own) is one of the signifiers that we’re in real trouble.

The Times-Union’s editorial presents a damning indictment. Setting forth the facts — not “fake news,” BS, lies, hoaxes, spin, or hype, but facts — such things do still exist — with blistering, devastating thoroughness. Nailing Trump as a very bad man, very bad for America.

His cultists, if they read it at all, will just wave it away. That itself is a key reason why Trumpdom bodes terrible for our future. So many people so impervious to reason and indeed reality itself. Living in an alternate reality bubble. We can’t go on like this.

It was apparently written by editorial page editor Jay Jochnowitz. A masterpiece of the genre, meriting attention for that alone. But more importantly, it does cogently illuminate the stakes in this election: good against evil. Really and truly.

Please do read it here: https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Editorial-Joe-Biden-for-president-15655822.php

(Coming soon: my own final comprehensive indictment.)

A dozen daffy delusions

October 17, 2020

1. Urban rioting is scarier than Covid-19.1

2. Only Trump can fix it.2

3. Face masks infringe on freedom.3

4. Immigration is bad for us.4

5. Foreign trade costs jobs.5

6. Gun ownership makes people safer.6

7. Whites are better than blacks.7

8. 2016 Russian election meddling was a hoax.8

9. Trump tells it like it is.9

10. He can only lose the election by fraud.10

11. He’s making America great again.11

12. He’s chosen by God.12

Footnotes:

1. Covid’s human and economic toll is literally thousands of times greater.

2. Trump stokes the societal divisions that lead to such violence. And he’s screwed up horribly on Covid.

3. Science is clear that masks curtail the spread of disease. Nobody has “freedom” to endanger others.

4. Immigrants contribute workers and skills we need, creating wealth, paying taxes, and adding consumer demand that means more jobs.

5. Trade enables consumers to buy things cheaper, leaving them with more money to spend on other things, which in turn creates more jobs, not fewer.

6. A gun in the home is way more likely to injure a family member than an intruder. America’s gun violence far outstrips other countries, because of less regulation and more guns.

7. Anyone believing that proves their own inferiority.

8. Major Russian subversion was conclusively proven by evidence.

9. He’s the biggest liar ever (also proven).

10. He can only win the election by fraud, because sensible Americans are fed up with his freak show.

11. His mishandling Covid and the resultant economic fallout hugely damages America. His disgusting behavior degrades our global standing.

12. There is no God. But if there were, he’d be a fool to rely on Trump.