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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Spicy Grilled Eggplant and Eggplant Parmigiano

The grilled eggplant is a simple but delicious recipe.  Eggplant is often misused, for if it is not cooked properly, and especially if you do not take advantage of the great tastes imparted by the skin, it comes out watery, gooey, and tasteless.  The trick in many eggplant recipes is the browning of the skin.  Not in the eggplant parmesan that my aunt used to make where you trim the skin because it has too much taste for the subtleties of this dish.

Eggplant parmigiano is a straightforward recipe, not a lot of cooking tricks, but it takes a lot of time.  Well worth it, however. It is one of the dishes I best remember as a kid.  My Aunt Leona made it for Easter and Christmas, and it was superb. Flavorful, thick, rich sauce, bubbling cheese, lovely.  My mother used to take a shortcut and not fry the eggplant, but my sister and I always complained.  “How come you don’t make it like Aunty Ona?”, we said.  “

“Your aunt doesn’t have anything to do all day but cook.  I am a busy woman”, replied my mother, and that was that.  Take my advice and don’t take my mother’s short cut. After all, you’re not going to make this dish every week.

Aunty Angie made the lasagna, and although I am not giving a detailed recipe here, it is made very much like the eggplant.  Instead of the eggplant slices in the baking dish, you layer the broad lasagna noodles with mozzarella, parmesan, and tomato sauce. 

Spicy Grilled Eggplant (3 servings)

* 2 lbs. eggplant cut into 2' pieces

The small variety shown in my Baba Ghanouj recipe are best because the proportion of skin to flesh is high.  The skin gives much of the flavor, and when grilled and/or baked at high heat imparts the same distinctive smoky taste that eggplant dishes need.  You can find them at the Dupont Circle Sunday market and perhaps at Whole Foods

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 3 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 2 Tsp. sesame oil

* 1-2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 3 lg. cloves garlic, sliced

* 5-6 grindings fresh black pepper

- Place all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, mix well, and let sit for an hour at least

- On a large cookie sheet arrange the eggplant so that as many as possible are separated and exposed to the oven heat

- Preheat the oven to 450F, when ready put in the eggplant and cook for about 20 minutes.  The pieces should have begun to brown.

- Turn the pieces, and return to the oven for another 20 minutes or so

- Turn the oven to BROIL and grill the eggplant for another 10 minutes or so until the browning is complete.  The eggplant by now should all be browned/slightly blackened and ready to serve.  Be sure not to cook them too much, for you dont want too much evaporation of the juices in the flesh.

- Serve hot or cold.  I like to serve cold as a first course with a garnish of fresh, green coriander leaves or parsley.  Hot is good too.

Eggplant Parmigiano (4 servings)

* 2 medium eggplants, peeled, sliced very thin.  You don’t want the eggplants to be too big, because if they are they will be hard to slice.  A medium eggplant produces slices which fit nicely on the bottom of the skillet for frying

* 4 eggs, beaten

* 1/2 – 3/4 lb. sliced mozzarella cheese (It is important to get good mozzarella; but do not buy the fresh, very soft buffalo cheese.  It is delicious served with fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and olive oil….but not for this dish)

* 1 cup grated Italian parmesan cheese (best to grate it yourself)

* 2-4 Tbsp. olive oil (for frying)


* 1 lg. can Marzano Italian plum tomatoes

* 1/2 can tomato paste (low sodium)

* 1 cup red wine

* 5 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 4 Tbsp. olive oil

* 5-6 sprigs fresh basil leaves (should be about 15 large leaves) lightly chopped or 1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves

* 2 tsp. dried basil leaves (if you are using fresh basil)

* 1 lg. pork chop (optional).  The pork chop gives additional flavor to the sauce.  I vary my red sauce recipes, sometimes using pork (if I am using sauce for pasta, then I prepare with two pork chops, otherwise one).

* Salt and pepper to taste


- Place the eggplant slices on a large dish and salt lightly, let sit for one hour, then pat dry

- Heat the oil to medium-high in a cast-iron skillet

- Dip each slice of eggplant in egg, coat well, and place in the skillet. Lightly salt.   Fry for about 2-3 minutes until lightly brown; then turn and repeat the process.  To save time if you have two skillets, use both, but be careful not to burn the slices.

- Finish and set aside until the sauce is done.


- Sautee the garlic in the olive oil for about 5 minutes.  Do not brown.

- Add the basil and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes

- Add the pork chop (if used) and cook lightly on both sides

- Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and wine

- Cook over low heat (simmer)  for about 4 hours or until the sauce is moderately thick, stirring every half-hour or so. If you are using pork chop, then break apart and off the bone after about 2 hours of cooking, leave in the sauce.

* Add salt to taste


- Place the slices of eggplant on the bottom of a medium Pyrex dish so that the bottom is entirely covered. 

- Place 4-5 slices of mozzarella on top of the eggplant, lightly salt

- Cover layer with sauce, making sure it is evenly spread

- Sprinkle with parmesan cheese

- Repeat the process making three layers. 

- On the top layer, put one more layer of mozzarella and liberally sprinkle parmesan cheese.

- Preheat oven to 375F

- Cook for about 30 minutes or enough for all to heat up and the cheese to melt.  You can tell if it is done when you see the sauce bubbling

- Serve

Choosing the Right School Does Matter

Every parent who can afford a school choice considers the private-public options carefully.  A good education is perhaps the most important contribution to a child’s future that a parent can make, most are willing to sacrifice to provide a quality learning environment, and few are willing to compromise knowledge for what have recently been touted as important adjuncts or associative contributions of public schools – a diverse racial, ethnic, and economic environment; participatory, inclusive education, and a universal respect for all types of intelligence.

An article in the Washington Post (8.31.12) by Kevin Hartnett http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-matters-more-to-my-kids-future-their-school-or-quality-time-with-their-parents/2012/08/30/6275957c-ed90-11e1-b09d-07d971dee30a_story.html takes a different approach, suggesting that it is the influence of the parents and the home which makes the most difference in eventual achievement.  Schools, peers, teachers are all less relevant than the direct, continuous involvement of parents to transfer values, principles, and morals.

He is right and wrong.  There is no doubt that only the family can impart the fundamental principles of successful life in society.  That is why two-parent, educated families produce children with the right foundations for life and the fundamentals of learning; and that is why dysfunctional families in equally dysfunctional communities cannot and do not.  There is no doubt that the intense commitment to education found in many Asian families contributes to the academic superiority of Chinese, Korean, and Indian children; why their dropout rates are so much lower than blacks and Latinos; and why their educational choices are practical, appropriate, and productive.

As Hartnett observes, income is not necessarily a factor in parenting.  The Asian experience is a perfect example.  While many well-educated, high-earning Indians, for example, come to and settle in the United States and can afford the best education for their children, many Koreans, Vietnamese, and Chinese enter with few skills and resources.  Yet these children consistently do better because of the work and learning ethic instilled in them from birth.

When Susan Mayer at the University of Chicago looked at the relationship between family income and lifetime achievement, she saw that many of the character traits that allow some adults to make a lot of money — a strong work ethic, honesty, reliability, good health — also make them good parents. Mayer wondered whether it is those traits, rather than the money that results from them, that really counts.

Wealthier white families share some of the same commitment and spend hours with their children, teaching them early reading and math, conceptual development, and even practical skills such as risk-taking and entrepreneurial activity. They do this even with high-pressured lives because the teaching is informal, short, but continuous.  It is no wonder that researchers cited by Harnett found that these child-focused activities that impart knowledge and values go beyond income as determiners of future success.  Annette Lareau’s research confirms what should be obvious:

Middle-class parents convey substantial advantages to their children in three ways: by cultivating their interests, enriching their thinking and speaking skills through informal conversations.. Success in those areas is much more related to the amount of time parents spend with their children than where they send them to school.

At the same time there is no substitute for a top-flight education at a premier school.  Here in Washington, DC no one doubts that the children attending Sidwell Friends or St. Albans Schools receive the best education in the District.  Not only are the teachers of the highest quality, but so are the students.  Many graduates of these institutions talk more of the high-octane intellectual environment of their peers than of the actual teaching itself.

This is not to say that children who attend public schools – even those classified as underperforming – cannot become successful adults.  There will always be those few motivated, high-intelligence, disciplined students who can negotiate the mediocrity and excel; but in general, a top private school would be better for them academically.

There is a lot of self-serving justification in this article, written by a journalist who is also a concerned parent.  He can breathe a sigh of relief that the research shows that home-teaching of knowledge and values has a more direct relationship to future outcomes than school:

It’s certainly gratifying to have an academic study tell me what intuitively seems true: that to the extent I can influence whether James and Oscar grow up to be happy, successful adults, the time I spend with them is more important than the average SAT scores or the number of Advanced Placement offerings at their schools.

This of course is nonsense. The learning environment at home is not the be-all and end-all of the educational experience; it simply facilitates the more advanced learning that takes place in top schools. A child who has learned how to learn; who is able to do conceptual thinking, and who has achieved a high level of reasoning skills before entering primary school will of course be far more able to take everything the school has to give with honors and then some.

Record numbers of kids are applying to elite colleges, and in today’s economy, James and Oscar might need every advantage I can give them. Choosing not to rearrange our lives to move to the best school system could be unwise. Or it could be a pass for our family to live the way we want to.

If the Hartnett family does choose to ‘live the way we want to’ – that is to live in a school district where public education is not of the highest quality – they will be among the very few to do so.  The demand for the voucher program in the District of Columbia far exceeds the supply.  Parents in poorly-performing school districts are desperate to get their children out and into a better learning environment.  Charter schools are booming for the same reason.  People leave DC for Maryland and Virginia for the schools; and one of the first question realtors are asked is “How are the schools?”.

There is no doubt that a rich educational environment in the home provides the student with the moral, ethical, and intellectual foundations for higher learning; and in many cases such an environment trumps income and schooling.  At the same time there is no doubt that most children who are able can benefit from the demanding, rigorous, intellectually diverse and challenging environment of the best private schools.  The answer? Give your child the proper intellectual and moral education at home, and they will get into Sidwell Friends or St. Albans. 

Republican Hyper-Individualism

David Brooks has written in the New York Times about the dangers of what he calls the  ‘hyper-individualism’ espoused and promoted by the Republican party. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/31/opinion/party-of-strivers.html?_r=1&ref=opinion.  Brooks argues that individualism has been the heart and soul of the American Republic since its earliest days and is responsible for the enterprise, courage, and pioneering spirit that made the country what it is today.

Extreme individualism, however – the assumption that neither community nor government have any role to play in our further development – is off-base.  Republicans say that if the individual were only freed from the constraints of government taxation and regulation, the still-unleashed creative and innovative power in all of us would lead to unimaginable national wealth.  Yet this ignores the important support that government has played and will continue to play; and downplays the equal importance of community.  In fact Brooks echoes the misunderstood comment by President Obama that for ever individual, every entrepreneur, there is a complex network of government interventions that have supported and facilitated his success.

