Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Generations

My older son, as some of his generation have, opted to take on some form of service, in his case as a teacher in an impoverished urban pocket, when he came out of college. He came out of that experience hating the educational bureaucracy. It was enlightening, therefore, to hear from a teacher who "could be their mother" talk about these young people, their promise and their challenges.

Like her, although I am not yet in the oldest generation, I am in the position of possibly being the parent of the younger teachers of today's children. It's that stage of life in which you are at the top of the hill: you can see clearly birth, youth, adolescence and young adult striving; and you can also see, through the travails of parents and other older relatives, the journey involved in what I have begun to call "growing down."

You know a lot of things merely from having been around the block a few times. A Spanish saying captures it best: Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo (the devil is wise because he is old, rather than because he is diabolic).

There's always the temptation of the more grizzled generation to criticized the callow one.
Young people today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much in company, guzzle their food, lay their legs on the table, and tyrannize their elders.
The words first came to my attention when I was a teenager, sick of my parents' generation's criticisms. They are attributed to Socrates.

So imagine how refreshing it was to hear first the positive, then criticisms that sounded all the more valid, given the context. Clever, gracious or probably both. The young teachers, the experienced educator said, have fresh ideas. They are open to trying everything.

"Some things I wouldn't have thought of myself," she admitted. Of course, others fell quite flat for predictable reasons. That's where the valid criticism arises. As she put it, "They feel entitled to be heard, without having to listen."

What else would children of Boomers be? If Boomers felt entitled, imagine children raised by Boomers in rooms full of trophies given out because "everyone is special."

A week ago, I encountered this mixture of promise and challenge while covering an event at which Kaya Henderson, Vice Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, was presented as an alumna of national service. Like my son, she taught in the public schools of South Bronx.

Henderson is part of a new wave of municipal leadership in Washington. Without going into details of only local interest, she serves Mayor Adrian Fenty, a recently elected young man in a hurry, who in turn appointed her boss, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, as part of Fenty's attempt to make his own mark: to fix the D.C. public schools.

The schools are in disrepair for the majority. However, both my sons went through them and were admitted to top universities where they did not struggle unduly. Still, the D.C. educational bureaucracy seems as dysfunctional in Washington as in New York.

Henderson and Rhee bring energy. As Henderson explained it, for the first time making clear to me what their strategy is, Rhee and Henderson are trying to bring about change by populating the top levels of the school bureaucracy with peers who are national service movement veterans in hopes of shaking up the system with their zest.

Time will tell whether this is the hubris of Generation X (born in the United States between 1965 and 1976) or, as my teacher friend said, one of those new ideas worth trying.

For the moment, Henderson impressed me as a can-do person. One who seems to have her heart in the right place without the Boomer ideological baggage.

"In the back and forth between [President] Clinton and [House Speaker] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004," wrote Barack Obama of Boomer politicians, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage."

Unapologetically, in my blogging hobby and personal life, I am quite ideological. To my mind, ideologies are what you develop when you organize what you experience and learn in a systematic way. Ideologies shouldn't be dogma -- which is the real unmentionable Achilles' heel of my generation, many of us are way too categorical, even about being laid back.

In this, the Gen-Xers are freed. Those who are not the reputed slackers of social lore make a virtue out of eclecticism.

Still further, there are the younger youths, the 76 million people of Generation Y or Echo Boomers or Millenials or the Internet Generation, born since 1976 up to about 2004. These are the teachers of whom my friend could have been a parent, the generation of my sons.

It is too early to say very much about them, but they inspire in me a lot of hope. Their tastes tend toward multinational and multiethnic fusions. They seem best represented to me in the French film L'Auberge Espagnole.

They may seem a bit over-entitled, I agree (you could also read it as having very high expectations). They also come across as overly cautious, forever carrying a bottle of water lest they ... gasp! ... dehydrate. I actually almost died of dehydration and I don't carry around a bottle of water.

But they are freed from prejudices that still dog my generation. To them, to be gay is something like preferring blueberry to chocolate mocha at the ice-cream store. They don't see skin color. Men and women are just about the same, although we'll find out what happens when they get married and begin to have kids in large numbers.

I still find their taste in music unpleasant. I'll never genuinely like or understand hip-hop. However, I have taken a shine to some songs -- the quieter ones -- by alternative rock groups, such as the Canadian group Barenaked Ladies, the Irish Cranberries, and the American Five for Fighting and Counting Crows.

Most of all, behind the air of jadedness there's an earnest desire to do better than their parents. We've left them plenty of room for that.

When I finally begin coasting down the other side of the hill, I feel, the world will be left in good, if occasionally picky, somewhat overconfident, hands.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Free Speech at Columbia

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, spoke at Columbia University with thousands of protesters in attendance. Spurred by comments by my blogosphere friend Chani, I got into a decided difference of opinion with Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt. Rather than clog Lipstadt's blog with an argument from a nonscholar, let me respond to her response here.

In brief, Lipstadt had berated a student who supported the presence of Ahmadinejad, arguing that it was a good way for students to become informed. From what I have gathered from her blog, Ahmadinejad's cardinal sin in Lipstadt's book is hosting and encouraging a Holocaust denial conference.

I responded:
You're on the wrong side of freedom in this one, sorry. Barring someone from speaking at a university is precisely what the Nazis would have done -- and did.

