Sunday, July 29, 2007

Failed Friendship?

Why don't people you choose to tell your most recent unpleasant encounter with humanity, even if it was over the proverbial hangnail, simply refrain from telling you it isn't so bad or from setting in motion a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition concerning the event or -- worst of all! -- from suggesting that the other person might have been right?

We all encounter rudeness or perceived slights. We may be right or we may be wrong. But when we choose to tell someone we know, we usually presume that there is some friendship and that we will receive some expression of support.

Yesterday I went to get a haircut. Toward the end of my cut, someone came in and said he needed a tiny trim on one side. Next thing I know, with nothing more than "excuse me a minute," my barber is cutting the other guy for five minutes!

His new assistant, a woman who is not really very good at this, won't cut my hair unless I move to "her" chair.

Whose the customer here? Who is paying? I got up and left -- not before giving both a piece of my mind and not a red cent.

Enter the friends. One wasn't there. Ring, ring, ring.

A second first said "oh," then tried to calm me down, then asked me how this had happened. Not one word that might suggest that I, the aggrieved person, was in need of comfort. When I said I'd rather not discuss the details and explained how I felt and how inadequate the response, suddenly I was cast in the role of "bad guy" and I had to put up with tears.

The third person tried to explain the barber's actions and said the event had no importance and -- again -- took offense at my suggestion that these were not responses of a friend.

Coincidentally, or perhaps to soothe my aggrieved soul, I went to see My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami), a delightful French film I heartily recommend. Like the protagonist, I do not make friends easily, but unlike him, I think I do understand the demands of friendship -- especially when a friend is in need.

When you feel hurt by others, rightly or wrongly, isn't it the duty of a loyal friend to express solidarity without questions asked?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Acceptable Prejudices?

Are there acceptable prejudices? Should some be acceptable? Is it merely "politically correct" to speak about the unacceptability of prejudices? These questions cannot be answered without recognizing the impact upon them of the Reagan-Thatcher era, begun 38 years ago now.

Such a perspective is missing in what started as a post by the Raven Maven, followed by a trail of comments and blogposts, rounding up with Chani's own very good essay pointing to the issue at hand. (Pity I wouldn't be welcome at BlogHer to meet all these bloggers, if I could even go.)

We cannot even begin to ponder these questions, and why these questions arise, without stopping to consider the mindset that led that great liberal Richard Nixon to issue Executive Order 11478 in 1969.

The order expanded Lyndon Johnson's EO 11246, which among other things, required all government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin." Nixon made it apply to the government itself.

That's the origin of the affirmative action policy, which began to be attacked as the very essence of "political correctness" in the Reagan-Thatcher era.

The premise of the attack was that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin -- now illegal -- had ended and that prejudice was a thing of the past. People arguing for respect toward human diversity were simply attempting Orwellian thought control and the banning of free speech.

Yet here comes Chani to tell us that not only is prejudice alive and well, but it is applied to people well beyond the categories allegedly protected by law -- the biases Randy Newman meant to expose in his song Short People. He goes from "Short people got no reason
to live" to "Short people got no reason to love."

Now isn't that the story of all of us?

Indeed, in this arena George Orwell is famously misunderstood about his grasp of the political weight -- in the broadest sense -- of language. He explains this in an essay I give to read to every reporter I hire: Politics and the English Language.

Let's break it down another way. Prejudice (from the Latin prae-, before, plus judicium, legal proceeding) is, in essence, to judge before the facts are in for reasonable evaluation.

We all prejudge many things. We prejudge that there will be a tomorrow because there was a yesterday, for example, even though strictly speaking we don't actually know there will be a tomorrow. That's a reasonable prejudgment, nonetheless, since experience provides us a mountain of facts; but it's what Francis Bacon called an incomplete induction, even if it is the basis of science.

With people, however, especially people who are not like ourselves, of whom we don't really have a huge experience, or whom we don't really know, we develop biases. We are even biased for or against people we know well: the favorite child or niece who is always expected to get A's or the spouse or lover whose thoughts and next word we sometimes think we know.

The problem with voicing or acting on these biases is that they can be mistaken and that someone will get hurt as a result for no good reason.

Can we reasonably hold it against (or in favor of) someone being born into a rich family, with a constitution that tends toward becoming overweight, possessing gray matter that spins at many terahertzes faster than the average computer chip, let alone characteristics such as color, ethnicity, sex or national origin? (We do know, don't we, that "race" does not scientifically exist?)

Can we be so certain that what we intuit or guess -- and I am an intuitive, say the tests -- is correct enough to risk causing another person pain? Even if it were correct, would it be worth it?

Just because being overweight is a factor in disease and even death, does that mean that people who are heavy deserve to be called names? Has anyone lost weight, become beautiful, smarter, whiter -- characteristics associated with success -- because of insults?

The term "politically correct," however, in its post-Reagan-Thatcher usage is all about ridiculing these questions as inane.

The concern about the alleged shackles of keeping to what's PC is really about denying that our societies remain mired in prejudices, biases and discriminatory speech and action -- it's too "PC," after all, to note that women earn less than men or blacks less than whites, and that this is not just happenstance but by social design.

Yes, and it's too PC to note that tall, thin people fare better in the job market, therefore financially, therefore romantically and generally in many aspects of human fulfillment. The tall, thin guys -- and I'm tall -- get the bucks, the gals and the happiness. Or was Robert Redford, as a star, plump and short? Isn't Danny DeVito cast as merely a modern buffoon?

That is why I am less concerned with whether something is politically correct than whether it is philosophically true and valid. There are no prejudices that are ever fully acceptable to any thinking group of human beings.

We should be curious and brave enough to submit all our prejudices to critical reason, and our reasons to our heart and our hearts to purity of will.