Few people realize the current role of government in their lives and if asked would far underestimate their importance.  The FDIC, for example, ensures bank deposits and protects entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens from losing their savings.  The federal court system is the venue for the adjudication of criminal and civil cases.  It offers the legal protection that is critical for the entrepreneur, hearing cases on bankruptcy, fraud, contract violations, and patent infringement. Federal regulations and import laws protect American business within the framework of Free Trade. 

The State Department, Department of Commerce, and Department of Agriculture, among others, have negotiated NAFTA and other regional trade organizations which facilitate the flow of American products and allow the import of critical importance to national businesses.  The State Department through its many technical attaches looks after American interests throughout the world, promoting American products and safeguarding the country from harmful foreign products.  The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management oversee vast lands in the West and are responsible for negotiating contracts for energy exploitation.  The Department of Transportation ensures the efficient flow of land, air, and water traffic.  There are millions of veterans who receive state benefits. The list is practically endless.

At the same time many critics with David Brooks that many government institutions are sclerotic and in need of reform or elimination:

If you believe, as I do, that American institutions are hitting a creaky middle age, then you have a lot of time for this argument. If you believe that there has been a hardening of the national arteries caused by a labyrinthine tax code, an unsustainable Medicare program and a suicidal addiction to deficits, then you appreciate this streamlining agenda, even if you don’t buy into the whole Ayn Rand-influenced gospel of wealth.

This is the problem.  Most people considering the role of government turn immediately to those hot-button programs in obvious need of reform – such as Medicare and Social Security – and which most touch individual lives rather than the hundreds if not thousands of public interventions which are working quite well and without which we could not survive, let alone thrive.  There is no doubt that the Departments of Energy and Education could be eliminated; that agricultural subsidies could be drastically reduced; that the Department of Labor, EPA, and FDA could lighten up on their often stifling regulations.  Most federal agencies would benefit from the type of scrutiny proposed by Republicans.  It is the doctrinaire belief that government is bad per se that is the problem.

There is another important issue says Brooks:

There was almost no talk [at the RNC] of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Jefferson and the Founding Fathers intended just this; that the individual was only as good and as successful as the community within which he lived.  ‘The pursuit of happiness’ did not mean the unbridled pursuit of individual pleasure and satisfaction, but the Enlightenment view that citizens of a republic should disavow more personal and venal ambitions for the common good.  In other words, the individual, through his enterprise would create wealth for himself and for the community; and the community in turn would support him.  Condoleeza Rice best spoke for the vision of the Founding Fathers when she echoed Washington, Tocqueville, and Lincoln:

The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.

Rice celebrated material striving but also larger national goals — the long national struggle to extend benefits and mobilize all human potential. She subtly emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world. She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.

Where Brooks goes a bit soft is his assumption that government has a principal role to play in addressing issues that affect the poor:

I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.

There may be a role for a public safety net to catch those who truly cannot make it on their own, and who through no fault of their own have fallen on hard times; but the Republicans are right in challenging the culture of dependency which assumes that most people are poor because of external factors.  Furthermore the GOP conviction that facilitating private sector growth will address those issues that contribute to poverty – unemployment and underemployment in particular – is not entirely wrong.

The individual, government, and community are all important for America’s progress and well-being.  Our job as citizens and voters is to assure an appropriate balance among them.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mother’s Little Helper

Kids are different today, I hear ev'ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day (
Rolling Stones 1965)

I am surprised that it took so long, but Madison Avenue has finally caught on to what seems to be the eternal mother’s dilemma – getting through the day.  An new ad campaign promotes tippling to women – mothers rule, you have had a tough day, break out the wine, and imagine you are someplace other than washing dishes, changing dirty diapers, and preparing dinner. (Andrew Newman, New York Times 8.30.12), “Marketing Wine to Women”).

Winemakers today are marketing wine to women, particularly mothers, promoting wine as a break from juggling work, family and households.

In recent years brands like MommyJuice, Mommy’s Time Out and Mad Housewife have emerged. Popular Facebook groups allude jokingly to being driven to drink, including “Moms Who Need Wine,”which has more than 640,000 followers, and “OMG I So Need a Glass of Wine or I’m Gonna Sell My Kids,” with more than 127,000 followers In comes Chateau St. Michelle, a Washington State winery:

Britt Peterson, the director of growth strategy at Cole & Weber [St. Michelle’s ad agency], said the campaign is pitched primarily at women 25 to 38, including but not exclusively mothers, whom the agency is referring to internally as “reluctant grown-ups.”

Such women are no longer “just having fun with their friends, but they don’t want to lose that fun part of themselves,” Ms. Peterson said. “They are grown-ups, but they don’t want to feel quote-unquote ‘grown up.’ ”

This picture is not much different from those on any one of 10,000 paperback romances that only women read – books that take the weary housewife away from the drudgery of her mundane, spiritless life and give her romance.  Her husband may be a government clerk with hairy ears and a beer belly, but the Prince Charming in these pages can, for a few hours, carry her to a Land of Enchantment.

“It’s all about the nudge,” said Ms. Peterson, explaining that Chateau is positioning itself as the friend who prods harried women to indulge. “It’s O.K. to eat that whole tub of ice cream or to have that wine.”

Women are dummies after all, say the Mad Men hucksters.  When all is said and done, the Women’s Lib movement of the Seventies was just a blip in the consumer profile. 

The new Chateau campaign also includes a sweepstakes called the “Ultimate Girls Night In,” where, according to a print ad, the brand will “send you and your best girlfriend” on a trip to New York.

Wait a second here.  I lived through the Seventies and was a partner to women who were going through this great catharsis, throwing off the chains of male domination, letting the hair under their arms and on their legs grow out (ugh) and jettisoning their bras (yippee), and demanding equal rights.  Women were increasingly vigilant about any and all sexist references.  One woman who called herself The Phantom wrote letters to every newspaper and journal that she read, calling out the editors for biased slurs, invidious references, and retrograde male thinking.  Little girls’ nurseries were cleared of dolls and replaced with trucks, drills, and pipes.  Pink was outlawed.  So were dresses, cute hair, and dainty shoes.  So now we are back in the Fifties with women tippling, having girls’ night out (in), and giggling over how bad men can be?

We have all settled back into familiar sexual norms.  Commercials aimed at men are all gross-out animal house beer-fests or huge trucks driven by cowboys hauling man-things.

Those pitched to women are all about frilly things, great-looking shoes, and being feminine.

The understanding, of course, is that now that women have achieve their rightful place in civil society and in business, it is OK for them to revert to form; and yet one has to wonder what really has changed.

I recently watched a documentary on Justin Bieber’s 2010 tour.  There were crowds of screaming, crying young teenage girls:

This was not any different from the desperate teenagers swooning for Frank Sinatra in the 40s.

New York fans mob Sinatra, 1943.

Why was I surprised?  I guessed, having lived through the feminist Seventies, that none of this residual girlie behavior would have survived.  That horses, romances, Barbie, frilly things, and teen idols would have disappeared.  Wrong.  Retrograde feminine behavior was alive and well. 

I suppose you could say the same thing about men; but the fact remains that we never tried to change our behavior.  Sure, there was the brief phenomenon of the ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, all feelings and gushy emotions; but it died out fast, and most of us never left football, hunting, big trucks, and chasing women.

One thing does surprise me – that women are still caught in the mommy-worker-wife circuit and haven’t figured out a way out.  They still need Mother’s Little Helper, and St. Michelle wine is just the trick.

Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the ad campaign is the following:

The brand will not advertise in places that for women may already be escapist “guilty pleasures,” like People and Us Weekly, said Ms. Peterson. Rather, ads will appear “where she is spending the responsible part of her life” seeking knowledge about, say, parenting and meal planning. Ads are to begin appearing on Tuesday in the online versions of Parents, Better Homes and Gardens and Every Day with Rachael Ray.

In other words, the Mad Men still think women are dummies; but we will do a little end-around feint that the little woman will not notice.

Women still take Mother’s Little Helpers, wear perfume and frilly things, go all weepy at soap operas and inconsolable at the sight of Justin Bieber, so all’s right with the world.

One last little touch.  A feature of Justin Bieber’s tour is his ‘One Less Lonely Girl” shtick.  He sings the song to a girl chosen from the audience.  She sits on a stool on stage while he serenades her.  She blubbers, covers up her braces, blubbers some more, and almost dies from his embrace.  As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – things never change.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Smoky Baba Ghanouj and Spicy Vegetarian Gumbo


Smoky Baba Ghanouj

Baba Ghanouj is a common Middle Eastern dish, usually prepared with the large eggplants that one finds in all supermarkets.  The key to the taste of a good baba ghanouj is to grill the skin to that it imparts the smoky taste that is characteristic of the dish.  In large eggplants the proportion of skin to flesh is much less than that for small eggplants, such as the ones shown here.  If you use the long, dark ones pictured on the right in the first photo and in the bottom photo, you will come out with a dark, smoky, pungent dish that I find is better than any I have made or eaten.



* 15 small, long eggplants (as above) or approximately 2lbs, cut into 2-3” pieces skin on, stems and hard tops removed

* 2 lg. Tbsp. tahini (sesame paste)

* 1 lg. lemon (juice)

* 3 medium garlic cloves, quartered

* 6 kalamata olives (garnish)

* 6 extremely thin slices (rounds) lemon (garnish)

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil (garnish)

* salt and pepper

- Prick all the eggplants many times with a fork or sharp, pointed knife (this will allow the blackened smoky taste to permeate the flesh).  Then cut into pieces.

- Put the eggplant pieces on tinfoil in a large cookie sheet

- Place them in preheated oven and BROIL until brownish-black (20 min. approx.), turning after 10 minutes

- Put the eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic into a food processor or blender and blend until well mixed.  The mixture should be somewhat rough, and not like a smooth puree.  This gives a little character to the dish. Adjust to taste for tahini, lemon, salt and pepper.

- Plate on salad plates by spreading evenly to cover the plate

- Garnish each plate with olives, sliced lemon, and olive oil with a few grindings of black pepper and a pinch of salt

- Serve.

Spicy Vegetarian Gumbo

Gumbo is usually made with chorizo and sometimes with oysters; but this recipe is just as good.  The combination of okra, red pepper, and tomatoes with cumin, chili powder, and Bay Spice is unbeatable.  It is spicy, has a great consistency without being gummy, and is a perfect dish to be eaten as a first course (serve in small soup bowls), over rice, or as a vegetable side dish.  It is fabulous.