Ahmadinejad is not as simply reduced to five points as you did. He represents a form of anti-Semitism that is quite different from European hatred of Jews, that is in part related to some versions of Christianity -- about which all of us in the Western world are familiar.

Asian anti-Semitism is a phenomenon all its own. You find it in the Arab world for obvious reasons, but you also find it as far away as Japan and China. Iran is situated in the middle of Asia and Ahmadinejad's mixed policies reflect a straddling that requires some mental gymnastics to understand, let alone perform.

You can read U.S. newspapers and still be left empty. Students are well served by exposure to this peculiar form of odious speech. To beware of it, to understand the subtleties of the adversaries of our way of life.

What is the difference between your denying him a platform at Columbia and his denying you one at his Holocaust denial conference?
Lipstadt graciously replied:
I never said my list was complete. Believe me I know it is not but I wanted to keep it simple for this student.

Your comparison to my wanting to "deny" him a platform to the Nazis is staggeringly off base.

First of all the Nazis [and the many many professors who supported them] did not just deny Jews platforms at universities; they fired all of them [prior to killing as many as they could].

Unlike Ahmadinejad, these Jewish academic had not attacked anyone [verbally or otherwise]. They had not called for Germany or any other state to be wiped off the face of the map. They had not denied history. They had not jailed academics who they believed challenged the regime. They had not arrested women for smoking in public. And so forth and so forth.

Denying a platform to Ahmadinejad as a head of state is completely different than denying him a platform because of his faith or ethnic identity [which is what the Nazis did to the Jewish professors].

Finally there is no difference between him denying me a place at his Holocaust denial conference, except that he would not invite me to his conference and I would not go.

What you seem not to grasp is that Holocaust denial is not a "point of view" or a "lonely opinion." It is based on lies and distortions. Why would I go to a conference which was based on falsehoods? It would be like going to a conference which argued that men were inherently to women or whites to blacks or….

If you have any questions about that familiarize yourself with David Irving v. Penguin UK and Deborah Lipstadt at www.hdot.org or take a look at my book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.
Setting aside issues of the he said/she said variety -- I will grant Lipstadt that one can never outline one's thinking on complex issues fully in a blog -- I find the substance of her reply wanting and her rebuttal imprecise.

Denying the Holocaust is, first of all, silly. Of course the Holocaust occurred. One might as well question, as Macauley once jokingly did, whether Napoleon existed. However, denying the Holocaust, even with malice forethought rather than merely stupidity, is not identical to advocating it (although many deniers do), or being morally or psychologically capable of replicating it (although some deniers suggest they are).

Here's where the free speech problem begins.

No one is asserting that Ahmadinejad should be granted the right to fire Jewish professors at Columbia, much less kill them all after squeezing the last bit of useful physical labor out of them under inhumane conditions.

Thus, although we all know what the Nazis did to Jewish professors, barring someone from speaking at Columbia is not appropriately compared to the entire Holocaust. It's only comparable to the censorship of academia (and other sectors of society) imposed by the Nazis.

The Nazis denied Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Romano Guardini free speech in their preaching and teaching, precisely because neither one accommodate his ideas to the Nazi "new order." What happened to either Bonhoeffer (who was killed) or Guardini (who was removed from his chair) was immeasurably less than what happened to their Jewish peers in death camps. Similarly, Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia is much less than what Nazis did at death camps, too.

Speech is either free for all, even -- or perhaps especially -- for those with whom we disagree, or it's not free at all. A university in which the spectrum ideas to which a student is exposed is limited to what professors think is within a pre-determined correct range ceases to be a place of learning and becomes merely an institution of indoctrination.

I understand the vehemence of feeling against Ahmadinejad. I applaud the protesters (who are exercising their right to free speech). I understand Lipstadt's assertion that Holocaust denial is not merely a "lonely opinion"; to me it is a fool's errand often carried out by people with malicious intent of the worst order.

Yet bad ideas, lies and distortions are never satisfactorily answered by muzzling them. Like pus in an infection, they will ooze out or spread. They are only properly replied to with good ideas, truths and accuracy in the open marketplace of ideas in which speech is free.

This is what scholars such as Lipstadt have done in their admirable public rebuttals of deniers such as David Irving. It puzzles me to see such a noble figure take up the wrong side of free speech as the weapon of choice.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Live, Give Life, Multiply

Dicebamus hesterna die ... when I first began my series on ethics, the main point was to underline that the source or foundational basis for norms need not be, and historically has not been, a divine being whose very existence I seriously doubt, but the universal human imperative to survive. In examining my proposed decalogue, we have reached the point at which we touch upon the subject of norms concerning life.

Put simply, I argued and continue to argue, good is whatever enhances the prospects of my survival and bad is the opposite. The corollary to "my survival" is that I could not have survived the first few years of my life alone, would not likely be able to survive in the style to which I am accustomed by myself and it won't be long before I will once again need to be nursed until I die.

We are all accustomed by movies and television to think of the "thou shalt not kill" imperative as involving a tawdry city murder by a jealous lover, a jilted husband, a betrayed conspirator and so on.

We are less accustomed to think of war as wrong. Indeed, our government makes every effort to enshrine Horatio's encomium to the young -- dulce et decorum est pro patria mori -- in advertising that simulates video-games. (Anyone who remembers the 1992 film Toys and is aware of the astoundingly successful 2002 PC war game America's Army will no doubt marvel at how life imitates art.)