(This post is retroactively part of Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Genevieve's post about the cheery subject of her death put me in mind of so many songs by French (and other European) singer-songwriters of note (cantautore, the Italians call this kind of artist), to me more valuable than a mere vocalists. The European version seems timeless.

Leo Ferré, for example, the perennially balding singer and songwriter whose work went back to the 1930s and whose whose favorite of mine was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, Les Anarchistes (The Anarchists)
Y'en a pas un sur cent et pourtant ils existent
La plupart Espagnols allez savoir pourquoi
Faut croire qu'en Espagne on ne les comprend pas
Les anarchistes


Qu'y'en a pas un sur cent et qu' pourtant ils existent

Et qu'ils se tiennent bien bras dessus bras dessous
Joyeux et c'est pour ça qu'ils sont toujours debout
Les anarchistes

(Barely one in a hundred, yet they exist.
Most Spaniards well know why
they must believe that in Spain they're not understood ...
the Anarchists.

They are barely one in one hundred, yet they exist.
They stand arm in arm
joyfully they are always standing for their views.
The Anarchists.)
Think of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia -- in my opinion the 20th-century's best nonfiction work in the English language -- and the song will immediately make sense.

Or then there's Maxime LeForestier, more of a Boomer contemporary, with a folk sound. I fittingly came across his recollection of childhood called Marie, Pierre et Charlemagne, playing in a music store the day I heard my paternal grandfather, a beloved companion in my early childhood, had died.

My favorite of his is La Rouille (Rust)

L'habitude nous joue des tours :
Nous qui pensions que notre amour
Avait une santé de fer.
Dès que séchera la rosée,
Regarde la rouille posée
Sur la médaille et son revers.


Moi, je la vois comme une déchirure,
Une blessure qui ne guérira pas.
Notre histoire va s'arrêter là.
Ce fut une belle aventure.

(Our habits turn us around:
We who'd thought our love
had the strength of steel.
As soon as the dew dries,
see how rust is posed
on the medal and its reverse.

Me, I see it as a tear,
A wound that will not cure.
Our history will stop there.
It was a beautiful adventure.)
You have to pronounce "adventure" the French way, always stressing the last syllable, adventure, to make the rhyme work.

Then there's my favorite Italian cantautore, Ivano Fossati, who sings about boats and the sea and not feeling like going to war and, sometimes, just about a night in Italy. I discovered him in my grandmother's birth place in Northern Italy, when I went there with my then 11-year-old son. Then one night in Rome I went for a walk and I felt the song resonate
È una notte in Italia che vedi
questo taglio di luna
freddo come una lama qualunque
e grande come la nostra fortuna
la fortuna di vivere adesso
questo tempo sbandato
questa notte che corre
e il futuro che arriva
chissà se ha fiato.

(It's a night in Italy when you see
a slice of moon
cold as a blade
and as large as our good fortune
the chance of living now
in this time that skids
this night that runs
and the future that arrives
goodness knows breathlessly.)
The list would not be complete without Juan Manuel Serrat, the Catalonian cantautor, who sings of everything, of Spain and Moors, of wheat fields and of love. He became famous during the 1960s, daring to push the envelope under the Franco regime.
Uno de mi calle me ha dicho
que tiene un amigo que dice
conocer un tipo
que un día fue feliz.

Y me han dicho que dicen,
que dijo que se tropezó en la calle
con un sueño y se entretuvo,
y desde entonces no estuvo
para nada
ni para nadie.

(Some guy in my street has said
he has a friend who told him
he knew a man
who was one day happy.

And I've been told that they say
that he said he stumbled in the street
with a dream and he reveled in it
and from then on he wasn't in
for anything
or anyone.)
What's really most enthralling about all these musicians is the timelessness of their music and their words. Some use touches of rock, like Serrat, but most do not; Ivano Fossati's music is jazzy, then not.

Many have songs that start out sounding as if they were classical instrumental pieces, then burst into words. Occasionally they've put famous poets into song, notably as Ferré did with Paul Verlaine and Serrat with Antonio Machado.

The only North American near-equivalent is Joni Mitchell, who has played with music as well as lyrics and transcended genre.

They are all modern troubadors, some (like Serrat) under censorship or (like Ferré) against the current, singing of their times, their loves, their people ...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Don't We Solve Problems?

Feeling discomfort, fellow citizens? Do you feel a mild pain in the Congress and bloating in the White House despite unappeased hunger for competence and forthright leaders? Does the news cause belching, nausea or heartburn? You need a therapy with a low risk of sexual side effects.

In a recent post my fellow blogger Jen asked "What does keeping people homeless do for our country? What benefits exist by choosing to allow this to continue?" The same could be asked about every pressing social and economic need -- there are many and deepening since this century began.

Jen spoke from a ground-level on-the-front perspective I don't have. I was drawn in by her comment that she and her colleagues work tirelessly to help the homeless and "one day we pull our head out of our asses and wonder what has happened, why no difference has been made." Her head, in my opinion, has been in a much more savory place than she believes.

The problem is that there's always a dichotomy between doing and policymaking. My perspective as an active observer of the policymaking process is very different. While I know someone who knows many of the homeless people in my city by name, I prefer to deal with homelessness by reporting on policy and its undergirding.

So here's the wonk wannabe short answer to Jen's question: homelessness, the millions who have no access to preventive health care, the millions more who are getting a deficient education, the millions who are losing jobs to India and China and so on, all of it, is part and parcel of the way we do things in this and other countries -- in brief, the system.

Homelessness was huge in the 1930s, retreated in the 1940s through the 1960s, began to climb as a counter-cultural phenomenon and a side-effect of Vietnam (ever notice how many are [black] veterans?) and became ubiquitous again when Ronald Reagan essentially gutted the public mental health system.

