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

Monday, January 30, 2017

Love In A Foreign Language–Relationships Are Tough Enough Without Having To Deal With Cultural Diversity

Fidelity, trust, consideration, respect – all these come to mind when asked ‘What accounts for a good marriage?’.  Without them marriage would be a free-for-all. Without the stability and predictability that comes with a mutually-respected moral, contractual relationship, it would fall apart.  At best it would become a sexual convenience store and daycare nursery.  At worst it would be meaningless.

Edward Albee hated marriage but his plays all expressed his sentiment that marriage is the crucible of maturity.  Without the enclosure, the No Exit sign, and the presumption of durability if not longevity, no one would have to stand and fight, demand, conciliate, apologize, or forgive. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, perhaps his most famous play, is on the surface a drama of a married couple who hate each other.  The torment, torture, vindictiveness, and cruelty they inflict seems intolerable.  Yet they stay together; and by the end of the play, exhausted and spent, flayed not only to the bone but ‘to the marrow’, they are finally ready to live if not love together.   They have grown up.

Some critics suspect that the grand guignol will continue; after the play ends; that such flawed and selfish characters can never grow up; but most others have accepted Albee’s vision of the mystery of marriage and how no one can do without its compulsion.

Respect, fidelity, trust, and consideration have all been tested in the crucible – tested to the point of mutual destruction – and have been proven strong and indeed durable.

But such a focus on moral behavior begs the question.  Such incidents of moral testing -  doing the right thing, and looking inward for resolve and courage – are few and far between.  Most marriages simply soldier on.  One day is little different from the next.  Dinners, outings, bedtimes, housework, calendars, and car repair are all predictable, unsurprising, and boring.

The one thing that saves marriage from being a stale repetition is humor.  Couples that can laugh at the odd bits and pieces, quirks, distortions, bombast, and cheap makeup outside routine – on power alleys and on the bus; in the street, on television, and next door – survive best. 

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Marriages, especially long ones become serious affairs.  Positions have become hardened, arguments over issues once dismissed become common.  Pride replaces conversation – a middle-age self-image issue.  Once job, children, and house-and-home have become part of the emotional woodwork, and all of the sparkle and allure that attracted couples in the first place is long gone, there is little left but well-staked out points of principle.

Yet the funny ones – the couples that take nothing seriously and laugh at everything – survive and survive well.  

In today’s politically correct climate, humor has been pruned, and shaped according to measure.  Nothing out of place.  No weeds.  No voles or squirrels; only the allées, trimmed boxwoods, and flower beds of a formal garden.

Funny couples, however, pay this no mind. The genetic twists that turn out distortions and irregularities, freaks, long noses, short arms, and dullness; and the social incidents that complement the genome and assure shyness, bombast, insecurity, and laziness are the stuff of humor. Without this absurd diversity, life would indeed be far more tedious than it already is.

Funny couples are by and large culturally homogeneous.  The come from the same background, have similar tastes, and above all speak the same language.  Without language and the innuendos, double-entendres, puns, equivocal meanings, irony, and cultural subtlety it enables, humor remains on the set – scripted jokes of a prime-time sitcom that everyone can understand. 

Slipping on a banana peel, cross-dressing like a tart; stumbling, misreading, stock-in-trade stereotypes.  Without linguistic subtlety, intelligence, and cultural synch, humor would always be burlesque.

A close friend once had an Argentine lover, and thought he had gotten over the conviction that intimacy depended on a common language and cultural origins.  She responded to him sexually like a woman – any woman - and he felt that through her responsiveness he had understood her.  There was something that only physical intimacy could provide in a knowing relationship.

Yet after the fires had been banked and they went about their business, he found that as fluent as she was in English, she missed every nuance, every irony, every off-handed reference, every sidelong glance that he translated into English. 

In a group of Argentine friends she was in her element and shared the same, peculiar, and unique ironies, references, sarcasm, and put-downs that people of any cultural group do among themselves.   As long as he didn’t become Argentine – which it would take to appreciate the subtlety of cultural humor – he would remain as much of an outsider as she was to America.

Explaining humor lets the air out of the balloon.  If a joke has no air, it is all ballast.  My friend got tired of translating.  The relationship became tedious.  While they shared cooking, skiing, and visits to the Hirschorn, these externalities could never replace the appreciation of the cultural bits and pieces, odds and ends, curios and anomalies that two Americans could share.  More importantly, there was nothing funny at the Hirschorn.

Much has been made these days of cultural ‘diversity’ which is to be ‘celebrated’.  There is nothing more engaging, stimulating, and mind-expanding than the rub of cultures.  There is something exciting about a community of unlike-minded people, a cultural adventure without having to leave American shores.

Yet, of what real value is such cultural diversity?

A colleague of mine had worked in over 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Central Europe.  He had always wondered whether people from different cultures all behaved the same way; or did their cultural differences absolutely define them?

It didn’t take him long to conclude that all cultures share so many common beliefs, practices, and attitudes that real diversity does not exist.  People of all cultures believe in some form of divinity; have priests, witch doctors, and shamans.  All have families and care for them; all work; all are enterprising and self-interested; all draw perimeters to keep out the Other; all expand their territory, influence, and dominance where possible.


Language, dress, custom, folklore, cuisine, and art may differ dramatically, but the same native human instincts and impulses are behind them.  They are distinguishing, recognizable symbols of worth and importance; and as such they are as common as wind, rain, and dust.

Which is why the emphasis on cultural diversity is distracting and superficial.  If people are all essentially the same – endowed with the same native intelligence, physical abilities, and intellectual interests; and concerned with the same elements of survival – then ‘diversity’ boils down to trappings, irrelevant in the scheme of things.