* 2 lb. fresh okra (approximately), hard stems and tops trimmed off, and cut into 2’ pieces

* 1/2 red pepper, chopped

* 1 medium onion, chopped

* 5 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped

* 1/2 can canned Marzano tomatoes, chopped

* 2 tsp. ground cumin

* 1 tbsp. chili powder

* 2 tsp. Bay Spice

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

- Sautee the garlic in olive oil

- Add all the other ingredients and simmer for about one hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so.  The okra should be soft and not mushy, same with the red peppers.  Adjust for taste.  At this point you can add more spices if you wish and even add some garlic flakes for more garlic flavor.

- Serve

GOP Convention–Sorting Sense from Bombast

As much as ‘progressives’ would like to think so, the Republican party is not a complete bunch of zealots, wackos, and out-of-touch ideologues because a large proportion of the American people believes what they do.  These same ‘progressives’ blame Romney Ryan, and the gaggle of radical outliers that self-destructed during the primary season for influencing voters; and that somehow the public’s views on abortion, gay marriage, family, prayer, and small government do not come from them, but from the minds and mouths of a manipulative, intellectually corrupt, and ignorant few. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that 28.6 percent of Americans are evangelical Christians, most of whom hold very conservative social values.  A Gallup poll in mid-2011 found that most Americans want abortion illegal:

By a 24 percent margin, 61-37 percent, Americans take the pro-life view that abortions should either be legal under no circumstances or legal only under a few circumstances. Although Gallup doesn’t specify those “few” circumstances, polling data has consistently shown that, when asked about cases such as rape,  incest, or the life of the mother, a majority of Americans want all or almost all abortions made illegal — leaving only life of the mother or rape and incest as the exceptions.

According to a Gallup poll taken in May 2012, half of Americans object to same-sex marriage, and of those who object, most are extremely opposed. Gallup (2011) also estimated that 43 percent of Americans feel that illegal immigration to the US should be decreased.  Over 65 percent of Americans (Rasmussen poll 2011) want to reintroduce prayer in the schools.  A recent Washington Post poll (August 2012) found that 55 percent of Americans want smaller government.  Gallup also found (August 2012) that 47 percent of Americans feel that their tax burden is too high.  A recent (April 2012) found that 55 percent of Americans oppose affirmative action.

To claim that the Republican party is way off base, hostage to right-wing zealots, and pursuing a narrow, self-serving agenda, is not consistent with the facts.

Today’s editorial in the Washington Post hammers New Jersey governor Chris Christie for shouting the praises of smaller government, lower taxes, and deficit cutting while presiding over a high unemployment rate.  While the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that New Jersey’s rate is high, a look at their state-by-state figures suggests that there are many factors at work, not just the influence of a governor.  For example, Washington and Oregon – Democratic and avowedly ‘progressive’ states have equally high rates of unemployment.  New York and Mississippi have rates that parallel New Jersey’s and no two states could be more different.  To make the specious correlation between Christie’s policies and high unemployment is simply wrong. 

There is no doubt that some employment, particularly in the public sector has been lost, but Wisconsin, a state in the press for its policies to reduce the influence of public sector unions, has a much lower rate of jobless.  When the county-wide unemployment statistics are examined, all but four of New Jersey’s counties have rates that are close to the national average; and the poor rates in the southern counties cannot be due to Christies statewide policies.  Employment Spectator, a New Jersey website, has suggested that the reason for the poor performance in the southern counties has to do with poor education and low incomes – in other words, the socio-economic status of these areas is already low and shares some of Mississippi’s characteristics.

The factors in each state must be looked at separately and individually and, as above, only a countywide analysis can make sense of the data.  Mississippi is the poorest state in the Union, and therefore the high unemployment rate is not a surprise.  An economic powerhouse like California has an even higher jobless rate, and that despite its leadership in 21st Century technologies and continuing importance as an agricultural production center. 

An analysis of national unemployment figures suggests that something more is going on – structural adjustment.  That is, the economy is in a phase of major transition.  Manufacturing jobs are rapidly losing out to foreign competitors, low- and semi-skilled jobs are less plentiful because of the shift to a knowledge-based economy, and unemployment will continue to be high until the country as a whole catches up with the revolutionary changes in production. David Leonhardt (New York Times January 2011)  suggests that Brad DeLong’s definition of structural adjustment is accurate:

You see structural unemployment when there are significant groups of businesses and industries that are frantically raising wages in an attempt to attract more qualified workers while wages in the economy as a whole are stagnant.

The unemployment figures are lower for college graduates than for those with less education:

The ratio of the typical four-year college graduate’s pay to a typical high-school graduate’s pay hit a record in 2010 — 1.56. Since 2007, the inflation-adjusted median weekly pay of college graduates has risen 1.6 percent. The inflation-adjusted pay of every other educational group — high school dropouts, high school graduates and people who attended college but did not get a four-year degree — has fallen since 2007. The same is true over the last decade; amazingly, only college graduates have received a raise.

It’s pretty surprising that college graduates’ real pay has risen during a three-year period when the economy was in miserable shape. It seems like a clear indication that our economy has an undersupply of skilled, educated workers. To put it another way, if there were more of these workers than they are, more of them would have jobs today.

This echoes the commonly-heard complaint of American industry – we simply cannot find enough qualified workers in the United States, and jobs that could be created here are being created overseas.

The issue of unemployment is a complex one, and I only mean to suggest that the facile arguments used against Chris Christie are obviously politically-driven and select facts to suit their partisan beliefs. 

The GOP platform, then, both reflects the views of a significant number of Americans, and proposes measures accordingly.  What is important, however, is to sort political polemic, posturing, and narrow appeals to the real issue of governance.  Only with a win in the White House, House, and Senate races will the Republicans be able to pass their most extreme propositions – those that take legitimate conservative sentiments in the populations and radicalize them (e.g. completely privatizing Medicare and Social Security); and even then, a vocal minority will be heard.  More than likely the Republicans will have to tone down the expected rhetoric and govern; and they certainly can do so without rejecting the will of their base.

I live in Washington, DC; and as I ride through the federal bureaucratic canyons of the city, I speculate that if one-third of all the jobs were eliminated at random, we would probably be better off, not worse off.  In other words, if we were to objectively analyze the nature of each job and assess if and how it is contributing to the stated goal described for it and at what cost, we would certainly be able to eliminate thousands of jobs.  If I travelled the few miles to Virginia and looked at the Pentagon, I know I could cut thousands of jobs without even getting to reductions in military hardware.  I know that I could achieve billions in savings if I raised the Medicare and Social Security age of benefits by a year and tightened the restrictions on Medicaid. 

With these cuts, I would not even need to look at EPA, FDA, the Departments of Education and Energy – frequent targets of Republicans. 

In short, there is a reasonable way to to the business of cutting.  Admittedly, there is a bi-partisan impasse in being able to take this logical Gregg-Simpson approach; but it is the political compromise that may be required if either party fails to dominate the election.

In conclusion, I feel that the Republicans represent – not create – public opinion which is favorable to many if not most GOP policies.  Secondly, I feel that we are still in the fulminating, posturing stage of the electoral process when the most extreme positions are still reflected; and finally, some compromise, no matter how significant the majority, will inevitably move the Republican closer to the center.

Monday, August 27, 2012

US Foreign Policy–Failure in Mali

Mali in the early 2000's was one country in Africa most experienced travelers wanted to visit. It was safe (a very important consideration in a period which was characterized by increasing lawlessness throughout the continent), the brand of Islam practiced is moderate (although most Malians are not Sufis, many of their religious practices reflect the mysticism of Sufism), the music is perhaps the most unique, intriguing, and influential of all Africa (some scholars have made a Blues-Mali link), and the political situation was stable (none of the snap strikes common in Bangladesh, for example, that totally disrupted economic productivity).  The food was excellent, both the traditional Malian dishes (the poulet yassa is superb) and French (Nile Perch from the Niger a la crème with capers is worth a detour gastronomique), and the people delightful (a far cry from the aggressive Nigerians and Wolof of Senegal).  Mali was a new but increasingly stable political economy.

It was no surprise that Mali was the favored child of the US State Department.  Here democracy could grow and be an example of a country which did things right, followed American principles, and had a chance to be the bulwark against the anti-democratic forces of al-Qaeda increasingly present in the vast northern desert.  Mali would vindicate State Department/USAID programs in Africa, many if not most of which had little or no impact and served to prop up tin pot dictators.  The Secretary of State could report back to a restive Congress that things were going well, the Department’s missions were succeeding, and there were many success stories that could be reported back to African-American lobbyists.

In 2012, however, events in Mali exposed the total illusion of these assumptions.  As Bruce Whitehouse reports in the most recent London Review of Books http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n16/bruce-whitehouse/what-went-wrong-in-mali:
Mali lost that distinction [democratic progress noteworthy in a region which was making none] on the afternoon of 21 March, when troops in Kati, just outside the capital city of Bamako, launched a mutiny. Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn’t trust their commanders and accused officials in Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards, just weeks before the end of his second and final term.
All Western donor nations denounced the coup and suspended foreign assistance.  Hilary Clinton, anticipating the critics who would legitimately shout ‘failure’, made some self-serving political feints.
The standard explanation blamed the coup on the Malian military’s disaffection after a string of defeats at the hands of a motley alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists. The rebels had benefited from an influx of fighters and arms from Libya in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall. Earlier this month Hillary Clinton claimed that ‘Mali was, by most indicators, on the right path until a cadre of soldiers seized power.’ But why was it so easy for a few dozen sergeants and junior officers to topple the government? Why didn’t more Malians stand up in defense of the institutions put in place after 1991?
It turns out that many of the democratic reforms and institutions were shams and used by canny politicians to keep the sluice gates of foreign assistance flowing.
‘A fish rots from the head,’ Malians say. To keep the aid money flowing, Touré maintained a veneer of progress. His government at first boosted the number of children enrolled at school, which pleased donors, but never invested adequately in the country’s dilapidated education system. Only 12 per cent of students passed the high school leaving exams this year, the lowest rate ever recorded. Touré purchased a temporary peace in the north but never made good on promises to reduce the acute poverty there. He accepted millions of dollars of US military aid, which was supposed to be used to drive out al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but he never actually went after the group’s encampments. The military itself was racked by nepotism, and officers often skimmed off their soldiers’ ammunition and pay.
The State Department looked, but saw only what it wanted to see.  The signs of this political corruption were evident everywhere:
The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. Touré’s presidency had begun under a cloud. Although international observers noted irregularities during the 2002 election, they declared it free and fair. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe Touré won only because the scales were tipped in his favor: the constitutional court annulled half a million votes, roughly a quarter of the ballots cast in the first round. Konaré, the incumbent, had chosen Touré as his successor and had acted to ensure his victory. Touré has been accused of orchestrating an ‘electoral hold-up’ for his 2007 re-election. Turnout for Mali’s elections throughout the decade was the lowest in West Africa. Recently Laurent Bigot, a French foreign ministry official, succinctly described Mali as a ‘sham democracy’.
Touré’s ‘rule by consensus’ became a euphemism for the suppression of political debate and a trend towards absolutism. Checks and balances existed only on paper. Journalists were afraid to challenge the president’s agenda, especially after five of their colleagues were arrested in 2007 for writing about a teacher in Bamako who got his students to comment on a short story about a girl made pregnant thanks to the ‘carnal escapades’ of an African head of state.
The fraud did not stop at these political shenanigans.  Many of the millions of dollars given to Mali by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria were embezzled, and Toure’s  Health Minister is awaiting trial. It gets worse:
On the outskirts of Bamako, residents saw their property seized by members of the president’s inner circle, and were powerless to seek redress through the courts. Few Malians felt protected by the police, who were busy extorting bribes from motorists. Judges sold favorable verdicts to the highest bidders. There was the revival of a practice known as Article 320, first seen in the lawless days after Moussa Traoré’s fall: accused thieves were doused with petrol and set alight.
The real reason for American support to Mali was to fully engage it against the growing threat of al-Qaeda in the Sahara; and this, never a sure thing, completely unraveled after the coup:
In the north, the alliance between Tuareg separatists and the Islamists has unraveled, with the Islamist militias throwing the separatists out of the towns they had controlled. The Islamists, widely believed to have links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as well as to kidnapping and narcotics rings, have consolidated their hold in the north, an area the size of Texas, and drawn fighters from across Africa to join them. They have also recruited local youths, some as young as 14.
The problem with foreign assistance is that it is never meant to accomplish its stated aims – economic development, democracy, political stability – but its hidden agendas.  In the case of Mali it is to act as a US surrogate in the fight against Islamic militancy.  In Angola and Nigeria it is to secure a steady supply of oil.  In Pakistan it is to secure the country as a reliable ally in the war against the Taliban.  In Haiti and Peru it is to stop the lucrative drug trade.  In earlier days it was to protect the American business interests in Chile, to stop the infiltration of Communism in Brazil and Argentina.  The list goes on.