Much the same cycle can be seen with respect to manufacturing and other well-paying jobs and the state of education. In the matter of health, Harry Truman proposed a plan that would have put us on a par with Britain's excellent system of socialized medicine (I lived there), but the American Medical Association and the pharma industry blocked it.

In the 1920s we had an excellent clean, non-polluting system of electrified rail transport in many large cities. General Motors bought out the transit systems and transformed them into a diesel-guzzling combustion-engine only, second-class transport for the poorest. Now you can swim on the polar ice cap.

The top 1 percent of our socioeconomic ladder, which starts at a lower dollar figure than most educated people think (download this), control well over half of the nation's assets (this is wealth, not just income). They are in a position to make the vital decisions; if anyone benefits from the present state of affairs, they do -- and since George W. Bush seized power, they have, beyond belief.

What's the problem? We have a formalized civil and political democracy, but we completely lack democracy in the economy.

Unless you work in a union shop, you essentially work in a dictatorship in which whoever owns or runs the workplace can essentially control your life for whatever portion of your time you are selling. Similarly, unless you are a millionaire (what am I saying ... a billionaire!) and you can afford to buy votes in Congress, the voice your vote gives you is probably about a tenth of its relative demographic weight, which is small enough already.

What do the powers that be gain from homelessness? Very little, directly. But indirectly every homeless person is a walking advertisement for what can happen to you if you choose to rebel at the workplace or the ballot booth.

The system runs on the anxiety that if you do not keep your place on the rat-race treadmill, you will fall behind. Moreover, the pace of demands -- or speed of the treadmill -- increases all the time; they keep convincing you to buy homes, cars, iPhones that we simply "must" have. If you stumble or -- heavens forfend! -- fall, it's your fault and you don't deserve help (see this post).

So the first thing that strikes me as individually actionable is to remain strong, serene and unrattled. Opt out in small ways and eventually you'll manage things that are large. Reconsider the plans you made, the things you thought you needed.

The second thing we can do for this society is to rediscover the meaning and value of solidarity, as a community of purpose and feelings.

In this I am often envious of women, who tend naturally, it seems, to intermingle and support one another in a very altruistic, yet most often practical way. Men are more often lone wolves who live in distrust of one another -- for good reason.

Women in the helping professions -- including human services, Jen -- are often ridiculed by the conservative attempt to suppress altruism in the name of fighting so-called "political correctness." To unstintingly encourage ("good job") and see the positive in other people ("we are all special") may sound cloying to those who would rather think about themselves, but at the heart of it is the key to our collective salvation from the mire of death, war, famine and pollution -- the four horsemen of the false freedom of conservatism.

As Benjamin Franklin warned at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Thirdly, I think it is necessary for the more wonkish among us to trade places, even on a temporary weekend basis, with the hands-on helping professionals -- and vice versa.

There ought to be some kind of community service requirement for the vast army of political aides and consultants who are behind the politicians -- I would exempt the politicians on grounds that to them it would become a mere photo-op. Aides in Congress who think a tax break will really be meaningful for poor people ought to know some.

Similarly, the doers don't get off scott-free. As a professional observer, I often attend conferences in which people who genuinely do good all year round attempt to discuss the problems and the solutions. The naivete is charming, but no wonder the conservatives have been winning. Folks in the field need to do the occasional congressional internship (a state legislature or city council internship would do) -- or at a policy research and advocacy group -- to see just how many eggs have to be cracked to make policy omelet.

Change takes both study and action.

Recently I attended a meeting at which I found someone who seemed to combine the best of both worlds: meet Minnesota Sen. Tarryl Clark (D-Dist 15), a former executive director of the Minnesota Community Action Partnership, elected to state office in December 2005.

She has experience in nonprofit poverty assistance. When she got into office, instead of grandstanding she went and dusted off a set of socioeconomic goals that had been adopted and promptly shelved -- and she insisted on having the law followed. She's so well liked -- and frankly, impressive -- she was elected majority leader.

Here's a relatively new face to watch: someone who has hands-on experience and shows a keen grasp of policy as well.

The present time is seeing a surge -- to use a phrase in favor at the White House -- of people coming together to challenge the status quo in a comprehensive, coherent and united way -- a surge against everything Bush stands for: more and more of the worst of the worst.

In the final analysis, the best answer for why we don't solve problems is that we don't collectively have the will to do so.

We like our things and the imaginary status they convey. We really think that work redeems us instead of merely being a way to survive and just occasionally express meaning. We really have bought the myth about individuality to the disregard of our essential need for one another.

We need to begin caring for all of us, together.

New Word

The principal benefit of having an inflammation and allergic reaction that left me literally needing a hand was that the friend who lent the hand also gave me a new word: dysthymia.

Pronounced, against every instinctive impulse of mine, dis-THIGH-me-ah ("You say dis-thigh-me-ah, I say dis-thee-me-ah..."), it refers to a low level, high-functioning form of depression (see here).

How do I come by this piece of information? Six months ago or so I was given steroids to help fight off the effects of an allergic reaction to a prescribed anti-inflammation drug. One of the perils of being generally healthy is that when you get sick you don't know what pharmaceuticals your body doesn't like.

Now I knew steroids from reports about sports figures using them illegally. Myself, I recoil at the idea of taking an aspirin for a headache.

So there I was with the top sports stars and -- wow! -- it was like I was on my third cup of coffee all day long. I was punning like a pro, smiling at and seeing insights in everything and at my charismatic best. (It's not blowing my horn to say that I have a modicum of charisma, but this was charisma ... on steroids. Hey, it really was!)

People noticed. I had never been this lively. It was distinctively me, but like a me that had emerged from under water. But then I began to be on the down slope.

That was more familiar.

In my history there was a very cheerful child who never cried and always smiled until I was about 5. Then I changed into the largely solitary, melancholy, ruminant proto-blogger I've been all my life.

