Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Importance of Being Ernest

Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners, which punned on the name Ernest and the virtue of earnestness (the play was titled The Importance of Being Earnest), attempts in part to explore the significance of a man's name. Indeed, Anne has asked, does a name matter?

One can't explore this without passing through the Bible ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," Deut. 5:11) to Shakespeare ("What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet," Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 scene 2).

What's in a name? A lot. The right to bestow a name is an archetypal symbolic expression of seniority and power.

The biblical text has God according to Adam the right to name all the animals, which in the ancient world meant having power over the thing or being named. American Indians similarly spoke of naming evil spirits as a way of dissipating their power.

What you call something is still so powerful that the government routinely resorts to euphemisms for events the public might find distasteful. The name given to the victim of murder or mayhem in war is a "casualty," which sounds almost as if all that has happened is something no more serious than stubbing one's toe in a darkened bedroom.

As for Shakespeare, he wasn't arguing that names were irrelevant, but that love could overcome the chasm between someone named Montague and another named Capulet. Yet the names stood for an intense rivalry between competing clans.

The names we give ourselves and others are telling and influential. For example, the Chinese word for "Russia" means "land of hungry people," whereas the word for America means "beautiful country."

In the USA we don't call Italians and Greeks "Mediterraneans," but we call Japanese and Koreans "Asian," and Salvadorans and Chileans "Hispanic." Clearly, there's a matter of point of view. In the prevailing view, Europeans are distinguishable from one another, whereas non-Europeans come in continental globs. Moreover, forebears of Americans of European origin were all "immigrants," whereas non-Europeans are commonly called "aliens."

Who will argue that there is no difference between calling someone "Nigger" and "African-American"?

As to the word used to name the deity, there are entire volumes written about the Hebrew variants, with elaborate explanations of the meanings, ranging from the one who is to various attributions of might.

In English, the word is not devoid of meaning, either. "God" comes from the proto-Germanic "guthan" (in German, Gott), from the proto-Indo-European "ghut," meaning "that which is invoked." In Sanskrit, huta, meaning "invoked," was a nickname of the god Indra, the god of weather and war. Some trace it instead to "gheu," which means "to pour, pour a libation."

"Deus," the base in languages of Latin origin for Dieu, Deus, Dios, Dio (French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, respectively), the Greek genitive form of Zeus, the chief god from Mount Olympus. Zeus, for its part, traces back to the Sanskrit "deva pitar," meaning "father god." The root meaning of all these words is related to the word for "day," originally a reference to a bright, clear sky.

The biblical prohibition against the use of the deity's name was intended to prohibit human dominion over the deity, against the tendency of religious folk, then and now, to think they've got God in their pockets.

For my money, names and naming are hugely important.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


This is a post about a post about a post. The circle will be completed when they post about this post, which is really about the ultimate answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything. For a very long time -- since 1978 -- we have all known the answer is 42.

But this is not about the answer. Unlike Chani or perhaps Sober Briquette, I harbor profound doubts concerning that which we have called God, Allah, Deus, Theos, YHWH (go ahead, zap me for writing it!) and so on.

Instead, this is about what the answers to the question about God are really unlikely to be.

Like Sober, whose reference to "Veggietales" flies completely past my head, I have found Joan Osborne's "If God was One of Us" an intriguing song. I even found the TV show "Joan of Arcadia" reasonably charming. Both avoid crossing the line into preaching what we all "should" believe and instead offer some possibilities.

Karl Marx thought the word "god" and theism would disappear; a century later, Karl Rahner argued that the word would survive as a question, even if theism disappeared, because without it human beings could never face the whole of reality.

We might not agree whether God exists, but we might reasonably agree on what God might not be like if She did. The scholastics called this sort of inquiry, the study of the attributes of God.

One need not hew to any particular philosophical school, however, to agree that if She existed, God would not be the sum of all things, immanent in everything. The essential problem with pantheism (Greek, pan = all; theos = god; "all is god") is that it amounts to something similar to italicizing everything.

Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing.

Pantheism ultimately means that She does not exist except as some quality or entity so pervasive as not to be seen or heard or even be meaningful in any discernible way. I call that an atheist, which is fine insofar as I am concerned; just let's not pretend otherwise.

Similarly, I think it's very, very unlikely that She is more than one. Anyone who is the bestest and the mostest can't have peers. It's lonely at the top.

When you have a whole bunch of gods on Mount Olympus, you get to the point where everyone starts begetting demigods and sprites and heroes and who knows what and eventually Zeus has to come out, throw a thunderbolt and say "stop effing around, ch'all!" (Of course, he carefully writes an escape codicil for himself.)

She would not be a capricious bearded man on Mount Olympus. Not likely.

If God existed, She would be just your regular one-of-a-kind god next door. The Supreme! (Take that, Martha and the Vandellas!)

Oh, of course, She would not really be a she -- nor a he. I use She merely to offset some 20,000 years of masculine misattribution of a sex. (I'd say we've got about 19,965 years of saying She before we get into trouble.)