While these goals may be understandable it is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a continual erosion of American credibility to try to achieve them indirectly.  In Mali we have supported yet another corrupt regime for the sake of consolidating their political fealty through ‘development’ programs.  Why not conclude a military alliance with the Malian regime, train, equip, and supervise their troops in armed action against al-Qaeda in the Sahara?  That’s what we really want. 

Or cut deals with the Angolan regime like the Chinese – investment for oil, no questions asked; or military support for government troops in the Nigerian delta? Or ditch the billions in ‘development’ money for Pakistan which goes into corrupt pockets anyway, and just give them pay-off bribe money to do what we say?

The US, however, is not supposed to be engaged in foreign military adventurism (Iraq excepted); and we are forbidden to directly pay off foreign dictators or corrupt political regimes.

This is why American foreign policy has never worked.  We are too sanctimonious to act like the Chinese whose ‘no questions asked’ policy is gaining them resources, friends, and regional influence.  We are too scrambled in our military policy; too convinced of our democratic exceptionalism to even consider Kissinger’s realpolitik approach to foreign affairs; and too wedded to the idea that ‘development’ can be accomplished at the same time as political goals.

Hillary Clinton is at least indirectly responsible for the foreign policy failures in Africa.  The Obama Administration's desire to create African success stories obviated any rational, logical assessment of the geo-political situation in Mali and most other countries on the continent.  The US long before Obama and Hillary Clinton were backers of the worst African dictators, contributed to their longevity but ultimate national instability, and gained us little in the way of guaranteed resources or political support.  Yet Mrs. Clinton cannot be let off the hook when she claims that she is the ideal person to conduct American foreign policy.  She has shown very little in the way of success.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Time to Reevaluate Africa?

The United States is complicit in decades of African misrule, mismanagement, corruption, and autocracy. In its desire for trustworthy allies, it has befriended and supported dictators throughout the continent to safeguard and promote American commercial and economic interests. Oil, precious metals, and other natural resources have become political commodities in the international marketplace, and the US is a major player.

Under pressure from the African American lobby and its progressive political allies, Democratic administrations have desperately tried to show their support for African regimes which are 'democratic'. Not surprisingly, given this bias, they have made foreign policy with blinders on. Hillary Clinton made a disastrous mistake in Mali, loudly cheering for President Toure even though many Western observers knew that he was a corrupt despot.  Bruce Whitehouse (London Review of Books) wrote:
It turns out that many of the democratic reforms and institutions were shams and used by canny politicians to keep the sluice gates of foreign assistance flowing.
‘A fish rots from the head,’ Malians say. To keep the aid money flowing, Touré maintained a veneer of progress. His government at first boosted the number of children enrolled at school, which pleased donors, but never invested adequately in the country’s dilapidated education system. Only 12 per cent of students passed the high school leaving exams this year, the lowest rate ever recorded. Touré purchased a temporary peace in the north but never made good on promises to reduce the acute poverty there. He accepted millions of dollars of US military aid, which was supposed to be used to drive out al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but he never actually went after the group’s encampments. The military itself was racked by nepotism, and officers often skimmed off their soldiers’ ammunition and pay.
The State Department looked, but saw only what it wanted to see.  The signs of this political corruption were evident everywhere:
The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. Touré’s presidency had begun under a cloud. Although international observers noted irregularities during the 2002 election, they declared it free and fair. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe Touré won only because the scales were tipped in his favor: the constitutional court annulled half a million votes, roughly a quarter of the ballots cast in the first round. Konaré, the incumbent, had chosen Touré as his successor and had acted to ensure his victory. Touré has been accused of orchestrating an ‘electoral hold-up’ for his 2007 re-election. Turnout for Mali’s elections throughout the decade was the lowest in West Africa. Recently Laurent Bigot, a French foreign ministry official, succinctly described Mali as a ‘sham democracy’.

The most significant failure in US African diplomacy has been the unequivocal support for the creation of the independent country of South Sudan; and in so doing overlooked the tribal hatreds within the region, the Sudan-South Sudan armed conflict, the desperate poverty of the new country, its unfamiliarity with democracy and governance; and perhaps most importantly the disputes over land and natural resources.  In short, by championing the cause of South Sudan for the domestic political reasons cited above, it consigned the it to years of war, misery, abject poverty and disease, and little hope of survival.

These recent fiascoes are nothing compared to the past:
Hundreds of farmers attacked a village, killing at least 48 people in south-eastern Kenya in an escalation of clashes between the farming and pastoral communities over land and resources, an official said on Wednesday.
Some people were burned to death in their houses, while others were hacked to death or shot with arrows, said Tana river region police chief Joseph Kavoo.
The majority of those killed were women and children, said area resident Said Mgeni. He said the attacks began on Wednesday at dawn when about 200 people belonging to the Pokomo ethnic group raided a village in the Riketa area and torched all the houses belonging to the Orma, a pastoral community (The Guardian 8.22.12)
In the same Guardian appears an article which speaks about the remarkable progress the continent has made and how the image of a backward continent is wrong.  Using Ethiopia as an example, it cites the number of new cafes that have sprung up in Addis and how many new Boeings the government has purchased.  It praises Paul Kagame, long-time leader of Rwanda and leader of the Tutsi fight against Hutu ‘genocidaires’ for having presided over a burgeoning capitalist resurgence. 

While there is no doubt that one can once again get a good espresso in Addis, and that Rwanda is not in the same desperate conditions it was after 1994, the assumption that Africa is no longer worthy of the West’s criticism if not condemnation is wrong.  Dictators prevail throughout the region; and not only that continue to receive aid from the United States which serve to keep them in power.

The leader of Ethiopia who either just died or was murdered was a dictator, and despite years of misrule, was the beneficiary of billions.  Idriss Deby, the dictator of Chad played the US and the World Bank for fools, duplicitously agreeing to a gas-for-reform agenda and then reneging completely and continuing his despotic rule over one of the poorest countries in Africa..  The lionized Kagame presides with a repressive regime which muzzles opposition.  He has lied or distorted reports about his support of anti-government clandestine military operations in the Congo.  There are many more examples.
Helen Epstein recently described in these pages the support that aid donors give to Ethiopia’s tyrant Meles Zenawi, who has roughly matched Biya [President of Cameroon]  in aid receipts in a shorter period of time. Peter Gill in his excellent recent book Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid (2010) documents Meles’s misdeeds further, which rise to the level of war crimes in his counterinsurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Other long-serving aid-receiving dictators include Idriss Déby in Chad ($6 billion in aid between 1990 and the present), Lansana Conté in Guinea ($11 billion between 1984 and his death in 2008), Paul Kagame in Rwanda ($10 billion between 1994 and the present), and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda ($31 billion between 1986 and the present) William Easterly, NY Review of Books, 11.2010
These are just some examples of misrule, notable because of the perpetuation of dictatorial regimes thanks to Western largesse.  But there are more.  Take the case of Togo where President-for-Life Eyadema ruled for decades until his death in a suspicious air disaster:
President Eyadéma died on 5 February 2005 while on board an airplane en route to France for treatment for a heart attack. Papa Gnassingbé is said to have killed more than fifteen thousand people during his dictatorship. His son Faure Gnassingbé, the country's former minister of public works, mines, and telecommunications, was named President by Togo's military following the announcement of his father's death.  After the announcement of the results [of an ‘election’ in 2005], tensions flared up and to date, 100 people have been killed. On 3 May 2005, Gnassingbé was sworn in and vowed to concentrate on "the promotion of development, the common good, peace and national unity" (Wikipedia).
The Central African Republic which endured decades of despotic rule by Bokassa, emerged from that period by fits and starts
In 1999 Mr Patasse beat nine other candidates to become president again, but there were allegations of electoral fraud. He was overthrown in a coup in 2003 and went into exile in Togo.
Illegal weapons proliferate across the CAR, the legacy of years of unrest. Armed groups are active in the volatile north. The unrest has displaced tens of thousands of Central Africans; many of them have crossed the border into Chad.
Another threat has appeared - the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels of neighboring Uganda, whose insurgency has spread to the wider region, including CAR. In 2009, LRA activities forced the populations of several towns and villages to flee, while government forces struggled to contain the gunmen.