Courtly and charming on the surface, repressed underneath and -- alas! -- never successfully so over the long term. In the wash my monsters come out and I'm a pain.

But what if I had dysthymia, as my friend (a certified and experienced therapist) said? What if the happy person who delights in charming others for the love of life, the one who lurks beneath the surface, can be brought out?

OK, now I've been diagnosed with dysthymia and I'm taking a pill that was supposed to help the real me, the me everyone likes, emerge.

For the first month ... nothing much, I felt. Not like steroids.

But I hadn't been down. I told the nurse who called that I didn't feel much of a change; then I said other people say they've seen a difference.

"Oh, they've noticed!" The jaded, flea-bitten me wondered what her cheerful tone meant.

Now I've noticed. I'm not on the unsustainable steroids high, but there seems to be a safety net to my moodiness and my anger. I go down so far, then it fizzles out. I let it go, then I bounce back up.

Science has been telling us for years that everything we value about ourselves, our personality, our presumed "soul" or "spirit," our individuality -- all of it -- are really a bunch of chemical compounds. Now that the evidence is in front of me I don't know whether I like the conclusion or not.

I would prefer to think otherwise.

Yes, I have not become president of the United States, nor won the Nobel Prize for literature. But in some small ways I've battled against the obstacles of life and won my small victories. Part of that comes from the person I have chosen to be.

Or so I thought. Now, I don't know. Except for one little hint.

Unaccustomed to taking daily medicine, I forget to take it at least once a week. The first couple of times this happened it was an unmitigated disaster. I was a bear just out of hibernation, hungry and in a bad mood.

But more recently, a day or two accidentally without pills no longer triggers Mount Vesuvius. My therapist friend says that it's the cumulative effect of the drug.

My therafriend is wrong. I think I have somehow "learned" to dim the lights of my own worst side. But, OK, just to be sure, I'll get up and take my pill now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

That 70s War Is Back

The year 2007 feels, as Yogi Berra put it, as deja vu all over again. Specifically, it's somewhere between 1971 and 1973. The country as a whole is fed up with a foreign military entanglement. The Democratic Congress is mired in its speech-infested swamp. The Republican president is lying and stonewalling. Remember?

One ... Two ... Three ... Four,
We don't want your f*cking war.

Somewhere between the May Day 1971 demonstration and the beginning of the televised Watergate hearings we hovered in an endless conflict in which -- whatever the purity of the original democratic impulse -- our national behavior negated its purpose and worthiness.

In the case of Iraq, of course, the whole thing was a charade from Day One. Democracy? Specious. Weapons of mass destruction? False. Al Qaeda link? Totally made up. Profits for Halliburton and the defense industry? Ding, ding, ding!

Back then, Henry Kissinger memoed Richard Nixon that beginning a withdrawal too soon would become like "salted peanuts" to the American people (imagine Henry the K with his paw deep into a snack bowl in the Oval). Last Thursday the foreign policy furies -- the K himself, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisers all -- warned ominously on Charlie Rose about sudden moves.

Surprise, surprise, the negotiators proposed negotiation.

Remember the K's "peace is at hand"? Days before the 1972 election -- the one Nixon didn't really need to burglarize the Democratic National Committee to win but did it just for so -- Henry the K is negotiating with Le Duc Tho and he lets the phrase slip to reporters.

Little chance of that repeating itself. There's no adversary to negotiate with and there's no re-election (um ... re-ballot box stuffing) to win.

The Bushies -- as even they call themselves in Justice Department memos, we now know; you saw it here first (see this post)-- think if they can keep saying "Al-Qaeda" and claiming that things are just like an open-air market in Indiana, we'll pin a medal on them. They're wrong.

Still, there'll be hell to pay for when this one winds down.

Oh, maybe the worst won't come to pass. Maybe left to their own devices the Shiites (how close to a curse word that name!) and the Sunnis (did any of them go to school in New Paltz?) will get scared out of their wits that they'll really have to kill or be killed -- and decide to go for a truce.

Or maybe not. Anyone remember Yugoslavia, where there used to be a strongman dictator. He died and ... um ... what happened again? Ethnic what? Ah, yes, cleansing. So hygienic.

What we should've done is stay the hell out of Iraq. Shoulda, woulda coulda.

Now we're stuck with the mad logic that if our troops stay, more of them will get killed for nothing of any value to us. Certainly not to keep the price of gas down.

On the other hand, if they leave, there's always the chance of a bloodbath in Iraq, revolts in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and Iran eventually getting the idea to stabilize the Middle East by dropping Da Bomb. (Ya think they don't have it already? I've got a nice bridge in Brooklyn for you at a rock bottom price.)

Of course, there's always the office pool concerning when U.S. troops will march into Iran. Who knew? I just found out about the pool: I was more inclined to bet on Syria being next.

It would almost be easier to declare Iraq a U.S. territory. We couldn't: that would be colonialism.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

My Virginia Boycott

First it was Herndon, now it's Prince William County. The Virginia yahoos are out with their pitchforks and getting inane local ordinances passed to vent their anti-immigrant spleen. How original of the cradle of slavery and Jim Crow!

My response? I will stop spending a penny in Virginia (just across the river from me).

I urge all who live too far from the Washington area to stop buying anything made in Virginia. That means the following:
  • No U.S. tobacco products unless labeled as made with tobacco from somewhere else.
  • No Virginia hams; Kentucky makes better ones.
  • No Virginia wines. This shouldn't pose too much of a challenge.
  • No Virginia airports. If you come to Washington, make sure you do not land in Reagan National or Dulles Airports, which are both in Virginia -- try Baltimore-Washington International, instead, which is in Maryland.
  • Refuse to do business with the Pentagon or the CIA at their headquarters -- in Virginia. Both have offices in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
  • Contact Virginia public officials informing them of your decision to cease contributing to Virginian xenophobia and racism:
  • Pass it on!
PS: Read a Washington Post story, one of many, here; go here for a taste of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Spineless or Uncaring?