Not only that, but no one ever considers elbowing someone in the subway or dropping a snotty word to the bus driver who is running late to be "killing."

Yet I meant to include both ends of the spectrum when I changed the Mosaic injunction into something broader and more appropriate to the ethics I am proposing: thou shalt not diminish the life of another human being.

Whenever we make life miserable for someone else, for even one second, we have stolen a possibility of joy that is irreplaceable. That second will never come again, that chance at some semblance of happiness is gone forever. We have killed that person for one moment.

Of course, those who know me will wonder where I get off spouting this proposition. Dismissive words? Moi? Guilty as charged. (Although I would still maintain that some things -- let those who have ears hear -- deserve to be dismissed.)

An ethical principle is not false merely because I fail to observe it from time to time. Enhancing, protecting, giving life is still the human imperative -- and every diminishment detracts from our collective and individual survival.

The wisdom of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose proto-gay lib motifs are today all too obvious and uninteresting, is that, indeed, we do disfigure ourselves with our killing.

Our sarcasm turns us eventually into bitter prunes, our bullying weakens us, the hunger we inflict on others when we eat their rice bowl fattens us to the point of diabetes, the war and ravaging we inflict turns us into animals and the people we execute haunt us.

Taunt, prejudice and deprivation are all merely prolonged forms of premeditated murder. Most of us, I would argue, partake of these. Similarly, through our taxes we wage war and execute.

No one is pure any more. In Christianity, Augustine of Hippo called the condition "original sin"; in Hinduism and Buddhism it is simply referred to as awareness. When we become self-aware we become moral agents, enmeshed in our foibles and co-conspirators in the foibles of the society we choose to live off and in.

Let's turn this inside out and stress the positive.

To live is the only way we can continue to be moral agents, human. (After we are dead, who knows? The body is certainly gone; the "soul," which I am increasingly convinced by personal experience and what little I know of science is merely a compound of chemicals, returns its matter back to the universe. Most of us, I'm told, becomes nitrogen.)

To make life enjoyable, worthwhile, dignified enhances one's own life by enhancing that of others. To find ways to settle disputes peacefully and to reconcile criminals with society challenges and develops our intellect and makes us better people.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Elephant in the Blog

As I begin to write this, there are 176 comments to my post on Monday, the first 20 or so more or less in response to what I wrote, the other (amazing!) 150-something representing digressions upon digressions that have taken on a life of their own.

Fascinating to watch, although at first a little scary. The vehemence of the messages had the ring of insanity that people I know detected right away. "Crazy shit" one called it.

But then it became interesting to watch, to wonder how soon they would tire of going endlessly in circles round the same non-issues.

What drives people to such obsessions? Who are these people? What do all these messages tell us about them? Why are they not tired of this after four days?

Let's look at the data.

I counted 75 discrete commenters, including 27 Anonymouses. Among these Felicity gets the gold medal for the most comments (44), although several seemed to be continuations of the previous one the minute before and perhaps should have been grouped as one. RNM, whose vehemence and persistence in debating Felicity persuades me must be Rachel herself or a very close surrogate, comes in second (34).

Assuming that the ubiquitous Mr. or Ms. Anonymous is not one person, no one else came close to commenting even 10 times -- Wombat (if all the variations are one person) came close (6), then Alex Fear (5).

I know for a fact that three commenters, plus myself, are American. One is Australian, One French. The rest, by their syntax, their spelling and their references to British arcana, are most likely Brits.

Thirteen commenters I either know or more or less safely assume from their nom d'internet, to be women. Only five are identifiably men -- one by his pejorative reference to women.

Observing the hours comments were posted reveals something else. Overwhelmingly, the comments came in between 4 am U.S. Eastern Standard Time and 6 pm -- that's between 10 am and 12 midnight London time.

There was fairly heavy traffic for what would be 10 am to noon for the Brits and then it picks up again around 4pm to 6pm, British time. Obviously many commented from work -- or are they all unemployed?

Another thing I know from the logs is that the bulk of visitors from Britain came from servers in towns that are from about north of London to somewhere in the Midlands, although there are a few aberrant Ulster folk out there. Clearly, all small town folk who are bored to tears watching the rain fall.

The truly amazing thing reading through these comments is that they are so repetitive, so artless, so concerned with minutiae of little or no transcendence.

No one will be converted to any great new ideal by these comments -- sorry, Alex. Nor will anyone gain an insight worth remembering.

Some writers display flashes of cleverness. I particularly liked some of the nicknames. My personal favorite: "My 9/11 is bigger than your 7/7." A few others were bitingly funny.

On the whole, however, there was a tad too much trite whining and loads of absolutely boring faux legalese. Lighten up, folks!

Importantly, aside from the principals involved (and even then the tiff borders on pointless obsession), these issues have no real impact on the personal lives of the commenters. Certainly not on mine.

Someone blogs about you and you don't like it? Ignore it or blog back. Someone e-mails you and you don't want it? Delete it, filter it out and so on.

People who get riled about these things need to take a deep breath and repeat after me: "This is just a hobby." Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat three times. Feels better, no?

What is it about computers that induces this kind of behavior?