Assimilation quickly removes these distractions.  Communication and intimacy result from reactions to a common culture and the expression of these reactions in a common language.

Moreover and most importantly, assimilation and the sloughing off of cultural trappings, permits the expression of real diversity – individual intelligence, creativity, ambition, compassion, and humor. Nothing is more deflating to individual expression of native abilities than the forced collectivity of cultural diversity.

The vitality of a any society is based more on its individualism than on its collective assembly. 
The sharing of mutual cultural perceptions through a common language is key to a truly integrated society and to more expressive and intimate personal relationships.

Such relationships are tough enough without adding cultural diversity to the mix.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

‘The Beautiful And Damned’ And ‘Lord Jim’–Tales Of Illusion, Courage, And Ignorance

Conrad’s Lord Jim is a story of the loss of innocence.  Jim’s innocence, however, was protected by an invulnerable shield of fantasy.  As a young man he felt he was marked for bravery, heroism, leadership and courage; and invented fantasies that, despite actions that suggested that he was far from this ideal vision of himself, he held on to.  In his dreams he was a child of destiny.  The world, no matter how intrusive, mean, desperate, and destructive, could never touch him. 

Not only did his fantasies betray him, but the reality that existed behind them destroyed him.  Not only was he unable to heroically save anyone on board the Patna, he jumped ship as it began to founder with a cargo of 800 pilgrims.  He was derelict of duty and a coward; and for the rest of his life he tried to expiate his crime and to seek a redemption which eluded him.  His death, although caused by a former ally and admirer, was in fact suicide.  Facing him was the only honorable thing to do and a final end to his search for atonement.  He went to his death not only out of a desire to take the punishment that was due him; but in a final act of illusion.  He might be the hero that he had imagined; but the courage to do the right thing even if it meant his death was heroism enough.


Jim’s was an odyssey of self-realization and self-knowledge.  He was obsessed by the nature of his failure and felt that he had not only betrayed the pilgrims on board the Patna but mankind.  Given the gravity of his sin, it is no wonder that he could find no way to atone for it.  Only death would do. 
“Jim never ceases to react to charges of cowardice and irresponsibility; never ceases to strive earnestly to prove his moral worthiness. He never seems to be in a state of repose, is always under pressure, always examining his tensive state of mind and soul. Self-illumination rather than self-justification or even self-rehabilitation, is his central aim, and he knows too that such a process molds his own efforts and pain” (George Panichas)
“Not so much a case of self-deception as self-discovery…Jim’s discoveries produce defiance, indeed revolt, and thus impart a heroic resonance to the story of his life and death (Jacques Berthoud)
The acquaintances of Jim had different views of his leaving the ship while it was foundering.  A French Lieutenant thought that because he had broken a strict moral code, that he could never be forgiven regardless of the verdict of the courts and no matter how Jim fought to right his conscience.  Chester, an old sea hand, wondered what all the fuss was about.  Jim’s actions, although wrong, were no worse than those of the other officers who had also jumped ship, lied about their dereliction, escaped justice and presumably went on to lead lives uncomplicated by guilt.

Brierly, a respected sea captain who testified at Jim's trial, an extremely moral man of discipline and rectitude, saw Jim’s actions as so reprehensible and abhorrent that the entire code of conduct according to which he led his entire career was so easily abrogated, that he killed himself rather than live with the ugly truth.

But Jim was more complex than any of these men, his accusers, or at least those who could not understand anyone who could be two characters in one – someone who believed in fantasy and illusion but who could face the ugly world.  Someone who respected a code of discipline and honor, but one who defied it.  Marlow describes Jim this way:
At that moment it was difficult to believe in Jim's existence--starting from a country parsonage, blurred by crowds of men as by clouds of dust, silenced by the clashing claims of life and death in a material world--but his imperishable reality came to me with a convincing, with an irresistible force! I saw it vividly, as though in our progress through the lofty silent rooms amongst fleeting gleams of light and the sudden revelations of human figures stealing with flickering flames within unfathomable and pellucid depths, we had approached nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery.
There was indeed something tragic and grand about Jim, something beautiful and unique.  He was indeed someone of courage, defiant morality.  Stein admires Jim for his romance and illusions; because he knows that the world has too much ordinariness.  Jim was an artist, a philosophical painter; and like tortured geniuses died for the sake of his art.

Anthony Patch, the main character of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned is also a man of fantasy and illusion; but Anthony is a vulgar, arrogant, and ignorant man who believes in what he feels his entitlement.  As grandson to a great man and future inheritor of his wealth, Patch  feels he is, in Marlow’s words, ‘one of us’ – an aristocrat with breeding, culture, and education.  But although he comes from a storied family, has a Harvard education, and is a polished member of New York society, he has none of Jim’s intelligence, sensibility, courage, or insight.

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Patch is certain that he will inherit millions and therefore he sees no need to work.  He and his wife Gloria party and spend, but when they find out that Anthony’s  grandfather has disinherited him because of disreputable behavior, neither he nor his wife can change their ways.  He remains trapped in the illusion that he is man of substance and worth, that his ships will come in, and that anything other than life of leisure and good taste would be beneath him.

As their resources dwindle and they begin to draw down on their capital, they move to more and more modest apartments until finally, after years of indolence and drink, he becomes an outcast, rejected by his now successful former party friends, a bum.  He has fallen to the bottom, but still fiercely maintains the illusion that he is fundamentally a man of worth. 

In Lord Jim, Chester says words mean nothing, and men must be judged entirely on their actions.  He had no sympathy for Jim for there could be no denying the fundamental fact of his desertion.  Although Stein and Marlow understood that  complex characters like Jim could never be judged by such simplistic measures, they too could not deny the facts.