Recent experiences reporting in Washington leave me with the uneasy feeling that some pretty influential Dems have grand plans for their own careers, but don't really care about what happens to the rest of us after the 2008 election. Of course, the GOP has nothing to offer beyond 2008 but 1909, so it's not much of a choice.

Democrats have been exploring ambitious grand agendas in Congress and on the think tank circuit. Yet when it comes to pass legislation the results are iffy: witness five months to pass a no-brainer like the first minimum wage increase in a decade and still counting on the time it will take them to show some spine on Iraq.

If you're anywhere on the inside-the-Beltway policy scene, you get to see among the Dems a lot of slap-happy politicoes who are feeling that come 2008 they'll once again have august titles in the executive branch and work in Federal style buildings with huge rococo windows behind them. Yet asked pesky pertinent questions about real human needs, they don't seem to have given them much thought.

The hundreds of millions that will be wasted on the coming presidential campaign is shaping up to be about jump-starting the careers of Dems and sending the Repubs back to trading bonds in Gucciland.

The reporting on which these feelings are based hasn't yet seen the copyrighted light of day, thus I can't discuss specifics. Even then, I make my living as a journalist, not pundit. Yet speaking from deep in my heart of hearts, I am getting uneasy with the way things are going.

2008 threatens to become the rise of the Republicrats.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Heart's Reasons

Blaise Pascal's best known epigram is "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas" (the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing). The thought was intended by the mathematician-philosopher to question how we know what we know.

This comes to the fore as a result of recent disagreements with a friend who calls herself a cyberette. She posits vast judgments of cultures and people based on snap impressions, long held biases and, frankly, clichés. To be fair, I am not the very model of the modern major mathematician myself.

More important than the personal epistemologies of two cyberfriends is the reality that most of us face this fork in the road of our thinking at some point.

In Western societies the traditional view since the ancient Greeks has been that reason is orderly, trustworthy, Apollinian, a solid foundation for all that is legal, moral and cherished -- and predominantly male. In contrast, feelings are messy, deceptive, Dionysian, the swamp that swallows up all human order -- and predominantly female. In the Sixties, this was the philosophical undergirding of the struggle between the straights and the freaks.

Pascal, René Descartes and other predominantly French architects of modern rationalism were touchstones to the later British Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume and John Locke, whose very words echo in documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Ever since, we in the United States have had a government that purported to be devoted to the rule of law -- albeit bent to favor the privileged. Such law has been fashioned through processes thought to be rational.

Congressional committees hold hearings in which supposedly the salient relevant facts are presented and, based on these facts, laws are drawn up. As a veteran observer of committee hearings, I can assure you that the factual veneer is very thin. By and large, committee staffers pick and choose witnesses to produce testimony that will lead to predetermined conclusions.

In the last Republican-dominated Congress stacking hearings was a practice so rampant and unbridled that it fed the considerable acrimony across the partisan aisle. The Democrats are no less prone to stack, but I have noticed that they carefully invite the token witness or two to speak for the other side -- something the goose-stepping GOP could have done at little strategic cost and considerable gain to comity.

More to the point of knowledge and whence it comes, Congress often authorizes "demonstrations" or experiments to test whether a policy that does X would yield result Y. While this may work in some limited contexts -- weapons testing comes to mind -- in broader contexts demonstrations actually show the fatal flaw of all U.S. politics.

Our political system is philosophically skewed in favor of rationalism, or the aura of reason, under the Enlightenment-era assumption that "all reasonable men" will ultimately agree if they can only be presented the facts.

This, in turn, assumes that facts, or the results of independently verifiable observation, are kernels of truth. However, most "known facts" are miles away from truth.

Take the fact that the U.S. economy added 132,000 jobs last month. There are ample reasons to believe this number, an estimate based on surveying, is not accurate. Indeed, the April and May increases were both revised for a net gain of over 200,000 jobs and, as a result, June's increase may actually be a downward trend (at least until the June revision).

The honest truth is that we don't really know exactly how many people are employed. Statisticians can make educated guesses at best.

That's where a middle ground between empirical fact and irrational feeling emerges.

Philosophers have long known that intuition is a way to grasp knowledge by comparing two ideas without rational inductive processes. You know something makes sense or it doesn't and you can usually explain it by reference to previous experience.

Granted, one of the common fallacies that arise from intuition is generalization, the projection from the particular to the general.

Yet in Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena, for example, we find intuition in logic and mathematics.

Carl Gustav Jung, in his 1921 work Psychological Types, was the first psychologist to focus on intuition as a form of human perception. Unlike the philosophers, Jung describes the place of intuition functionally. Intuition is an auxiliary to thinking, helping to relate the rational to the irrational through an internal focus. In the same way, sensation aids feeling through its scanning of the external world.

It has only been in the last century that the potential complementarity between reason and feeling has been explored. There may be few facts and even these may not amount to truths, yet intuition allows the mind to check for consistency with reasonableness and common sense.

The heart's reasons entail something considerably more complex than the mere displacement of formal, organized thought in favor of unabashed, unkempt feeling.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Singleton Paradox

Are you as surprised as I am to learn, as I did from the Online Etymological Dictionary, that the first documented use of the word single, in the sense of an unmarried or unattached person, dates back to no later than 1964?

Other modern variants single-parent and singles bar are attested in 1969. Back in the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh, the term was singleton, attested in 1937, per the online dictionary, a serviceable electronic alternative to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology on my bookshelf.

Clearly, there's a change of attitudes involved.

