"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Are We Really A Polarized Nation?

From my ‘progressive’ friends I always get the same off-kilter liberal screeds with links to MoveOn.org and other bleeding heart sites.  They love Rachel Madow, hate Rush Limbaugh, fawn over Bill Moyers and have their own pantheon of media heroes.  My conservative friends are no different, and prefer Fox News and the many websites which preach the coming apocalypse and the Obama Armageddon.  People have settled in to comfortable political niches, and while they are always irritable, irate, and incessantly hectoring about states rights or abortion rights, gun ownership or violence against women, they are not about to change their opinions.

Most people made up their minds about the Presidential election long before the first debate; few cared, finally, about Romney or Obama but about the political agenda that each proposed.  Few voters had the patience or ability to carefully analyze the candidates’ speeches, writings, and intellectual and political history to be able to verify their public statements and to predict what they would actually do once the dust from the campaign had settled.

Most voters spent the campaign confirming what they already believed.  Romney was the lackey of big banks, fat capitalists, monarchists, and captains of industry; the enemy of women, gays, the poor, and ‘people of color’.  Obama was a Socialist who was out to dismantle free enterprise, trample on individual rights and liberties, deprive hardworking Americans of their jobs, their guns, and their dogs. Rush Limbaugh knew that if any liberals were listening to him it was because they wanted an adrenaline rush to get the hatred levels back up to where they were – not to learn anything about conservative politics.  Bill Maher knew that he could toss red meat to his liberal audience by savaging the conservative guests who ventured on the show.  In other words, no one wanted or intended to learn anything new, just to consolidate what they already felt and if anything, to get reenergized for the long haul of the campaign.

It is not surprising that there were few swing voters in the election; nor that there were hardened positions on the Left and the Right.  Nor were there any surprises in the outcome if one only paid attention to Nate Silver and the data.

In an article by Molly Ball in The Atlantic (2.28.13) reviewing a recent article by Morris Fiorina, a political scientist, she dismisses the idea of polarity, partisanship, political divisions, and feels that the pundits were wrong to focus on divisiveness.  We are not so much of a divided nation, she claims.  Only the ‘experts’ think so.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As Fiorina points out, the percentage of Americans who call themselves "moderate" is the same as it was in the 1970s (the American National Election Studies survey has put it at between 20 and 30 percent since 1972). Nor are we more divided when it comes to issues. In the words of a 2012 Pew study, "The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs, and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987. The values that unified Americans 25 years ago remain areas of consensus today, while the values that evenly divide the nation remain split." The commonplace idea that Americans today are irrevocably divided into politically extreme camps just isn't the case.

The focus on ‘moderates’ is disingenuous.  It doesn’t matter that the percentage of this group has not changed in forty years.  What matters is that those in Left or Right camps have become more hardened, inflexible, insistent, and impervious to opposing arguments.  What Americans thought about religion in 1970 is most definitely not what we think about today after four decades of the rise of fundamentalism and the Religious Right, the blurring of lines between Church and State and politics and religion.  Nearly half the country espouses fundamental beliefs which govern the way they look at women’s rights, a liberal issue but one dominated by the fight over abortion; family values, a conservative issue about the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the nuclear family, but dominated by gay rights; and individual liberties, an issue with a profoundly religious center dating from the Enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers. 

Attitudes towards business have hardened as well as income inequality has increased since 1970; and since the regulatory environment on Wall Street and corporate America was drastically altered in the Reagan years of the 80s.  ‘Common values’ which might have had promise for uniting America forty years ago – community, faith, family, enterprise – have become politicized.  The role of the community is cast within the framework of individual responsibility, entitlement, and government interventionist programs. While America is one of the most religious countries on earth, there is little that unifies our faith, and the divide between fundamentalists and ‘progressive’ Unitarians or Episcopalians is vast. 

We have ‘sorted’ ourselves says Ball.  We are not so much partisan as logical organizers.  The Republican and Democratic party are now monolithic, and there are few if any Southern Democrats and or liberal Republicans, so our choices are clear but not polarized.  If only this were true.  One only needs to look at the Tea Party firebrands of the Republican Party and the never-say-die liberals of the Democrats to see that the increasingly polarized views represented in Washington mirror those in the hinterlands.  We and our representatives are on the same page.  We hate with the same intensity.

As a corollary, Ball says that we wouldn’t be so sorted or polarized if we had more choice, and she points to Ross Perot and how he attracted so many disaffected Americans.  No doubt, for as the Republican primaries showed, a lot of Americans wanted some of the most outrageously incendiary and far-out candidates the country could unearth.  If we had a parliamentary system like Italy, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have a Beppe Grillo, except that instead of being funny, he would be a demonic half-preacher, half snake-oil salesman. What’s the point? The two party system has a lot to say for itself given Italian gridlock, or Bangladeshi gridlock for that matter, and we are unlikely to change it.

Ball then turns to Independents, and suggests that there are really such people; and if there are, it proves that we are really not so partisan as others have suggested.  I don’t know any real Independents, and I suspect that they have affixed this wishy-washy label to their political shirts because of some intellectual pretense.  There is such a dramatic, profound, and fundamental difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, that it is just about impossible to view a campaign with open eyes, ears, and mind. 

Ball concludes that ‘division’ is overstated and suggests that given the nearly equal distribution of Republican and Democratic votes in the election (47 to 51), most people aren’t too particular:

Many people (as many as ever) are not strongly partisan, and might like both candidates almost equally, but in the voting booth, they have only two choices, and will choose the one they prefer, however slightly

I think this is far from the truth.  I think that voting in the booth was determined long before November 6th.  Most people went behind the curtain, checked the box, yanked the lever, got an ‘I Voted’ sticker and went to the office.  What data support this last minute, “Well, they’re both really OK guys” indecision?

America is very definitely partisan, and you only have to live in an extremely partisan part of the country (the Deep South in my case) for a short time to see how reasonable, dispassionate, patient, and tolerant political dialogue is about as common as a bull with teats.  Time to get out of Washington, Ms. Ball.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Southern Hatred For The Federal Government–History, Religion, and Social Conservatism

I am staying in a part of the country which is very suspicious of the Federal Government.  The Deep South in many ways is still living the legacy of the loss of the Confederacy, the rigors of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights era.  Most Northerners impatiently say ‘Get over it’. Slavery and Southern rebellion caused the War; Federal dominion over a defeated land was necessary to consolidate victory, to reconfigure regional society and politics and to assure that the South would indeed never rise again; and the National Guard was necessary to force integration on a bitterly racist and persistently rebellious region.

From the South’s perspective, what they saw as their legitimate claims to states’ rights were abridged or nullified (even Lincoln was aware that he was on shaky Constitutional grounds), Reconstruction was a corrupt land-grab by carpetbaggers and an ignorant rush to Negro sovereignty.  It is understandable that a white backlash occurred, that the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence, and that a burning hostility towards the North and its federal government was rekindled in the 1960s.  Once again, Southerners say, the Federal Government of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson – no different from that of Lincoln – used military force to resolve serious regional issues.  We have reason to suspect the Federal Government, many Southerners say. They can never be trusted.

Federal reforms, however, were never enough to change 200 years of Southern history and tradition.  The South was still deeply rural in its outlook, still far more socially stratified than the North, and deeply, profoundly racist.  Tenant farming replaced slavery, and although blacks had more rights than they did before the War, the relationship between plantation owner and laborer remained very much the same.  White aristocratic society reconstituted itself, and a concerted social and political effort was made to rebuild the South as the unique alternative to Northern industrialism.  For a hundred years until 1965 the South remained the Old South minus slavery; and only with the passage of the first Civil Rights Act did a real Federal challenge come.

The period from 1965 to the present was one of slow growth and social progress.  Mississippi and Alabama have been two of the poorest states in the Union with the worst social indicators.  De facto segregation and racism persist, and if anything, the hostility towards ‘Washington’ has gotten worse.  It has been hard for many in the South to accept that a black man is President of the United States, and this has undoubtedly been a principal reason for the increasingly virulent hatred of the Federal Government.  Conspiracy theories abound here and many focus on the illegitimacy of Obama, his supposed African, Socialist roots, and his defiance of true American values.

Mississippi and Alabama are two of the most politically conservative states in the Union, one of the most socially and religiously conservative, and one of the most fundamentalist.  A staggering number of residents (far more than the already high national average) reject evolution, adopt a strict Constructionist view of the Bible, and believe in the coming of Christ within their generation.  Taken together, Southern history and Southern profound social, political, and religious conservatism make a heady anti-federal brew – and a totally illogical one.

There were many analyses of the American electorate after the Presidential election last year, and most concluded that the country was more divided than it ever had been.  We were divided politically – red and blue states were deep in hue and unlikely to moderate or change.  We were divided by urban-rural geography, income, race, and ethnicity.  What was never mentioned was the fundamental divide in America today – that between logic and illogic – or put another way, between rational analysis and belief. As many as sixty percent of Christians in America consider themselves fundamentalists, thus giving the Bible and religious teaching primacy and priority over logical exegesis. “How do I know?”, says the famous country song, “The Bible tells me so”; and intellectual inquiry stops there.

If over 50 percent of Americans reject Evolution and espouse Creationism – that is to willfully ignore a fossil record – is it so surprising that an untold number of conspiracy theories abound? How hard is it for an economically and socially marginalized white Southerner, still bitter and angry about Southern defeats, discouraged about Southern poverty, and hyper-sensitive to persistent Northern stereotypes of ‘cracker’, ‘redneck’, and ‘poor white trash’ to turn his suspicions to Washington and their malevolent schemes?  Not hard at all.