From my perspective, gynomorphizing God makes eminent sense. I have as much chance of understanding women as I do of ever understanding God. Even if I sometimes feel I "get" them.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The principle is that the really clear thing about God is that you can't really say too much about Her without falling into a serious logical rabbit hole.

God, in any case, is such a charged name. She would probably prefer being called 42.


Genevieve's comment reminds me of a lesson I heard long ago, in a secondary school literature class that was often also a philosophy and history class.

Etymology may not be philosophy, but a word's origins often yield clues as to what we originally meant and why we use it the way we do. Crisis comes from the Greek krinein, to decide, to separate, to judge, also related to kritikos, critic, one who is skilled at judging; it is also related to the much touted, little encouraged contemporary faculty of critical thinking.

A crisis occurs in the opening lines of Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, as follows:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
When I first contemplated the idea of crisis I was where Longfellow placed young women that were my age at the time: "standing, with reluctant feet, where the brook and river meet." (Adolescence comes to boys, too.) What more crisis-filled years than those!

It wasn't just me. The world seemed to be in crisis: the Beatles revolutionized music, Cohn-Bendit and the French students revolted in the streets of Europe, there was an ideological "spring" in Prague and underneath all that two superpowers were threatening each other with arsenals said to be capable of destroying the planet 50 times over.

Ah, the good old days!

In midst of all that, Mr. Romero, my Spanish literature profesor (in my school all our teachers were profesores) uttered the words that stuck to me: "We are always in crisis."

Every age, historical or personal, involves crisis and is critical. At every stage we humans face a fork in the road of our lives. We face no choices only when we lie in our coffins -- insofar as I can tell, anyway.

King Philip II faced the crisis of the first European empire over which the sun never set, just as Lyndon Baines Johnson was, somewhere outside our classroom, facing Vietnam. We faced imminent demise when we asked a girl to dance, just as the Soviet Union for decades threatened to wipe out Washington, my home for so many years, from the face of the Earth.

Is it, then, overdramatization to see our moment, this moment, with that death-defying hangnail staring at us right in our face, as a crisis? Yes and no.

Monday, June 25, 2007


For a variety of reasons, some of them beyond my ken, I begin the week with an awareness of what I have called, using a popular, unscientific understanding, "entropy." It is the idea better expressed by William Butler Yeats in the line "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Let a business proceed without expansion and it diminishes until it dies. Let a plant cease to grow and it shrivels. We humans grow and grow until we reach a peak, then we begin our decline to death.

Things fall apart. The natural tendency of everything is toward decay and demise. The one word I have heard used to describe this is "entropy," in a figurative sense.

Now Webster's tells us that entropy is "a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system's disorder and that is a property of the system's state and is related to it in such a manner that a reversible change in heat in the system produces a change in the measure which varies directly with the heat change and inversely with the absolute temperature at which the change takes place."

Take a deep breath. I didn't understand it either. I think what it means is that entropy in science is a measure of disorder in a physical or chemical system. The greater the disorder, the higher the degree of entropy.

The interesting thing, however, is that in scientific theory -- unlike in the philosophy of humanities-minded folks like me -- disorder may well be deemed the balanced state toward which all things tend.

The originator of the concept, Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius, was concerned with the question of the conservation of energy (put simply: where does expended energy go? what will eventually happen to the universe when all energy is expended?). In the 19th century the common belief was that all matter would eventually degrade, be consumed like coal in a steam engine and literally or figuratively go up in smoke.

In 1865, Clausius became famous by concluding, with the aid of mathematics you should get someone else to explain, that "the energy of the universe is constant" on one hand, and that "the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum," on the other.

Those of us who don't really understand e=mc2 may take this as cause for relief or concern. On one hand, it's a relief that chaos is "normal." So, death, disease, decay, etc., are really OK. Moreover, the world doesn't end, somehow the energy recycles itself.

On the other hand, for those of us whose lives are built on a modicum of order -- such as is depended upon by so many things we take for granted -- it's slightly terrifying.

It seems as if I am in a canoe on a placid river, yet I keep hearing a distant and rising rumor that I fear is a Niagara or Iguazu just waiting to upset my little world. Yeats next lines were
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This was the understandable verdict of a 19th century man at the end of the Great War, when all reason, all the gentlemanly nods of common understanding, all commonly held hopes for progress had been so bloodily dashed.

But isn't it also apt for our time and fears and delusions? Have not the muddled majority best lacked conviction in the face of both the passionately intense Cheney-inspired waterboarders and the Osama-sent suicide bombers?

Our time and our lives dim with fears that such a picture is frighteningly true. The center, our heart, cannot hold.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Joy of Giving

Anne's comment to the post about tipping, prompted some thought about what's involved in giving and receiving. Our text today, campers, is: What a joy it is to give and how generous of those who receive!

Let's think about it. I have always felt good whenever I freely gave someone something. A present, money to a friend in need, time to someone who asked for it, a donation and even a tip.

Does anyone take pleasure in feeling somehow superior to the person receiving? Do you? Not that I have seen. Most people delight in the ability to have something that someone else might value.