In the 1930s and earlier, the people who came to be called as singletons were regarded also as spinsters and old maids if they were women and bachelor or stag if they were men. After a certain age, perhaps the late 30s (when women face what one of my favorite singing folkies, Christine Lavin, called the "biological time-bomb"), they were both regarded as odd, often deemed to be closet homosexuals, whether or not they played for the other team.

Yet here come the Boomers in the 1960s and their single years, and -- kazaam! -- it's suddenly a new state associated with the setting of seduction in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

In search of a new word, the older one serves best. The purpose of the search is to define a concept a friend brought up, the notion of singlehood (attested here on 2007?) as a positive, as a circumstance defined by other than un-something.

My friend declares that she is a happy singleton. At middle age she confesses she never had a boyfriend. Considered entering a convent until she decided that she could be single without having someone bossing her around.

As for sex, she never felt any need for "all that." I admire what I recognize as an honest, principled stance. She said she would like to start singles clubs that weren't about meeting someone of the opposite sex.

However, as I discovered, she cheats: she lives in the bosom of an extended family, next to siblings, married and single, and nephews and nieces, all of whom apparently care for and undoubtedly express their caring in ways uniquely meaningful to one another.

The reason most singles go to dances and clubs is the absence of precisely such a community of caring, which brings on various aches and itches.

There's the obvious itch of sex; I believe she doesn't experience it, but such a situation is rare in my experience. Then there's the ache for the warmth of another human being; we are mammals, we need a touch, a hug. Lastly, and not least, there's the hankering for conversation with a peer (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).

While I earnestly appreciate my friend's view, which echoes recent comments on Thailand Gal to the effect that she is no longer interested in sexual relationships (or the other team), there remains the matter of finding the balm for what are very legitimate aches and itches.

Volunteering, for all that it does fulfill psychologically and what some call "spiritually," is not the answer. When you go out and focus on others you do forget yourself and feel exhilarated to discover that you have more to give than you imagined. Then you come home and there is no one there with whom to share your high.

The monastic communities of Christianity, the ones I know best, were -- in part -- attempts to envelop single people in the purpose of giving themselves over to others and Someone. On the whole, my experience tells me that they largely failed. In place of affection and touching, they put prayer and states of "spiritual ecstasy" -- forcefully banning "particular friendships" in the convent or monastery.

One need not read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose to know that monasteries are beehives replete with the capital vices -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Hell knows little that is worse than a monk wronged.

As a modern alternative, a number of people I know have also evolved long-term relationships in which neither moves in with the other, yet each remain available to one another. This is becoming quite common.

Others have developed a family of friends. This is not my forte.

Still others claim -- note my skepticism -- that there really are such things as cybernetic "communities."

All in all, not a single satisfying one (pun intended). There needs to be a positive restatement of the singleton state as a way of living that need not be merely not something else.

Here I get stuck.

Why? Because it comes down to the essence of who we are as individuals, which is the paradox stated earlier in developing my ethics of survival: we are utterly alone, yet we cannot survive by ourselves. (See here and here, among others; or click on the "ethics" topic.)

The Irish rebels known as Sinn Fein (literally "we ourselves, often translated as "ourselves alone") are themselves now trapped in the maws of the human paradox as they engage in power sharing with the Unionists.

Perhaps that is the singleton paradox: to be alone with others. Or not.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Falling Slowly

This is a media experiment, on the theme of the last post.

A special live performance by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of "Falling Slowly" at the LA press day for the film Once.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Once is not enough

The weekend so far has been spent in a sleepwalking reverie of singing in the streets of Dublin, inspired by the independent film Once.

A few tidbits that won't give it away for those of you who haven't and absolutely must see it include
  • The ever-pleasant, unplastic beauty of European film faces.
  • The wonder of Dublin's bay.
  • The ever-present bleakness of Ireland and the British Isles.
You have to like music -- and you will if you didn't -- to appreciate this mildly autobiographical short story put on film about a singular musical affinity between a man and a woman.

The trailer and publicity attempts to cast the movie as a romantic story, a chick-flick (a genre I happen to like), with the slug "How often do you find the right person?" The film's title is supposed to be the answer.

In my opinion, it isn't -- you'll have to see it to test my view against yours.

What I got was the intrinsic value of having something deeply in common with someone else, feeling attraction, enjoying certain things together, all without dwelling on matters such as making hot monkey love -- or the consequences thereof. I was reminded of intense friendships I have had with women whom I never even kissed.

Some were very lost souls. I tend to collect them.

I remember a weekend in Montreal with a fellow student who was temporarily homeless -- actually locked out. We went everywhere together until her housemates got back. I didn't have a girlfriend at the moment -- I was new in Montreal -- and there might have been an attraction but neither of us made that necessary move. We ran into each other in hallways and on the streets after that, but never reconnected.

Also in Montreal were the months I spent going to the movies and ice cream shops with a young woman who was very pregnant and staying in a home for unmarried mothers-to-be. I knew her brother incidentally but we clicked and went everywhere together with nothing more affectionate than a hug. Then she delivered, her boyfriend reappeared from AWOL and she went off with him into what I surmised would be an unhappy sunset.

Susan remains to me a blonde, very pregnant young woman with the sweetest of smiles on a face that stretched too-long and yet was too unfurrowed for her manifold problems.

It's the sort of thing that happens when you travel. On a ship, you dance with someone, even the slow dances, and back home she runs to her boyfriend. On a plane, your father has died and you hold hands for half the trip home with a total stranger you will never see again.

It happens when you're young and you go to coffeehouses where poetry is read. It happens when you try out a new religious movement. It happens when you visit family friends in London and the oldest daughter seems perfectly in synch with you for one great day that you remember for years, with even a song for it.

That's the other thing: get the music after you see the film. Listen to the lyrics and they will all ring true.