I write pretty much the way I speak. Most of you would not like me and -- surprise! -- I probably would not like you.

But I sense that some of the nonsense posted here by the commenters goes way beyond what they are accustomed to saying to someone on the street. For example, how many commenters would really go around referring to women as "tits" in the presence of women capable of beating them up or, at a minimum, shaming them?

Nonetheless, thank you all for providing a window into cyberobsessions that I never imagined existed.

I'm sure also that American visitors were also enlightened as to the appalling lack of liberties in Britain -- my sympathies. As you rise and I go to sleep, rest assured I will honor your U.S. constitutional right to rant. Let the circus continue.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Brightest and Best?

In recent weeks, I have been crossing paths with have been and wanna be Clinton folk who, true to what they have always been remain for the most part intellectually dazzling wonks. Hearing them again, as confidence builds that the future is Democratic, I was suddenly reminded of what I didn't like about the 1990s.

Few people who observe U.S. presidencies closely enough will dispute that William Jefferson Clinton was probably the brightest White House resident in the last half century or so. To go to a seminar to listen to Laura D'Andrea Tyson, former chair of Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, or Robert Rubin, Clinton's former treasury secretary, provides the kind of brain food that compares easily to the caloric content -- and delight -- that comes with chocolate chip ice-cream.

One should note, however, that the runner in the presidential brains department was unquestionably Richard Nixon, demonstrating that intellect doesn't necessarily make the best of presidents -- or of people.

In fact, Adlai Stevenson (don't gape and say "who?" -- look it up) learned, as did "Clean Gene" McCarthy, that the U.S. American body politic is notoriously anti-intellectual. Wonks come up with intriguing ideas, but not necessarily solutions.

In politics ideas have to survive the compromises and Hillary Clinton's defeat at health reform is a classic example of complex thinking failing to muster votes.

In recent weeks I have run into Clintonites more obscure than Rubin or Tyson who have unwittingly reminded me what I didn't like about the last Clinton Administration and raised my fears about the putative next.

Put simply, you could describe it with the motto "It's the arrogance, stupid."

At a recent public forum, one former official described a set of social programs with which I happen to be intimately familiar as unqualified failures. I went up to him afterward to ask him for the basis of his characterization and I got the following answer:

"When I was Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy," he began, capitalizing the initials in each part of his former title with the inflection of his voice, "I read many, many reports."

Would he be so kind as to name one?

Since I had missed the cornerstone of his argument, he replied "In the White House, I was brought extensive reports."

Ah, I see, merely by sitting in a White House office in the light of those enormous 18th-century windows and in possession of an 8-word, initial-capped occupational title, knowledge just seeps into your brain, as if by osmosis, and renders your judgments infallible.

Someone should tell the pope.

This man is one of the thousands of obscure policy influencing figures so cozily ensconced in think-tank sinecures that require only repeating "regression analysis" over lunch every day and unlikely to be selected for a repeat performance. Yet his hunger for it was dripping from his sleeve the day I spoke with him.

Oh, to be in the White House again!

After several such encounters in more recent weeks, I've suddenly found myself hitting upon what appeals to me about Barack Obama and send shivers up my spine about Hillary Clinton. It's not just that New York's junior senator might lose to Fred Thompson and stick us all with eight more years of the present nonsense.

A future President Clinton she brings in tow the whole rafter of admittedly brilliant cadres. They fueled the happy days when peace was brokered in Ireland and Yugoslavia, when the stock market tripled in value and when anyone with a pulse could get a job with a good salary. All granted.

But they also failed to prevent a hypocritical bomb-thrower like Newton Leroy Gingrich from forcing poor women with children under the age of six to go get dead-end jobs and scaring millions of others off the one program that once eliminated hunger in the United States, food stamps.

Hillary Clinton now talks as if she has a plan for everything. She probably does. Good plans, too. But can she win and get them through with a bunch of weenies whose hubris is showing more than a year before the White House becomes vacant? Do I trust the former "Goldwater Girl" to show herself to be from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?

Obama, who is charismatic, has at least the decency to admit that he doesn't know everything. That he is willing to listen and negotiate. That he is not a Boomer stuck in 1965 -- as admittedly I myself am on some days.

That's why, for all the aura of inevitability around Hillary Clinton, I'm not counting Obama out.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

Felicitous? -- A True Fable

Once upon the blogosphere there were two Englishwomen. One was a youngish wannabe member of the chattering class and the other was a somewhat older reclusive sort with an active imagination and sense of pique.

Let's call them Rachel Whatzername (I'm told she sues people who use her actual name but go here for hints) and Felicity Jane Lowde (who actually goes by her own name).

They had what Brits call a "row"(pronounce "ow" as in "owl"). Anywhere else it would have been a catfight. Meow!

Rachel has parlayed her claim to deep psychological scars from the London bombings of July 7, 2005, into a quasi-celebrity newspaper status in Britain, along with a column in The Times of London and a book whose launch party she has apparently postponed for reasons unknown.

Never heard of her? Neither had I. Someone could pull out the drain-plug that keeps England from sinking into the ocean and I, at least, wouldn't notice.

Not the Brits, of course. Someone else over there, namely Felicity, seems to have taken exception to Rachel's parlaying tragedy (actually a smallish, copycat 9/11-ish event, but with only 52 dead and all on surface transportation) into a PR bonanza full of emotionalism for fun and profit.