Giving feels good. It is "blessed," or healthy, or just plain happy to give. Whatever you gave, if you had kept it, wouldn't it eventually have broken or become boring or useless or forgotten?

Does anyone really get pleasure in looking at the balance in their savings account? OK, so you feel secure for a moment, then you think about what it won't buy. How much money is enough, John D. Rockefeller was once asked. "Just a little bit more," he replied.

The deed of giving stays with you. It feels good. It's a memory you can always recall. It's a memory others will have of you. It doesn't cost anything, it doesn't wear out. It can always pick you up. ("I may feel terrible today, but look what I did for ... yesterday.")

Now about receiving, I have a little anecdote.

A number of years ago, shortly I was in the selection committee for the rector of the Episcopal parish I attended (long story, for another day), the priest we ended up choosing gave me a ride home one evening. I explained that I didn't have a car and the buses might be infrequent at the late hour, etc.

"How wonderful!" she said. "You go around giving others the chance to give you a ride and get to know you better."

I had never thought of it that way. I was always just the guy who had to ask for rides when it was late or I was in the burbs. Suddenly, I was the guy who gave other people the opportunity to give.

Receivers are heroic in ways large and small. Life deals them a need, yet here they stand and carry on, with dignity. They receive with a smile.

In a way, receivers give the joy of giving.

We'll go to a meeting and I never get to do a good post-mortem in the car with someone, as I often did. Nothing more empty and solitary than getting into your own combustion-engine bubble. I have a car now. I love giving people rides, although all too many people have their own cars.The car will need repairs. It will cause me to fret and worry. I'll eventually get rid of it.

But the conversations I had as a rider, many of those are forever. The people who gave me rides can also recall how good and neighborly they were. They can treasure that always, too. Thanks to me, who was there to receive.

In addition to the joy of giving, there's the generosity of receiving.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Unbounced Echo

What a pleasure when one rescues meaning from melancholy prompted by a serendipitous and joyful confluence of experiences! Allow me to explain.

Tangential brushes with history or literary fame, which are endemic to my work and background, often cast me in the role of the proverbial fly on the wall. I am privileged to observe and record the momentous. Yet I remain unseen and hidden safely behind what a friend of mine jokes is the "cover" I rarely break.

This means, positively, that the news of which I often speak comes first hand. Of course, it also means a lifetime of missed connections with people with whom I sense intuitively a common ground and of encounters with people with whom I have little in common at all.

The surprise is the flood of insights that began with a rare escape into literary conversation. On Sunday I spent two delightful hours in a Spanish book club discussing a Peruvian novel about an imagined Trotskyist insurrection in the 1950s. It was the sort of thing I did in university, when I went to poetry readings and dreamed of writing publishable literary works.

In the reading group we shared our questions, our impressions of the background, our various puzzles until we came to the literary puzzle of a peculiar ending. Then, bits from one, bits from another, we hit upon the possibility that the final chapter, written like the rest of the novel in the voice of an explicitly self-conscious author/narrator, is about the protagonist developing independence from his creator, refusing to act in character.

(If anyone is interested, the book is "Historia de Mayta" by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated as "The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.")

Until Sunday, except for the literary update my older son and me give one another when he comes to town, the literary stirrings of yesteryear have been limited to a dim reflection, the author readings at a bookstore half a block away from my home. I posted, for example, the visit of Richard Dawkins.

Most recently, I missed the appearance of Michael Ondaatje, whom I would have seen in what for me would have been a significant second time.

Coming across the Sunday New York Times book review of the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje (you may recall his work The English Patient, made into a film), I found myself staring into his now grizzled face, perhaps a more hirsute version of my own, having one of the now ever more common fly in the wall flashbacks.

I had imagined going to his reading as a kind of reunion. Back when I was a student, Ondaatje, then a relatively obscure Canadian writer, came to my university for a poetry reading. He had recently published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a poetic visit to the bandit's life, which I had read listening to Aaron Copland's work, the symphonic suite Billy the Kid.

I wrote him a letter with a poem I composed about the reading, having to do with the feedback of a microphone.
Poem for a Poetry Reading

of sound-sound
just as Kennedy's oath
rang across from the Capitol
just as that voice,
reverberates again
as Michael mentions a dog and America
and Ellen glances at me
and john echoes that glance
pointing their eyes at me
the American.

Ondaatje's microphone
like the a's in his name
repeats his words
and the walls repeat them again.

And just once
a girl in the audience said
the echo was good.

Montreal, November 1972
Yes, I was influenced by Brautigan at the time, and aren't you glad that neither my poetry nor fiction have ever been published? Ondaatje wrote back a polite short note, saying that the particular reading I had attended had meant much to him and that someday "magically" we would meet again.

I showed the letter to my son a few years ago, when he came home from seeing the The English Patient movie and decided to get the book. My literary memento from a now-famous author.

Then I saw that Ondaatje was coming to read at the bookstore near home and I weighed going there. But what would I do, read my poem to him? Would he even remember? Wouldn't it be embarrassing for two grown men to recall the boyish fascination of one for another?