In fact, it is easier for a disaffected Southerner to turn his anger towards a target – Obama – than to logically consider the facts.  Why not assume that the failed states of the South and their stagnant socio-economic systems are the result of ‘Government’ now headed by a Black Nationalist, Socialist traitor?  It is simpler to lay blame elsewhere than to look inward and address the many problems that have held states, counties, and municipalities in a state of perpetual stagnation.

Perhaps the most surprising phenomenon at all is the hatred for the federal government by those who benefit from it and in fact rely on it.  While it is certainly true that the rich have perhaps benefitted more than the poor from government subsidies, programs, and supports, low-income earners are living on the margins and could not survive without government safety nets.  I have met many enterprising, defiantly independent Southerners who are one pitfall away from falling off their precarious tightrope. One illness, one accident, one Act of God, and their carefully but fragilely-constructed life will be finished. 

However, the classic and often reviled social programs like Medicaid and Public Assistance (Welfare, ADC, Food Stamps) are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast array of federal investments in transportation, energy, housing, mining, and agriculture which directly and indirectly benefit most Americans.  Most programs are so taken for granted that they are forgotten.  FDIC, for example, insures savings deposits so that families cannot be wiped out in the case of bank failure.  Although the institution was established in response to The Great Depression, events of the past five years have been a pungent reminder of how relevant the FDIC is today.  The FDA provides the American consumer with the certainty that pharmaceuticals are produced according to high standards, are safe and unadulterated; and that claims are legitimate.  The CDC tracks disease and epidemics and provides assistance in the detection, prevention, and treatment of disease.

Mortgage interest payments are deductible expenses on federal income tax.  Federal block grants to states allow them to make necessary investments in infrastructure and public services for which they do not have the revenues.  The list is endless.

So why is it that so many Southerners vilify the federal government and see it as evil and out to destroy the country? Can the region’s painful history, its fundamentalism, poor education, and insularity be the only reasons?  Something is missing when so many people willingly suspend rational judgment, and fall into a miasma of irrationality and emotional conviction.

I have written extensively on conspiracy theories (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html) and have summarized the various schools of thought which seek to explain them.  Some observers have concluded that it is a result of psychopathology:

The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

Others have felt they were more a result of social pathology:

A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.

At the very least and most benign is the possibility that conspiracy theories are the result of inadequate information, insufficient education to search for and discover rational answers, and social insularity.  If one lives in a small Southern town or rural area, contact with homosexuals, feminists, atheists, Pro-Choice adherents, or far left political progressives will be limited. Distortions will therefore be the norm.  Gays are out to corrupt and convert the young; feminists dedicated to destroying the traditional American family; progressives (i.e. Socialists and Communists) are out to dismantle the capitalist, democratic system.

The scariest part of all, however, is that once one subscribes to one illogical conspiracy theory, it becomes easier to believe others.  Once you believe that Obama is not an American but an African, then it is not hard to believe that he was influenced by Nyerere socialism; and if you believe that, the jump to believing he is a Black Nationalist sympathizer is easy.

I was not prepared for the fiery, irrational hatred of anything even slightly left of center in the South; and have never got used to hearing such an impassioned, militant hatred of Washington.  There is much to dislike about the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the press corps; but they are acting according to predictable human and political nature and necessity.  There is nothing manipulatively evil about the men and women in power.  If anything they are overly greedy, venal, and ignorant; and not even capable of putting together an international conspiracy.

I think I have understood why people feel as strongly as they do, and why they subscribe to such outlandish political, social, and economic theories; but I think I have had enough.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Conspiracy Theories - Little Green Men

I am friends with the former police chief of a small town in Alabama who told me that the strangest case he ever encountered was the one he named ‘The Conspiracy Theorist’.  Denzel Mackey ran Bride & Groom, a specialty shop catering to the across-the-tracks trade, and stocking clothing not much different from any of the thrift stores in town.  A lot more white lace and shiny tuxedos, but the cheap crinoline and cardboard-stiff formal jackets were not far from the quality of the ten dollar three-piece suits and faded housedresses on the racks at Lorman Home’s outlet. 

Denzel had owned and operated the store for twenty years and had bought it when the town had been prosperous – not exactly booming, but doing well enough with the paper mill, community college, and state police training center.  In those days all the retail spaces were filled with gift shops, restaurants, stationery stores, barbers, and law offices, people still preferred to shop downtown than in the soulless malls on 50 out towards the airport.  There was no longer a butcher, grocer, or florist in town – these had long ago had ceded ground to the supermarkets and chains along the highway; but when Mackey decided to invest in the downtown location, things looked pretty good.

He, like the remaining downtown proprietors, was not so sure any more.  The theory was that the renovated apartments above the retail would generate the commercial demand that would lead to a revitalized economic center, but judging by the low-end spenders who frequented the shops on Main Street, the end of downtown was coming soon.

No one really knows how conspiracy theories or who starts them.  There are hundreds if not thousands of such theories out there, many of which are reasonable enough to attract otherwise normal citizens who are simply disaffected with Washington, the powers that be, corporations, the environmental lobby, gay rights activists, or politically correct educators.  These loyal but angry Americans have not gone off the deep end, still have their marbles, but believe passionately that they have been betrayed, left behind, and marginalized.

My cousin’s husband started in on illegal Mexicans a few years back.  In his opinion they were not just a drain on public resources – which they were -  but were a pestilential virus that was oozing, creeping, crawling, across the border and would soon take over California, the United States, and our way of life.  His premise was sound – that illegal immigration strained public resources and that the current stop-and-deport program was not working – but the extension of that initial reasoning into the netherworld of illogical hysteria was not.  These wetbacks, greasers, and spics were responsible for the degradation of American (white, Protestant) values, depreciated American culture (English), sucked tax dollars out of hardworking native-born Americans, and were all in all a blight on society and a pernicious, insidious force of destruction. 

When he got started on illegal Mexicans he went apoplectic – he spat, foamed at the mouth, went alternatively red and blanched white, got a crazed look on his face, a demented about-to-go-postal manic ferocity which lasted until his rage was spent.

I call him part of the illogical center, and nowhere near the fringes of conspiracy theorists.  At least he started from a reasonable point of view which was quickly distorted by his rage and antipathy.  The conspiracy theorists, however, are very calm, collected, and organized in the exposition of their ideas.  For example, I met a man in Mississippi who told me that he was a writer, and that his current project was to investigate the side effects of fluoridation.  I immediately engaged him, saying that my hometown in Connecticut had been one of the first to fluoridate their water, and if there were any slow maturing negative side effects I wanted to know about them. Was I at greater risk from cancer? Would I go progressively blind? Would my grandchildren be born with genetic defects?

No, he said, nothing like that.  “But you are a liberal, aren’t you?”  I didn’t put two and two together and replied that at least compared to Mississippi I definitely was.  “It is because of the water”, he said and explained that the Soviets had learned from the Nazis that fluoride was a potent chemical that could addle the brain in one particular way – it made you more susceptible to Communist propaganda.  It was no surprise that I was liberal, he said, because my water had been fluoridated in the 50s.  It was surprising, however, that I appeared so moderate in my views, nothing like Obama and his claque of ‘progressive’ sycophants who were out to destroy the country.

Now, according to my friend, the police chief, this was still within the realm of the sane.  There had always been questions about the possible side effects of fluoridation on bone density, kidney function, and a number of other physiological aspects of the human body, so it was not illogical to expand the inquiry to other areas, such as mental function and psychology.  Add to that already potent cocktail the invasive power of government which, after all, engineered the whole fluoridation effort, and you have a conspiracy theory.

“I don’t have a problem with these wackos”, said the police chief.  “Nor with the millions of people who believe that Obama is a black nationalist, African socialist, traitorous usurper, and Destroyer of Democracy.”

I added that I was getting a bit worried with the rise of wackos who believe that homosexuals have banded together with environmentalists and United Nations operatives who, using subterfuge, foreign operatives, disaffected ex-mujahidin, Jews, and the Rockefeller banks are setting up a gay caliphate as autocratic as any Islamic republic.  Once the gays come to power, they will enforce buggery, ban heterosexual marriage, dismantle the private sector, and force everyone to learn the Bible from a Sapphic and Lambda Rising perspective.

“That ain’t nothing” growled the police chief,  “Wait ‘till you get a load of this”.  He went on to tell how the mild-mannered Denzel Mackey went off the rails.  He started with the Obama birther thing, moved on to the Washington socialist conspiracy, branched out to include the Trilateral Commission and the international Jewish conspiracy, internationalist plotters, and Norwegian Socialists.  “That still was OK”, said the chief, “But when he went extra-terrestrial, I began to worry”.

Apparently Mackey had fallen under the influence of the Roswell 500. These conspiracy theorists were not content to ascribe the progressive deterioration of American values to human beings – the political, economic, and social holocaust that was in the making was far beyond anything that ordinary people could engineer, so there had to be a higher power responsible.  They told about the super-sized figure drawings in Nazca, Peru which could only be recognized as human representations if seen from on high, for example, from an airplane. That is, there had to be some extra-terrestrial civilization which had come to Earth, sent us a signal, and were now finally acting on it.  The Nazca figures were a warning which we never heeded, and now was the time to pay for our ignorance.

Once again, the police chief gave a tolerant nod of understanding to the process of the addling of poor Denzel’s mind.  In his view, the jump from human depredation and subterfuge to the intervention of an alien power was not illogical.  If one thought that what was happening was cataclysmic and apocalyptic, there was every reason to believe that it was caused by higher, more powerful forces.

“Remember the original movie War of the Worlds where the aliens came down to earth in spider-like pods that spewed fire and destruction?  This is what Denzel began to worry about.”