So, I confess, I couldn't stay away. I went to see the film Friday and went again Saturday. Because once is not enough.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Street Cents and Uncommon Sense

A wiry light-skinned African American man wearing tan pants, what looked like a pressed, clean shirt and a natty cap came up to me to sell me a newspaper, Street Sense. It's a newspaper written by and sold by homeless people in Washington, D.C.

The man explained the paper to me -- I had heard of it; in fact, someone I know had been a volunteer copy-editor of the paper for a while -- and I saw he had a picture ID badge hanging from his belt, just like every preppy congressional intern in town. The price is a dollar, "but anything else you can give, or even nothing at all, is appreciated." I gave him five bucks.

Then I kicked myself.

After decades of railing against the Protestant work ethic for the way it breeds anxiety, invidiousness and antipathy among peers, self-righteousness and unbridled materialism, I'd been easily won over by the image of someone presenting himself as performing the quintessential American sacrament: pulling himself up by his bootstraps. "A hand up, not a hand out."

It's the very idea I normally find detestable. How did I get suckered in?

I know full well that the sour fruits of the work ethic are the legacy of the Reformation. Pace Protestants: this is not a religious argument, but merely a restatement of historical context.

In the "dark" and benighted Middle Ages of Europe, as in antiquity, everyone pretty much worked as little as they could. In pre-Reformation Europe, the richest were not the most hard-working (not that they are today, either). Work, people believed, was an unavoidable consequence of the loss of Eden: "With labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life" (Gen. 3:17).

Work did not bestow status in the medieval social structure. Everyone worked as befitted their station in life and work rarely yielded social mobility. (Before we get too high and mighty about those backward medievals, ask the American working poor whether this doesn't happen here and now.)

Work was merely part of the curse of being a limited human with a life that was, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short.

Yet even Marx and Engels recognized that there existed a two-sided social compact prior to the industrial revolution (see vol. III of Das Kapital): the peasant worked, the monk prayed and copied books, the lord of the castle protected the community. Sure, it was better in some respects to be the lord, as always; but the lord had obligations and when he egregiously neglected them, the peasantry revolted.

With capitalism and industry and its Calvinist religious ideology (see Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), however, came the social notion that effort begot success, which in itself was a sign of divine favor. Those who were wage-slaves rather than investors had only themselves to blame, the conventional wisdom concluded; and all the more so those who didn't even have jobs.

This is precisely the view into which I was gently suckered by the Street Sense hawker.

More accurately, he and I have been subject to such a steady stream of social propaganda that we have given in. He and his associates have taken on the trappings of entrepreneurship -- the clothes, the badge, the pretense of selling a product. For my part, I could see myself in an imaginary Dickensian role: I'd toss him a copper smiling benignly, then utter in a kindly but smug tone, "Here you are, my good man."

After all, he looked so clean and honorable and hardworking.

What if he hadn't? What if he had smelled? What if he had been leprous? Would he be less worthy of a smile or a contribution or a moment of attention? (I've been told by people with some experience in this matter that most begging is an attempt to make human contact.)

Do we live to work or work to live? Do we work hard, because the work fulfills us or to have things that will make us feel more important, good, good-looking, better than others? Does all this striving give us joy? In the end, we have only one life (as far as I can tell, I won't get into a reincarnation argument). The life we know has limits. Is it to spend most of it acquiring things?

If we were, for an instant, to assume that poor or homeless people choose their lifestyles, romping happily through their slums and sleeping on grates in the enjoyment of bacchanalian freedom ... what would be so wrong about choosing not to work, not to live with a roof over one's head, not to follow social etiquette or fashion, not to bathe or live a middle class life?

I will provide grist for an answer with a story told to me by an old Italian.

One day there was a young man fishing by the pier. An old man sat next to him with his rod and his bait and shook his head.

"Ragazzo," the old man asked, "what are you doing here whittling your hours away?"

"What should I be doing instead, old man?"

The old man stroked his beard and replied, "Why, you should be in school."

"Whatever for?"

"So you could learn your lessons, graduate and get a job."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"So you could then get the hand of a beautiful young maiden, marry her and have many children."

The young man looked alarmed. "But why would I want that?"

"Well, then you could be sure that you would be cared for in old age."

"What for?"

"Ah, that's easy. So you could eventually be like me, retired and out fishing all day."

Then the young man smiled. "But, sir, that's what I have been doing all morning."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Real 4th of July

George Bernard Shaw once said that "patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." In that debunking spirit, I would like to re-examine the Fourth of July.

First of all, it should really be the Second of July.

It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress approved a resolution "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." This is known as the Lee Resolution, approved July 2, which later formed a part of the larger declaration written by Thomas Jefferson between then and the 4th.

Second, even Jefferson's declaration is riddled with inconsistencies.

In speaking of "one people" dissolving bands with another, Jefferson was merely speaking of the very few represented in the Congress. Purportedly the aim was to form a society in which "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," borrowing the thinking of John Locke (see The Second Treatise of Civil Government, especially chapter IX). However, the consent of the governed was sorely lacking.

North American colonial society consisted in a variety of strata, starting from the bottom,
  • Native so-called Indians, whose lands had been stolen and who were about to be pushed out further and further out west until they were decimated.
  • Slaves imported from Africa, traded for molasses and ultimately rum, treated as chattel.
  • English colonists who came without wealth or title and whose passage was paid for by indenture as quasi-slaves, subject to a similar range of abuses as slaves, albeit with the legal right to release from this state after a fixed number of years. (Early plantations were worked by white indentured servants, not African slaves.)
  • Free women, whose right to property and economic independence of any kind, was severely limited.
  • Craftsmen, farmers and small merchants, who were largely subsistence workers free to ply their own trades, but from the assets point of view, they owned little or no property.
  • Large and wealthy merchants, ship-owners, bankers and landowners.
Only the very last stratum was represented in the Second Continental Congress, whose declaration Jefferson drafted. Its members were the only ones whose undisputed right to vote and to decide was respected from the beginning.