In addition to these countries – Chad, Cameroon, Guinea, Togo, and Rwanda – one has to add Uganda.  Whatever one can say about President Museveni’s attempted modernization of the country, the Lord’s Resistance Army and its bloodthirsty, tyrannical leader Joseph Kony, continues its slaughter of innocent civilians:

Let us not forget Sierra Leone and Liberia.  One hopes that the violence of the recent civil and trans-border wars are over, but they are too recent in memory to assume that the roots of violence have been eliminated.  These recent wars were not only brutal and senseless, they were chillingly weird.  Wigged-out boy soldiers, high on dope, wearing women’s wigs and clothes went on machete rampages and slaughtered thousands.
The Guardian journalist limns the praises of Nigeria with its high GDP and federalist government.  What he does not mention is the Sierra Leone-type violence that is going on in the oil-rich delta, forcing many Western oil producers to abandon ship.
Oh yes, Boku Haram:

The journalist does not mention Angola as a success story as to many who see only what they want to see.  The country’s GDP is indeed growing by leaps and bounds but only because of the value of the oil pulled out of the ground.  What these admirers do not say is that this vast wealth benefits only one percent of the top one percent whose foreign bank accounts swell while the majority of citizens remain impoverished in as bad conditions as any in Africa.

Mali was once considered the darling of Africa by the United States who praised its democratic reforms to the rooftops.  What Administration officials did not realize was that this illusory ‘democracy’ was based on very weak if not fragile foundations.  In recent months Malian forces were unable to repel the Tuaregs in the North, and rebellious factions within the military and the government staged a coup, the repercussions of which are still reverberating.  Whatever bulwark against Al-Qaeda that might have existed before the coup, is gone.

The West has forgotten Robert Mugabe because he made some accommodation with his political rival, but his intolerable and brutal regime continues.  He is the same brutal dictator he always was.
Perhaps one should look to Senegal for hope.  Its first president Leopold Senghor was not only a patriotic leader, but an internationally-renowned scholar.  His successor Abdou Diouf was elected in a relatively seamless transfer of power.  All that has changed, however, and the situation in the country is as unstable and as unpredictable as those around it:
The Senegalese presidential elections planned for 26 February 2012 have set the country in a situation of instability and violence. This is mainly due to the run for re-election by the incumbent president for a third term, considered unconstitutional by the opposition united under the banner of the June 23 Movement (M23). The validation of the President’s application by the Senegalese Constitutional Council has been followed by protests, demonstrations and disturbances which have resulted in four deaths and 62
people critically injured at the time of writing. (Bulletin, International Red Cross).
Even the smallest countries and those without much international interest, such as Mauritania, are under US State Department watch.  There have been violent anti-government protests for years, a number of para-military political groups have been formed, and due to the deterioration of the economic situation,  violence could erupt.

The war in Darfur led by the Government of Sudan against minority ethnic groups persisted for years with high loss of life.  Previous wars by the Northern government groups/tribes against the South continued until the partition of the country and the establishment of the new country of South Sudan which immediately began cross-border raids against the north to fight for access to oil and gas. The US was misguided in its attempts to create a new country when its government, civil society, infrastructure, and internal political divisions all pointed to a new failed state.

What can be said about Somalia, which makes sporadic and periodic attempts to get its act together, but which has for decades been one of the world’s few totally anarchic, ungoverned entities.
So, who’s left.  Ghana, which has indeed made some noteworthy progress, but its percent increase in GDP is fictional given the abysmally low level from which it started.  Djibouti?  Comoros?  Madagascar.  Oops, Madagascar, home to lemurs, wonderful fresh foie gras, and nice beaches was totally disrupted five years ago in an eruption of total political chaos. 

There is one country one can truly count as successful – Namibia. 

Swakopmund Beach Promenade
Namibia in Southern Africa is a popular destination for tourists interested in wildlife, desert scenery and traditional African cultures. Namibia is easy to travel around, the roads are good and you can rent a car or camper and make use of the wonderful campsites that are well maintained throughout the country. The main towns of Swakopmund and the capital Windhoek are modern towns with lots of hotels and restaurants. (Namibia Tourism)
Namibia also has my favorite food – oysters:

…and you can eat them in luxury:

International observers are trying desperately to discover success stories.  They would somehow vindicate the decades of foreign investment, dispel the persistent images of a Dark Continent, and somehow expunge all the 19th Century accounts of African-on-African slavery, cannibalism, and savagery. In other words, to burn the books written by the first, intrepid African explorers Mungo Park (1771-1806) and Rene du Chaillu (1831-1903). 

Most diplomats and international development workers have positive memories of good times, music, Afro-French culture, vitality, exuberance, confidence, and humanity, and wish it well; but few want a whitewash, the creation of a rosy scenario for a continent still more riven by ethnic, tribal, and political dissent and conflict than characterized by the best blend of African and Western principles.

(This post was revised on 6.8.16)

We Will Believe Anything

There is no doubt that trusting is easier than doubting.  If I see a few pennies error on my bank statement, it is far easier to assume that the bank is right and I have added wrong; or that the insurance company really didn’t get my last claim; or that I really did need that T-28 valve on the intake manifold.  If I had to doubt everything – bank statements, insurance claims, car repairs, the sink-reamer, and Joe The Tree Guy; not to mention my sister’s estate management, my daughter’s accounting of the bridge loan for the house, or the need for an MRI.  It is just too bloody difficult.  A few bucks here and there, the opportunity cost of hassling for days, challenging specialists, are simply not worth it.

I never connected this behavior with anything more serious than personal indifference or laziness; but Frank Bruni has written an interesting article in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/bruni-gullibility-in-politics-and-in-film.html?ref=opinion (Ever Meek, Ever Malleable) on credulousness – how we will believe even the most outlandish lies, incorporate them into our belief system, or at the very worst, perform outrageous acts if we have been told to do so. 

Based on a true story, the film “Compliance” is about how a fast-food manager, duped by a “police officer” who asked her to detain a suspected thief until the got there, commits more and more abusive and invasive acts to turn up the stolen money. “It’s an essential parable of human gullibility. How much can people be talked into and how readily will they defer to an authority figure of sufficient craft and cunning?”

Made on a modest budget and set during one shift at a fictional fast-food restaurant called ChickWich, it imagines that the manager, a dowdy middle-aged woman, gets a call from someone who falsely claims to be a police officer. 

The “officer” on the phone tells the manager that he has evidence that a young female employee of hers just stole money from a customer’s purse. Because the cops can’t get to the restaurant for a while, he says, the manager must detain the employee herself in a back room. He instructs her to check the young woman’s pockets and handbag for the stolen money. When that doesn’t turn up anything, he uses a mix of threats and praise to persuade her to do a strip-search. And that’s just the start.

The manager’s boyfriend later assumes the duties of watching over the detained employee. Cajoled and coached by the voice on the phone, he makes her do those jumping jacks, which are meant to dislodge any hidden loot. By the time he leaves the back room, he’s also been persuaded to spank and then sexually assault her.

The ‘prankster’ apparently did not stop with one franchise; he went on to trick other store managers with the same unexpected, frightening result.

This psychological phenomenon is not new and in fact has been studied.  I have written previously on the infamous Stanford prisoner-and-guard study:

Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's [experimenter] expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.

This study was scary not only because of the easy willingness of the ‘guards’ to take orders, but the capacity for cruelty and perhaps worst of all, the total abnegation of any reasonable moral and ethical sense.

This capacity for gullibility, credulousness, and the total abandonment of principle and right behavior is bad enough when we are directed to act in a certain way.  The question of the Twentieth Century is why did the German people carry out the murderous, insane principles of Adolph Hitler?  There have been many attempts to explain or even justify this complaisance and obeisance, and these have been studied by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust whose arguments are summarized below:

There had always been virulent anti-Semitism in Germany and Hitler’s call for The Final Solution, although extreme, was not illogical.

The authoritarian regime of Hitler was such that anyone who did not comply in Hitler’s orders to kill Jews would have been executed. 

Only the SS and other fanatical Nazi groups did the killing

The holocaust went on without the German people really knowing the extent of the massacre.  

Those Germans who participated actively in the roundup or killing of the Jews were simply venal technocrats looking to their careers

The holocaust was carefully divided into tasks and thus few Germans were able to piece the puzzle together and conclude that mass killings were occurring.

Hitler’s charisma was a potent, lethal, and irrefutable power in forming public opinion

Goldhagen dismisses all of these explanations and argues that the Germans knew and were complicit in the systematic, wholesale slaughter of the Jews.

The explanations treat Germans as if they had been people lacking a moral sense, lacking the ability to make decisions and take stances. They do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces or by trans-historical and invariant psychological propensities, such as the slavish following of narrow "self-interest."

As importantly:

These [explanations] do not sufficiently recognize the extraordinary nature of the deed: the mass killing of people. They assume and imply that inducing people to kill human beings is fundamentally no different from getting them to do any other unwanted or distasteful task. Also, none of the conventional explanations deems the identity of the victims to have mattered. The conventional explanations imply that the perpetrators would have treated any other group of intended victims in exactly the same way. That the victims were Jews - according to the logic of these explanations - is irrelevant.

In other words, ‘ordinary’ German people were brought up with and believed in a set of moral and ethical values which were challenged in the extreme by Hitler; and no amount of charismatic influence, venal ambitions, lack of total information, or self-protective instincts could have so influenced so many – especially because of the horrendous and horrific nature and scale of the crime.

Goldhagen especially dismisses the point Frank Bruni and the director of Compliance are making – that people are willing dupes:

Hitler's charisma (the perpetrators were, so to speak, caught in his spell), a general human tendency to obey authority, a peculiarly German reverence for and propensity to obey authority, or a totalitarian society's blunting of the individual's moral sense and its conditioning of him or her to accept all tasks as necessary. So a common proposition exists, namely that people obey authority, with a variety of accounts of why this is so. Obviously, the notion that authority, particularly state authority, tends to elicit obedience merits consideration.

It is almost impossible to decide the question of gullibility vs. true belief; the role of external forces (a repressive, brutal, dictatorial regime enforcing compliance); or even the influential power of a charismatic leader.  There are too many Twentieth Century examples of slaughter and depredation to assume anything other than a confluence of many factors.  Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot – like Hitler – could never have orchestrated and carried out such widespread, systematic killings without a powerful, controlled, disciplined, and well-paid and therefore loyal coterie of Nazi-like SS cadres; or a quasi-plausible goal (Communism and equality for all).  But nor could they have succeeded unless there was some willingness and complaisance on the part of the people they ruled.  Perhaps it was too late for Cambodians once the forced march to the countryside had begun, but was there not ample time for dissent and revolt before?

There is an excellent film called The Lives of Others which recreates East Germany at the time of Stasi, the secret police and the common practice of informing among the German people.  It was not uncommon for friends to inform on other friends, and even for family members to betray each other.  While the film does not attempt to answer the question ‘Why’, the audience is forced to; and yet there are no easy conclusions.  The answer, like that to the question about Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot or the Kims of North Korea, has many parts – true belief, gullibility, complaisance, obedience, fear, and ambition.  Perhaps the one element that is not discussed by Goldhagen, Bruni, or others is courage.  It takes tremendous personal courage to act against overwhelming force, especially when that force is quite willing and able to torture and murder the family of those who rebel.