Anthony Patch was only words.  His feeble attempts at employment were short-lived because of his impatience with the whole idea of work, menial and for the lower classes.  He refused to act and deserved his unhappy fate.

After Anthony Patch finally receives his inheritance, he has gone mad and cannot enjoy his riches.   Moreover despite his reverses, he has not learned a thing.  He is as obtuse and ignorant as he was at the beginning of his story.  The last lines of the book are these:
But the man in the plaid cap was quite wrong. Anthony Patch, sitting near the rail and looking out at the sea, was not thinking of his money, for he had seldom in his life been really preoccupied with material vainglory, nor of Edward Shuttleworth, for it is best to look on the sunny side of these things. No—he was concerned with a series of reminiscences, much as a general might look back upon a successful campaign and analyze his victories. He was thinking of the hardships, the insufferable tribulations he had gone through. They had tried to penalize him for the mistakes of his youth. He had been exposed to ruthless misery, his very craving for romance had been punished, his friends had deserted him—even Gloria had turned against him. He had been alone, alone—facing it all.
Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he had known that he was justified in his way of life—and he had stuck it out staunchly. Why, the very friends who had been most unkind had come to respect him, to know he had been right all along. Had not the Lacys and the Merediths and the Cartwright-Smiths called on Gloria and him at the Ritz-Carlton just a week before they sailed?
Great tears stood in his eyes, and his voice was tremulous as he whispered to himself.
"I showed them," he was saying. "It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!"
He had not ‘come through’.  He survived no thanks to himself, his courage or his endurance (a favorite theme of Conrad).  The years-long court case to reverse his disinheritance was ruled in his favor, and thirty millions were his. 

Unlike Jim who knew exactly who he was when he faced his final bullet, Anthony Patch had no clue.  His madness ironically would prevent him from enjoying his gains, and would lock him into a dark, resentful, and bitter older age.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Right To Life And The Women’s March–The Politics Of Exclusion

The Women’s March was held recently in Washington, but women who were advocating a Right to Life Agenda were excluded – not refused entry at the door because it was an open invitation affair; but shown the door once they were in.  Women who were marching represented over 250 progressive organizations – civil, and gay rights; the environment; income redistribution; nuclear disarmament; and women’s reproductive rights.

This last issue- reproductive rights – has always been a rather circumscribed one because these rights have never extended to the unborn fetus.  Progressive women have decided long ago that life does not begin at conception but at birth; and therefore there are no additional rights to consider.  If the fetus is a non-entity and a non-being, then it has no place at the table.  Seats are reserved for those female human beings viable and independent outside the womb.

Within a feminist perspective, once the reproductive rights of the mother have been established and confirmed (i.e. she has deliberated abortion but decided to bring the pregnancy to term) ,  these rights automatically convey to the infant.  Girls need all the help they can get in our patriarchal society, and looking out for their interests must begin early.

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Yet what if life begins at conception?  It is certainly not unreasonable to consider the fact that an embryo which grows, differentiates, and ultimately prospers in the womb, is in fact a being. 

There are many arguments and counter-arguments surrounding the issue.  Many pro-choice activists consider the fetus no more than insensate flesh and blood.  Until it is born and helped to breathe and cry, it has been never been alive; and in moral and ethical terms has been worth no more than an appendix or a gall bladder.  What is the most defining feature of a human being? they ask.
Intelligence, sensibility, reason, and thought.  A fetus has none of the above attributes, so is not yet human.

Ah, say those who oppose abortion.  What about potentiality?  Is there not an ethical and moral issue here?  Even if a fetus only realizes its intellectual potential after birth, how can one justify the negation of that possibility.  Forget about future Einsteins or Bachs, the fetus might become a being even more important and relevant than genius– a compassionate soul; a spiritual seer; a preacher of values; a worker of secular miracles.  Doesn’t even a secular society have  stake in the preservation of potential life?

No, say progressive pro-choice advocates who look to Marx for whom potentiality had no meaning. Human beings are born and are from the moment of birth influenced by the socio-cultural and economic forces around them.  There is nothing special or God-given about a newborn child; and his development will depend on the nature of the society into which he comes.  Any newborn is equal to any other; and subject to either the progressive, socialist societies which will nurture him and encourage his contribution according to his abilities but more importantly according to society’s needs; or subject to anti-historical, retrograde capitalism.

The difference in viewpoints could not be more stark. On the one hand, religious conservatives believe that from the moment of conception, God has conferred life; and any of God’s creations have a moral destiny and a potential rendezvous in Heaven. Progressives believe that fertilization, conception, and birth are matters of human fertility, no more no less.  Life indeed begins at birth when the newborn takes his place in the society of men and no sooner.

The point is only that why should those women advocating a pro-life position be excluded from the discussions on women’s rights?  Those women who decide against abortion and choose to give birth to a child should have equal social rights to those who do not.  Child care, easy adoption procedures, counseling should be as much a part of women’s rights as the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Pro-life women have as much to protest and demand from government as pro-choice  women. In fact, American society is far more permissive when it comes to abortion than to child care.

The answer has nothing to do with abortion, reproductive rights, or child care.  It has to do with doctrinal purity, political solidarity, and the incorrigibility of principle.  The progressive canon has been explicated, promoted, and disseminated widely.  There are those who buy in, support, and defend it; and those who do not.  But the ranks have long ago closed.  Membership in the progressive club requires certain credentials, and pro-choice is one of them.

It is of no consequence that women who choose to bring their babies to term have rights that have been either ignored, abrogated, or dismissed.  It matters not that pro-life women have legitimate moral, ethical, and spiritual claims.  It matter least that these women have espoused a moral principle as valid as that of their pro-choice sisters if not more.

The Women’s March was organized not as a protest for women’s rights so much as was to promote and demand fulfillment of the progressive agenda.  It is no wonder, then, that conservative groups were excluded. 

