Friday, August 31, 2007

Thinking about Truth

We are often told that the crucial divide in today's world is between the Western scientific ethos and the Western and Eastern religious ethos, particularly fundamentalism. Yet I see, at the core, a more important division: between those who assert there is truth and those who claim there is no such thing.

In modern philosophy, it's the distinction between analytical and foundational thought.

You know foundational philosophy. It begins -- and, thought Nietzsche, ends -- with the Greeks, through rafter of Germans from the Black Forest to Koenigsburg and loses its way in the marshes of Denmark and the cafés of Paris' Left Bank.

Aristotle and the other "foundationals" viewed philosophy as the mother of all sciences, forever exploring the fundamental reasons and principles of everything. On the fundamental questions, science settled on precepts or theories and moved on, yielding Newton's slaying of Euclid and Einstein's slaying Newton and so on. Philosophy soldiered on with those questions that would have paralyzed the scientists.

We can meander from Aristotle to Aquinas to Erasmus to Descartes, Kant and Hegel to Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre and we'll see -- at least until Kierkegaard and Sartre -- a common concern with capital-T truth. It may well be a truth that is difficult -- or impossible? -- to know, but it's there, the elephant in the room.

That worked in societies in which there was a common worldview. Indeed, in the middle ages, the Catholic clerics of the European West attempted to claim philosophy's spot for theology -- unsuccessfully.

But what happened when, in the 20th century, the two powers that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in 1836 would rule the world last century -- the USA and the Russia -- proposed an ethos that involved renouncing the affirmation of a particular Truth as part of the common social knowledge?

In the West, the sole remaining torchbearer for the moment, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and Alfred North Whitehead developed a new philosophy that drew on positivism and empiricism, that turned philosophy into an inquiry of the methods of analysis and the clarification of thought, truth be damned.

The damning was not so much an ideological battle, as it was a quiet conclusion that philosophical truths simply don't exist, and that we might as well settle for checking that our thinking makes sense, is cogent and can withstand critical evaluation. This is the portal at which I find myself at the present, a good century behind developments.

I sense that the philosophy of the future will be analytical rather than foundational, assuming that neither a natural cataclysm, nor a fundamentalist dark age, impedes what seems as the foreseeable evolution of science, technology and human endeavor. It's implicit in recursive thinking and in fields such as quantum physics.

Yet I remain stubbornly a foundationalist -- and an absolutist at that. I think there is a universally valid truth, of which some truths are levels or expressions. Such truth is difficult and may be even impossible to know; certainly, I don't happen to know at this moment what it is.

At this point, greater minds than mine are weighing whether a generalized theory of everything is possible. I would propose that merely the fact that we can conceive of it means that it is.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sowing and Reaping

Mindful of a question that was asked of me in response to my recent minimalist post, I have been attempting to assess what exactly I have sowed, but this farm image has this city boy mightily confused.

My reader wrote "Et toi, qu'as-tu semé que tu puisses récolter?" (And you, what did you sow that you can harvest?).

We get this notion about cause and effect from a biblical phrase "For what things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap." Is this pastoral image true for humans as it might be for crops? What would the biblical writer have written in the 21st century? What might we write in the "bible" of our hearts?

Humans just might not seed in their lives, other than literally, in their farms and gardens.

The seeding image for human sex, for example, dates back to a biological era in which the ovum, undiscovered until the 19th century, was unknown. In the absence of the ovum, moralists, philosophers and scientists -- all men -- concluded that each sperm was a homunculus, or "little man," implanted in the soil of woman, who played an entirely passive role in reproduction. We now know better.

Similarly, it's not immediately evident that we reap what we sow in other respects. Over the past year, for example, the top 20% of U.S. earners got half of all money income and the bottom 20% got just a little past 3%. Moreover, the richest got richer, while the poorest got poorer.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told an audience of reporters in which I found myself this week that his daughters had gone to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Yet he also spoke of the poor of his city, for whom he announced a new initiative imported from Mexico, as people "who weren't dealt as good a hand of cards."

Whomever you deem the cosmic Card-dealer to be -- and I vote for humanity collectively -- it's evident that all we are and have springs largely from happenstance. We neither sow nor reap, to turn biblical again, we are like the lilies of the field.

I cannot be proud to be an American as I did not choose to be born in New York City. Any more than I chose to have parents with the means and the aspirations to see me attend university.

Nor did I choose to have linguistic abilities, nor to have the opportunity to develop them as a child, nor any number of particulars that started me off on an immeasurably higher socioeconomic plane than a child born from parents who lived in Harlem rather than Sutton Place.

I reap what has been sowed for me to reap. Gratefully. I do not deserve my good fortune. Noblesse oblige. Whatever I have suffered is, in the grand scheme of things, no more than life's hangnail.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Republicans Really Are Different

Before I get angry about poverty -- the new rate comes out today -- I want to make quick point about the difference between Republicans and Democrats inspired by the recent departures from government.