In other words, credulity is but one part of the equation.  It is never enough, it seems, for simple gullibility to excuse slavish adherence to outrageous actions.

Bruni suggests that gullibility is not only common but extremely problematic in America today.  People will believe just about anything, he says, because it is simply easy to do so.  Like my ignorant acceptance of my bank statements as correct, many people subscribe to conspiracy theories because it is easier than challenging them, going through the work of comparing sources, assessing conflicting views, arranging all in a logical argument, and making one’s own decision.  It is even easier to accept conspiracy theories if they already conform, more or less, to one’s existing worldview or current beliefs.

People also routinely elect trust over skepticism because it’s easier, more convenient. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; the climate isn’t changing; Barack Obama’s birth certificate is forged; Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. To varying degrees, all of these were or are articles of faith, unverifiable or eventually knocked down. People nonetheless accepted them because the alternative meant confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt, or potentially hunkering down to the hard work of muddling through the elusive truth of things. Better simply to be told what’s what.

“We can’t be on guard all the time” [said Craig Zobel, the Director of Compliance]. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you’d never get anything done.” It’s infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.

The problem is not in the gullibility alone, nor to the perpetuation of outlandish beliefs, it is that a culture of credulousness – taking arguments on face value and responding to them emotionally not logically – can lay the foundation for more serious usurpations and arrogations of power.  It is not a straight line by any means, but if you believe that Obama was not born in the United States, you just might believe anything.

Bruni describes that only if there is a willing collusion between the ‘police officer’/Hitler/Stalin and the fast-food manager/German people can the abusive actions take place:

“Compliance” charts the mechanisms and progress of mind control. The “officer” introduces himself with utter confidence, sure of himself and unambiguous about the necessary course of action. He expresses sympathy, telling his human puppets that he knows how confusing and difficult everything he’s asking of them must seem. He doles out compliments and rebukes, establishing himself as someone who sits rightfully in a position of judgment. He insists that he’s mindful of their self-interest: “You need to listen to me for your own sake.”

And he grows bolder in studied increments, knowing that once a person has decided to believe you, he or she is more likely to continue to, because to rebel at a late juncture is to admit that you’ve been duped all along. At a certain point you’re psychologically invested in fealty. At a certain point a spanking is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

This is yet one more, and possibly a key component to willing obedience to immoral commands – if you haven’t stood up right from the start, then by doing so later, you admit your ignorance and compliance.  “Well, Hitler was wrong, but it is too late to do anything now.”

I have noted before that there is a troubling trend in America – that despite the electoral railings about defending freedom and democracy, there is an increased concentration of power in the federal government.  With our direct and indirect assent, the government is compiling Stasi-like dossiers on all of us; and a fine line exists between the abusive use of that information and its legal use to stop crime and terrorism.  We have been far too trusting of government to do the right thing.  We have bought into the equation of limitation of individual rights with American Freedom.  Are we that different from East Germans after WWII as the mechanisms of State security were being put into place?

Being a birther and believing that the government is not spying on us are two sides to the same coin.  Gullibility, credulity, lazy conformity, whatever you want to call it – it is a serious issue.  Only with clear-minded, rational, logical assessment of the facts can we be the informed electorate that the Founding Fathers had in mind to keep government honest and at bay.  We are today far from that vision.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Religious Sanctimony–The Irrelevance of Rick Warren

Religious touts have been a staple of American society for decades.  Billy Sunday was a baseball player who found religion, and went on the revival circuit.


One of his modern-day adherents described Sunday and the American tradition of street preaching:

Billy Sunday was saved because a soul-winner wasn't afraid to go out onto the street preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ!  You'd be shocked how many Christians get upset when other Christians go street-preaching. I remember street-preaching in downtown Chicago at State and Rush Streets one night years ago. I was standing up on a fire-hydrant with my Bible in hand preaching and a taxi-cab driver pulled up in front of me. Tears were just running down his face and he wanted to be saved. I witnessed to him concerning Christ. You just don't forget moments like that. I also remember when a friend of mine had a bag of flour throw at him while preaching. Then came the tomatoes. There is nothing like street-preaching! I was younger then and didn't know any better to stay off the fire-hydrants, but I wanted to reach people for Christ. (David J. Stewart, www.jesus-is-savior.com)

Sunday also energized the rural revival tradition, and in the early years of the Twentieth Century thousands attended tent revivals throughout the country.

Elmer Gantry, written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927, satirized this movement.  One of the most memorable lines of the movie (1960) with Burt Lancaster as Gantry, was spoken by Lulu Bains:

Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!

Amy Semple McPherson was the first radio evangelist:

Aimee Semple McPherson, pastor of the enormous Angelus Temple in the booming city of Los Angeles, preached to a vast radio audience and pioneered the novel technique of faith healing over the airwaves. In this audio clip from a 1924 sermon, McPherson described a loving, kind, and rewarding God instead of the severe, wrathful God of Old Testament tradition. Her youthful persona and cheery good humor helped make her radio presence highly effective (History Matters, George Mason University Online)

McPherson was a full-time revival preacher, broadcasting sermons and services over her Kall Four Square Gospel radio station.

She, however, was forced off the air because of scandal – she allegedly faked her own death:

She later claimed that she had been kidnapped, but a grand jury adjourned with no indictment, saying it had not enough evidence to proceed. Roberta Semple Salter, her daughter from her first marriage, became estranged from Semple McPherson and successfully sued her mother's attorney for slander during the 1930s. As a result of this she was cut out of her mother's will. Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates (Wikipedia).

She was the first well-known evangelist to fall because of scandal, but she led the list of hundreds to follow.  Wikipedia provides a list of the 50 most outstanding.   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scandals_involving_evangelical_Christians).  The recent cases of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker are perhaps the most memorable because of their inimitable sleaze:

In 1986 Swaggart uncovered Gorman's [another evangelist] affair with a member of Gorman's congregation, and also helped expose Bakker's infidelity with Jessica Hahn.  These exposures received widespread media coverage. Gorman retaliated in kind by hiring a private investigator to uncover Swaggart's own adulterous indiscretions with a prostitute.

Swaggart was caught again by California police three years later in 1991 with another prostitute, Rosemary Garcia, who was riding with him in his car when he was stopped for driving on the wrong side of the road. When asked why she was with Swaggart, she replied, "He asked me for sex. I mean, that's why he stopped me. That's what I do. I'm a prostitute." (Wikipedia).

Billy Graham was a successful televangelist who was perhaps most famous for being the religious trained seal of American Presidents.  Here he is praying with two famous crooks:

Always political, and ceaselessly desirous to be in the limelight, Graham recently came out of deep retirement to endorse Chick-Fil-A

Billy Graham, the dean of American evangelists, has once again broken his usual silence on hot-button issues, defending the president of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain for his opposition to same-sex marriage days after issuing a letter decrying what he sees as the nation's moral decay.(CNN)

After Graham, there were others cut of the same cloth – in addition to Swaggart and Bakker, there was Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.  They all created media empires and exerted significant political influence.  Although they all insisted that they were just simple, humble, and pious Christian men, their organizations were awash in money.  Falwell’s Moral Majority was religious cover for Right Wing policies:

He staged "I Love America" rallies, a potent mix of religion and patriotism that attacked what he believed were evils threatening to bring down the country: the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, pornography and women's liberation. He called for a religious revival:

“What has gone wrong? What has happened to this great republic? We have forsaken the God of our fathers. The prophet Isaiah said that our sins separate us from God. ... Our country needs healing. Will you be one of a consecrated few who will bear the burden for revival and pray, "O, God, save our nation. O, God, give us a revival." The destiny of our nation awaits your answer.

I was convinced that there was a moral majority out there among those more than 200 million Americans sufficient in number to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism “( God in America, PBS)

If this were not enough we must suffer the sanctimony of the likes of Joel Osteen, who like his fellow televangelists runs a huge media empire.  Unlike Graham, Falwell, and Robertson, however, Osteen presides over a mega-church, and his Lakeside Church, formerly the Compaq Center.  Here he is showing the Bible to his 16,000 faithful.


Rick Warren has tried to be the Billy Graham of his generation – that is, minister to Presidents.  In 2008 he invited Barack Obama and John McCain to a forum to discuss their Christian beliefs.  It was a degrading, humiliating performance.  Here are Obama and Warren enjoying a joke (“Have you heard the one about Jesus and Mary Magdalene?”)

Neither Obama nor Romney have accepted his invitation this year, preferring to discuss their beliefs in a less theatrical setting.  Warren, miffed, said that he cancelled the forum because he was concerned about the lack of civility in the presidential campaign.  He didn’t expand on this, but must have thought that Obama and Romney would start fighting on his show.

In an ‘OK, I’ll take my marbles and play somewhere else’ moment, he said that instead of hosting Romney and Obama he would organize a forum on religious freedom.  When queried on his thoughts about the two presidential candidates and their views on religious freedom, Warren chose sides:

“President Obama’s policies clearly show what he values, and I have told him that I adamantly disagree with those particular policies,” said Warren. “I have not talked about this issue with Governor Romney, but I would imagine that as a Mormon he’d obviously understand the importance of protecting all religions against persecution and ensuring people’s rights to practice their conscience without government intervention. (Interview with Orange County Register)

So much for religious freedom.

There will be more.  America is not only the world’s most religious country – or at least a close second to India – it is the world’s wackiest.  The hucksterism, crass materialism, and shameless self-promotion on full view on the nation’s TV screens is played out a hundred thousand times every Sunday in churches everywhere.  Not only mega-churches, but in regular-sized churches, store-front churches, and tent churches.  One one of my trips through the Deep South, I was amazed at the number of churches.  They were lined up on both sides of the street in even the smallest towns.  Usually they were the most expensive, modern, and showy buildings.  “Tithing makes for tall steeples” said my companion who also wondered how, with traditional steeple-and-spire churches everywhere, there could be so many store-fronts. 

No matter how unconventional the traditional church (I attended a mini-mega-church in Mississippi, and it was about as far as you can imagine from the Protestant churches of my New England youth), people are apparently searching for something even more thrilling.  In one Alabama town, with the mainline evangelical churches filled to the gills, there were people standing outside the former barber shop store-front church just to catch a bit of the hollering and shouting inside.  It was impressive.

I am glad that Pastor Warren got his comeuppance.  Enough is enough.  This one refusal by our presidential candidates will not alone turn the tide back from media hype and the corrupting influence of religion in politics, but it is a small step towards sanity. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dining with the Devil - My Neighbor, Mr. B.L. Zebbub

I love cities.  I presently live on the 20th floor of a new glass hi-rise building in the Chelsea district of New York City.  I have a view out over the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Below me is the High Line, the transformation of the old New York Central right-of-way into a landscaped promenade.  My neighbors on lower floors are at eye-level with the pedestrians walking from Gansevoort north to 30th Street.  Some of them find the proximity of the High Line intrusive and close their blinds at peak hours.  Others find tourist-ogling amusing; and still others parade around naked, enjoying the thrill of anonymous and guiltless flashing.