Besides, my social and work lives are pretty busy. It was on a Tuesday night. I was tired of work spent, precisely, writing and editing.

Sunday I came across the book review by Erica Wagner, which begins:
“I come from Divisadero Street,” Anna tells us in Michael Ondaatje’s fifth novel. “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ”
It's the second. The meaning, I mean. I'm impressed that Ondaatje, a Dutch-surnamed native Sri Lankan and adoptive Canadian, would get the Spanish right. Then again, why wouldn't he?

That's another thing that's uncanny about Michael Ondaatje and me. We're both part of a much studied cultural subgroup known as Third Culture Kids or Global Nomads, defined as "someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."

So it's not really that I'm a lonely fly in the wall, but it is true that I rarely break cover. That's because I am a bit of an alien everywhere and belong only among those who, like Ondaatje and myself, can enjoy a good multilingual, cross-cultural joke -- and a good multi-directional insight.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Almsgiving or Tipping?

When I go to work and when I go home I always pass at least a half dozen beggars. If I take a cab or park my car I deal with people who are working hard, presumably for little payoff. Given that my wallet is not limitless, should I tip or give alms?

This is a relatively new American dilemma. Growing up I associated begging with Latin America and poor parts of Europe, where beggars were plentiful in the 1950s and 60s.

Today, pauperized Latin American begging in major cities has reached the then-shocking levels of Bogotá in 1958. You can't go anywhere without mewling children and formerly middle class jobless adults jostling for pennies, selling any trinket, even themselves.

Europe, thankfully, is no longer poor; except in the East. The Eastern immigrants are now changing the face of Western Europe; Britain, for example, has become a new majority-Catholic country thanks to Poles. Whatever the national racism-prone Europeans may think, these people are not begging on their streets.

Not so in Washington, D.C., capital of the present empire.

Moreover, having failed to install the vast systems of social insurance of Europe, the United States is economically sliding towards becoming Brazil -- particularly in the distribution of wealth. The 9th or 10th economy in the world, depending on the criteria, Brazil has a still smallish middle class, a concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 2 percent of the population.

The American economy is the largest for any country in the world in terms of gross domestic product, beat just barely only by the 27 nations of the European Union put together. We Americans work substantially more than Europeans do, in terms of average annual hours per worker, but economists argue whether it is that we are overworked or they who are lazy.

Our average wage has been virtually stagnant since 1973. A new book called Richistan describes in almost pornographic detail what Bookings economist Isabel Sawhill told me in a recent interview, "It's no longer a matter of the haves and the have-nots. A group at the very top is pulling away from everyone else. The have-mores are pulling away from the haves."

Seeing that this is the case, I wondering whether the working poor don't deserve preference over the beggars. Isn't an ounce of prevention much more effective than a pound of ultimately ineffective palliatives?

Rampant homelessness has two causes: first, the failure of society to deal with people so mentally ill as to be unemployable; secondly, and here comes the prevention, the failure to pay poor working people a livable wage.

Yes, Congress raised the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $5.85 in July and ultimately to $7.25 by 2009. Even the 2009 figure yields only $15,080 a year, still below the official poverty threshold for a household of two.

People who work should not be poor.

One can quibble over how rich anyone is entitled to be. But the federal poverty line is plenty austere. And the legal helps aren't enough. As a recent article in The Washington Post shows, when members of Congress tried to live on a food stamps budget, it was very hard.

We can all do something very practical to change things. Yes, by all mean join the living wage advocacy movements. But there's something easier and simpler.


Sure, in Cuba it's considered a sign of servile capitalist exploitation and thus forbidden. Even if Cuba were the paradise it quite isn't, shouldn't one have a revolution first?

So while we sit down to wait long and hard for a national socioeconomic change, there's always the humble tip to tide working people over.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Nurturing Chain

Retaking the quest for "godless ethics," I am confronted on the morning of Father's Day with the Mosaic commandment to "Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be longlived." Why and whatever for?

Perhaps this is the problem with starting with the Mosaic decalogue. All the Judaeo-Christian sources I can lay my hands on begin with the presupposition that it must be done because God ordered it. To honor parents is to honor God: God made us, with our parents participation.

Now let's say that one is skeptical that there ever was a god, least of all at the time one's life began. What then? What is the purpose of this very widely held notion?

I write this at a time at which I stand to gain as a net beneficiary: I am a father and my parents are dead. Yet why should my sons live under ethical compulsion to honor me?

As with many of the other ancient commands, I find myself thinking of the economic, social and practical reasons such an encomium would have been cast in the form of a universal norm. The first to come to mind is that until Social Security, and the various forms of old age support in Europe and Japan, becoming old was a tragedy.

Do note that Social Security is not a forced savings plan: it is an intergenerational transfer from the working age generations to the one beyond that age.

So the idea that God, the all-purpose source of everything someone would, without bothering to rhyme or reason, wish to impose on another, declared that parents should be "honored" -- includes caring for them in old age -- makes some economic sense. To me. But why would it make sense to my sons?