Yes, the rats like Karl Rove are leaving the sinking ship. Yes, aside from wanting to hire only Bushies, Alberto Gonzales had trouble recruiting top quality lawyers for the Justice Department.

There's an easy explanation. Republicans, who are now overwhelmingly and monochromatically mostly neo-conservatives of some sort, actually despise government and work to wreck it.

That's been essentially the deficit tactic since Reagan: create enough fiscal imbalance that the thing breaks down and all the programs are cut because "defense" (shouldn't the Pentagon be renamed "offense" or back to Department of War, at least?) is sacrosanct.

So, what honest "government is best which governs least" Republican is going to choose voluntarily to work for the gummint? Here are a few:

-- opportunists who need a job and are willing to call themselves Republican if that's what it takes;

-- crazy ideologues who convince themselves that if the gummint could persuade kids to say no to sex and drugs (bureaucrats, unlike parents, teachers and ministers are the best role models, right?) or some such project of evangelical social engineering, then ... it would be morning in America again (in the rose-tinted Elvis Presley history of the GOP);

In general, these are people who are dishonest with themselves and therefore dishonest with everyone else. You hate government? Stay out of it and let competent, interested people do the job.

This explains easily why the Repubs having, hands down, all the majority they needed in both houses last November and December, merely packed their bags after the election and did nothing.

Contrast that with Bill Clinton signing regulations until the last second before Dubya put his hand on the Bahble on that fateful January 20, 2001. Not the congressional Repubs of late 2006 ... thank Zeus!

This should explain why, for the next year or so, government will be unable to do much of anything. At this point, there's so much wreckage -- from Iraq, to a looming deficit, to the mess of post-Katrina, to (your issue here) -- that there's no more room for more.

We're not looking at the pristine surpluses Clinton left or the booming economy or peace breaking out in Ireland and even Bosnia. We're looking at sheer disaster in the face.

Hell, if there's no wrecking allowed, the Repubs just don't find governing fun.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Self-Conscious Amoebas

Knowing little about the science, but enough to understand its implications, I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that there is no free will, nor much less any individuality arising out of it. Yet I rebel at the thought that we are only distinctively self-conscious.

Everything we always attributed to the "soul," the "spirit" and that idealized thoracic muscle that beats faster when we see an attractive specimen of the opposite sex -- all that amounts to complex biochemical interactions in the brain. We are as "instinctive" as animals, responding to social conditioning and evolved genetic predispositions, as well as the immediate environment.

Self-consciousness does not seem redeeming enough. How do we know that animals aren't also self-conscious in their own way? All we know is that we are hardy, violent, we reproduce in astonishing numbers and we manage to infest any environment we colonize.

Sometimes I even wonder if we're not really bacteria in some galactic-scale organism. We might even be a cancer of sorts in some gigantic being's body or the agents of murder being sought by some humongous crime scene investigators.

I know and wonder about all this, but I don't feel it.

I remain as anthropocentric as ever, blogging about what I am thinking as if my thoughts, or the form of their expression (which is what copyright law protects), were so worthwhile as if to justify burning in minutes the remains of dinosaurs and glacial ages, that took millions of years to become coal and gas, into vast electricity generation plants, so that a server somewhere (in New York?) can allow me to create the electromagnetic impulses that configure into symbols of written language when seen by the human eye. Here I pause ... forcing the gigantic humming network to await my next word.

This is very important! These are my thoughts!

Yet in a blink of an eye I will be gone, soon enough forgotten, all trace of my existence likely erased from the face of the Earth, assuming the planet as we know it even continues to exist.

What is all this growing, striving, reproducing, aging and dying for? Only a hungry stomach, the pull of a selfish gene that commands me to feed myself, makes me get up for work, to earn the value-tokens that will allow me to buy carcasses of animals and plants that others have slaughtered, sliced and diced to suit the tastes I have developed through a complex of nature, nurture and happenstance. (Not to mention advertising.)

Sure, I like my work and my job. Really.

All told I am remarkably fortunate among the 6 billion specimens of my species. I have food, clothing, shelter and amusements far beyond what easily the 2 billion poorest people would find utterly unimaginable.

Among the tiny fraction of university educated people -- no more than roughly 25 percent even in the United States graduate from a four-year college -- I am fortunate enough to be one of the few who captains his own company. Even though I am merely a thousandaire, I have unspeakable unmerited freedom in the way I earn my bread.

Yet again, all this for what? To avoid pain? Point taken. Then what?

The only thing that comes to mind is what Aristotle found distinctive about humans. Maybe we live to enjoy our own laughter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

We All Belong in Guantánamo

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel First Circle, an officer in Stalin's secret police, unsure which of four men have tipped off a dissident over the telephone, decides to arrest all on grounds that they've surely been disloyal at some point. I'm reminded of that logic upon learning of the publication of Poems from Guantánamo, an anthology written by current detainees.