It didn’t end here, however.  The Obama Administration and its socialist, gay lackeys had concluded a deal with the aliens to scorch the earth and rid it of all conservative, God-fearing, Bible-believing, patriotic Americans. What would be left would be a grand Universal Socialism, a neo-Marxist idyll that would include all beings known and yet-to-be discovered. 

“Have you seen Arnold in the Terminator movies?  OK, then you get an idea of what Denzel Mackey was thinking about when he started to stockpile AK-47s, grenade launchers, Glocks, Uzis, and bazookas.  He would be John Connor and he would fight the alien invader and save the world.

“Believe it or not”, added the chief, “In his mind the aliens were actually large green lizards, not too different from the ‘gators down here.  They controlled the death rays in the pods through thought control, and when the killing was over, they would slither down inflatable slides and feast on the charred remains of the human race.”

Here the police chief stopped his story and started laughing.  “If his arsenal wasn’t so fucking military”, he growled; “And if he wasn’t so fucking scary, the made-for-television movie would have played to millions of households all over the South”.

“How did you catch him?”, I  asked.

“He gave himself away by putting up ten huge satellite dishes on his roof. They were so heavy that the top of his shithole cracker rambler started to cave in.  He installed prison-quality lights on a high chain-link fence around his property, and bought five mature Dobermans to police the perimeter.  We put together a SWAT team, bust in on him at 3am, and found enough weapons to arm the Contras.

“His house was typical wacko, unhinged muthafucka. He had just about every right-wing, Tea Party, extremist screed that ever appeared on the Internet pasted on the wall.  His desk was piled high with posters, CDs, and pamphlets all warning about the coming Alien/Socialist invasion.  Each pile was topped with 16-round assault rifle magazines, 12-gauge shotgun shells, pistols, revolvers, and shillelaghs to keep the papers in place in case he opened a window and the wind blew in.

“Over the entranceway was a huge picture of a 20ft ‘gator, mouth open ready to snap shut on its prey.  It was big, real, and scary.  This is what that motherfucker dreamt about”

I know the world is going to end sometime, and I have to rely on science fiction and American conspiracy theorists to suggest to me how.  I guess being incinerated then eaten by 20ft. green lizards that look like our swamp ‘gators is as good a way as any.

Don’t Settle For Less

Robert Goodin has recently published On Settling, a book about the natural human tendency to settle for position, money, acquisitions rather than strive for higher attainment or achievement.  Cass Sunstein has written a review in The Atlantic (2.25.13) commenting on this tendency, and its many personal, social, and economic aspects. Sunstein is particularly exercised by the now-popular phrase, “It is what it is” – in his mind a smug but defeatist sentiment that diminishes human enterprise and ambition.  He goes on to summarize Goodin’s discussion of the many aspects of settling, both good and bad, but comes down resolutely on the side of doing something; and in that he is archetypically American:

By moving on to other concerns [other than settling], we make striving possible. Goodin rightly says that settling is not always resignation, but he does not deny what is obviously true, which is that it is often exactly that. True, no human life can do without resignation. We have to resign ourselves to that fact. But there’s a matter of when, and how, and with what attitude. Goodin’s wise book doesn’t embrace the awful phrase, but I think that it would have been even better if it had devoted more space to exploring what is dark and dreary, and not on the side of life, about the very idea of settling.

However much Sunstein finds something depressing, dark, and dreary about the whole notion of settling, it has very noble roots.  Both Buddhism and Hinduism are based on the principle of acceptance – there is no point in striving, for the world itself is illusion, and one will only be deceived and ultimately dissatisfied by the vain, hopeless, and unnecessarily fatiguing struggle for progress, gain, and achievement.  The only way to attain enlightenment is through an understanding that the wheel of life turns perpetually through the mud of miseries, false promises, and deceptions of the world, and that man’s only real purpose is to get off.

Indians have often been criticized by Westerners, especially striving Americans, for their a priori acceptance of things the way they are.  Indians, we say, accept the undemocratic consignment of individuals to the prison of caste, and ignore poverty, inequality and misery because they are are personal affairs, reflecting individual karma.  They are therefore settlers of the worst kind. 

From an Indian perspective, this is far from the truth and a distortion and misinterpretation of Hinduism.  For Hindus, since the world is only illusion, and since striving within it is meaningless, the rigid structure and social and personal discipline prescribed in the Upanishads are ways of eliminating the noise of a spiritually polluted environment, allowing the individual to focus on progressive personal enlightenment. The goal of life is spiritual, not material as it is for Americans.

Stoicism, although a secular philosophy, was very similar in its understanding of the world and the universe:

The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is "like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes." A Stoic of virtue, by contrast, would amend his will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy," thus positing a "completely autonomous" individual will, and at the same time a universe that is "a rigidly deterministic single whole." (Wikipedia)

This ‘settling’ for a universe which is ‘a rigidly deterministic single whole’, enables the individual to control his passions and emotions, for there is no point in struggling against this powerful and unstoppable tide:

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual's ethical and moral well-being: "Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature."This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” (Wikipedia)

Islam is a ‘settling’ religion for its principal tenet is submission to God. Some Christian sects like our very own Calvinists believed in predestination, and that one had to settle for the cards that God dealt.  Other sects were far more individualistic and robust in their thinking about the relationship between Man and God, but all followed the edict, “It is God’s will”.  These religions teach that only God knows all, determines all, and is responsible for all; and that we must follow His way – all others are illusory and ultimately unrewarding. Even the treacly aphorism stuck on a million refrigerator doors -  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – encapsulates in popular wisdom the preeminence of God and the acknowledgment that “It is the way it is”.

No one lives only in a philosophical universe, and except for a few sadhus high in the Himalayas who have renounced the material world, most of us have chosen to live a life of contradictions.  As much as we believe that the world is illusory, meaningless, and perpetual; we must make real-life decisions which require action. Which kind of bread should I buy? Is it time to trade in the clunker? Should I finally tell her I love her?  And once we start down that slippery slope, striving is not far ahead.  It is not enough to choose between Wonder bread and Pepperidge Farm; we must have the finest, stone-ground, organic, locally produced and baked bread; and such purchases take money for which we have to set goals, work hard, employ all our intellectual social talents, and earn a lot.  And when we strive and are disappointed, we realize that we should have been more stoic or Hindu.

There is a great Don Williams country song which expresses our very American desire for the best:

I've been loved by the best
I can't settle now for less,
Why bother with the rest
Baby, I've been to the top, I guess,
With you I have been blessed
I won't take nothin' less,
I've been loved by the best.

In the world of business as well in that of love, we should strive for the very best and never settle for less.

Goodin’s book – or at least Sunstein’s accounting of it gets very boring, very predictable, very quickly:

Goodin contends that settling, understood in terms of fixity, has a number of virtues. First, it helps to promote planning and agency. One advantage of a proper settlement is that it produces not merely an end but also a secure one. If we are in the midst of a fight, we might well hope to settle, because fights are ugly and potentially dangerous. Being “unsettled” is “worse than merely being “uncertain”—it is a sort of stultifying uncertainty,” one that “stymies your planning.”

Nothing much new here. Settling is as much a part of human activity as any other guiding principle.  Man is an economic animal, said Marx, and (here I distort a bit) all human contracts are governed by the principles of supply and demand.  Whether legal contracts or marital tiffs about household chores, parties constantly jockey for position and if not dominance, then parity.  Settling, or better put, negotiation, is part of the transaction.  If you cannot get your way, which is always first and foremost, then, despite the words of wisdom from Don Williams, you settle for less.

There is even less new in the observation that we all like to be settled or settled down.  If we were always in a maelstrom of striving, change, and uncertainty, we all would be driven mad in a very short time indeed.  Although we do not all want a little English garden, tea in the afternoon, and a brisk, rainy walk in the downs; most of us want something familiar, some comfort food, and a loving touch.

Goodin goes on to talk about the relationship between settling and trust – a settled life allows us to take the measure of someone before we trust him; and then to talk of the organizational power of settling.  We need to have our life organized and settled so that we can move on to bigger and better things than deciding on brands of bread.  I remember a great scene in the remake of the movie The Fly with Jeff Goldblum.  When his girlfriend chides him for never changing his clothes, he is surprised, and says he changes them every day. “But you wear the same thing every day”, his girlfriend replies. At this point Goldblum throws open his wardrobe to show a rack of neatly arranged identical jackets and pants.  Very Hindu, I thought at the time.

A bit more interesting is Goodin’s consideration of economics and how settling can be the smartest market choice; but as one can see from the following, his observations are mundane and unsurprising:

To decide whether to settle, people should assess the potential outcomes and their various probabilities. If you have an excellent chance of doing a lot better, you probably ought not to settle. And in making these judgments, you will be alert not only to the matter at hand, but to the range of decisions that you are facing, and hence to whether a decision to settle will make it easier to focus on more pressing matters.

“Search theory” and “Option value”, and the “Precautionary principle” add only a bit of spice and rigor to an otherwise prosaic treatment of the economic aspects of negotiated risk.

From Sunstein’s review, it seems hard to believe that anyone would spend the $24.95 to discover what most of us already know.  Perhaps Goodin does discuss religion and philosophy somewhere in the book, but Sunstein does not refer to them.  I would far rather read about Epictetus, the Vedanta, and especially Nietzsche who had some might impressive things to say about the settling herd.  Perhaps in another book.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sensitivity Training–Stalinist Indoctrination

A close friend of mine worked at non-profit agency which received contracts from the federal government to manage development projects in the Third World.  It had a mission to save lives, reduce poverty, and to improve the living conditions of millions.  It was the classic ‘do-good’ organization which, although it was as competitive as any for-profit firm and operated with as much of a bottom line mentality as Wall Street, clung to its liberal image of alleviating the world’s misery.