The idea, I suppose, is the whole notion of parenthood as godlike. You give life. You clean diapers. You feed and clothe and house and educate for half a lifetime. In your prime years. Then they let go and that's it.

"Al olor de la flor se le olvida la flor" (the scent of the flower forgets the flower), sang Catalonian composer-singer Joan Manuel Serrat in the 1970s, in a song addressed to his girlfriend's mother.

Of course, there's another rendering of the story. You have sexual urges and, in love or in lust, you copulate. With no effort, often without the slightest intention, a sperm and an ovum (discovered only in the 19th century!) make a microscopic meeting in a flood of intermingled fluids. A new life begins.

Discovery of the life is greeted with chagrin or joy depending on the copulators' intent (see above). The actual life involves a lot of work that was not bargained for; the baby has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to spew out excrement, tears and the most annoying noises in the universe.

But there are rewards. What parent does not revel in the moment this creature suddenly ... smiles! The love of one's children and the love of one's parents is clearly a matter of brain chemicals to ensure the nurturing of young humans.

Is that practical good an ethical good? I'd start to answer from the universal imperative to survive, enunciated three years ago here, which runs as follows:

All behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided. My survival is linked to the survival of all humanity.

Seen from that perspective, the Mosaic principle, based on the idea of human survival rather than a god, needs to be amplified to apply to all who are in the nurturing chain.

We need to honor parents, grandparents and children, but also cousins and uncles and aunts, and also greengrocers and farmers, cobblers and tailors, and carpenters and masons. We need, indeed, to honor the other species of plants and animals that sustain us, the rocks and waters that shelter and refresh us.

We are children of the universe, its stewards, and in a biological relay race, we are also its mother and, yes, its father. Happy Father's Day everyone!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A New Adolescence

In my continuing ruminations about people roughly my age, the Boomers, I have come to the conclusion that many of us are in the throes of a new adolescence.

Just a few days ago I qualified for the Bureau of Labor Statistics' label "older worker," yet I feel sometimes that I have just turned 17. It's better than four or five years ago, when the collapse of a marriage had rendered me 11 years old: technically capable of taking care of myself, but sorely lacking in the common sense needed to do it well.

I remember well that first dance at which I mingled with the "boys," afraid once again of what would happened if I asked a "girl" to dance. Then I discovered the bar and recalled how much "courage" came from its concoctions.

Or that first date, I think we went to a concert, walked around some parks and tentatively held hands. Just like when I was 16 and my girlfriend, the first I ever kissed, was 14.

Or even my first car accident on a highway, a fender-bender really, due to a very peculiar driving history, which I'll save for another post.

Adolescence. The sense that one is alive, everything is very confusing, no one really prepared you for this, you'll live forever but you'll die of unrequited love, you'll try out new feelings and if people don't like the results let them look away. Freedom. Zest.

I can't help thinking that I'm in an adolescence in reverse. I go to book clubs, group discussions, dances, barbecues. Flirt, laugh, talk. Then retreat to my cave to ruminate.

In this new stage I started out adult, organized (or repressed), subject to obligations and routines; eventually I'll come out childless, unconnected to anyone in particular, retired, perennially out of school, seeking a sandbox in which to lose myself in another childhood, until I'm unborn back into the darkness whence I came.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Marshall Plan for the World

After this latest misadventure, it's time perhaps to reassess what has gone wrong since the end of the Cold War. Part of it is that the USA forgot about postwar reconstruction.

Sure, the Cold War did not have definable fronts -- although Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, the horn of Africa, Nicaragua and El Salvador might reasonably pass for battlefields. At the end of the Cold War, which -- pay attention, conservatives -- did not occur on Ronald Reagan's watch, all that was left was a gulf between the wealthy capitalist First World and everyone else.

In an impoverished Russia and Eastern Europe the joke went: "What's worse than Communism? Post-Communism." And an impoverished Third World, a variety of would-be leaders -- including one Osama bin Laden -- observed how local elites were enriching themselves through the sale to the First World of non-renewable resources, which are the patrimony of entire societies.

If 9/11 had not existed, someone would have invented it.

Why? Because we won the war and forgot to win the peace as well, as the USA did after World War II.

Osama and Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez and others have in common that they are irate that the First World continues to wage economic war on their people.

Sixty years ago, this past June 5, Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered the commencement address at Harvard and in his speech outlined the need for an economic recovery plan to lift Europe out of the ruins of World War II. "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace," Marshall said.

By the time the European Recovery Program (the official name of the Marshall Plan) began to wind down in 1951, the United States had sent $12 billion to 17 countries and Europe was beginning to recover. In 2006 dollars, that sum would amount to $119.7 billion, or about an average $29 billion a year -- about a third of a year's cost of U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

Our present development assistance does not exceed $13 billion a year and almost half goes to Israel and a quarter more to Egypt. Meanwhile, Africa has become a basket case, disparities are growing in Latin America and in fast-developing, resource hungry Asia the life of each individual continues to be far too cheap.

Moreover, now we have the means and the technology to eradicate the most serious depredations on human dignity, such as hunger. We may not know exactly how to turn every nation into Ohio -- not necessarily a worthy goal -- but the most abject forms of poverty need not exist.