Women, for example, who demand a more family-friendly work environment should be in lockstep with one another- those who choose to have children and hope for more accommodating management should have sisterhood with those who have no children but who want equal pay for equal work.
Not so. There is an opprobrium against pro-life, pro-family women; and their presence at the Women’s March was considered antithetical and unwelcome.

This is all understandable.  All social groups need cohesion, solidarity, and philosophical purity.  The Women’s March was first and foremost a progressive march and only secondarily a women’s one. 
The pro-life march will be no different and will marginalize those who do not espouse their principles and purpose.  Marchers want the same solidarity, the same camaraderie, and the same sisterhood.
The point is that marching is always less for political purpose than it is for social coherence.

That having been said, the Women’s march was particularly political and disingenuous.  Of course pro-life women should have been welcomed had the march been about women. But it wasn’t.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Einstein, Ramanujan, Glenn Gould, And The Nature Of Solitary Genius–The Irrelevance Of Belonging

“As far as I know”, said Meredith Cobb, “Einstein was quite happy at his job as postal clerk, handing out stamps and money orders while contemplating time-space.”

Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematician from rural Tamil Nadu who derived sophisticated theorems with no academic training, no legendary tutors, nor even books of advanced mathematics.  He was perfectly happy alone with his father helping out in his sari shop or learning the puranas from his mother while constructing complex mathematical premises thanks to intuition and God-given genius.


Both men needed no one; and while Einstein at Princeton and Ramanujan at Cambridge interacted with their peers – the brilliant Hardy, perhaps the most respected mathematician of his age was an early supporter of Ramanujan; but some critics have suggested that Hardy should have left the innocent, homesick, and introverted Brahmin alone to solve universal riddles and derive his own solutions rather than to slavishly work on proofs, the sine qua non of academia and peer review.  Who knows what more brilliant, unexpected, and revolutionary ideas would have come out of his simple but marvelously unique brain if Ramanujan had not been bothered?

Most genius is solitary. Faulkner worked alone.  Absalom, Absalom perhaps the greatest American work of fiction ever, resulted from his sensitive and personal perceptions of the South as a place, race as a signifier, and family as the crucible of maturity. 

Faulkner was of course as influenced as any writer by family, friends, and circumstance.  He enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force during World War I, wrote for the school newspaper at the University of Mississippi, married, and became a father.   Although influenced by the myth of ‘The Colonel’, his paternal great grandfather,  an adventurous and shrewd man who worked as a railroad financier, politician, soldier, farmer, businessman, and lawyer, and author, Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, the ambitious, arrogant, determined, tragic character of Absalom bore an indirect reference to him.

Faulkner’s black mammy, Caroline Barr, raised him from birth and was a personal and moral force in his upbringing.  He credits her for his fascination with and understanding of the politics of race and sex, powerful themes in Absalom and his other works.


Yet Faulkner’s genius was solitary.  His characters may have been  figures borne out of the South, Mississippi, slavery and Jim Crow, the mulatto and octoroon culture of New Orleans, the Delta, and American idealism but were nevertheless his own.   The opening long paragraph of Absalom is Faulkner’s confection of all the above.  Atmosphere, drama, suspense, resentment, fear – all put together in one solitary work of  insight.  The voice of Rosa Coldfield is Faulkner’s and Faulkner’s alone:
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them. 
There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.
Glenn Gould was a prodigiously talented pianist and considered the best interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations of any era.  Thanks to – or because of -his prolific, varied performances (concerts, radio, television, film) he became better known more for his on-stage idiosyncrasies than for his music. Nevertheless for those who knew and understood music, Gould was first and foremost a musical prodigy and a genius.

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Despite sell-out audiences in New York, Los Angeles, and London, Gould abruptly left the concert stage at 31 and turned his attention entirely to recording.

He felt that performing distorted his music.  No matter how hard he tried to block everything – the hall, the lighting, and most importantly the audience – he was unwillingly but irresistibly influenced by them.  His music was less his alone than a product of his environment.  A studio would allow him to control every aspect of his music.  He could play, replay, edit, and re-edit until he had gotten the phrasing, tonality, richness, and precision that he wanted.  The final product would be his and his alone.

Meredith Cobb was no Gould, Ramanujan, or Einstein; but within range.  As a little girl she could read, figure, and write long before any other children.  She showed an unusual sense of color, line, and dimension, and as soon as her physical dexterity caught up with her perception and as soon as she could hold a crayon, she drew perfect likenesses of birds, animals, and insects.   Not only did she capture their shape and form, but their attitude.  Her birds fidgeted and fussed together.  Her deer looked up.  Her cats tensed and halted before pouncing.

She did her remarkable drawings with no training, no help, and no suggestion.  She not only had an innate sense of the way things looked but the way they were.  She understood them; and because she understood them, she could paint them exactly.

As she got older, she did take lessons in drawing, shading, balance, composition, and perspective; but these abilities served only to help frame her own vision.  The architecture of her paintings was more understandable, but the substance of them was purely, originally, and uniquely hers.

In a way Meredith never advanced beyond that earliest stage of child development when a baby does not distinguish between itself and others; its fingers and what it touches.  Of course there was nothing infantile in her perceptions but a sophisticated phenomenology according to which her innate sensibilities, so attuned as they were to her environment, were indistinguishable from it. 

In other words she did not need the outside world because it was hers alone to perceive, manipulate, understand, and reproduce.

She never became a great artist.  In fact she continued painting in only a desultory way.  Drawing was only important to her as a child and adolescent as a means of validating what she had come to understand about herself – that only she and her own intimate, particular, and peculiar and particular observations mattered.  She became a fully mature, self-confident, strong, and able woman because of this particular insight.  She did not need other people.