Here's Rachel's version and here's Felicity's. More or less.

It seems that Felicity thought that the physically unharmed Rachel, who was apparently somewhere about a block or so from one of the explosions, was a poseur. Claiming to be a researcher with "Special Branch" (a quasi-espionage unit of the London police), Felicity began to protest that Rachel protested too much.

Rachel began to portray herself as cyberstalked and roused a campaign of fellow Brits who raised the alarm. The salts! The salts! Mommy, mommy -- they would say "Mummy" but it sounds too silly -- someone is blogging nasty things about my blogging persona.

Brits used to be a lot more dignified. Before the bathos over the death of Princess Diana -- a talentless bad imitation Isadora Duncan if there ever was one! -- the much ballyhooed stiff upper lip did at least spare us the sight of people with sallow skin crying and despoiling the environment with millions of wrapped flowers.

(Note to emoters everywhere: take the paper and cellophane off the flowers you leave in public pseudo-shrines; the flowers will bio-degrade promptly and cleanly.)

Back to the cybertiff ... it doesn't end there.

The Rachelists managed to denounce what they perceived as malodorous blogging and, using some British law that muzzles opinions (I knew there was a good reason for the American Revolution), got the police of Oxford to go after Felicity and arrest her after she was tried and convicted in absentia. She was imprisoned on June 5 and released Sept. 6.

Sounds like out of the Middle Ages, complete with witch-hunt.

Frankly, I have no idea whatsoever who is telling the truth and it really doesn't matter. Rachel might well be trembling in a corner at the thought of Felicity blogging somewhere about her and several of her male fellow bloggers. Felicity may also well be as crazy as a loon -- although in this case, why not compassion and treatment rather than jail?

A pox on both their houses insofar as their original feud.

But jailing someone for blogging seems to contravene Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, of which last I checked, the United Kingdom is a signatory member. It reads
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
There's actually some sort of court muzzle in the U.K. on both Rachel and Felicity in this matter, as Felicity is appealing her conviction.

I'm writing about it freely under the theory that Britain will not extradite me from the United States for making well-deserved fun of the antics of her citizens and police. In the United States, opinion is protected speech. I am writing within the medium in which both Rachel and Felicity have sought to lead more or less public lives about writings that are extant in this medium.

My opinion, in sum, is that the whole thing is a complete waste of time, police resources and technology. If these two women would find their way to kiss and make up and the police to apologize and somehow compensate Felicity ... I'm expecting too much.

As an uncle of mine used to say, men and women are the worst people in the world. There is no exception in the blogosphere. Unfortunately.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What Is To Be Done?

With this title, given to a pamphlet on revolutionary strategy by Vladimir Ilych Lenin, memo writers everywhere (notably me) have amused their peers in multiple ways. In this instance I am using the title to respond to a question posed in response to my post Why Don't We Solve Problems.

Jen, you surely recall, asked "if caring for each other is the answer, what do we do next collectively?"

Did I want to call everyone to the ramparts? Would anyone come if I did? It seemed an awesome responsibility. So I dithered until, in the course of my meandering through Wonkland I came across a few ideas that make sense to me.

1. Change the Words We Use and the Way We Speak

Somebody reading this surely remembers how, after the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the term "busboy" disappeared from everyday speech in Washington. While downtown buildings were still smoldering, nobody wanted to be caught dead calling a waiter's assistant "boy," especially since most of them were black for reasons that I think need no explanation.

Similarly, do we have any takers for calling Hillary Clinton a "girl"?

Those two changes alone have not made African Americans suddenly privileged nor created a matriarchy, but they have caused people to rethink the notion of diminutives for people whose socioeconomic stature has been forcibly small.

In a similar way, it's been suggested that the way we talk about poverty -- even the term "poverty" -- focuses attention on the wrong thing. Sympathy for poor people still means thinking of poor people and their problems as something that affects them, not us, when in reality we are all in this together.

Greater poverty means greater crime, poorer health and greater inequality for all of us. You and I can become poor. We can be robbed. We can suffer from class distinctions.

Instead of poverty, we need to focus on shared prosperity. The Economic Policy Institute is devoting a series of events to developing a policy agenda about it. Shared prosperity involves better wages for all. It's about food, clothing, shelter, jobs, education and health. For everyone, in a measure that allows everyone to live a life all of us can recognize as dignified.

2. Unify to Retake Our Democracy

Today I happen to have gone to hear economist Robert Reich, secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997, make an earnest appeal to activists to stop focusing on our parochial issues, no matter how important and valid, and to unite into the grand task of retaking the decision-making processes of our society for all citizens, not just Gucci-wearing lobbyists and campaign contributors. Reich, who makes a point of bringing up his diminutive height (4 ft 10.5 in) whenever he speaks or writes, is a giant when it comes to making sense.

We can't let them (and we all know who they are) pit women against blacks and Hispanics, homeless against homeowners, limousine liberals against bus-line activists.

There will be no shelters built unless we stop burning money in Iraq. No schools built unless we raise the wealthiest people's marginal tax rate from somewhere between 15% and 35% to something closer to the 76% to 91% it was under presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower -- neither of whom were wild-eyed radicals.

Everything has to be done together, organically, with everyone pitching in the areas they can help best.