Before settling in New York, I have lived in Bombay, Delhi, Paris, San Francisco, and London and thrived on the excitement and energy of these cities.  I left New Brunswick, Connecticut many years ago and have not looked back since.  Living anywhere but a city would be a death sentence.  I could never survive without the activity, the choice, the diversity, the edge, the colors and lights, the insistent sound, and the intent, purposeful movement. 

I have never lost my sense of the city nor have I ever had any desire to retreat into my comfortable haven on the 20th floor.  I could have the best food in New York delivered to my door.  I have an account with Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Per Se, and Del Posto, my favorite and whose Tortello Puzzone with Taleggio Dolce & Black Truffle Butter is sublime.  I know Eric personally, and he is delighted to prepare anything I want.  On one rare evening when I decided to eat in, he delivered the Lobster with Fairytale Eggplant, Sweet 100 Tomatoes & Garlic Clove himself.

I prefer to go out. The slip of the elevator and the compression of the descent, the perfumed lobby clicking with Manolo Blahniks on the polished marble, the scent of fresh roses and lilies, the sunlight reflected and filtered through canted skylights; the high twirl of the airtight revolving doors, and the hit of cold, traffic, heat, and energy are always speed boosts, psychedelic primers, are aphrodisiacs.

I choose my walk and my neighborhood according to my mood.  The Hudson River Park walk when I feel expansive, happy to be by the river, smelling its funky diesel, creosote, harbor smell instead of looking down on it; DUMBO or Williamsburg when I want hipsterville, the far Lower East Side when I want Chinese.  Upper Fifth Avenue for old money; SOHO for new; and Times Square for good, old-fashioned glitz. 

Last month a new tenant moved in next door – a Mr. B.L. Zebubb, a Bangladeshi from Dhaka, a city where I spent many months negotiating legal agreements with the Central Bank on behalf of Chase Manhattan.  I always liked Dhaka.  It had the feel of an Indian provincial capital like Lucknow or Patna – hot, crowded, dense, but lacking any cosmopolitan flair.  I stayed in a simple hotel in Banani, a quiet residential enclave not far from Ataturk Road, a major thoroughfare leading into town and out to the airport.  In Dhaka, like in New York, I was never content to stay within the the pleasant confines of the old-world, upscale colony.  I had the same feeling of release and anticipation as I left the perimeter of Banani and joined the ragged, loud, whirligig of the city.

Mr. Zebub looked and sounded only faintly Bangladeshi.  He was lighter-skinned than most and spoke with a pukka British accent, but wore a trimmed mustache and goatee.  He wore Western dress, elegant Armani suits and soft Italian leather shoes; but on occasion wore the stern but equally elegant and tailored long Nehru coats with silver buttons and a high, clerical collar.  He was vague about his profession and suggested only some kind of high-end personal service; an investment counselor perhaps, or an accountant.  Our relationship at first was cordial but quickly progressed to something more substantial.  Mr. Zebbub, like me, was interested in theatre and in particular the philosophy which underlay the works – Shakespeare’s Machiavellian cast and his pre-Nietzchean dalliance with ‘Beyond Good and Evil’; Marlowe’s total abjuration of morality; Arthur Miller’s contrary attempt to confirm the existence of moral choices; and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus in NO EXIT and THE STRANGER.

The more I got to know Mr. Zebbub, the more I was intrigued by his point of view which was little different from mine.  There was no such thing as good or evil he contended.  The longer the historical perspective, the more the concept of positive or negative consequences of individual action faded.  Only action was left; and the celebration of the force of will freed from the constraints of morality was euphoric.

“Have you ever committed what you would consider an evil act?”, he asked me over tea one afternoon.

“Evil?”, I asked.  “What kind of evil?  How evil? Richard III?”

“Not at all”, he replied. Richard was only murdering to secure the throne.  He was no different from a thousand kings before and after  him who had slaughtered their way to power.”

“What about the ‘princes in the tower’” I asked.  “They were innocent and their pathetic murder was certainly not necessary.  A moral man would have stopped before having their throats cut.”

“Not necessarily”, Mr. Zebbub replied.  “Richard wanted to eliminate all pretenders to the throne. He even set forth his ambitious plan in Act I – first his brothers, then his wife, and then the princes.”

“So if there is a logical reason for action – a motive – than the act can never be evil”.

”True enough.”

“So Iago is the only evil villain in Shakespeare?”

“Yes.  He delighted in the destruction of Othello – the slow, painful disassembling of a man.  The best part of is evil machinations was that he knew that Othello would eventually realize his tragic mistake in killing Desdemona and that his pain, suffering, guilt, and torment would be intolerable. And he had nothing whatsoever to gain from this infliction of pain and torture.”

Mr. Zebubb was a remarkably young 50.  Not only was a trim and fit, but showed absolutely no sign of aging or of age itself.  No age spots, no thinning hair, no thickening waist. His eyes were black and clear, his teeth white and perfect.  He moved gracefully but was strong.  If it hadn’t been for his black coat and leggings and tightly trimmed beard, he might have been a swimmer, or rower, or even a golfer.

He was unmarried, and never had been.  He was vague about his past, although nothing about him, his apartment, his demeanor suggested anything but probity.  He was supremely confident, although it was difficult to say why.  He never insisted on a point, never resorted to theatrics or cleverness to prove a point, never seemed hurried or insistent, never leaned over the table, eager to speak.  There was an unflappability about him, a calm, and an almost unsettling indifference.  He was likeable but more because of his intellect than his personality which was removed and distant.  He was never cold, smiled eagerly and warmly shook my hand when we met; but there never seemed to be any passion in him.  The better I got to know him, the less he seemed like a Bangladeshi.  He looked South Asian, but he could also have been Afghan, Persian, or Egyptian.  He had a cosmopolitan air of someone who had lived well in the same world capitals as I had.

“You must have lived in London for some time”, I said. “Your English is pukka”.

“Indeed I did; but then again I have lived a long time in many places.  New York is not my last stop”.

“Your business keeps you on the move?”, I probed.

“You could say that”, he replied politely.

Our friendship – if you could call it that – continued for a number of months.  We met frequently in the elevator and in the halls and had tea in the afternoon and once or twice had dinner at home.  Mr. Zebbub disliked eating out as much as I liked it.  Only once did he agree to join me for dinner, and I reserved at Boulud Sud, Daniel’s best new restaurant ever.  While he enjoyed the dinner he was reserved if not slightly indifferent about the many dishes selected especially by the chef.  While I shut my eyes and let the first exquisite bite of the impossibly creamy, herbed risotto, the grilled pompano, and the blackberries a la crème Chantilly, my companion ate almost mechanically.  His manners were perfect, and there was something ritual about his eating.  There was no pleasure in it.  He showed no gusto, no delight.  He was perfectly methodical.  He – almost delicately and perfectly – raised his fork to his mouth, replaced it gently on his plate and touched his napkin to his mouth.  I don’t want him to seem precious, pretentious, or silly.  He ate in as controlled a manner as he did everything else; but I never felt a primness or reticence.  It was simply an uncanny indifference and control.

“What about Arthur Miller?”, I began over coffee. “He writes about depravity, and the father in All My Sons certainly committed an evil act, condemning many soldiers to die because of his greed”.

“The play is about resolution”, Mr. Zebbub replied. “Keller’s act was immoral but not evil.  It was a human failing, a breakdown in his moral code, a product of his family and his impoverished history.  He couldn’t help himself.  His actions were inevitable.  Evil actions are those which have no explanation, no reason, no productive outcome.  They are simply carried out for the pleasure of seeing their destructive, antisocial, amoral results”

This was the first time I had ever seen anything resembling engagement on the part of Mr. Zebubb. The subject seemed more than just academic.

“Hitler? Mao? Pol Pot?.  They consigned millions to their death unnecessarily.  Were the gulags necessary? Or the Chinese famine? Or the great march to the Cambodian countryside?”.

“In their minds their actions were justified.  Shakespeare, remember, wrote about absolute power and the insistent, indefatigable pursuit of it.  Richard III would never have stopped his insatiable marauding.  Shakespeare admired Christopher Marlowe, you recall, and it took him Titus Andronicus to expunge the influence of Tamburlaine.  Shakespeare understood that the wars of Tamburlaine and Genghis Khan were exhilarating.  The thrill of absolute certainty wielded in a bloody sword was thrilling.  You must admit that you did not look dispassionately on the films of B-52 bombers dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on Vietnam. Each massive explosion, one after another in a precise line of flight, was an exquisite expression of pure, unalloyed power.  Each blast was evil, although the bombing itself was excused from that characterization because of its strategic importance.”

The only times that I saw Mr. Zebub at all uncomfortable or out of sorts was when we travelled to and from the restaurant.  He was clearly irritated by the crowds, the noisy taxi, the traffic, and what to me gave New York its vitality – visual chaos.  He never complained, nor even raised an eyebrow at the horns, the jaywalkers, or the shouts; but his distaste was evident.  The feeling was mutual, it seemed, for as we walked the short distance back to our building, passers-by gave him more berth than most contact-averse New Yorkers.  Residents out walking their dogs apologized profusely when the animals showed their teeth, growled and strained at the leash, then whined and turned tail when Mr. Zebbub looked at him. 

“Have you ever committed an evil act?”, he asked me later.

“Me?”, I said, surprised but pleased that at least the conversation was getting more personal.

“We all have evil thoughts, and some of us act upon them.”

I immediately dismissed the question, but out of deference to him – there was always something behind his questions – I thought about it.  While I had never been evil, I had once or twice stepped on some borderline between understandable immoral action and deliberate, destructive purpose.  These acts had few consequences, no larger social repercussions.  They involved spreading lies for no other reason than to see a classmate suffer; piling on abuse and humiliation to an already-beaten colleague; but never anything more serious. 

“Have you never spread lies and made innuendoes about someone and watched them grow, take hold, eventually encircle him, perhaps even neuter his self-confidence?”

It was as though Zebubb had read my mind, anticipated my response; but of all the so-called evil things that I might have considered or done, how did he select the very one that had stayed with me all these years?

“Don’t be ashamed”, he said.  “We have all done things which we regret.  The regret is the evil, not the act.  We are alive only to feel alive, to exhilarate in action, to defy norms and values, to become willful individuals"

“You sound like Nietzsche”, I replied.

“Ah, Nietzsche”, he said, nodding his head.  “He understood, and I was very proud of him”.