Like Faulkner, she was agreeably social and enjoyed her college years, travels, lovers, and adventures as much as anyone.  Yet she was not dependent upon them; not tied to their social satisfactions. 

Tolstoy in his story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, writes of a man who has no real use for anyone – neither wife, family, or colleagues – and constructs a well-ordered, controlled world of little risk, less adventure, and much comfort.  He was never a particularly philosophical man for whom this structure was like the Hindu prescription for dealing with the world of illusion; only an ignorant one.

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He becomes mortally ill and cannot believe that his carefully-organized world is coming apart, and he with no real preparation for death or beyond.  In the few moments before his death, however, he has an epiphany.  “Death”, he says.  “Ah, that’s all?”

Meredith had only one thing in common with the Tolstoy character – she understood that we live and die alone.  Her vision, however, was far from Ivan’s cynical one.  Hers was epiphanic from the very beginning.  Anything of consequence happened within her mind; hers to decipher and understand.

A while ago there was a Women’s March of feminist and progressive solidarity.  Women marched not to effect change nor to pressure for it.  They were there in communal solidarity.  They were with their sisters and united for a common if diffuse reason.  It felt good to march together to express good, compassion, right, and well-meaning purpose.  Only through such emotional commitment could the world progress.

It was not so much that Meredith dismissed the camaraderie of the women who marched; nor even that the potpourri of liberal causes was decorative; but that these millions of women were simply off course, sailing without a compass; not so much misguided but not guided at all.

Progressive women marching in Washington, New York, and other cities were defined by one principle and one common belief – that with a little good will, passion, and commitment wars can be stopped, governments reformed, and global issues resolved peaceably.

Belonging, affiliation, and allegiance seem as hardwired in us as any other of human nature’s ineluctable traits.  No matter how much we may take pride in our individuality, our uniqueness, or our distinctiveness, we will always be members of some larger group.  It is only in how much importance we place on allegiance to that group which distinguishes us.

Although Meredith was not indifferent to the issues raised by women marchers, she was uninterested in them.  Why, she wondered, would waste time on camaraderie, feelings of collective well-being, or youthful idealism when the lessons of history are so clear and indelibly recorded.

The expression of  will, said Nietzsche, is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world; and while Meredith drew her existential line well before Ubermensch, she never doubted that the only human worth was the worth of genius – or at least brilliant personal insight.

Nietzsche divided humanity into Supermen – those amoral, willful individuals, who understood the nature and ultimately decisive power of will – and the Herd, the mass of those who live collectively, communally, and contentedly.

Conrad understood Nietzsche well, and Lord Jim and Kurtz (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) were more nuanced and complex characters that the German philosopher ever envisaged; but still played out dramas of will, ego, and defiance.

Ibsen and Strindberg were no different in their understanding of the nature of amorality and the unique validation of being through the expression of will. Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, and The Father are stories of women who, like Shakespeare's heroines, have understood the nature of a constricted male society, but have found ways to dominate and master the men around them.

Meredith Cobb felt a kinship with these fictional women; but also felt close to men like Gould, Einstein, and Ramanujan who instinctively understood that genius and insight are unique, individual, and solitary.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Populism Of Donald Trump - Martin Luther And Born-Again Christianity, But Never Fascism

Pope Francis is the latest world figure to warn against the dangers of populism.  Too much democracy, he implied, was bad, citing the popular frenzy that helped Hitler to power.  Brown shirts, torch-lit parades, demagoguery, and hyper-nationalism are not things of the past but only temporarily closeted. 

Liberal-style democracy – mediated by parliaments, congresses, and and Upper and Lower Houses of government – is tenuous, fragile, and increasingly threatened.  Too much power to the people – too much voice, too much say, and too many demands – can only result in an arrogation and abuse of power, the dismantling of countervailing institutions, autocracy, and dictatorship.

Alexander Hamilton shared these sentiments and argued hard and long with Thomas Jefferson, a determined populist, to deny absolutely popular rule.  Hamilton preferred a government which, while responsive to the people, ruled on the basis of educated deliberation.  In other words, a civilized filter through which gross popular demands would be screened.

efferson on the other hand believed in the absolute will of the people.  He was the nation’s first and ultimate big data crowdsourcer.  The collective voice of tens of millions of Americans has more validity and more insight than any handful of elite executors of government.

In the end Hamilton and Jefferson compromised and the Senate is the unhappy result.  Unhappy because it is neither a House of Lords, representing tradition, patrimony, and national values; nor a more rational, deliberative, and reflective body.  The Senate of the United States Congress is as venal, self-interested, and arrogantly dismissive of the will of the people as the House of Representatives. The Senate differs from the lower house only in terms of electoral tenure.

The United States is already a demi-populist state.  Members of Congress by Constitutional mandate are elected every two years.  In other words, they run for election as soon as they take their seats and decorate their offices.  There is little difference between campaigning and governing, and the rallies, barbecues, diner breakfasts, and schoolyard picnics are permanent.  And there is little difference between populism’s demand for jobs, lower taxes, and civil recognition and the self-interested, electoral responsiveness of a ‘representative’ Congress  -beholden both to its electorate and to the special interests which have funded it.

The American populism of Donald Trump,  however, is a very different thing altogether.  It is a radical populism which denies the legitimacy of Congressional mediators, disparages the biased interpretations of the media, refuses to accept the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Supreme Court, and which insists on a direct and immediate communication and relationship with the Chief Executive.

This rejection of mediating powers is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church.  Where does the Bible mandate, Luther said, the intermediation of a priestly caste? The Catholic Church has arrogated to itself power that Jesus Christ never intended.  The Church in naming itself arbiter of redemption has distorted His words, and deprived millions of faithful believers of a personal relationship with Him.