Solzhenitsyn learned the NKVD officer's logic, of course, in Soviet prison, where he ended up for sending a joke about Stalin to a friend in a letter from the front during World War II.

The notion that unjust imprisonment can be fertile literary ground first came home to me one college summer afternoon while reading a slim volume of Ho Chi Minh's prison poetry. As my father passed by, he glanced at my book and proclaimed that prison was "an excellent school." He had been a political prisoner at about the same time as Solzhenitsyn, although his letters from prison have little more than personal value.

What strikes me now, however, is not the literature but the reality of the logic of being guilty unless proven innocent. As Solzhenitsyn's NKVD officer might have said, everyone is guilty of something.

While that might not be a good basis for a legal system, in philosophical terms the idea resonates in my bones as true. All of us have contravened what we believed were the rules of right and wrong, knowingly and willingly, at some point in our lives. Most likely many times.

The men in Guantánamo might not really be menaces to the United States -- certainly no court has found them so -- but they are not innocent and the best they could hope for from a court would be the verdict of "not guilty." Not guilty as charged.

That's not innocent of all wrongdoing. Maybe some cheated on their wives or girlfriends. Maybe some swindled someone. Maybe some were bullies in the schoolyard.

President Bush also belongs in Guantánamo by the logic that holds the detainees: name anyone who has greater power who has inflicted more death and torture during his term in office. Knowingly. We know he knows because the various dissembling masks have already peeled off.

Let's not get too righteous, however. All of us are also guilty, by thought, word, deed or inaction.

There used to be a prayer in the pre-1979 Book of Common Prayer that expressed the thought majestically: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: And there is no health in us."

Even newborn babies? Absolutely. There is hardly a creature more self-centered than a newborn human. Or child. Or adolescent. Or adult.

A very young child, of course, has developed neither the knowledge nor the will-power to make moral choices. To some extent, being self-centered is a matter of survival. Babies cry to be cared for. Children make demands to have some legitimate needs met.

Yet they also make illegitimate claims on our time and resources that will not further their survival. Indeed, if satisfied, indulged children will become lazy, willful and helpless adults. We all belong in some Guantánamo or another.

All of which brings me full circle to the literary.

It is said that Henry David Thoreau, when imprisoned as a tax dissenter during the Mexican-American War, was asked by a visitor what someone of his standing was doing in prison. Thoreau asked the visitor what he was doing outside.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

August Minimalism

The last two weeks of August in Washington have always been a quiet time: Congress is gone, the president is away, the streets are relatively empty, all of which makes commuting to work and daily life a pleasure. It also induces a minimalism that may not last.

On such quiet days, one thinks one's life is placid, the major problems are far away. It is a good time to think of pruning one's life to the minimum necessary.

At least, I have always recognized that the ascetics and monastics had something right: all our hubbub and ado, all our baubles and trinkets and technological toys, all our fretting and aspiring ... all of it amounts to very little.
A Season for Everything

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" wrote Qoheleth, author of the biblical book of Eclesiastes. Unwittingly, Qoheleth also provided the Sixties band The Byrds the lyrics for a song that became emblematic at one time:
All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to destroy, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather.
A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to get, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
A time of love, and a time of hatred. A time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
August in the northern hemisphere seems the time to begin pluck up.

In medieval England, August 1 was Lammas (loaf-mass) Day, the festival of the first wheat harvest, when people brought loaves of bread to church made from the new crop. The proper, full feast of harvest (from the Anglo-Saxon "haerfest," meaning 'Autumn,' the season of reaping and gathering) came on the Sunday of the full moon in September.

In the southern hemisphere people are still bracing themselves through the last full month of winter. Planting season is not far away.

I feel it as a time to pluck, to heal, to laugh, to dance, to be silent and to refrain from embracing. Soon, as I always recall at this time of year, the travails of life will be upon me.

Tina's Prophecy

Many years ago, on a school summer's vacation afternoon, this bit of elementary human wisdom came to me when my friend Tina and I were lying on the grass of her family's sloping lawn, staring up at the sky.

It was still hot and there were bees about, but not the nasty bees and hornets of the fall yet. I must have expressed exasperation, for Tina then declared, as if with an oracle's inspiration, that the summer's bees and the heat would soon be gone. I still remember, I don't quite know why, my awe at her wisdom just a few weeks later, as a gentle breeze began to blow through our shady street and, before we knew it, we were back in school.

August is full of such golden memories. Six years ago I went to the movies with my wife, our Sunday afternoon ritual at the time, to see the film "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." The film and the walk back home was one of the last placid moments of the century so far. The following month a small band of Muslims performed several spectacular suicide bombings and the following year she left me.