This image carried over to the firm’s internal management. There could be no distinction between what it did in Africa and how it operated in Washington.  If it helped the poor and disadvantaged there, it had to do it here.  The CEO, an unreconstructed Sixties liberal was intent on hiring as many minorities as possible, praising them to the hilt once they joined, and overlooking any failings they might have had as managers or employees. The atmosphere was one of entitlement and intimidation – all the in the name of diversity – and minority hires knew they had a free ride while managers feared that with one false move, they could be brought to task.

The CEO was not stupid, and although he really did believe that he could continue to play a role in promoting racial harmony and in atoning for the sins of the past, he knew that he would gain favors and points from USAID for the impressive racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of his staff.  A PhD African, for example, could be put in the same racial bucket as a mail clerk from the ghetto; and an MBA Cuban American whose parents had fled Castro in 1959 and made millions in Miami could be counted as ‘Hispanic’.

As can be expected, a number of ‘diversity’ grievances were aired by minority employees, many of them frivolous, but then again, if you openly and transparently create a climate where they are in a privileged, untouchable category, what do you expect?

My nephew, a successful lawyer who has defended many large corporations against ‘diversity’ lawsuits was quite straightforward about how he would deal with all minority-based grievances.  He would assemble all the company’s top executives and all company and private legal counsel in the board room, and invite the complainant to voice her concerns.  She would enter into the well-appointed penthouse offices, redolent of wood, brass, antiques, and plush with corporate elegance, and seated facing the twenty or so executives and attorneys arrayed around the table.  Unless she was as dumb as a stone, she would get the picture even before the top officers spoke.  The chambers themselves, with their framed portraits of past CEO’s and Presidents of the Board, former US Presidents, and Supreme Court Justices, and their incredibly impressive old-school leather chairs and polished tables shouted: “If there is anything – anything – irregular about your claim, you will regret ever setting foot in this room”.  According to my nephew, ninety-nine percent of claims were withdrawn by employees within a day after the sit-down.

The CEO of my friend’s firm was far too much a child of the Sixties to even consider intimidating any minority, and was willing to given in, capitulate, and spend valuable overhead money to pay off miffed employees with or without a legitimate claim.  Most employees thought that he was doing no one a service, and was simply contributing to an ill-conceived program of political correctness.  The firm was becoming a Soviet gulag where informers were rewarded and non-believers and dissidents exiled to Siberia.

All this was not enough, however, and the CEO decided that a little sensitivity training would assure that no employee would even think about offending a minority. Once every staff member had been appropriately retrained and indoctrinated, there would never be a need for lawyers, pay-offs; and the cause of racial reparations would be furthered. 

The participants in the training knew that they were in for a rough day when they were asked to self-select into different categories – white, black, Hispanic, gay,  etc. Although any one employee could easily fit into a number of categories (the supreme catch for a diversity-fixated CEO was a female, gay, black woman), you had to pick the one which best expressed who you were. There were a few old-line WASPs still working at the company who groused sotto voce that there was no category for them; but being good workers, they complied. 

It got worse from then on.  The trainers whipped, beat, humiliated, degraded, denounced, and mistreated the participants just as hated white overseers did on the cotton plantations of the South.  No one was exempt, no matter how exemplary their past or that of their families.  Liberals, conservatives, Quakers, Freedom Marchers, sit-in veterans, survivors of the dogs of Alabama and the nightsticks of Mississippi were all harangued and tongue-lashed.  You are guilty, guilty, GUILTY! shouted the facilitator, and you must change your ways.

Not only were white people lashed, tarred and feathered, and strung up; but black people were venerated.  If it wasn’t for black people, the facilitator began, there would be no Europe or no America.  Africa was the birthplace of humanity, the soul of life, and the fount of all goodness, purpose, and genius.  The African diaspora is not just a wandering tribe, a formerly enslaved population, she said, but a messianic tribe destined to give the world what it gave them 100,000 years ago when their ancestors emerged out of Mother Africa – light, wisdom, and spirituality.

Then came the intimidation.  “Don’t you dare treat one of our brothers or sisters bad”, she intoned, cocking her head, giving the white audience a taste of militant, chicken-neck, pulpit rhetoric.  “Or there will be hell to pay”.

Ironically, the son of my diversity-beleaguered friend went to a private school which, because of its historical role in Abolitionism in the 19th Century and its continued commitment to racial equality, also insisted on diversity training for all students; and he had to put up with what his mother had.  As in the case of her non-profit firm, the school also went out of its way to create a diverse racial environment, and blacks were represented in a far higher percentage than the national average.  Not only that, it did not count privileged blacks or Africans like the corporation, but insisted on recruiting students from the ghetto. Most of these kids had had little contact with white people before, the city being one of the most racially divided and apartheid-like in the nation, let alone sitting in class with the super-smart, wealthy, privileged sons and daughters of the power elite.  The school knew that minority students would ‘struggle’ and ‘face challenges’, but it was important for the rich white kids to see what the real world was like. Needless to say, these rich white kids wondered what these totally out-of-place black kids were doing at the school; and the de facto segregation of the city was mirrored at the school  - black-only cafeteria tables; black-only sections in the bleachers; black only social groups, etc.

To make matters worse, diversity training was not just provided in discrete classes or courses, it was institutionalized.  Every function highlighted a black student as keynote speaker, master of ceremonies, or honoree. Every assembly, every school meeting was opened with at least an indirect reference to racial equality, black performance, ability, and talent, and white atonement.

After a year of this nonsense and repeated complaints by her son, my friend moved him to a no-nonsense, conservative, Republican school which valued performance, period.  He was much happier.

The daughter of another close friend went to another private school in the area. This one had no affirmative action program, no diversity training, and no bullshit whatsoever about guilt, racial equality, atonement, or veneration.  Because of its slightly lower entrance standards, it attracted students from the upper middle class, both white and black who just missed the cut at the top schools. Not surprisingly this naturally diverse student body got along. There were no blacks-only anything.  The fact that the school did not fall over themselves to single out racial inequality, the students were free to make up their own minds about their classmates – who was dumb and who was smart; who was talented, gifted, athletic, beautiful – without regard to race.

Before reading Kathleen Parker’s article in the Washington Post (2.24.13) I had thought that this sensitivity training nonsense had gone away.  Unhappily, I see that it has not; but I thank her for letting us all know that the 2013 version of indoctrination still exists.

Life On The Margins–The Working Poor

Ross Douthat has written in the New York Times (2.24.13) about the demise of low-wage jobs, the growing unemployment of people who had formerly worked “stacking shelves at Wal-Mart”; and the irony that those who were supposed to be the new leisure class – the wealthy – are working longer, harder, and for more hours per day:

Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.

This, Douthat contends, is now happening in America among the poor; and far from lamenting this marginalized life, he takes it as a sign of structural adjustment – that while the working class go through a newly partially-employed life, the wealthy are making enough to subsidize a transition to a more fully productive society.

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize — through public means and private — a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

This is downright scary.  I am currently living in a small town in the Deep South where I meet many of these people that Douthat describes, and their life is not pretty at all.  One, a single mother at 37 still lives with her parents and makes a minimum wage as a waitress.  She can only make ends meet if she takes a cash salary, pays no income tax or social security, and takes her chance on not getting sick.  When she did get seriously ill, a few years ago and needed emergency surgery, the private, non-profit hospital ate the $50,000 in costs since she had no money and no savings.  She says that her life is “pretty good right now”, but with no savings, no Social Security, and no health care, she knows that tomorrow it could all end. 

Another acquaintance runs a small business, and only through 14 hour days, paying low wages, avoiding taxes, and taking chances on health care can he survive.  He has never been eligible for a loan because he has never had the capital to put up as collateral; and all the infrastructure improvements needed to attract customers has had to be done by him and his family.  He has had four heart attacks, is beyond any further cardiac repair surgery, and the doctor has told him that he is living on borrowed time. He has the most basic health care policy and any serious and inevitable illness will bankrupt him and his family.

A former long-haul truck driver I recently met, crippled and barely mobile, was almost killed in a black-ice accident a few years ago.  His company had some insurance, but not enough to compensate for the long months in hospitals, rehab centers, and physical therapy; and he has had to rely on public assistance.  He has fought and clawed for every penny, and would certainly not be as desperate physical condition if he had had money, access to proper insurance and health care.

Another man I have spoken to is addicted to painkillers because he fell off a roof while working on a piece-work job a few years ago.  He got paid cash, his employer had no insurance, and had no money and no education to be able have the wherewithal to sue.  Tragically and ironically his son suffered the same fate – he fell to his death from a roof while on a job.  His mother, disconsolate, tried to commit suicide and rarely leaves the house.

These people are not desperate, and they are not sleeping on the street.  Nor are they on welfare.  They are working, working hard, working to stay alive and to maintain a modicum of dignity.  They do not like having to rely on others to keep them going.  The waitress was not pleased with herself that the Methodist Hospital had to raise its charges for those with insurance, thus contributing to rising health care costs nationally.  She and the small business owner are not happy about having to cheat on their taxes and avoiding Social Security.  As much as they both hate paying any kind of government tax, they are aware of their social irresponsibility.  If the owner complied with all government rules and regulations he would go out of business; and it is the only thing that keeps him going after a hard, dirt-poor life on the road, time in a federal penitentiary, and scraping a few dollars together to start his business out of the back of a pick-up truck.

These people are living OK lives, says Douthat, and “by historical standards [are] more comfortable than the Left often allows”.  This is a cynical, uninformed, callous, and ignorant statement.  They are comfortable only compared to the alternative of real poverty – going hungry in some backwoods holler of Appalachia or dodging bullets in some inner-city, dysfunctional slum.  They are not otherwise living particularly easy or happy lives.  Yes, they make it through hard work, the support of family and friends, and private and government support and subsidy, but barely. These people and millions like them are living on the margins, on their own economic cliff, living a life which could go totally bad in a day.