Luther was perhaps the most important populist of the last 5oo years.  He rejected institutional mediation and instituted a new system based on grace, personal salvation, and divine redemption.
The Catholic Church objected to the propositions of this upstart, and fought to retain its moral and religious authority.  Even recent Popes like John Paul II have railed against fundamentalist populism, saying that without a foundation in the rational theology of Early Church theologians and without sanctuary within the traditional institution of the Catholic Church, aspiring believers would inevitably be led down blind alleys.

Image result for images pope john paul ii

Radical Trumpian populism is no different from Protestant fundamentalism.  Charismatic and Pentecostal churches all preach salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  While pastors can facilitate this intimacy, its success is entirely a personal matter. 

The preacher/pastor is responsible for animating the congregation, invoking the loving, redeeming, and forgiving nature of Jesus Christ; but warning against sin, apostasy, and waywardness.  More importantly, he positions himself as the facilitator of divine relationships.  Although salvation may be a personal, individual matter, only the enlightened vicars of Christ can show the way.

Donald Trump has been so successful because he has cast himself as an evangelical preacher.  No one cares about fact, reference, and bibliography because he is the spiritual leader of a political movement.  He is the one who will understand and translate the will of the people into governance.
Therefore the hysterical concerns of the progressive Left echoed by the Pope are wrong and irrelevant.  To correlate or even associate the policies and appointments of Donald Trump with those of Hitler is ignorant and naïve.

The better analogy, correlation, or comparison is with Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell, evangelical preachers who understood and represented religious populism.

Christianity, after all, was perhaps the greatest populist movement in history.  Jesus and his disciples preached redemption and salvation as personal possibilities.  They rejected Judaism and The Law, dismissed Aristotle and Plano as elite intellectuals , and placed the responsibility of  spiritual evolution squarely on the individual.  There would be no more Pharisees, Sadducees, temples or institutional covenants.  Men would know Jesus through their own inspiration.

Radical American populism is of the same tradition – a fundamentalist, evangelical desire for redemption and salvation far from the venal, and disinherited forces of secularism.  Donald Trump is the secular Evangelist-in-Chief.

Comparisons with National Socialism or Russian Communism are misguided if not  ignorant.  There is no reason t0 assume that Trumpian populism based on classically religious and American historical precedent should be fascist or autocratic.

To make such comparisons is to dismiss the legitimate grievances of f the American middle class who finally have found a voice.  They have watched while ‘progressive’ movements for more diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ have impinged on their own religious beliefs and rights.  They have stood by while their core values of family, the sanctity and dignity of human life, and the Biblical endorsement of heterosexual relationships have been eroded or dismissed.   Their demands for and equal voice, and their endorsement of a President who espouses the same values is not a call for authoritarianism, nor is it reminiscent of National Socialism.

Donald Trump and radical American populism is a native, fundamentalist, honest, and loudly expressive movement.  It is indigenous, borne of American politics, demography, and politics, and indicative of American middle class  frustrations, marginalization, and dismissive neglect.  Comparisons to any distorted, hyper-nationalistic, xenophobic movements of the past are misguided if not ignorant.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ethnic Slurs–A Historical Look At Powerful Motivations To Succeed

For anyone who grew up even a few decades ago, it is hard to understand how Americans' skins have become so thin - how insults, innuendos, slights, and insinuating remarks have become such causes célèbres.  Bullying was par for the course on school playgrounds, an element of maturing; a learning process whereby the weak in their defeat learned about the enemy and the middling figured out how to evade, negotiate, compromise, or avoid.

Taunts were expected – racial and ethnic slurs and remarks about disability were common currency, the labeling of ‘other’, the natural signifiers of difference and threat to the community  No one was animated by hatred.  There was no hostility towards Jews, Poles, or Italians.  They, after all, were the furriers, druggists, and clothiers of our communities; those who worked lathes and presses or cut hair, paved streets, or cut hair.

At the same time, it was assumed that in an America still honoring self-improvement, individualism and enterprise,  foreigners would quickly and surely become economic and social players.  It wasn’t long before ‘No Irish Need Apply’ became ‘Only Irish Need Apply’.  Irish Americans quickly figured out the system and within a generation or two ran Boston, Philadelphia, and New York .

The Mafia, perhaps the most powerful and influential organization of civil society since the partisans of radical Republicanism during Reconstruction, was quintessentially American.  Its communitarian, hard-knuckled, authoritarian, and generous neighborhood rule after only a few decades of struggle, expressed the best of the Republic.

In a generation the Jews of the Lower East Side, rag-pickers, pushcart-sellers, and money-lenders came to rule New York and Hollywood.

‘Kike, guinea, wop, mick, hunky, spic’– these were epithets that rolled off the backs of early American immigrants who had known real prejudice and discrimination in their home countries.  Names and verbal slander were nothing compared to pogroms, camps, and abject poverty.
Assimilation – attainment of the American Dream – was the goal of these new immigrants.  They had no interest in retaining let along celebrating their diversity.  Italian Americans who escaped the ghettos of Wooster Square or Mulberry Street wanted no part of San Gennaro, the Cosa Nostra, arranged marriages, and Sicilian honore and vengeance.  Irish Americans were ashamed of their drunken, brawling stereotype, and yearned like all immigrants to become American, cultured, and calm

Although Irish, Italians, and Jews quickly rose up from the slums of New York, New Haven, and Boston on their own merits – ambition, enterprise, intelligence, family, and an indomitable will to full the prophecy of their immigration – ethnic slurs sped the journey.   There is nothing like the anger, hostility, and resentment provoked by insult and stereotype to steel the will of American newcomers and add even more fuel to the assimilative fire.