Then came the autumn of my life. A time to harvest.

For now, it is still August, still full of summer, easing into the last breezy days of quiet. A time to enjoy solitude and good books and good films, sometimes with a friend.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Portal for Billionaires

While you are fretting about what happened to your savings this past month, with the Dow roller coaster, the high rollers are getting their own private playground, according to the one U.S. business news scoop I have ever seen the Washington Post get. It's called the NASDAQ Portal and it's for investors with at least $100 million to pony up; if you think that doesn't mean you, think again, your pension or mutual fund may be invested there.

This sort of thing affects all of us in more ways than one.

Starting August 15 NASDAQ has been offering certain investors, including "qualified institutional investors" under Securities and Exchange Commission rule 144A, the opportunity to buy and sell stock, commercial paper and other instruments without having to disclose the purchasers, the financial statements of the firms involved or of the investors.

Shhh ... it's a private club.

Combine that with the acquisition of Chrysler -- soon other major companies -- by an investor group in such away that it is now a private company. Let's forget all the tax dollars that went into saving Chrysler in the first place; when the taxpayer invests, it doesn't count. (Remember the Tom Paxton song I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler?)

Chrysler is only the first of several offerings of a similar sort, creating a corporate financing gated community of sorts, to which most people are not allowed entrance, even though they are affected as employees, consumers and taxpayers.

All right, I won't deny that current disclosures are almost meaningless. Nor that most balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements, while technically accurate in a murky sort of way, might as well have been written by the Brontë sisters.

The various investment markets are, for the most part, legalized gambling. Still, those few laws from the New Deal era that survived Reagan and the two Bushes, plus the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley rules, help catch the occasional egregious crook.

With the abandonment of any pretense that there is an insider elite that cooks the books and holds all the economic power, we are nakedly no longer living in a society of laws.

To put it in Dickensian terms, the law is an ass; but if you have enough money it doesn't exist at all.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The People of 1066

In these ruminations about ethnicity, I have attempted to debunk ideas about race, color and minorities, but also to include the so-called whites in the discussion, as I refuse to deny anyone standing to speak simply because their victimization bragging rights have been forgotten. This is a small effort to rectify an omission in my last post, the English.

Sing a stanza of Rule, Britannia in the shower and you won't quite feel the English deserve much coddling. It's the impression they've been busily cultivating over the centuries they confronted peoples with larger numbers and territories much more vast than fair Albion. Think of the 139 British soldiers defeating 5,000 Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift, South Africa.

Yet you'd be wrong. The pivotal nation-building event of English history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was as understated as everything English.

The event occurred on a slope surrounded by hills and forests. Historian David Haworth, in his priceless little book 1066: The Year of the Conquest, nudges the reader out of modern ideas of battle, with cannonades and great explosions, in noting that anyone as near as half a mile away would not have noticed that anything was happening. The Anglo-Saxon army consisted entirely of infantry and the Normans had only a few cavalry units. The loudest thing to be heard was the thumping of hooves, the clanking of metal and the cries of wounded men.

Deep within their phlegmatic demeanor the English harbor a hidden grief for King Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, for the Welsh and Picts the Germanic Angle and Saxon immigrants displaced to the west and north centuries earlier, and for their subjugation under the Romans.

How else to explain the oh, so, un-British flailing of emotionalism upon the death of Princess Diana, essentially a talentless pretty face tethered to a decidedly unphotogenic family?

Yes, Britain bears the historical burden of countless misdeeds. Perfidious Albion engineered the slave trade to America and gave it up only when they no longer reaped the profit. They invaded Ireland, North America, India, much of Africa and were twice the would-be conquerors of what is now Argentina. They seized and still hold onto Gibraltar.

Surely, also, not one former British colony has emerged from British rule without a hate-laden fissure -- European versus African, Pakistani Muslim versus Indian Hindu, Irish Catholic versus Ulster Protestant, Quebecois versus Anglo-Canadian. Even the Scots want independence now.

Yet what is at the heart of all this grasping and seizing of land and resources, and the accompanying dividing of others, if not an inherent self-belittling and disregard for England's "green and pleasant land"?

Living in England, I observed that the English express their priorities in their well-fed, fat dogs, who are allowed in pubs, and their scrawny, pallid children, whom they send away to school if they can afford it or notoriously mistreat at home. Is it not possible that what so often passes for arrogance is merely a resentful self-doubt, a forced shyness?

What to make, also, of a country that is gray year-round, save for those mid-year afternoons after the 3 o'clock rain in which the skies part to paint pre-Raphaelite clouds dabbed with weak yellow sunlight, an occasion the English quaintly call "summer"? Or a land in which central heating was still somewhat of a novelty even in 1980?