This arrogant, misinformed opinion is compounded by yet another:

Here the decline in work-force participation is of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship. Like many of these trends, it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity.

The people I have met in this small Southern community don’t have the money or time to retreat into virtual forms of sport, sex, and friendship; and there is no family breakdown in their lives – it is only family which keeps them from real poverty.  They have not abandoned the church at all, and are in fact far more religious than any of my family, friends, and acquaintances in Washington.

These marginally-employed people are not ‘of a piece’ with any erosion of community, family, or religious values.  On the contrary. They are still on the margins and not upwardly mobile because of a raft of factors – none of which have to do with the deterioration of values.  They are the children of marginally poor parents, have low levels of education, and have no world-view other than the narrow life of a small low-income Southern community in one of the least well-off states in the country.  They have no money in the bank, work two jobs, cut corners and take chances and still tread water.

I will grant Douthat one thing – that it is ironic that in a country as wealthy as ours fifteen percent of its citizens live below the poverty line, and hundreds of thousands if not millions more – like the people I have mentioned here - live barely above it. It is not for lack of political commitment and desire that this unfortunate situation persists.  The Left has been trying, through social engineering, taxation, and government welfare to address the problem; and while those in poverty have no doubt benefited to a degree from welfare, food stamps, and Aid to Dependent Children, the working poor have not – nor do they want to.

The Right has also tried in its own way to come to grips with poverty through the encouragement of private enterprise, increased economic opportunity, and a more fluidly mobile movement of labor and capital.  Neither Left nor Right have solved anything for the famous ‘Middle Class’ about which we heard so much in the recent Presidential campaign.  They believe in and rely on community, family, and church. They do not take welfare.  They find work, cobble together an economic life, are in and out of jobs, and survive on their own.  Their lives are not ‘comfortable’.  There is no anger at the so-called One Percent; no vilification of government; no conspiracy theories – just a frustrated, resigned, but insistent to make things work.

Mr. Douthat needs to get out of Washington more.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Public Apologies Over Historical Events And Demand For Reparations - Bad Ideas

This week Prime Minister David Cameron while in India went to Amritsar and apologized to Sikhs for the British massacre of hundreds of civilians in 1919.  He gave no explanations as to why the British government had decided that now was the right moment to make a public confession after almost 100 years had past, but I am sure that his advisers suggested to him that with nearly 350,000 Sikhs currently living in the UK and many more Indians, it couldn’t hurt.  In fact, there is little downside to public apologies, particularly those that involve incidents which happened over a century ago. 

Actually many public apologies are long overdue.  Certainly Mongolia should issue an apology for the estimated 40 million people slaughtered by Genghis Khan as he rode out of the Asian steppes in 1200 and marauded his way through Europe and the Far East. It matters little that Genghis Khan and his relatives brought horses to conquered lands, and those who survived the Mongol holocaust had a better means of transportation that trudging; but a lot people were killed and someone should say that they’re sorry. 

The Chinese owe an apology to their own people for Mao’s deliberate consignment of millions to death; and the Russians certainly should apologize for Stalin, his gulags, and the millions of people sent to Siberia to work, freeze, and die. However, these despots committed their massacres a scant 70 years ago, and a lot of people in Russia and China still have warm memories of The Long March,

Mao’s bathing in the Yangtze, and Stalin’s courageous fight against the Nazis.  In another 50 years, the time will be right for a public mea culpa.  This may not be as easy as it sounds, for Stalin’s depredations occurred when he was the leader of the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore; and Russia may not be willing to apologize on his behalf and that of a defunct, discredited empire. 

The Catholic Church owes some apologies for the Crusades - devastating, marauding ventures across Europe to the Holy Land to rid the world of Muslims.  Admittedly these knights-in-armor did not cut the same indiscriminate swathe of death in Western Europe as Genghis Khan, and waited until they spotted the Saracens before chopping off heads, so abject apologies may not be really appropriate.  Plus the fact that most Christians feel that the Catholic Church and the Crusades should have finished the job properly and rid the world of Muslims before they came to be the nettlesome problem they now are.

Perhaps the subject that generates the most demands for apologies is slavery.  Those responsible for human bondage must admit their guilt and repent their sins.  This is all well and good, even if slavery has existed since earliest recorded time and never was given a second thought for most of it; but who, exactly should be blamed?

Christopher Columbus might be a good place to start.  If it hadn’t been for his discovery of the Americas, and had he not found vast reaches of fertile land open for investment and development, there never would have been tobacco and cotton plantations and their subsequent demand for slave labor. If there never had been a Columbus, native Americans would still be living happy, uncomplicated, idyllic lives. Therefore it would be appropriate for Spain to issue an apology for Columbus and his opening of the New World to slavery and disease.  If it hadn’t been for Columbus, the conquistadors, and enterprising civilian settlers who followed, the Indians would not have been pushed out of the way across the Mississippi; and would not have gotten syphilis, smallpox, whooping cough, and the flu.

Italy should also apologize for Columbus because he was an Italian from Genoa.  However there was no Italy at the time of Columbus and nationhood had to wait 400 years for Garibaldi, so Italy cannot be expected to collectively apologize – that should come from the Genoese; but they don’t exist any more, and all residents of Genoa are Italian, which brings the argument full circle and no apologies offered.

The Catholic Church, once again, should apologize for slavery because it was mostly Catholic countries which were involved in the trade.  The Spaniards and Portuguese and healthy portions of the Dutch and English were Catholic.  In fact the Popes were involved in many of the wars of medieval and Elizabethan Europe and were complicit in the slaughter of untold numbers of people, so apologies would be welcome on that front as well.

Stopping with the European traders does not really go to the source of slavery.  The Arab slave merchants were the all-important middlemen between African tribes and European slavers.  Without them the local tribal chieftains would have kept their slaves to themselves and never gotten them to market.  These tribal chieftains also are complicit in the slave trade, for if they had not enslaved conquered enemies and used them as barter with other tribes, thus establishing an intra-African commerce in human beings, the Arabs would have been empty-handed.

Stopping with African tribes still does not go far enough back in history, and it is important for those civilizations who started slavery to make apologies.  The Egyptians owe the Jews a big apology for their years of enslavement; and if it hadn’t been for some impressive wizardry by Moses, they might still be there.  Egypt would certainly have a lot more mathematicians and violinists than it does now, but that does not excuse their enslavement.  However much a simple apology might be appropriate from the Muslim Brotherhood, we are unlikely to hear it any time soon.

The Romans and Greeks kept slaves as a matter of course .  They were part of Roman life, carrying water, oiling down noble bodies, submitting to the sexual impulses of aristocrats, and adding a little spice to married live.  The Greeks may have been less lusty and physical in their demands and more democratic and inclusive, but still, slaves are slaves, and the Greek government should certainly offer an apology for getting the Western world off to such an immoral start.

The point is, of course, that history when seen through the lens of today always looks ugly.  Not only were slaves treated badly, but so were women and animals.  Somebody ought apologize on their behalf, despite the progress that has been made to grant them humane treatment, gender equality, and Emancipation.

Put another way, public apology for historical events is revisionism at its worst. Genghis Khan never thought twice about the young lives he snuffed out or the heads impaled on stakes along his route.  The Crusaders thought they were doing a good thing by going after the Muslims – the right thing and the holy thing.  They had no thoughts of diversity, cultural pluralism, or religious relativity.  The world would be better off without those barbaric heathens, the Christians thought, so wipe them out.  Most people in the 1600s thought that Africans were savages, not much better than the apes, so enslaving them involved no particular moral dilemma.  Certainly nothing to lose sleep over let alone to apologize for.

Let history rest.  It was, is, and always will be.  We may choose to interpret it differently, but the facts remain.  Our 16th century ancestors did what came naturally – expansion, plunder, conquest, self-preservation and defense, and expansion all over again; and we are no different although our sensibilities might have changed. No apologies required and certainly no reparations.  If we start down that road every country in the world will have to start emptying its coffers.


Do We Really Need The Jury System?

One of the aspects of the Oscar Pistorius case is that South Africa has no jury system, but it is by no means alone.  Legal cases in France, for example, are decided by magistrates almost all of whom have graduated from the highly-respected École de Magistrature where they learn the law, courtroom procedures, and adjudication. In trials magistrates hear opposing legal arguments, and then rule.  There are procedures for determining whether a case should come to court, similar to our Grand Jury system and Courts of Appeals, but these too are presided over by a judge, and no juries are involved. Should we not consider such a system?

There are many obvious problems with the American jury system.  First and foremost, many trials are long and complicated, based on fine interpretations of jurisprudence far beyond the reach of jurors.  After all, the principle of the American jury system is to assemble a panel of an accused’s ‘peers’ and not experts. But while this principle is laudable, would we rather have our case heard by a magistrate trained in the law, educated to render impartial judgment, and skilled in maintaining a civil and professional order in the courtroom; or by a ragtag collection of out-of-work steamfitters, post office retirees, and welfare moms happy to pick up forty bucks and car fare?  All intellectual commitments to democracy by the people stops at the doors of the courthouse.

Second, many jury trials last far more than the ‘one day, one trial’ promised; and knowing that jury duty may last a long, long time, anyone who is agile enough to get around the rules and regulations, will do so. Small businessmen, contractors, or anyone self-employed risks losing significant income and worse, lose clients who getting tired of waiting.  Even salaried professionals who do not lose income, cede ground within the company to others who take over their accounts, and find themselves surprisingly forgotten by even the most faithful clients who wanted their affairs settled yesterday.