All men -- and the slave-owning and -mistressing Jefferson did mean only men -- may have been created equal, but thereafter quite a lot of inequality had seeped in and the august fathers of the so-called "revolution" were giving little thought to reversing the process.

To be fair to Jefferson, his own first draft of the declaration contained a denunciation of slavery, as follows: "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." (In this he was also consistent with Locke, see chapter IV of the Treatise.)

His colleagues in the Continental Congress suppressed the anti-slavery clause.

Third, as to the grievances, these propertied muck-a-mucks were complete liars.

No other province of Great Britain had self-governing local parliaments. Every single one was expected to quarter soldiers for the common defense and they were expected to pay taxes for the same.

The charge that Britain had abolished freedoms in Quebec ("For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies") was utter nonsense. The British Parliament had in 1774 established a charter of rights guaranteeing, among other things, the practice of the Catholic faith in Quebec -- which was more freedom than was then available even in England, where Catholic worship remained illegal and Catholics were still denied the vote.

In citing Quebec's alleged loss of freedoms, along with which went the expansion of the borders of the province, what the Continental Congress was cleverly disguising was a justification for an American land-grab -- one which was attempted militarily and failed at Quebec City.

The land grab was again attempted in 1812. Laura Secord, the Massachusetts-born daughter of a loyalist, is widely remembered in Canada as one who warned the British of an imminent American attack. Every Canadian city has Laura Secord chocolate and ice cream shops to this day.

The class system in all the British provinces was as stratified as in North America. What these American upstarts, who were largely descendants of disinherited younger sons of the nobility, were really after was a peerage and realm of their own without interference from their elder brothers.

In sum, it was the blood bath of the Civil War and the struggles of the feminist and civil rights movements that have extended U.S. civil liberties, to some extent, to parties the so-called founding fathers never envisioned, or never explicitly took action to treat equally. Inasmuch as civil liberties were never extended, despite the struggles of unionists and other reformers, to democratize the economic relations and powers between citizens, Independence Day celebrates a travesty.

A group of slave-owners and investors too cheap to pay taxes to pay the soldiers who were defending them cooked up a rigged system that for more than a century gave them and their heirs untold privilege in the guise of liberty for all.

They are still at work today, in the likes of George W. Bush and many others who stand for white, male privilege in the guise of freedom; who defend profits for the predominantly rich, white, male company directors of interlocking corporate boards at the expense of the lives of poorer, younger, less privileged men and women suckered into volunteering in a reverse-jihad for oil; and who would rather pauperize and enslave the world than yield a single penny or cede a single inch of power.

That's the real story of the Fourth of July.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Better Talking Heads

Staying in Washington when Congress goes home provides those of us who regularly observe the process to see what is usually excluded from public discourse. A case in point were the July 1 editions of two of the canonical "talking head" shows on Sunday morning television, ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Meet the Press.

These influential interview and panel discussion shows are must-see TV for Washington wonks and wannabes. News of the following week often enough resonates with the echoes of denials and reactions to statements by administration and congressional figures on these forums. The panel discussions often shape the thinking of time-pressed policymakers.

For example, inside-the-Beltway watchers knew Thomas Eagleton's goose was cooked when -- despite George McGovern's "1,000 percent support" -- a Democratic National Committee member told reporters on the Meet the Press that the Missouri senator should resign from the 1972 presidential ticket.

Nonetheless, these shows are pretty staid affairs, replete with men in suits trading conventional phrases. The interviewees are pros at dissembling and spinning and the panelists on the discussion round tables are the same tired pundits of always.

Imagine my surprise, then, on a sleepy Fourth-of-July weekend, to find George Stephanopoulos fielding the first all-female discussion panel I can recall. (See the video here.)

Here we had a female power team:
  • Cokie Roberts, NPR reporter, and as daughter of the late Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs and his wife Lindy, former Congresswoman and U.S. Ambassador, a hereditary Washington insider;
  • Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic Party presidential campaign operative who unmasked George H.W. Bush's affair with State Department bureaucrat Jennifer Fitzgerald, Bush's denial of which I have never believed;
  • Ruth Marcus, the Washington Post's reporter covering the Supreme Court; and
  • Bay Buchanan, sister and former campaign manager of Pat Buchanan.
Admittedly, Buchanan amounts to scraping the bottom of the right-wing pundit barrel, but what can one expect on a slow weekend? Besides, Buchanan acquitted herself reasonably well as the voice of hard- ... OK, fanatical ... right-wingers.

Certainly, she's several notches above Charles Krauthammer, a Uruguayan-born yet bizarrely anti-immigrant hard conservative columnist who never misses the chance for a shot below the belt at his political adversaries. Bay is also plausibly more consistent than George Will, a grand salon conservative infamous for his Greco-Roman quotation researchers.

This was not all. The all-woman team scored presciently well and offered breezily fresh ideas.

Meet the Press, the staider and original of this kind with a TV history reaching back to 1947, offered two views and faces rarely seen on mainstream television:
  • David Brody, reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network; and
  • Tavis Smiley, Public Radio International's talk show host and recently the moderator of the Democratic presidential candidates' debate before an African-American audience.
Brody hinted at likely challenges from unnamed evangelical leaders at the Republican convention if Rudy Giuliani makes it -- something no one in the mainstream press has even whispered about.

In discussing the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Smiley became the first commentator to address the elephant in the room: Clinton, if elected (hell, even if nominated), will be making history. As will, more obviously, Obama.

Tim Russert, who hosts the show, would not be moved from the conventional dime. To him, Clinton has an "advantage" as a woman in a field of men.

What if we always had a variety of pundits, instead of just the white, male, centrist or conservative suits? What if a real diversity of opinion were aired every week?

Then we would never get back to business as usual in Washington.