Shabby and unloved, mired in their muddy byways, the English deserve compassion without pity. Hug an Englishman, or woman, or one of their descendants, today.

(Note: This will be the last post on ethnicity for a while. To those who have ears, let them hear.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Who is an Anglo?

Ask "Who is a Jew?" in a circle of rabbis and you will get the kind of discussion that, as the Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye put it, "would cross a rabbi's eyes." But do that many Anglos, WASPs, the misnamed "whites" or "Caucasians," know just how much suffering is buried in the anglophone world concerning those labels?

This first came home to me as a young man, when I invited a proud-to-be-Celtic Irish-American colleague home for a beer. My boys were playing a tape of folk songs that included the classic working song "Drill, ye Tarriers, Drill," that laments the demands of bosses.

As the song replayed the refrain, this acquaintance sang along. To my horror, he replaced the word "tarrier" with "nigger." That's when I turned to him and said, "No, Pat, you don't understand. That song is about exploited Irish workers."

He gave me the Dan Quayle deer-in-the-headlights look. All his life he had thought that having pinkish white skin and an Anglo-sounding name, as many Irish names became after English conquest, meant that he was a bona fide member of the predominant and entitled U.S. "majority"!

So I proceeded to tell him about railroad chain gangs and the Molly Maguires and the whole nine yards, about how thoroughly his ancestors were once abused in the United States. This man came to admit he was racist and wrong -- more important, that he had a lot in common with the many who have suffered throughout the history of the anglophone world.

Much the same thing, but with less open acknowledgment, happened with a now-retired Episcopal priest,  a Rev. Arpee. As a geneology buff, I am always pondering the origins of family names and I innocently asked him about his, since Arpee is an unusual name with no obvious origin and almost certainly not English, as English names usually have meanings that are obvious to the historically inclined.

He told me privately that it was originally Arpinian, from -- you guessed -- Armenia. It's not the lineage an Episcopal priest would want to broadcast, given the penchant among many Episcopalians of asking individuals with a family name that is not obviously English whether they are "born and bred" Episcopalian, code for "Are you really one of us?"

To me, Armenia summons to mind the tragedy of the 1915-18 murder of 1.5 million Armenians in what is today Turkey, which the government of Turkey continues to refuse to even acknowledge. When I asked Arpee why he didn't change his name back, he brushed the question aside. Yet imagine the indignity of his father, a cobbler, fleeing for his life, then hiding who he was.

Like these two, there are legions of hyphenated Americans who "pass" for Anglo-Saxon but whose families had nothing to do historically or culturally with Albion until the Ellis Island experience.

Even Brahmin WASPs aren't WASP. The Roosevelts are Dutch and the Astors German. No educated person needs to have the Gallic origin of the DuPonts (in French "of the bridge') pointed out.

The Mellons are that curious and invented origin known as Scots-Irish. This was the predominant origin of rebel colonial America, but it was really a cover for Ulster Irish. In a few instances, it denoted an ancestry tracing back to those foot soldiers in Cromwell's Puritan army who decided to stay in Ireland after their military campaign to subdue rebels. Ulster legend has it, however, that the "Scots" part comes from (entirely mythical) Scots who, it is claimed, were the eight counties' "original" inhabitants.

This amply explains how it came to be that the Scots-Irish in America badly mistreated and discriminated against the Irish Catholic immigrants. Hell hath no fury like a feud among cousins! (If you have any doubt, check out the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East.)

It also explains why the Scots-Irish migrated to America. Most of the Ulstermen were starving and the British Crown didn't give a farthing for their fate. Indeed, many who stayed participated in the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Here's the kicker: today less than 25 percent of the U.S. population is genuinely WASP. Indeed, the "majority" is a minority!

We all know we are really mongrels of one sort or another. What we don't face up to is the vast conspiracy of silence concerning the horrific pain, in the denial of various national and cultural identities, of past injustices, in plain human suffering that so many "white" Americans have undergone.

In the family history of many of us who do not have a physically identifiable ethnic origin, such as so-called black skin, someone made the uncomfortable attempt to "pass." My own mother, on grounds that she was partly French (one-eighth, to be exact), disliked it when I began to proudly call myself Hispanic.

In turn, I don't call Anglos "white" if I can avoid it. I don't even call Anglos Anglo, if I can avoid it. So many Anglos aren't Anglo at all. Their forbears suffered at the hands of the English or their descendants, some to the point of wishing to hide their own rich ancestral cultures and languages.

Now there's the real white man's burden!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Blogging the Last Word

In the wake of the digital tempest at Bloghret, of which I became aware late, I would like to round out the argu ... um ... discussion with a few clarifications, personal insights and a general theory about what has made issues of race and ethnicity so problematic even among otherwise reasonable bloggers. Let's start with a little debunking.

First and foremost, there's no such thing as "race."