The benefits of doing so are manifold. Greater prosperity brings liberalization of governance and greater public participation in peaceful, constructive ways. Prosperous nations cooperate with one another.

Is there any reason why we should not launch a new Marshall Plan, this time for the world?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Portrait of the Blogger

... as a very, very young man, 55 years ago, today.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Lesson of Vietnam and Iraq

There are two Ss in the lesson of Iraq and Vietnam and both of them stand for what has been sorely lacking in the American foreign policy establishment for at least two generations: subtlety.

The dictionary phrases that I have in mind for defining subtlety are "acuteness or penetration of mind" and "delicacy of discrimination." We Americans are not famous for either one.

We can come up with something remarkably big, such as the notion of and resources for constructing a harbor so we can invade a France beach, then bring the port for supplies along with us. This was done 63 years ago this month.

We can push each other hard -- often too hard -- creating a dynamism of sweat and anxiety that keeps us all going at a pace unmatched elsewhere. Hence U.S. dominance in terms of average annual work hours over all OECD nations, our socioeconomic peers -- the declining quality (and more recently quantity) of output be damned.

We really believe in our beloved Constitution -- except when we don't or don't even know it (go read it here).

We really want to trust people enough to leave our doors open, although we haven't now for some time.

We were really at our best in the world when we were lumbering hulks handing out Hershey bars to scrawny European children in bombed out cities. Ours is the only empire whose most decisive war did not result in territorial expansion, enslavement of others, plunder -- even if, in neo-colonial terms, some version of all those things took place under U.S. aegis.

The fundamental fact of the American era is that our country has been so remarkably necessary to the world economically, militarily and even politically, for so long, that there has been little need for the traditional historical harshness of empires.

Why goose-step, purge your satellites or enslave vassals when you can seduce them with Coca-Cola, Marlboros and blue jeans (at a profit)?

This is what makes Vietnam and Iraq such crass errors on the part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. We had the wind on our backs at the beginning of each of these misadventures.

Ngo Dihn Diem, the Vietnamese president the CIA helped assassinate just 20 days before our own president was killed in Dallas, was a nationalist, an aristocrat, a traditional Catholic (his brother was an archbishop) and somewhat of an autocrat.

He was not a saint, by any means; a politician in serious conflict with an important segment of his population (Buddhists). No Jefferson, but certainly no Castro.

"I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid," Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said upon learning of the assassination.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that had Diem lived, had South Vietnam been allowed to evolve on its own terms, without a U.S. occupation, today it might be comparable to South Korea: corrupt for many years but slowly democratizing as a byproduct of prosperity.

Much the same is true of Iraq. For all the propaganda, now taken on blind faith, that Saddam Hussein was a monster, he was really a relatively pedestrian Third World dictator.

Hussein was a classic modernizer of the type who believes in breaking a few eggs to make omelette. He won UNESCO prizes in the 1970s for programs to raise the literacy of his country. The Baathists were mildly left-leaning secularizers who believed in technology and learning to develop their country.

Had Hussein been left to live and die in power, Iraq might have found its own way to a modern future with some facsimile of a democracy; again, as a byproduct of prosperity. The foundations had been laid by Hussein himself.

I've lived in dictatorships, I've known people who died in them. I'm no friend of dictatorship. But I understand the distinction that Reagan U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, no darling of mine, was trying to make when she compared dictatorships with totalitarian regimes.

The problem is she used the wrong terms. The opposite of dictatorship is not totalitarianism, as Kirkpatrick put it, but tyranny.

A dictator, Latin for "one who issues commands," was in ancient republican Rome a figure chosen by the Senate to take all powers needed to overcome an emergency. When the crisis was over, the Roman principle went (although not always the history), the dictator stepped down and the Senate, the gathering of the senex or elderly (and supposedly wise) men, retook the reins of State.

In the limited Roman sense, both Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could be seen as American dictators. Both assumed extraordinary powers at times of grave national crises; although both died in office, there is little question that they would have handed their powers back to the polity, had they lived.

In contrast, a tyrant (from the Greek tyrannos, meaning "lord, master, sovereign, absolute ruler"), is a despotic ruler, often harsh and cruel, who serves only his own interests or those of a small oligarchy, and most often seizes power by force or deceit.

Greece's Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan clique that installed itself to rule Athens; among other things, they condemned Socrates to death. Stalin, Hitler and Cromwell were tyrants.

Hussein was edging toward tyranny when the world rightly showed him the cost of acting bigger than his britches by invading Kuwait. Diem was thought to be headed in that direction, too, but his society had enough corrective institutions without U.S. intervention.

This is what the U.S. foreign policymakers have refused to understand for about two generations.

The world's not ours to play with; our country has not been chosen to act godlike with national histories and societies much older and more complex than our own. Sometimes it is better to leave things that are not perfect to work themselves out by themselves -- without the 500-pound gorilla of the CIA and the U.S. military.

The lesson of Vietnam and Iraq comes from ancient Greece.