A young doctor in New Brighton, Connecticut, a first generation Italian and the first of his family to earn a college degree and an internship at an important regional hospital, knew that the row to social inclusion – the goal of all immigrants – would be a hard one to hoe. 

The old families of Colonial America  and their descendants who lived in New Brighton’s West End,  the industrialists whose enterprise helped win the Civil War and WWI were unforgiving in their pride of family, heritage, and particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.  While some were confident enough of their patrimony and position to consider dispassionately the arrival of non-WASPs, many were far less generous.  The doctor and his Italian colleagues were kept out of the Country Club, never invited to social clubs, and considered hairy, garlic-smelling brutes.

In their view the ‘guineas’ of Madison Street were uncultured nouveau riche who had no sense of place or propriety regardless of professional degree or civic pride.

In their view the Poles belonged in menial jobs in the industries they had built or as maids to clean their floors.  The Jews were meant to rise no farther than haberdashers, furriers, jewelers, and pharmacists.  The Irish, a universally brawling and drunken lot would – and should – never leave the firehouse, the police station, or ward politics.  Polacks, kikes, and micks they were and always would be.

The families of these marginalized ethnic communities saw things quite differently indeed.  Every slight, every neglect, every epithet, every dismissal of their abilities, talents, and culture was  a call to arms.  Yet they chose no confrontational battles – attacking the ruling class for its elitism, sybaritic living off of inherited wealth, unfounded privilege, and discriminatory behavior.  They knew absolutely that the way to full integration into American society was success.

Stone-breaking Italian construction workers became small-scale contractors at quarries, cement works, and building firms; and eventually owned them.   Low-level Irish municipal workers – police, fire, education – quickly rose to political power despite ‘No Irish Need Apply’.  The Kennedys of Boston were not an exception, but the rule.  East Coast cities were soon ruled by Irish politicians whose only competitors were the powerful, often extra-legal operations of Italians.

Jewish jewelers and clothes merchants in New Brighton saw a brighter future in big cities, and transferred their centuries-old experience in retail and finance to Seventh Avenue and Burbank.
The point is only this – hardship, discrimination, and life on the edges of society only hardened the resolve of these new Americans.  The desire for assimilation and full integration was never dimmed by ignorant and arrogant assumptions of ethnic worth.  It became a matter of pride.  When ability, talent and pride are combined, the trajectory to the top is assured.

So what is to be made of today’s culture of victimhood? Of safe spaces and protection against perceived insult, bullying, and dismissive attitudes?

Image result for images safe spaces

It is easy for those who grew up in an age of ethnic ambition, enterprise, and will to laugh at what seems to be an over-protected, hyper-sensitive generation which is having a tough time growing up.  We wonder where the thin skin came from.  Did they create a generation of coddled, protected, entitled young people? Is it their fault?  Has society been so influenced by progressive ‘inclusivity’ and entitlement that the old principles of survival of the fittest, good old American competition no longer apply?

What is very clear is that we are coming to the end of a socio-political cycle.  Conservative Republicanism as now embodied in the presidency of Donald Trump has no patience for any of the above.  Entitlement of any stripe is discouraged, and the combative survivalist ethos of the social, economic, and political marketplaces is back.   No purchase will be given to those who can – like our Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Polish forbears – rise and prosper.  Compassion will be afforded to those who cannot, and only to them.

Progressives look back at the laissez-faire early Twentieth Century as a barbaric era which has been displaced by a more tolerant and considerate one; and therefore see the rise of Donald Trump’s nationalist populism as a dangerous throwback to a more primitive age.

Nothing of the sort.  The Trump revolution is simply a cleansing of  the progressive Augean stables – ridding governance of its worst idealistic and patronizing policies and programs.  Populism means individual responsibility.  No free rides, no mollycoddling, no self-absorbed righteous entitlement.  The role of government is to encourage and facilitate opportunity within a framework of individualism, not to provide a protective shell into which is infused public resources.

The days of older ethnic slurs are over. Rarely does one hear ‘guinea, wop, hunky, polack, kike’ because Italians, Slovaks, Poles, and Jews have completed their entry into the mainstream.  One still hears the N-word and unpleasant references to Latinos because the integration of African Americans and Hispanics is far from complete.  Once they too have joined the mainstream, such discriminatory epithets will be things of the past.  Economics as always rules.

Those of us with old ethnic identities and whose will to succeed was only steeled and energized because of discrimination cannot help but be partisans of this new conservative ethos of ‘competitive tolerance’. 

‘Grow up’ may be  too harsh and dismissive to characterize our feelings; and we prefer to couch our objections in more historical terms.  Such is the prerogative and perhaps the failing of older generations; but we can’t help it. 

So, “Grow up!”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Donald Trump, Social Media, And Crowdsourcing–The Traditional Media Are History

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s use of the social media, especially Twitter, to communicate with the American public.  The new President gets social media like a teenager - its immediacy, spontaneity, and viral appeal.

Trump also understands the nature of the traditional media – in a tailspin because of the transformative challenges of live streaming, interactivity, and the millions of individualized Internet sites providing every possible take and spin on current events; and unable to play catch-up.  Their fortunes in decline, and the demand for anchored, reasonable, and boring news broadcasts headed for zero, they founder in hype, gotcha journalism, and celebrity. 

Of course yellow journalism is nothing new.  A hundred years ago newspapers published the most scurrilous, unfounded, and outrageous stories about everyone, especially politicians.  Editors knew temperate, thoughtful, reasonable journalism did not sell newspapers.

Image result for images yellow journalism early 20th century

When newspaper editors found that unusual, remarkable, and surprising stories of real life were not enough to satisfy readers’ demand for the truly grotesque and twisted, the era of the tabloid was born.