Since the 1970s scientists no longer accept race as an appropriate or useful way to describe human groupings. Indeed, in 1996 the American Association of Physical Anthropologists issued a Statement on Biological Aspects of Race that, among other things, stated the following:
Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.
Let's be specific. The members of the group most tragically identified as a "race" in the Western world, the Jewish people, are not a race as formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jews do not even share the same genetic material. Tay-Sachs disease, a devastating neurological disorder of genetic origin, has a relatively frequent incidence among Ashkhenazic Jews, who are of Eastern European origin, while it is not known to occur at all among Mediterranean, otherwise known as Sephardic, Jews.

Moreover, the biblical stories are not to be taken as literally factual. Modern archaeological scholarship rejects the notion that the Chosen People were a single group that invaded Palestine; instead, scholars suggest that the biblical Jews were really a confederation of Abrahamic heirs and the native peoples of Canaan. Karen Armstrong's 2006 book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions offers the most accessible summary.

Secondly, the 17th century division of people by skin color is absurd.

There are no whites. Most people of European background from the colder, sun-deprived climates are a whitish pink (or pink and red if freckled); Europeans from the sunny Mediterranean and Black seas tend toward an olive hue. There are certainly no truly yellow or red people. There are no blacks. The majority of people of African descent are darker than Europeans, but these are varieties of brown.

Note to skin color die-hards: the lighter skin of Europeans and East Asians was scientifically proven in 2006 to be mutations.

Much as I know these things intellectually, as an American I did not grow up immune from the social constructs of race, color and ethnicity, which lead to prejudices. Even those that are positive ("Asians are inscrutable geniuses") are burdensome.

We Americans have a long and twisted history with race, color and ethnicity that we are sometimes a little overeager to forget. Much as I try hard to forget those aspects that most rile me, I have been recurrently reminded that the ugly chapters are not entirely over.

If you saw me on the subway, you would not be able to tell from what part of continental Europe my ancestors came. However, my name is unmistakably Spanish (except to the stupid police officer who decades ago asked me if I was Italian).

Because I am Hispanic, for years even colleagues I supervised challenged my most elementary editorial corrections of their English. One memorable fellow worker insisted that the word he pronounced in his Baltimore accent as "canidate" was not actually spelled "candidate." He insisted the spelling was a Spanish-ism of mine until I brought out the Webster's Dictionary.

This pales by comparison to, say, 400 years of slavery or 12 years of near-extermination, but it remains annoying. Moreover, others who have brushed with polite versions of prejudice, such as I have encountered, have undoubtedly lost job opportunities that I was lucky to get.

In my opinion, we can't pretend that race and color, unscientific as they are, simply do not exist as concepts and motivators of ugliness. Nor can the problems be laid solely at the foot of capitalism: racial and color prejudices existed in many pre-capitalist societies, in the West and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, I would like to propose that ethnicity (from the Greek "ethnos," meaning nation or people), a still accepted if loosely used anthropological notion, is economic in origin. We humans have long chosen, largely for survival purposes, to identify with people with whom we felt a kinship of blood, historical experience or religion, and to compare our group favorably with any other. Us vs. Them.

Yet tribalism is, we must hope, dying in an interdependent globalized world. Most of us who blog no longer depend on tribal kinfolk to bring us food, protect us or imbue our lives with meaning. We communicate across oceans instantly and with equal ease across social distinctions.

Although I am of the male persuasion and done with parenting, I feel a comfortable kinship with the members of Blogrhet, most of whom are mothers in their 30s. Anyone who has read Kate Chopin surely realizes how incredible this would have been a mere century or so ago.

Grasping for the last word, through all the chagrin and troubling emotion that race and color prejudices have been and may yet be capable of arousing, I see a future that inspires hope.

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

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Rest of the Century

In the August doldrums of a Congress-less Washington, pundits who must continue filling the airwaves and putting ink on paper (or pixels on screens) speculate that for "the rest of the century" we will be combating a jihad or losing trade share to China and India or watching glaciers melt -- or whatever. Since I am not likely to be around for the bulk of this century -- certainly not to see its outcome -- I wonder what would have been said in 1907 or 1807 or 1707 of centuries whose outcomes I know.

In 1907 my maternal grandfather, as a very low-grade middle-aged poet, had composed a poem to the match; he feared its disappearance with the spread of electric lighting.

Did he imagine Hiroshima or Auschwitz? I doubt it. His notebooks show he lamented the decline of the noble steeds of the countryside, where he had grown up, and harbored some well-founded pessimism about humanity. He might not have been surprised about 9/11.

Of course, for the 20th century he would have expected progress, a word of which he was none too fond. Most strikingly, his vision of the 20th century would have been very different from a view of the 19th in 1807.

For 1807 I imagine my paternal great-great-grandfather as a young man across the ocean in one of the territories threatened by a Corsican military genius.