3. Participate in Healthy Criticism of the Leadership

Whether it's President H. Clinton or President Obama, the next, hopefully Democratic, president will not be infallible.

Clinton brings in tow a circle of seasoned, extremely bright people whose conversation sets the mind of anyone listening to them on fire. They can take complex problems and recast them simply, surgically slicing the Gordian Knots of policy.

But they are also a tad over-confident and last time they didn't do so well.

Obama is unquestionably inexperienced, although he has something akin to the JFK charisma on his side. Let's not forget what happened to JFK. Obama is not the only pre-primary presidential candidate to get Secret Service protection for nothing. There are a lot of hate-filled people in the US of A.

Can Obama make the spark he brings set off our imaginations for good? What if the unthinkable happens?

In either case, the next president should not get a pass merely because he or she is a Blue-State president. Democratic administrations have screwed the unions, have forgotten the Mexican-American votes they solicited and have even started stupid foreign wars.

We have to all participate in holding our truly elected leaders' feet to the fire. Make them fulfill their promises. Elect more radical folks to Congress -- instead of Republicans -- if the liberals can't get the job done.

We always live in crisis because we are always growing, progressing in our lives until we die. The next few years, for our society, could be defining moments.

Will we unite to put in policies that save the environment from catastrophe, allow a generation to retire without unduly burdening those that follow, fulfill some of the basic promises of the American Dream for all of us, behave in the world in a manner somewhat gentler than a gorilla despite our 900 lbs.?

You and I have the answer. Don't mourn me, Joe Hill said, get out and organize.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things

Setting up a new computer the past two weekends I've felt like Maria in the Sound of Music ... "when the mouse bytes, when the keys click, when I'm surfing Web, I simply remember my favorite wares and I don't feel so blank." As I attempt to rely on freeware or open source software in my new electronic universe, I'm reminded of the growing universe of unsung programmers who have given freely so much to the world.

Few people except for those who know early computing lore realize that this was the way the pioneers envisioned the future of computing, a sentiment captured by Richard Brautigan in his poem "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" from which I quote the following:
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Such sound like a fitting paean to freeware and open source software. I'm sure you've heard of the $0 Open Office general office suite, Firefox Web browser and Winamp audio player.

Let me write a few words of praise for less well-known freeware I use.

Pegasus, one of the Internet's longest-serving and most configurable e-mail programs is not idiotically simple, but it allows the user to really control every detail of incoming and outgoing electronic communications. The program was designed by New Zealander David Harris, who nearly quit his work on this gem in January 2007.

Dutch programmer Jeroen Laarhoven, from the town of Zwolle, about 75 miles northeast of Amsterdam, has given us AllChars, which provides a quick way to type accented and foreign characters such as é Ü ç î æƒ ² ‰ © £ ± ß ° 1/2 ¿ « » ™ -- all using a U.S. keyboard, which has no keys for them.

Its name a takeoff on the DOS Norton Commander file manager, which it imitates, Servant Salamander, of which version 1.52 is still freeware is a million times easier and clearer to use than Windows Explorer to manage files, copy, rename, create folders, etc. (I purchased the pay version to encourage these clever Czech programmers, but even without the newer paid bells and whistles, this is a great little program).

Marek Jedlinski, who for 10 years taught American literature and advanced translation at the University of Lodz, Poland, has given the world the very useful Oubliette, a little program that stores usernames, passwords, URLs, and free-form notes.

PathCopy is a shell extension that once installed appears in a right-click context menu when you are in a file manager. The program, developed in Denmark, allows you to copy the full path of a document or folder -- a useful thing if you're say wanting to create a shortcut or redirect something.

From Massachusetts comes Startup Control Panel is a nifty control panel applet that allows you to easily configure which programs run when your computer starts created by Mike Lin, a researcher in computational biology, what I have just learned from the Wikipedia is "an interdisciplinary field that applies the techniques of computer science, applied mathematics, and statistics to address problems inspired by biology."

Thanks to them and more. Find more free gems at Son of Spy and Pricelessware. Enjoy!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Values vs. Ethics

In attempting to define the terms "values," "morals" and "ethics," Julie Pippert proposes what I see as three normative levels: one defined by oneself, another by society and yet another by subgroups of society. She elides, unwittingly I think, the whole point of norms in moral philosophy, namely to distinguish between right and wrong.

One of the first themes of this blog was my still-unfinished series on moral philosphy. Having chucked the existence of a god or gods out the window, I turned to looking for some basis for normative ethics. I insisted, against the grain for many people in cyberspace, on a universal grounding.

I would like to suggest three problems with the definitions as given.

If a norm only exists for you, it is useless to me. We might as well all go back into the jungle. (OK, yes, what do I mean "back"?)

If a norm is what a society says it is, then it is akin to Anglo-Saxon customary law, forged by precedent rather than by principle; it can be false, misleading and ultimately immoral. How are two societies with different norms to settle their differences?

If a norm is merely a series of ideals chosen by various clubs, they might as well not exist. We all know that clubs make awards and canonize the behavior of those members who curry popularity most successfully.

The epistemology behind these propositions is that we know truth by consent and consensus.

This is not without problems. Just believing the moon is made of green cheese, won't make it so. Even if we were to agree that the earth rotates round the moon, for example, that grass is blue and that water is dry, none of these things -- understood in their everyday sense -- would become true.