The Gordian Knot, according to legend the one that fastened the cart of King Midas to a post, was so complex that he who untied it was destined to be king of Asia. Alexander the Great, in the year 333 BCE, cut the knot with his sword. In the next decade, Alexander built an empire that stretched all the way to India, then he died suddenly and the empire collapsed.

Cutting, while expedient, is far less effective than untying.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Misanthropy and Friendship

One learns who is a friend in times of trial, but also who is not. Few people are friends and even friends have their own agendas. This is not about heroes and villains, but about how friendship, and the gratitude one feels toward friends, manages to dull the sharp truth that the more one knows humanity, more one loves one's (imaginary) dog.

My paternal grandfather was very fond of the latter saying, which I recall him voicing one morning while walking his dog. He attributed it to a Latin aphorist I have failed to come across. At the time my grandfather said it, I was a child in the quest for an answer to the question, "Are people mostly good or mostly bad?"

My mother pushed aside my grandfather's cynicism, deeming it perhaps a little too early for me to be soured on life and people. Thus steeped in an invincible optimism regarding the ever reformable character of all human beings, I have crashed repeatedly against the shoals of hearts so stone cold as to be chilling. This is so with those individuals who, deep down, are simply too painfully twisted to be able to cry out their own humanity.

To be sure, I myself carry within me my share of glacial cruelty and sorrow turned into pathology -- woe betide those who become exposed to the dark side of my moon, the lunatic I manage to talk into behaving in public ... most of the time. To an extent all of us are a bit like this: if people only knew who we really were!

Thankfully, people don't. Most people don't care enough to find out who we really are; they are busy enough with their own demons.

You learn this when a mishap strikes. You lose your job. Your marriage breaks up. Someone very dear to you dies.

People say trite meaningless things. They avoid you. (Or worse, in breakups some space cadets will call you for your former partner's new number.) You get the merest cold and it feels as if it is cancerous AIDS, because you are without a friend.

Your mailbox is empty of anything but bills and promotions. People want your money. Eventually some people want your sex. Or your humor. Or some quality that's on their shopping list.

Carry these minor toothaches to a grander scale and you have famines and genocides and the general unrelenting injustice of nearly everything in life -- especially that which makes you privileged enough to be within reach of air-conditioning, a computer, running water and enough money to inspire the funniest of Nigerian e-mail scams.

Let's face it: we humans stink. This is why I feel -- at least in the past few days -- as if I have come across a dandelion sticking out of a crack in a sidewalk.

No surprise that no one will ever love the netherman I hide in the innards of my soul. Yet what a delight that some people mildly like the man who clothes his mind in genteel language!

It happened like this. For some time now, I have been sending e-mail notifications of posts to my (mostly low-tech) acquaintances. The first paragraph and the permanent link. Then the blog got so heated that it vexed some people. The only solution was to end the notifications or turn to the opt-in method.

Predictably, I have not heard from the miscreants. Only from some who "live for your posts" or ask to "keep 'em coming."

My friends. The few and hardy ones who asked to be notified by e-mail whenever I post. One I have known since childhood, several I have only cybermet, most are somewhere in between.

For decades now, those who know me know, my guide on friendship has been Aristotle. The summer of my junior year in college I decided to go to take a few philosophy courses at a university near my father's house. I had not taken philosophy for several years, when I had thought I would become a priest.

Nixon was on the verge of impeachment. My girlfriend at the time took a trip to France. I think she was trying to decide how to break up. And none of this mattered in the long and meandering bus ride I had chosen to take, in the spirit of simplicity, from home to the campus and back every day.

Instead, I heard in the voice of Alexander the Great's childhood tutor (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 8, ch. 3) the following words:
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. And each is good without qualification and to his friend, for the good are both good without qualification and useful to each other. So too they are pleasant; for the good are pleasant both without qualification and to each other, since to each his own activities and others like them are pleasurable, and the actions of the good are the same or like. And such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have. For all friendship is for the sake of good or of pleasure-good or pleasure either in the abstract or such as will be enjoyed by him who has the friendly feeling-and is based on a certain resemblance; and to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men.
Not to worry. I am old enough now to know not to test friendships. In my heart of hearts, however, this is what I hoped for with that girlfriend who went to France.

These days, any semblance of that, over coffee or sherry, in a cafe, a pub or in someone's home, even a shadow of it in an e-mail, a phone call, a letter, is icing on the cake.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Too Menny

The San Antonio Express reports the story of a woman who, depressed and struggling to raise four small children, hanged herself and her children in a mobile home closet. Poignantly, the story adds, "An infant was rescued from a makeshift noose."

The detail is worthy of Thomas Hardy. His 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, which shocked Victorian sensibilities none too soon with the reality of the industrial revolution, contains precisely such a scene.

Without involving ourselves in the novel's entire plot, allow me to paint the scene in question. An impoverished tradesman and his common law wife return to their rooms from a fair, an oasis of happiness, only to find that their precocious older son has murdered his three siblings and hung himself, leaving the note in childish script, "Done because we were too menny" [sic].