This was an unusual turn of phrase – ‘proud of him’ - as though Zebbub had some paternal interest in the man; as though he, strange as it may seem, was responsible.

I saw less of Mr. Zebbub over the next few months.  He had to travel, and when I asked if I could look after his apartment for him while he was gone, he said no, it was not necessary.

“I have never had any problems like that, and I doubt I ever will”

I enjoyed the Fall.  New York is a special, even happier place in October when the first chill sets in, when the light is lower, but more brilliant in color.  People breathe deeper, they are more animated.  The enervation of August is long gone and forgotten and the cold winds that blow up the tunnel streets of the Upper West Side things of the distant future.  Spring in New York – or any city for that matter – never can be anything like Spring in the country when there are flowering trees and bushes, grass, meadows, and forests.  The city experiences a modest, demure Spring.  There are flowers in flowerboxes on fire escapes on the Lower East Side or in large planters down the Park Avenue median island; and Central Park has its bowers and small fields; but it is nothing like the country.  Fall, on the other hand, is New York’s season.  The light reflected off the high glass walled buildings of Midtown has color and range.  The shadows of lower buildings by the rivers are longer and massive – they add an architectural dimension to the buildings they never have in Summer.

Mr. Zebbub’s pointed remarks and uncanny guess about my guilty past stayed on my mind.  Perhaps he was right.  My actions, as adolescent as they might have been – the responses of an immature teenager – were still uncalled for and unnecessary.  I had repented, reformed, and done the penance of many guilt-driven Our Fathers; but I had to admit that my interest in Marlowe, Nietzsche, the unbridled characters of Shakespeare might not be so academic after all.  Zebbub was right.  I never could explain the very exhilaration that he had so accurately described – the wonder at the release of pure, destructive power.  Even Hinduism, a religion always thought of as that of Gandhi, om shanti om, satyagraha and peaceful acceptance, was one that celebrated the fiery, total destruction of the world by Kali.  My willful disassembling of Tim Edwards and Bruce Evers went unnoticed by everyone except me; and yet, if I am honest, an exhilarating expression of power, will, and I suppose evil.

I love New York and cities in general because of their explosive possibilities.  There will always be a ragged, unpredictable edge to New York.  Every high-siren careening police car, every unstoppable fire truck, every screech and squeal of the subway, every crazed rant in Union Square said “Watch out.  Something’s going to happen”.  I couldn’t wait for ‘it’ to happen, for that tearing of the social fabric, for that explosive craziness, or the totally unexpected.

For the very same reasons, I hated the suburbs because they were so devoid of potential, so monochrome, so predictable, and so ugly.  One painful, unforgettable year, I lived in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.  It was, I was told, as close to country living as possible – it was on a small, man-made lake – but was only 20 minutes from the White House.  I could have quiet, peaceful living in a shaded, wooded but near-in refuge from the city, but could also pop in to a museum whenever I wanted.  I had my doubts, but I was much younger then, and my work was only a few minutes away. 

Although I needed only to drive to and from work and make occasional forays for food and wine, the trips were always an ordeal.  The unremitting ugliness of the malls, the strip developments along the major roads, the hot tarmac, cement, and airless heat of this cultural desert were enervating, dispiriting, and depressing.  Far from a peaceful refuge, Lake Branford was purgatory.  The martini barges puttering back and forth with vacuously smiling drinkers, the plastic kayaks wobbling from side to side because of the uneven and un-athletic strokes of fat, lakeside residents, the cheery yells of children and screeches from overly-concerned mothers on Beach 3 put me in a dark funk.  I stayed only until my contract ended, then moved to Bombay.

Mr. Zebbub began to tell me more about his business.  He ran a loosely-affiliated network of associates, all of whom shared his vision and in their own ways, helped to promote his cause.  When pressed to be more specific, he always demurred, but indirectly referred to the commitment of his people.  He never had resignations, nor had to let people go. 

“I look at it like an advocacy organization, no different from AARP, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the Tea Party.  I recruit people who believe what I do, and are willing to spread our ideas”

“Like an evangelist”, I said.  “A Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggart”

“Hardly”, he replied with as close to a grimace as I had ever seen on his face.  “Although in some ways you are right.  You have read enough of Milton, if not the Bible, to know that religion has two very different realms.  Satan was a very compelling and heroic character according to Milton.  So perhaps, yes, you are right.  In a way you certainly can call what we do a religion.”

We never talked much more about his business, but we did about his ideas and philosophy. 

“Let us not discuss how we got here”, he began one day.  “I am not interested in what the ignorant call Creation, or divine intervention in an otherwise random universe; but the quality of life that we have, through no enterprise of our own, inherited. It of course is meaningless and pointless, but how few of us use that directionless, fundamentally amoral universe to our own ends.  Freedom is a term that has been corrupted and made venal and soporific.  The Enlightenment did not invent the concept.  It has always existed in those who have been brutally honest about their ambition, their guiltless pursuit of desire, and their total disregard of convention except when they supported their claims.”

“Supermen”, I replied. Zebbub nodded and smiled.

“You have wealth, privilege, and leisure.  You can do more.”

Mr. Zebbub had no other friends as far as I could see or hear.  His apartment was always totally quiet.  I never heard his door open or close, nor hear female voices.  For as long as I knew him, he was for all intents and purposes celibate and monastic.  His apartment, other than two powerful and disturbing canvasses by Anselm Kiefer, was bare.  He had no computer and no books.  His furniture was spare, functional, and striking.  He had two Mies van der Rohe chairs in the middle of his large, marble-floored living room, a vase of unusual, twisted and almost malign-looking dark, brooding plants, and nothing else.  I could never take my eyes off of the Kiefer paintings.  These were as dark, brooding, threatening quality to them suggesting holocaust, apocalypse, desolation, evil.  The apartment, so dominated by the paintings, the austere white walls and floor, the two single black and steel chairs, and the tall, straight, stern and Puritanical B.L. Zebbub, was uncomfortable, and alien.  I felt ill at ease there.

“You seem bothered by something”, he said.  “Is it my apartment?”

Again I was surprised and troubled at his uncanny perception.  I had let on nothing, and years of good training and upbringing concealed any social dislike or discomfort.

“You don’t have to explain”, he said.  “But I know you are very much at home with the Kiefers.  He has a unique vision, don’t you think?  He gave me these paintings.  He is one of my associates, and he wanted to thank me for my generosity.  Of course it was nothing of the sort.  He and I both knew that we were kindred spirits on the same path”

Winter was a drab, sunless affair with just enough snow and cold to make the city dirty, drab, and lifeless.  Zebbub’s apartment was even more somber and uninviting, especially because he never turned on any light until the last natural light had faded.  I did not exactly avoid him during the winter, but sought him out less.  There was something disturbing about him, or at least in what he said, or from the almost frightening image he cast in his spare, monochrome room.

Spring came early, and I was as enthusiastic as I always am at the end of winter.  I have the resources to be able to flee the cold whenever I want, but in the last year I stayed in New York.  Perhaps it was Mr. Zebbub who willed it, I smiled.

I had known him for almost a year when he said to me, “I have a proposition to make”.  He wanted me to be his associate.  I would receive no pay, and in return for absolute fealty and loyalty, he would be my protector and benefactor. I thanked him for thinking of me, but demurred, saying that I was quite well off and could certainly manage on my own.  Our friendship would continue, but anything more formal was not what I wanted.

“But you are getting older”, he said.  I notice that you are not entirely well”

How did he know?  My recent blood tests were “a bit troubling’, my doctor had said; but I refused to retake the tests, preferring not to know any bad news.  Troubling did not mean a death sentence.

There was something foreboding and disquieting in what Zebbub had said, not only for the again uncanny accuracy of his observation, but the strange intimation that he could do something about it.

“Why don’t you come to a meeting of my associates”, he said.  “Perhaps they will change your mind”.

We met at the New York Athletic Club which Mr. Zebbub had rented.  He managed to reserve the entire club for us for two days – an unheard of feat in ambitious, status-conscious New York.  Not only had he arranged the accommodations, but he had food catered from the best restaurants, including some of my favorites.  It was all very impressive.

The associates were all confident, assured, and successful men (there were no women) who were happy, outgoing, and a pleasure to be with.  They all talked of Zebbub in almost reverential tones, how he was a remarkable man and how his vision and mission had changed their lives.  In our discussions – most of them informal and over drinks or coffee – I found that they shared most of the same views and ideas as Mr. Zebbub, but were far more open in their admiration for Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, and 20th Century despotic rulers than I ever heard from him.  They all explained to me that they had no admiration for what Stalin, Hitler, or Mao did, just that they did it; and set an example of unbridled will and freedom.  These men were exaggerated but notable examples of a freedom from morality and lifeless social mores.  Thousands, hundreds of thousands of lesser examples of such expression could be found.

I was fascinated by the associates.  They were not idealistic dreamers who railed against the status quo, they did not want to emulate the “epater la bourgeoisie” of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.  They were no reformers, had no social goals, no claim to any religious legitimacy.  They wanted – and this was initially hard for me to grasp – a greater expression of evil in the world.  Not for the sake of evil, they said, but for the sake of the violent, brutal, and complete expression of will which was the only valid, life-affirming expression of our aggressive, demanding, and soulless human nature.

More time passed.  Mr. Zebbub did not invite me to any more meetings of his associates. He knew that I was thinking about it, that I was attracted, already involved, and perhaps committed but did not want to agree just yet.

“What would I have to do?”, I finally asked him. I was indeed getting older, and I feared that whatever was eating away at my insides would soon gnaw through to the core.

“Nothing”, he replied.  “Just be yourself and talk to others, just as you have talked to me.  And of course be unfailingly loyal to me.”

“Of course.”

“I only ask that you show your loyalty through a small sacrifice.  A bit like Lent for old-fashioned Christian believers.  Give something up for me.  Something you never thought you could do without, and choose the exact opposite – something which has always been bitter, distasteful, and repugnant.”

Five years later I was still living by Lake Branford in Falls Church, Virginia, but this time happily.  Whatever cancer was starting to invade my organs has gone completely – no doctor can explain its disappearance – and I have slowly but surely gained adherents to Mr. Zebbub’s mission.  I by no means have the potent, seductive charisma that he has, but I have weaned many suburban burghers away from the church.  I do track their actions.  I have never expected true, unalloyed expressions of will and a violent rejection of good or principle; but quiet evil, and an admission – not to me but to themselves – that their unholy, unforgiveable, and perhaps unrecognized mental cruelty, deceit, and dishonesty is not at all reprehensible but brilliant and good.

It is now thirty years since I met Mr. Zebbub.  I still look 50 and am as energetic as someone far younger.  He never reneged on his promise, nor did I; and as long as I continue to respect our contract, I am sure I will lead a happy life for another 50.