"This will be the century of Napoleon and war," he might have ventured -- meaning perhaps merely an imperial Napoleonic France looming over Europe -- had a television reporter stopped him in the street.

Of course, there were no television reporters, or "twinkies" as we print folk call them. In any case, his forecast would have missed the entire Victorian century and the concert of Europe devised by Metternich just eight years later -- all by miles.

Then again, would he have thought in centuries at all?

Weren't the roads he traveled on horseback as dusty in summer and muddy in winter as they had been in 1707? Had anyone he knew traveled more than the 30 miles to the nearest port that was the villagers' limit in 1607? Weren't the meals his mother and sisters prepared just as limited by the local livestock and produce as they were in 1507?

When had life last memorably changed? I know for certain his family traveled from distant lands and in 1407 would not have had that meal I just speculated about where they likely had it in 1507.

What about earlier? Did they live in roughly the same country throughout the entire Middle Ages?

If so, perhaps, to them the years 1407 and 407, when Latin was still the lingua franca (even if it was in a form Cicero would hardly have recognized), bore the same relationship that 1807 bore to 1907 or 2007.

All I know is that by 2107 people better have solved the problems of 2007, or there won't be people. I just read in the Harper's Index that this year China is expected to overtake the United States in carbon emissions; it was only in 2004 when this was not expected to happen by 2024!

Time is accelerating as my time is slowing down to a crawl.

Let me venture without risk that by 2107
  • Osama bin Laden and his pals will not be known by schoolchildren, or their parents;
  • the European Union, not China and India, will be the economic powerhouse;
  • quantum physics and astronomy combined will provide for energy needs and conservation.
And whatever will not happen. I may be wrong. So sue me. In 2107.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fools on the Hill No More

Ever since Newton Leroy Gingrich brought his schoolyard bully tactics to Congress in 1994, I had been calling the folks there the "fools on the Hill," after the eponymous Beatles song. I was building up steam to do some bipartisan clobbering in and post a scathing attack on the Democratic majority when, in the last few weeks before heading off to their recess this month, they finally got some important things passed.
Day after day,
alone on the hill
The man with the foolish grin
is keeping perfectly still
Unlike the "Nowhere Man" -- about whom the Beatles asked "Isn't he a bit like you and me?" -- the fool of the song never gives an answer and no one really likes him. A bit like Congress throughout the decades.

Part of it is that it's pretty hard to follow the antics of 535 mostly older guys who know their way around the arcane rules that allow them to do pretty much whatever they want. They can't do that? Sure they can, they make the laws; if they don't like 'em, they can tweak 'em to their liking.

This year the Democratic majority came in like gangbusters with their 100 hours of introduced placeholder bills which, in the tradition invented by Gingrich's fellow bullies, consisted mainly of catchy titles and bill numbers -- for the most part, no legislative language.

It's a trick they learned from the Republicans. You run a blank sheet through all the hoops with your majority until the "bill" gets to the floor; then you dump 400 pages at the clerk's office the night before and let the opposition burn the midnight oil, while you strategize on how to block their amendments anyway.

That's how Congress ran under the GOP majority and that's part of the source of the much storied and truly distasteful acrimony -- I always felt I left Capitol Hill with bile all over my clothes. It wasn't that the politicians were being childish, it was that the GOP ran circles around the constitutional process in order to govern as a one-party state, as every party that has come to power through a coup (remember the 2000 election?) has always done.

The Democrats have changed the feel of things. They are holding themselves to at least the letter of fiscal discipline under "PayGo" rules that require that every new expenditure be offset with either a cut or new taxes. No more Reagan and Bush deficits of hundreds of billions; you want a balanced budget, vote Democratic.

They are also being pretty reasonable about debate. When the Repubs held the majority, every hearing was stacked with witnesses who were each more right-wing than the next, and you didn't see anyone goose-step into a hearing chamber just because it's not the American style. The Democrats are smarter; sure they hold the majority, so most of the witnesses are their hand-picked folks, but they allow the minority a voice or two.

It's a debate that the Democratic majority will win push come to shove, but it's one in which liberals aren't afraid to let the conservatives shoot themselves in the foot with the facts -- because face it, it's not just that I don't like conservatives, it's that on the facts they're wrong, wrong, wrong. And they know it (which is why they didn't like debate when they held the reins).

The feel of Congress has been better. The Democrats get the coveted "can play well with others" in their report card.

But what about substance? Bush has essentially stonewalled them on the attorneys and Gonzales (see a cute column about his name here); the Democrats have gotten nowhere with Iraq.

Of course, some supporters' want presidential impeachment proceedings on reasonable grounds. After all, which presidential lie has had more dire consequences: "I did not have sex with that woman" or "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant"? Yet the wisdom of the Democrats' course of inaction becomes obvious about as fast as you can say "President Cheney."