Galileo was right: "E pur si muove" (And yet it moves.) The common "knowledge" of his day was wrong.

I would contend that normative philosophy attempts to discover what is truly right and truly wrong. One might question whether the proposals of a given philosophical system or thinker are correct or true, but right and wrong is an irreducible dyad. One can't be equal to the other and viceversa.

As I wrote three years ago, the universal norm of human behavior is that "all behavior that enhances my survival is good and desirable, whatever detracts from it is bad and to be avoided." At the time (amazing how quickly time flies when you're blogging!), I was hesitant to affirm it, but at this writing I am every day more convinced that this is the universal norm par excellence.

I welcome contrary opinions, although I am nearly certain this is an unassailable proposition. Not because I have chosen it (OK, I do listen to myself a little), but because in my observation it is warranted as true and factual, as well as intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Mindset Mindset

That blogs are a colossal time-waster -- if lots of fun -- can be illustrated by reference to an excellent cyberlocale called A Commonplace Book, and my discovery through it of something called The Mindset List. In the one for the class of 2008, I learn, for example, that to my younger son's contemporaries "Castro has always been an aging politician in a suit," which -- having met the man in his perennial field-green guerrilla uniform -- is a striking thought to me.

The list takes popular culture as an 18-year-old university student would know them and compares that to what an older person would know. What if we did that for generations of the past?

For example, people my age, who turned 18 in 1970, had no recollection of Stalin as a living person or of a time without television and radio. We had no real feel for the Great Depression and if we had encountered poverty it was almost surely outside the United States.

Conversely, and here's the interesting thing for people who are younger, we could not conceive of a world that was not divided into Communist and non or of a single Germany. (DeGaulle famously said that he loved Germany so much he always wanted two of them.) There you go, we could not envision a world in which DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Mao and Kennedy were not larger than life figures.

That's fine. Everyone has heard about Boomers to death. But what about previous generations?

My father at 18 (1939) would never have imagined the atomic bomb, nor a Slurpee nor a jet plane. There had only been one World War, but he had no memory of it. The word "Holocaust" would have meant nothing to him. The United States had never been a superpower -- indeed, no one even knew what a superpower was.

Compared to his father, he was completely ignorant of a world without radio or automobiles. Unions had always existed, as had the 8-hour workday. He had never heard Ragtime music.

My grandfather at 18 (1904) could not have thought a World War possible and travel to the moon was the stuff of Jules Verne's novels. European nations were governed by monarchs and Africa had always been divided into European colonies.

My greatgrandfather at 18 (1879) probably believed people who feared the death-defying velocities of 30 miles an hour at which trains and streetcars traveled. He wasn't old enough to remember slavery or its abolition nor even Lincoln's assassination, although he had surely heard of all of them. Did he know about the telegraph?

I have always been a historically minded person. To me, the evocation of a time in the past is the evocation of music, art, architecture, as well as the famous dates and names. You get into the feel of 1759, when you think of the battle on the Plains of Abraham: the mud, the carriages getting perennially stuck, the horses whinnying, the use of strong drink to allay a toothache, the expectation that life was, indeed, nasty, brutish and thankfully short.

The same thing with languages. Humor is so different in various languages that if you are really going to get it, you have to be thinking in that language.

We are defined by our limits and our ability to transcend them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Women Working

In another blog, the writer attempts to smooth the feathers ruffles in a debate sparked by one mother's take on how candidate John Edwards' family should handle parenting in the middle of a presidential campaign. The mother took a shot at Elizabeth Edwards (why not at John?) on the basis of the soundbite of her husband chiding their boy Jack -- the spank heard around the world.

Chani tiptoes into that debate proclaiming that she has never been a mother. I, too, have never been a mother, yet I am interested in and would like to say a few things about this.

Should women work?

That's the way the question was phrased before 1970, the year Sisterhood Is Powerful was first published. The presumption was that when women stay home to raise children and keep house they are not working. After all, in that context, the man came home with the paycheck.

Things changed. A little. Then a bit more.

In the Boomer generation women became lawyers and doctors and engineers and linepeople and mail carriers and miners in proportions never seen before. My sneaking suspicion, however, was that U.S. American women gained the lifestyle of the Soviet woman, who essentially had become an cash income-winner in the labor market on top of her traditional work as mother and housewife.

The mass entry of women into the labor market in the United States coincides with the beginning of a period of wage stagnation that has not yet ended. From 1973 to 2003, average U.S. wages declined by about a fifth.

Do these two events correlate perfectly and exclusively to the point that one can draw a line of causation from one to the other? Not that I know of, but the parallel is striking.

To a certain extent, I would conclude, Boomer women were taken for a ride.

Chani was smart not to go for it and decline motherhood. In my case, my now-estranged spouse chose to stay home and be an excellent mother; I think my sons are better people for it. But the path of both these women need not be the best one. It was the path chosen by women lucky enough to have the choice.

Despite the enhanced intellectual and psychological gratification of participating in the labor force, especially in a culture so devoted to the notion of work for pay, Boomer women for the most part were offered bad choices. Men on the job could turn off the home and the children; in my experience, women have not been able to and, frankly, I wonder whether they should have had to try.