It is a child's misunderstanding of his parents' misfortunes, in part stemming from Victorian hypocrisy, in part rooted in the sheer cruelty with which the rural poor of England were expelled from the land and thrown into hovels for the gritty work of the industrial revolution.

A century and more since Hardy's imagined events and the real ones that inspired them were cast into words, the richest society in history seems to be reliving tragedies seemingly long past buried. How can this be?

Such developments cast my mind back to a classic analysis I read decades ago, The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, a study of the Speenhamland Law that sets on its head the notion popular among conservatives and their acolytes that markets evolved naturally. "Laissez-faire was planned," Polanyi argues in his nearly encyclopedic treatment of the transformation of England from agricultural and cottage industry to the factory system and the famously "satanic" mills.

Our grandchildren will one day learn that the vast impoverishment in our midst today is planned, executed with the economic levers of government, by individuals hellbent on enshrining what to their minds is the sacred right to exploit others, just as it existed in 1907.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Needed: New Nuremberg Trials

The fourth prisoner suicide at the Guantánamo concentration camp, which occurred a few days ago while this blog was engaged in belly-button gazing, raises inevitably the matter of bringing to justice the U.S. officials responsible for kidnapping, torture and detention without trial of as yet unknown numbers of individuals worldwide.

Just writing down what has been systematically done with my taxes and in my name brings to mind the disappearances, the desaparecidos, of Argentina in 1976-83, the military regimes of the neighboring South American southern cone between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, the system of repression under South African Apartheid, the Gulag of the Soviet Union and, yes, the Konzentrationslager of Hitlerian Germany.

An often forgotten point concerning the International Military Tribunal that tried the 24 top leaders of Nazi Germany, along with 200 others concerning crimes against humanity, is that this was necessary because the Germans had neither the rules nor the practice of punishing their own for egregious wrongdoing.

This has unfortunately become the case concerning the political and military leadership of the United States.

In a small snippet in Harper's called to my attention by my older son, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani airs these views concerning instructions to U.S. interrogators: "I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they can think of." Fellow candidate Mitt Romney says he is "glad" detainees are in Guantanamo, where no legal protection is forthcoming.

Even former CIA chief George Tenet, who by his own admission supervised the use of "waterboarding," justifies torture on grounds of fear of another 9/11.

Let's make this clear: waterboarding is a method of torture involving the use of water in such a way as to simulate drowning, produce a gag reflex and induce in the subject the very strong impression that death is imminent.

As tortures go, it is an American classic -- like marketing and Coca-Cola. It is all show. It is psychological. It leaves no physical trace.

Waterboarding is also illegal under U.S. law (18 USC sec. 2340) and the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed in 1984 and ratified by the U.S. Senate. Nonetheless, Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney has declared the practice "a no-brainer" in interrogating accused members of Al-Qaeda.

To be sure, the purported justification for waterboarding and much more, Al-Qaeda, is no mere Islamic reading club. However, they're the ones who define themselves as "warriors." Civilized nations recognize that they are only a new instance of organized crime.

Our government does not torture members of the Mafia, even though their drugs, gambling, prostitution and other "rackets" have wrought a toll on our society just as fearsome as Al-Qaeda's. Is it perhaps because too many government officials are bribed by the Mafia?

If so, how long before Osama gets the idea and pours the billions of oil money to the purpose of corruption? Oh, I forgot, that's already been done.

The state of things being what they are, is there any question, then, that at some nearing time, in which the various mirages of war are dissipated, there will be a need for a tribunal to judge Cheney, his boss, and the several thousand top minions who transmitted the orders, or even the winks and nods, to kidnap, torture and detain what we now know are at least 558 men without trial?

Is there little doubt that U.S. justice is not up to the task? It is time to begin thinking about Nuremberg Trials.

This would mean finding an impartial mechanism, no easy task.

The United Nations is too full of nations that, freed of a U.S. veto, would like nothing more than to humiliate the United States, which may be well-deserved but would not accomplice justice as Nuremberg did. (Besides, our leaders have already humiliated us beyond what any foreigner ever could.) For similar reasons, it is difficult to imagine impartiality at the International Court at the Hague.

The internal models available, however, are dicy.

Assassination in exile, as in the 1980 case of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan Bush, would not be justice.

Argentina tried and convicted all the generals (prosecutors managed to prove in one instance more than 8,000 individual cases of oral transmission of orders from the very top to the very bottom). But a military revolt in the late 1980s forced an ignominious amnesty; only now are the lower ranks, the officers who actually commanded and executed the misdeeds, being brought to trial.

South Africa tried a different approach. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission exchanged confession of misdeeds for pardon. Victims of State violence could come forward and be heard, while perpetrators of State violence could also give testimony and request amnesty.

Critics of the TRC process have pointed out that justice was not achieved. One former prime minister apologized for his part, but another refused to comply with the subpoena, was fined yet ultimately prevailed on appeal. Black South Africa still perceives that the process was tilted in favor of the white criminals.

So the search continues. Can a new Nuremberg Tribunal be convened that brings to justice the Bush regime?