When I was beginning to get steamed even the federal minimum wage hike -- the first in 10 years, count 'em -- was stalled.

What were these Democrats elected for, if not to show some spine?

I am mildly pleased to report now that they finally got the minimum wage through -- veto threat notwithstanding -- and the raise became effective last month. Indeed, the recurrent and fatuous warnings of the restaurant industry didn't pan out: employment in their very own food and beverage sector increased after the wage hike went into effect.

There's more, just this month they renewed the food stamp program -- OK, so they gave it a silly new name, the "Secure Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," and paid pork to some big agribusiness interests to get it through.

Just this past week they fought off Bush and the insurance lobby and expanded the state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program, which will provide free health care to an added 4.1 million poor children -- albeit using an extremely tortuous legislative method in the Senate.

This is clearly B+ work. Anyone who can't abide the moral ambiguities should not, as Bismarck recommended, watch sausages or legislation being made.

Now if they can fix some of the spending bills in September and override Bush vetoes (he wants to veto CHIP expansion, for example), I'd say these folks are no longer merely fools. They might just earn an A.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Good Girl, Bad Girl

Would it surprise you that I once believed, even as recently as five years ago, that women were congenitally unselfish? The scales have come off: women are no more selfish than men, but no less. Yet even after the women's movement the "good girl" myth (with its underside, the lore about the "bad girl") seems to shape accepted perceptions.

This came home to me in discussing recent posts, in particular one in which the blogger, a young married woman, wrote eloquently and with humor about the hazards of multitasking as a wife and mother on a day she had a motorist court date. In the asides about her husband, she made me wonder just how inconsiderate we men are.

It took the comment of a woman to open my eyes: she said that women, in general, take on the role of complaining about motherhood and housework as a kind of badge of honor. If I understood her right, it's a bit like New Yorkers who proudly boast that "da city's got da worst subways in da world!"

Now I'm not saying that all this fits Julie or her blog post. The blog just triggered a set of thoughts and e-mails that led to the notion that women sometimes push the "poor me" envelope.

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks," says Queen Gertrude to Hamlet (Hamlet, III, ii, 239), much as my female correspondent commenting about the blog post. In the play, Gertrude's remark is offered as pride before the fall, as Hamlet has set a trap in describing a woman whose behavior he will unveil to have been just like the queen's.

I set no such similar trap for my correspondent, a woman as susceptible to poorme-ism as any other, but I wondered at yet another discovery: women are as competitive with one another as men, perhaps even more fiercely so.

Perhaps I am extremely naive, or lucky, or too self-critical, or something else, or all of the preceding, but it hasn't been my experience, or at least my observation, of women until very recently. I suppose this led me to believe in the Good Girl.

You know her. She does all her homework, her room is as neat as a pin, she feeds stray cats, she looks forward to make everyone happy. (Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless.")

When she grows up she joins the Junior League, has a dignified but not cutthroat career advancing good values and community welfare, and her three dark blond, green eyed children win genuine prizes at school for academics and athletics.

Then there's the Bad Girl. You don't know her, but you may have had sex with her.

She's raunchy from the moment she becomes an adolescent, maybe at 10. She loves chocolate and moderates her consumption only to keep her figure (and appeal for the guys). She's ditzy and unaccomplished, sometimes cruel and cliquish, occasionally becomes the queen bee among other Bad Girls.

When she grows up, she either hitches her fortune to a man who regales her with wealth or she trolls for one until she is too old to find one. That's if she has not gotten married with the high school football star when she got pregnant and spent the remainder of her days in low-rent suburbs bringing him beer when he comes home from selling used cars.

OK, I got a little carried away. But you guessed: neither quite exist. And, yes, I've long been aware of the Eve-Mary archetypes and that what I have written is merely a (cheap) Americanization.

Yet I thought I knew mostly Good Girls. Or women who aspired to and often enough succeeded at being a Good Girl. Or people who could not help but worry about others more than themselves and give their all unstintingly to whatever and whomever they trusted.

Then I learned, through bitter experience that, as Rex Harrison sang in My Fair Lady,
Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through,
she'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome,
and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you...
Or rather, less comically and much less in the Victorian mode, I experienced the rude awakening that even Good Girls were not as selfless as I thought.

In long-term relationships women often enough take on the role of victim, having arranged things as to preserve for themselves the privilege of being experts in their domains, to the exclusion of men, while reserving the right to go poach in the men's traditional preserves. Then watch out: to a degree you never expected, out come the competitive, self-preserving, bulldozing characteristics you never knew lay there, dormant.

In casual or shorter-term relationships, when a man tells a woman that he doesn't want to commit, it's normal for her to "forget" he said it. Then she'll complain that all she has given is unrequited.

In sum, women are selfish, at least as selfish as men.