Third, anyone who lives in a major, crime-ridden jurisdiction like Washington, DC can count on getting a jury summons like clockwork every two years.  There are so many crimes in DC, and such a small pool from which to select jurors (so many residents are disqualified because of prison, parole, or criminal record), that such frequency is necessary to keep up with the demand.

Fourth, many cases come to court when they never should have, thus burdening the docket and the workload for everyone.  It is not enough that DC courts must deal with cases of murder, rape, aggravated assault, and armed robbery, they have to hear the most ludicrous and comical ones as well.

I have been lucky and inventive enough in my 35 years in Washington to have served only on two juries – DC was far more considerate of self-employed workers than today – and the cases were so silly that once we got in the jury room, everybody felt that they had been abused, manipulated, and all agreed to decide quickly and get out of C Street.

The first one was a marital dispute between two Romanian-American doctors, one a PhD and the other a medical doctor.  Both worked at Georgetown University and had been involved in an acrimonious divorce so divisive that the wife got a court order to keep her former husband 500 feet away from her and off of Georgetown Hospital property.  The trial hinged on whether this theoretical physicist knew where the property of the University ended and where  its affiliated Hospital began.  What a joke.  We all knew that this was simply a pissing match between two over-educated immigrants, and we had to sit there and listen to poker-faced lawyers parse out property lines, perceptual disconnects, and every other possible twisted arguments in favor or against the defendant, the husband who had crossed the line. 

Also, despite the fact that the judge kept disallowing evidence relating to the husband’s previous aggressive and invasive behavior, we all knew that this was not the first time this had happened.  Not only was the whole trial ridiculous and unnecessary; but the laws that forbade the introduction of obviously relevant information seemed stacked against any kind of considered decision.  “The fucker is guilty”, said the Jury Foreman. “Now let’s get the hell out of here”.  We shot the shit for an hour or so to give the impression that we had deliberated, then passed a note out to the judge that we were ready to pronounce our verdict.

My second trial concerned a former Chancellor of the University of the District of Columbia who had been accused of misuse of funds.  All well and good until we heard that he was accused of using an ‘official’ stereo system for his own use.  The value of the equipment barely made the cut off for larceny – at that time around $500.  “Are you kidding?”, we all yelled when we got into the Jury Room. “Political trial. Fucker is innocent”, said the Jury Foreman. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

In the same courthouse where this absurd trial was going on was a real political trial, one in which Lyn Nofzinger, an advisor to Ronald Reagan, was accused of cashing in on his association with the former President.  It was obvious from the start that the case was a murky one, and one with little consequence for anyone, but the Federal prosecutors decided it was time to crack down on ethics abuses and use Nofzinger as their sacrificial victim.  The trial lasted a month. 

Each time I walked by the courtroom where the trial was being held, I saw jurors nodding off, filing their nails, or simply looking at the ceiling.  They had been dragooned into sitting in a trial the proceedings of which they did not understand and which had little or no bearing on their lives or the commonweal.  I followed the trial because I had been thrown into the jury pool and got out of it by confessing a virulent, lifelong, hatred of Ronald Reagan. 

Every day the accounts in the paper told of the mind-numbing dissections of minor laws and precedents, reviews of sheaves of papers and attendant documentation; and I could only imagine how bored and uninterested the secretaries, clerks, retired janitors, and pensioners were.  US law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, so that although the Superior Court does not require you to serve after age 70, it cannot forbid you from doing so. On the jury were a number of people well past 80 who just wanted to get out of the house. It was hard enough for the younger jurors to follow the proceedings, and I can only imagine what these alter kockers made of them.

Harry Mount, writing in The Telegraph (2.21.13) recounts the trial of Vicky Pryce, a senior UK government official accused for ‘perverting the course of justice’:

That problem was an acute one in the Vicky Pryce case, where her defense was particularly unusual – the ancient defense of marital coercion. Even though the judge, Mr. Justice Sweeney, a 30-year veteran of the criminal courts, gave the jury extensive written and verbal directions about the definition of marital coercion, they still didn’t get it.

As the prosecuting counsel, Andrew Edis QC, said, this was a jury that didn’t understand its function or the very basic concept of jury trial. Mr. Justice Sweeney said he’d never seen such a situation in his career.

The writer Peter Moffat, who spent nine years as a criminal defense barrister, was equally amazed by the collapse of Pryce’s trial. (Another will now be held.) “Some of the questions the jury asked in the case are absolutely extraordinary,” says Moffat, writer of the legal dramas Silk, Criminal Justice and North Square. “They can’t have been listening at all. It’s hard to fathom”

This British case was so egregious that the jury system itself was put under scrutiny.  No one was suggesting scrapping such an ancient, revered, and august system, but perhaps there could be some reforms, such as giving jurors a little more help.

The help many jurors might want is to hear something about the case other than the blather of the lawyers.  However, listening to, consulting, or watching any information about the trial is strictly forbidden.  Jurors are also carefully screened so that they have no preconceived notions about the issues of the case – no feelings one way or another about murder, rape, incest, assault, etc.  The ideal juror should have no understanding of the moral and ethical principles governing first- second- or any-degree murder; the psychological determinants of pre-meditation; the definitions of accidental death, etc. A juror should be a thought-free dummy, a tabula rasa, an empty vessel, a nebbish with no convictions.

The whole concept of ‘a jury of your peers’ has been rightly questioned.  What exactly does that mean?  If I am a white person being judged by an all-black jury who happens to have the same socio-economic characteristics as me, am I being judged by my peers?  Or better yet, shouldn’t I be judged by white, upper-middle class professionals? They are certainly more my peers than anyone else.  Is being an American enough?  Or a DC resident?  As any Washingtonian knows, a white, upper-middle class resident of Northwest has about as much in common with a poor black resident of Anacostia as with the Man in the Moon.

Finally, many jurors resent the fact that two high-powered lawyers get to duke it out and one of them will surely get their client off on a technicality.  They feel that there is an unholy alliance between these shysters and the judicial system and the only ones who benefit are the lawyers and maybe the high-profile crook who gets off scot free.  It’s all about money, jurors rightly say. While these K Street legal gladiators win big-time cases, public defenders, bored and stultified by their bottom-feeder lives, are indifferent to the legal causes of people who need them.

So, I am for shucking the whole system, go the French magistrate way, and give a nod to our own Alexander Hamilton who was a bit chary about a governance of the mob and who would be turning over in his grave if he saw how the jury system – revered as a pillar of democracy – has been so convoluted, corrupted and has become, yes, unfair.

.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get Rid Of Presidential Debates

Gary Gutting has written in the New York Times (2.20.12) about the uselessness of presidential debates.  The candidates have full license to ignore any question, flap on about whatever issue suits them, and never get to engage their opponent.  When they do, it is usually just a little flare-up, planned and scripted like a pro hockey fight, staged more to show feistiness and macho creds than to attack wooly logic or exploit cracks in a weak argument.  Moderators are paid dupes, damned if they sit back and let the candidates bang on, and damned if they try to stop the dog fight.  In any case, it is not pretty.  Most of us turn off the TV wishing we had watched American Idol and vowing not to watch the next encounter.

Sure, there are surprises, like Obama turning up to play roll over doggy and letting Mitt look presidential, but that only meant that we were in fact watching American Idol, a Hollywood melodrama with two silly contestants, one a little tired-looking.

Only one debate in recent memory – the Vice-Presidential one between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had any substance at all.  These two guys clearly liked each other, showed a basic decency and civility, argued intelligently and agreed to disagree rather than bitch and spat.  It, however, was anomaly in a long line of nonsense, posturing, and glares. Everything about the debates is staged, practiced, and mind-numbingly familiar.  Both candidates have been thoroughly briefed on their positions, good salvos and ripostes, smarmy one-liners, and endless facts and figures. “Sound and look presidential”, the candidates are told. “No one will remember anything you say, and no one reads the fine print Truth and Reconciliation column in the Washington Post”.

Press conferences are the worst because the President and especially his Press Secretary can take a question, choose not to answer it, then move to the next question.  There is no follow up by any other journalist because each one of them has their own question, prepared and crafted long in advance.  In other words, there is no pursuit to pin the speaker down, no journalistic pack of dogs trying to tree a scurrying President.  Each journalist believes that they have the ultimate gotcha question and, Goddamn it, they are going to level it at the President come hell or high water.

Now, before making any suggestions, let’s have a look at what happens across the Atlantic, especially Prime Minister’s Question Hour where the PM takes on all comers from the ranks of his political rivals.  And come they do, each excoriating the Prime Minister for his retrograde policies, his lack of insight and thoroughness, his bumbling, and incompetence.  Each harangue is eloquent, extemporaneous, dripping with sarcasm and biting humor, pointed, and barbed.

The Prime Minister, who sits quietly in the pit of the amphitheatre  while his opponent bangs on – no notes or advisors whispering in his ear – patiently waits for The Right Honorable Gentleman to finish his screed, and then lets him have it with the same rhetorical flourishes, pointed sarcasm, confidence, and mastery of facts as his opponent.  “If The Right Honorable Gentleman had consulted his own words, ably stated in his speech before this very body last July, he would have realized the error of his ways”, or some such thing, pinning the old boy down, pillorying him before a crowd, deftly escaping the arrows fired at him, and volleying back with even more accuracy and verve.

There is an excellent program on the BBC World Service called Hard Talk on which the host interviews one guest for a half hour with no breaks.  The format, as the title implies, is hard, insistent questioning.  The interviewer will persist, interrupt, and demand until the guest answers the question, admits he does not have a good answer, or shames himself by dithering.  In all cases the guests have been chosen for their oratorical skills, their intelligence, and their intellectual deftness.  The interviewer wants an able, worthy opponent, and most are up to the challenge.  I have heard ministers, senior government officials, heads of large corporations, and directors of well-known non-profit foundations, all of whom have willingly subjected themselves to the interviewer’s uncompromising queries.  All guests are up to the standards of the MPs during Prime Minister’s Question Hour.