Of course The Grey Lady, the venerable New York Times, insisted on reporting the news in an objective, sensible, and matter-of-fact way; but most Americans liked their news hot, weird, and fantastical.  Long-form journalism is dead.  The issue-long, detailed, and interminably boring features on music by Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker are things of the past. 

Twenty years ago Tina Brown revolutionized the magazine and gave it zip, allure, and curb appeal.  Although traditional critics lamented the demise of one of serious journalism’s icons, Brown was having none of it.  A journalistic corner had been turned.

Donald Trump has finally sent the New York Times packing.  While the paper will not shutter the shop anytime soon – the AARP generation is still loyal and tied to print – fewer and fewer people read it front-to-back as they did in the old days. Online browsing is image-driven and quick.  Site visitors have two or three windows open simultaneously and flip among them for the most personally relevant, topical, and emotive stories.  No matter how kicky and hip the New Yorker may try to be, it can never match the twisted outtakes in cyberland.

The online Daily Mail – electric reincarnation of the The Daily Enquirer, both leading with deformity and the grotesque - had 77 million daily unique users in 2011 and has an estimated 200 million today.  The New York times by comparison has only 70 million with lower projections over the next five years.

The Daily Mail is tame by comparison to the independent sites on the Internet.  Every possible point of view, perversion, twisted preference, and political screed can be found within a few clicks.

Current events, such as a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton story, quickly go viral and are filtered, edited, and distorted in a million different ways.   Who would read the Grey Lady or even the juiced-up New Yorker when this Internet array is available at a touch?

This, of course, is why the traditional media, political pundits, and academics are in a twit.  They are being benched, taken out of the game just when it is becoming interesting, and sidelined.  Fewer and fewer people are paying attention to them anymore.  They are supernumeraries.

What is worse for ‘experts’ is the phenomenon of big data and crowdsourcing.  A million bettors in an online market will always estimate the number of gum balls in a jar more precisely than any geometrician.  Betting markets on Presidential elections 100 years ago always predicted electoral outcomes far more accurately than pundits.  Nate Silver, today’s big data genius-in-residence has never been wrong; and Ladbrokes (popular off-track betting site in the UK) is almost always right.

Image result for images betting odds ladbrokes

Big data solutions are becoming more and more an option for the likes of Google who rather than relying on in-house geeks goes viral and asks for new algorithmic ideas for better search engines from whomever is interested.  The results are always promising, innovative, and surprisingly feasible.
In other words Donald Trump is on to something.  Mediated news and analysis are things of the past.  The genie is out of the bottle, and crowd intelligence is marginalizing priests, pundits, and inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls.  The Internet has not only obviated the need for ‘objective’ mediation; it reflects the way Americans think.

The American presidential campaign of 2016 was like no other.  Thanks to Donald Trump who, with his outrageousness, Hollywood glitz and glamour, three-ring circus and side show, bare-knuckled, take-on-all-comers brawls, one-line zingers, Las Vegas glitz and Rat Pack showmanship, big ego, big image, and hot salesmanship, we are finally perfectly attuned to a presidential candidate. 

Image result for images donald trump with beauty queens

Liberals, progressives, and socialists who for decades have been trying to re-form America into a European, international, Utopian model of cooperation, multi-cultural harmony, and rational discourse and reasoned conclusion have been blindsided by Donald Trump and bewildered by the passionate support of his followers.  How could tens of millions people be so bamboozled by such a huckster and vaudevillian?  How could they be so taken in by a man with no plan, no political coherence, and no experience with governance or leadership?

Trump’s followers, say the Left, must be more hopelessly ignorant than they had thought, more intransigently backward and unmoved by rational argument and the rightness of historical secularism.  They are hopelessly inbred with few faculties of judgment.  No matter how the Left may try, they refuse to budge and remain racist, homophobic regionalists.

Trump supporters, however, are the avant-garde, the first wave of the new facts–last, image-first, post-human generation weaned on the visceral, the personal, and the immediate.   They have understood that in this post-postmodern world not only do facts have relevance only within changing social context, but they no meaning at all within the broader world of virtuality.  Facts are subject to faulty memory, imperfect subjective perceptions, historical revisionism and  political hyperbole.  Facts are tools for the promotion of ideas, theories, and hypotheses, bent and twisted to fit them.  Facts are overrated.  Truth is fictional, derivative, and meaningless.

There is little doubt that the highly-respected, experienced, successful older men and women in the Trump Cabinet, will rein in the most outrageous tendencies of their President and will craft reasonable conservative solutions to current problems in foreign affairs, education, energy, finance, and the economy.  There is little doubt either than the Trump Administration will form important alliances with the Republican-run Congress and key legislation will make its way into law.

As importantly, however, Donald will still be Donald, playing the traditional media like a violin while reaching out to his millions of supporters on social media.  They elected him and they need to be sure that he is following their mandate.  Since they do not have the experience, education, or political savvy to parse complicated issues papers and policy statements, they only need to hear Jobs! The Wall! Putin! Obamacare! and will be satisfied and Trumps constituency will remain intact and passionate.

Cynical? Far from it. Donald Trump simply understands the dramatic reconfiguration of American society and the way its members think and communicate.  Trump’s populism is very much real; and not only for the political solidarity it expresses.  Populism means unmediated democracy.  Draining the Swamp, dethroning the princes of the media, lighting up the White House with glitz, glamour, and Hollywood-Las Vegas-NYC glitter and celebrity, and if not returning power to the people at least giving them their say.

We are in for a wild ride with many unknowns and ‘unknown unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying.  There is reason to be anxious – not because the Trump Administration will do something stupid like get us into war; but because his style of governance and communication, and his idea of propriety are completely foreign to Washington.


The first six months of the Trump presidency have been fun indeed.  The next six should be even better.