We Boomers did not resolve the issues that arose out of the question we raised: Since women do work, why shouldn't they get paid, get degrees and prestige and so on, just like men?

The Generation X families and couples I have known seem to have begun the task of digging deeper. In some, the principal breadwinner is the woman and the principal nurturer, cook and household keeper is the man. Or they try shifting balances of work and family duties, since men have not found a way to undergo pregnancy or breastfeed. Not yet, anyway.

Of course, the men were born well after the precepts of Second Wave Feminism had seeped into every burrow of society.

The fly in the ointment was the twofold whammy introduced by the Reagan Era.

Social neoconservatism has been attempting -- so far with mixed results -- to bring women back to the famous three Ks of yore, kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen and church). Economic neoconservatism has fairly successfully generated a yawning divide between the wealthiest 20 percent (household income of more than $97,000) and the rest of Americans.

Worse still, Newton Leroy Gingrich's version of welfare reform, which triumphed in 1996 on the shoulders of both conservatisms I have mentioned, suddenly threw out the window the notion that mothering during early childhood -- let's say from birth to kindergarten or first grade -- is a socially worthwhile contribution deserving public assistance if the household has no other means of support.

Initially, poor mothers with children under six were exempt from work, then states began to ratchet that age down until now it has become more or less the national policy that poor women give birth and go back to their low-wage dead-end job lickety split -- or else.

I like to cite to the conservatives who are proud of compelling these women back to the workplace that no less than that wild-eyed liberal from Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, instituted a policy in the 1950s whereby the state paid stay-at-home mothers a monthly stipend. The sum was only a few hundred pesetas (a few U.S. dollars today, worth somewhat more then, but never a lot of money), thus largely symbolic.

Still, when has U.S. society ever recognized or assigned any economic value to mothering at home?

My point is not that all women should stay at home, nor that all should go hold a job. My view is that the choice should be a reasonable option between two more or less equitable possibilities. It isn't yet, although we are making strides toward that goal.

In the meantime, it never ceases to amaze me that women would put as much energy berating one of their own, instead of uniting to get the necessary changes done.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Eureka: Everything!

New, multifaceted and interconnected realizations dawn upon me at just before sunrise: why we are where we are with respect to truth. I feel like Archimedes.

The Euclidean mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer of the ancient world, was said to have run naked through the streets of Syracuse, Sicily, when he discovered, while taking a bath, how to measure the volume of irregular objects.

"Eureka!" he yelled. (I have found it!)

Yet I have not stumbled upon my insight alone. I owe some gratitude to the commenters in what Geneviève called a "pseudo dialogue" at the end of the last post. You will recall the questions about "everything."

Everything in this context is not 42, but rather precisely everything. What is everything? How does it hold together (if it does)? What limits does it have (if any)? How and when did it start (if it did) and how and when will it end (if it will)? Let's add two more, for fun: What is everything for (assuming a purpose)? Are any of the assumptions in these questions even valid?

The answer need not be God, the One -- or 42. The answer is probably huge and, once we discover it, astoundingly obvious and simple at the same time. Moreover, the answer has to be logically and intuitively satisfying.

What really struck me about this in my sleep -- literally! -- is that we are so close and yet so far. This is why we are, as a species, divided and suffering.

We are where we are today due to the way in which our globalized world is developing knowledge. (Note here, and enjoy, how perfectly this ties into Marx's notion of the superstructure of ideas, put simply, how the structure of production needed for our survival molds our philosophy, laws and, of course, our art and so forth.)

Since the dawning of the American Age in the 20th century, the pursuit of knowledge has been pragmatic. We Americans have long agreed to disagree when it comes to first and ultimate things, leaving our minds free, as Somerset Maugham memorably noted, "for important matters such as business and fornication."

In the British Age of the 19th century pragmatism was the handmaiden to reason. This turned out not to be the French goddess some thought, but the surest path to a grand compromise -- what all the muddling through is about -- harmonizing God, queen, country and, yes, progress.

Truth lay somewhere at the bottom of it, misplaced like theater tickets in a very messy roll-top desk. The British believed everything would work out in the end if the world accepted civilization (and its synonymous artifact, the British railroad).

In the Gallic age of the 18th century (or the world after the Treaty of Westphalia), critical Cartesian reason -- redundancy intended -- was, if not born, at least rediscovered. Yet the French were too busy playing naughty games in Versailles to think, thus their way of life ceased to exist.

The Spanish age of the 15th and 16th (that pesky Westphalia keeps things messy) was unquestionably an era of faith, the Catholicism of the sword and the bonfire that never doubted its rightness in attempting to defeat the humanist epistemology of Protestantism, the syncretist dogmatism of Islam and the misperceived tribalism of Judaism. The Torquemadans died of their own heroic madness.

And our era? Whose broad stripes and bright stars are those gallantly streaming? The Einsteinian molecules of uncertainty.

At the core of all the strife between Western and Middle Eastern fundamentalisms, against one another as well as against the global technology of grasping, lies the kernel of uncertainty and its ancillary, fear.

We have split the atom and found inside a new world that runs by rules unknown. We have reached the stars and stumbled upon apparently endless millions of worlds.

In the wonder and marvel of it all, we are undergoing the profound discomfort of realizing that we really know nothing for certain. Thank you, Socrates, we should have listened to you.

Paradoxically and recursively our profound ignorance makes us wise.