It is not a coincidence that both the Parliamentary debates and the interviews on Hard Talk are of the same high quality and intelligence and filled with the same rhetorical flourish.  The British – or at least those who have been well-educated – have been schooled in a classical education.  Cato the Elder who wrote the curricula for young Roman aristocrats who were ultimately to run and rule the Empire, insisted on rhetoric and public speaking; for he understood not only the power of words, but that clear speaking meant clear thinking.

Roman education for the upper classes in Cato’s time was expected to include a broad range of skills and general knowledge. Cato considered the five following branches of education as fundamental: oratory, agriculture, law, war, and medicine. Several generations later considered oratory the fundamental branch of education, as composed of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric known as the trivium…. In a manual on the art of speaking that he wrote for his son, he based his instruction on meticulous observation of the style of the Greek orators Demosthenes and Thucydides (kashalinka.com)

The Oxford Union Thursday debates have been a fixture of upper class British society for almost 200 years, and many members of Parliament have stood on the podium at the Union:

The Society's formal Thursday evening debates, which have been taking place since 1823 and remain the jewel in the crown of the Oxford Union, were founded on an ideal of the Freedom of Speech, when religion and politics were off-limits within the University. Harold Macmillan called us "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world".

The forms of debate are similar to that in the House of Commons, with all remarks addressed to the President or Chairman, and Members referred to as "honourable", standing on each side of the house to oppose each other. (Oxford Union).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the quality of debate in the United Kingdom is so high, especially when contrasted with those in the United States.  Not only do Americans do poorly in debates and one-on-one interviews (Larry King notwithstanding), they flee from them.

America is a notoriously anti-intellectual society.  If any president uses “hifalutin words”, he is branded as elitist.  George W. Bush, with strong New England roots; a solid Ivy League pedigree, and from a patrician WASP family who summered in Maine, knew that talkin’ cowboy would get him more votes than talkin’ Harvard. Politicians deliberately avoid any hint of breeding or superior education.  Rather than admire those qualities in our politicians and understand them as essential for leading the country, we are suspicious of them.  We would rather have a beer with Obama and shoot the shit rather than engage him about Descartes or the Enlightenment.  The term ‘A Regular Guy’ is the highest praise we can bestow on a leader.

We come by this dumbed down ethos honestly. Unlike the Europeans with their courts, kings, and commoners, we Americans are all from the same roughhewn roots, and we strode into our Houses of Delegates with clods of horseshit on our boots, tobacco in our mouths, and some mighty juicy four-letter words on our tongues. 

We are also capitalists, down to the core.  Everything is for sale in America, including our politicians.  In this sophisticated age of marketing, big data, and TV savvy, the goal of debates is to sell the candidate, not to show off his brilliance.  Debates are all about image, not substance.  Sound bites, not eloquence.  The difference between us and the British is like night and day.

It’s not that we can’t do it.  Exchanges between Supreme Court justices (except Clarence Thomas) and lawyers are little different from Hard Talk.  Justices badger, pursue, intimidate, and attack in a verbal joust with opponents whom they assume will riposte and retort in the same matter – more respectfully to be sure, but in kind.  The best debates in the United States are in the august hall of the Supreme Court.  Our politicians simply don’t want to do it.  They prefer to be insulated within the cocoon of media image and the predictability of fundamental, hot-button issues.  It take two to tango, and the American electorate is quite happy to be thrown the red meat of abortion, guns, marriage, liberty, and military strength and demand little else.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

Although Gutting recognizes that we all have “fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument”, he vastly underestimates them.  Millions of people believe that Obama was not born in the United States and millions more think he is a radical Black Panther Socialist. Over forty percent of Americans reject evolution and that figure is much higher in religiously conservative states of the Deep South.  Nearly forty percent of Americans categorize themselves as ‘born again’ and hold the fundamental belief that the Bible is the word of God.  With these numbers rationality has a very limited role indeed.

Gutting optimistically continues: 

So why not give reason a chance? How about a televised debate in the next few weeks on some key differences in the Democratic and Republican budget proposals? Here’s a concrete suggestion: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Charles Schumer debating the question: Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?

OK in principle, but the camps of both Ryan and Schumer would argue endlessly about the rules of engagement, protocol, and format; and both would fight to protect their candidate rather than give him a freewheeling hand to debate.  In other words, the Ryan-Schumer Debate would be no different from any other.

How about the one-on-one Hard Talk interview, where President Obama sits down with the American likes of host Stephen Sakur and gets pestered and pursued until the answers difficult questions?  Never.  The most we could ever expect is a sit down with Oprah, Larry King, or David Letterman.  No one demands a hard, challenging interview, so politicians are not apt to seek it out.  In fact, it is likely that after a Hard Talk-type interview, many Americans would feel that the President had not been treated respectfully or given the deference required by his office.

Presidential debates to little or nothing to add substance to an electoral campaign.  Positions have been staked out and presented ad nauseam. The candidates have been seen in person, in ads, in softball TV appearances, and all over the Internet; and when they get on stage facing each other, they act predictably, defensively, protectively, and boringly.  We, the press, and the candidates are all complicit in this charade.  Since there is no point to them, they should be discontinued.

As far as press conferences go, they have been a waste of time since John F. Kennedy who, brought up in the British school, had confidence, oratorical skills, and a willingness to duke it out with his adversaries.  As a result, his press conferences were fun to watch and every so often you learned something.  Now they are as much of a charade as debates.  Nothing surprising or substantive is said, evasive action is the stratagem of the day, and they should go.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I’m Blessed

“I’m blessed”, said Herman Babbage, all pink and flushed from the steam room. “Truly blessed”.

Babbage was not truly blessed. Rumor had it that his wife, Marge, was screwing the Ford dealer at lunchtime; and every one knew about his son, Billy, who was a spastic.  Marge’s dalliances with Ryder Henley became more and more open, and anyone who passed his house in Arcadia could hear the ruckus of their banging away on his old four-poster and her wild banshee screams.  The two of them didn’t even bother to close the windows.

Billy had a strange kind of palsy which affected him irregularly, and at strangely predictable times.  When he went to Sunday morning services at the United Methodist Church about half-way through he started to twitch and jerk, and when it got too bad, he and his parents had to leave. Herman was a real trooper about going to church, rarely missed a Sunday, and at many services read from scripture and led the congregation in song.  He left Billy in the back row with his wife, but often stumbled over Bible verse because he was paying more attention to his twitching son than to the words of Our Savior.

The Babbages always made a good show of family harmony, and he and Marge walked into church holding hands; but he hated it because when he went to fold his hands in prayer, he either smelled Ryder’s cheap cologne or his wife’s crotch. “Going to Sunday market” was her flimsy excuse for a ‘bucking bronco’, the town’s term for what she and Ryder did, since his flailing away on top of her, waving his arm, and whooping looked for all intents and purpose like a rodeo ride.

So Herman Babbage was not at all blessed.  In fact he was cursed.  No one knew how he took his wife’s flagrant infidelities – especially at the hands of a fat car salesman with a toupee – or put up with his son’s twitching and jumping.  Most people had sympathy for the young man, but palsy aside, he was a jerk.  He sat around the house all day long reading sexy manga comic books and whacking off; and despite the fact that the city’s Department of Human Services was quite willing – with generous and unspent Federal Disability Act monies – to find him some kind of employment, he always found some reason to turn them down.  In desperation Herman took him on in his bridal shop on Main Street, one of the few retail stores still doing business in the dying downtown.  It was a depressing place – bad lighting, racks of cheap dresses, and a raggedy clientele.  Herman banked on the assumption that even poor families like to break for white dress weddings, and he stocked up on Chinese sweatshop garments that fell apart after one wearing – which was OK, because they were only meant for a single use.

Billy gave it his best, but when he pulled the white crinoline dresses out of their boxes and held them up for a customer’s inspection, he jumped and jerked so much, his face became so contorted in horrid grimaces, and the frilly, stiff dress so shook like a wild bush in the wind, that he looked like an African witch doctor with a totem throwing a curse.  No one stayed around after that.

Every morning at the gym Herman continued to say that he was blessed, but it was easy to tell that his wife and son were eating him up inside.  The poor bastard worked his ass off selling cheap shit to across-the-tracks trailer trash, and his family never gave him the time of day. No man could take this abuse forever, and something would have to give.

I asked him out for a few beers one day, and he completely broke down. No one had asked him about his problems, and no one, he rightly surmised, cared in the least. He had been pushed to the margins of Belleville society – not formally kicked out, banished, or ridden out of town on rail, just ignored.  If this pussy-whipped cracker wanted to let himself be pushed around by a red-dirt cunt, then let him.  And fuck the spastic as well.  Not kind, but a small town’s way of dealing with unpleasant issues. I was the first person who had the kindness and the interest, he said, to get to know him as a person.

The more he blubbered, the more I wanted to agree with the townsfolk who hoped that he would throw his wife into a quarry and dump his son in the Tombigbee.  On the other hand, I began to think that he was becoming dangerously unhinged, and this being the South, and everyone armed to the teeth, he might do something he would regret.  I advised him to get away from his problems for a while.  Go to Biloxi and have fun at the casinos. They treat you well there, I said.  Gulf Coast casinos were known to lavish food, drink, and women on high rollers, and all he had to do was to look good and flash a roll with a beaner on the outside.  Let the wife and kid take care of themselves.

The good news was that he hit the jackpot and won $5000 on a stupid bet that paid off.  The bad news is that when he returned to Belleville, buoyed by his good luck and ready to take better charge of his family, he found his house a total wreck.  Apparently Marge had invited Ryder to spend the weekend, and in a drunken, coke-fueled orgy, they broke just about everything that could be broken.  Billy’s palsy erupted full-time, and he flailed around enough to smash whatever crockery and porcelain that had managed to escape Bucking Bronco and his mare.

Herman was a worse wreck than the house.  The only person he could turn to was me – a Connecticut Yankee on sabbatical and staying in Belleville to do research on kinship patterns in the Deep South. The South is interesting because not only do cousins marry cousins up in the hills, but they do in the plains as well.  The lineages of any of the older families are so intertwined that their family trees look like tangled webs or birds’ nests. Every time I disengaged a familial twig, I found out more secrets, skeletons, and bones than I could ever have imaged.  Following these twigs up the broad family tree was tracing a Baroque melodrama.

In any case, Herman knew that I was an interloper; and at worst I would write him up as an anomaly in the more august family histories of Belleville.  He could tell me anything and not worry that I would tattle or use the information against him. 

Sadly, there was nothing to tell.  I might have had more sympathy for him had he been a child of hardship, made wrong turns in his life, done time, suffered poverty and illness, scratched by on nothing, and kept his chin up like so many of the people I met in Belleville.  Herman, however, was neither rich nor poor; neither privileged nor disadvantaged; neither smart nor dumb; neither fortunate or unfortunate.  He was plain and simple, dull and uninteresting – except for his virago wife and penitential son.  Not even the most inbred hillbillies could have produced that twosome. 

“You are a religious person”, I said.  “Have you thought of talking with your pastor?”

“The bugger is the brother-in-law of Ryder Henley, the guy fucking my wife”, he replied.

I knew that his marriage was way beyond counseling even if there was such a thing in Belleville. When I inquired a few years ago, I just got a dumb look and the reply, “We just whack each other around until one of us ends up in the corn crib.  That’ll sort most things out”.

I left Belleville soon after the tête-à-tête with Babbage, and when I returned a year later I asked what had happened to him.  “He went postal”, said one of my buddies down at the local bar“, but the dumb fucker couldn’t shoot straight and just blasted up the crockery and chandeliers worse than ol’ Marge and Buckin’ Bronco did that weekend that Herman was getting lucky on the Coast.  Most people figure Herman was trying to miss, what with him emptying a full magazine in her direction.  He winged his kid but didn’t know it because Billy was hopping around just like he always did when he got a spastic fit.  The cops came and hauled Herman off.  He pleaded guilty and got sent to the federal pen in Tuscaloosa.  We all figured that going to prison was about the only way he could get away from his harpy wife and creepy kid; but knowing what it’s like over there in Alabama, he’s going to wish he never started shooting; or at least never learned how to shoot straight.  Them boys can treat a fat white cracker pretty rough”.

The harridan wife sold the house and took pity on the kid.  Last reports were that they were living in Indianola. 

“Now that’s a town with mighty slim pickings”, said one Bellville local.  “No bucking broncos over there, that’s for sure.  A few pig farmers and share-croppers but nobody to ring her bell.  Hell, she probably just wore her cunt out with Ryder Hanley.  In any case, everybody knows everybody down here, and unless she goes back up into them hills where she came from, she’s what they call a pariah – an ol’, mangy, worn out dog with three legs.

“Well, she ain’t nothing to me, and good riddance to her.  I never cared for Herman Babbage much, but figured that most men would have done what he did, except they would have done it right.  So he ended up a kind of hero, getting rid of that vixen one way or another.  As I said, he’s going to come out of Tuscaloosa a changed man; but hey, twenty years anyplace will change all of us. 

Too Much Intimacy–Please Call Me Mister

Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post (2.19.13) is sick and tired of the faux intimacy in American culture today.  We blow air kisses, hug and thump, discard Mr. or Ms. in favor of Dickie, Marge, or Colette; close every family phone call with a breezy “I love you”, extend love to audiences, friends, and even passing acquaintances; and have lost any sense of formality – and, as Mr. Cohen implies, dignity.

I have spent a lot of time in cultures which insist on a distinction between formal and informal language. In France not that long ago secretaries in the typing pool would call each other Mme. Boulanger or Mme. Lafarge until the day they dropped, would vousvoyer each other without error or slippage.  It was as unconscionable for them to tutoyer even if they met on the street, at the boucherie on a Saturday, or on the Metro.  It simply was not done. It was a means of keeping work and personal life separate, domains which seldom crossed in France as they always have in America

It also had to do with a valuation of friendship.  You had to earn the tu.  I became friends with a French woman who was a confidante of my sister-in-law in Paris.  I saw her every time I came through Paris, went out to lunch and dinner with her, and even visited her and her aunt in their country home in Normandy.  No matter how many times I slipped in a tu, hoping to get a familiar reply, I was rebuffed.  It was not time. In her opinion we were not yet good enough friends.  My American informality bridled at this Gallic reticence and formality, but I soon learned that it as way of acknowledging the price of friendship and intimacy, understanding its value, and suggesting its permanence.  You did not withdraw the tu once you had conferred it.

This distinction was even more pronounced when there was difference in social rank. As an international consultant of some reputation, I was always addressed as vous by my Rwandan colleague.  Jean-Baptiste had been educated in France, spoke as elegant a French as I have heard anywhere, was a very particular and proper person, and a respectful and respected professional.  At the same time over the course of the many months we had spent together over beers, discussing children, country, and life in general, he never switched to the more familiar form of address.  As with Danielle, my French friend, I tried many times without success to encourage the tu form; but he never took the bait, and for as long as I have known him, we have retained our formality.  I think of him as a friend, but I am not sure what he thinks.  The formality of language has challenged us to always refine our relationship, and let it take whatever course it must, whether or not friendship is at the end of the journey.

In most of West Africa, particularly among Africans who have not had the formal French education that Jean-Baptiste had, the tu form was immediate.  Even if I began the conversation using vous, the reply was always the informal tu.  This had less to do with the common assumption of friendship or camaraderie as it does in the United States, but because of simplicity.  Tu was part of a lingua franca – correct and proper French, but simplified to eliminate all the pesky endings of yet another verb form.  At the same time, there was an ease of communication in West Africa, people were on a more equal footing and the foreigner was just an interloper, regardless of breeding or education.  For both reasons, I felt more at ease and more at home in West Africa.

The same is true in Latin America. The Usted form is rarely used among social equals, although it is retained for situations where class is an issue.  I, for example, will always use the formal Usted when speaking to Latino painters, maids, and landscapers in Washington, although in El Salvador or Honduras their employers would certainly use tu with them.

In all these cases, language helps define relationships; and the formality provides a value context within which to negotiate.  Our Salvadoran nanny used the Usted form of the verb throughout her ten years with us; and given my very American democratic roots, I followed suit.  Even though over time we became more than employer-employee, and she became indeed ‘part of the family’, the language formality continued to this day, many years later.  Our relationship was far more than contractual, but in her mind, I would never be her friend.

I used to correct telephone customer representatives when they called me Ronald.  I became more and more pissy as this continued to happen. “Do I know you?”, I would snap, hear the scratchy silence at the other end of the line, and know that Miss Whatever had absolutely no clue as to what I was talking about.  By the time the era of the Indian call center had arrived, and ‘Bill’ and ‘Mary’ introduced themselves to me and asked how they might be able to help, I had given up.  Bill, Mary, and Ron it would be.

My father and I started to shake hands when I was about eight or so – my initiative not his; and I am sure that much of my appreciation for formality must be conditioned by personal preference – but it seemed right for both of us. The firm handshake and ‘look-‘em-in-the-eyes’ directness was the only way for men to greet each other in those days, and one did not shake a woman’s hand unless she extended hers first.  Hugging and kissing for anyone of my generation has come hard indeed.  Such displays of intimacy were reserved for real emotion and expressions of love, both within the family and with close friends; but no further.

Hugging and kissing, no matter how casual, does still require some thought and negotiation. You don’t hug your boss, although after a long trip mine always wrapped her arms around me and said, “Welcome back!”.  Of course she returned quickly to form and asked when my trip report would be on her desk, but never mind.  She had given me a warm welcome. Hugs between male and female colleagues have to be carefully considered. Watch out if you are an older man hugging a younger woman; although it is OK if you are over 60 and are presumed impotent anyway.

I have one friend of my age who has gone completely soft and feely, and insists on giving me a bear hug whenever we meet for coffee.  We still fumble and try to figure out which way to turn our heads; we are careful not to squeeze or get too gay, and all in all it is an uncomfortable ritual which I would just as soon drop.  I don’t have this problem with any of my other male friends who have been brought up in the same formal, old-fashioned way and have stuck to their guns.

I am teaching a course for adults on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.  It is called Famous Couples from Literature – But Was It Love? and despite the twinky title insisted on by the head of the program who said I needed something catchy to get this older, mostly female audience, I did explore the nature of love and challenge my students to derive their own definition of the term based on what they read in the plays. Of course there was no agreement on whether Cleopatra loved Antony or whether Maggie the Cat loved Brick; but whatever their conclusions and however one might define love, we all agreed that it reflected need, despair, redemption, legitimacy, and rarely romance.  In other words, love was a serious thing.

I agree with Richard Cohen in his criticism of indiscriminate hugging and kissing and wish people would leave me alone:

I want to be called mister. I want to shake hands. I don’t want to be hugged. I want to kiss only certain women — some on one cheek, some on two — and very few men. I want degrees of intimacy, gradations, so I know where I stand and so, for that matter, will you.

He closes by asking us to forgive him for being ‘an old geezer’, which he very well might be; but he has hit on a social practice, now a norm, which devalues the very emotion it means to celebrate.