Category Archives: Personal

It’s Such a Good Feeling

Not too long ago I transcribed for this blog a piece George Orwell wrote for Tribune, a British newspaper to which he was a regular contributor.  Orwell had his own column in the paper which he called As I Please and the piece at issue was one that Tribune thought best captured Orwell’s character and outlook, so much so that it re-printed the piece as its official obituary for Orwell following his death, one that came all too early.

At the end of this piece, Orwell quoted the following passage from The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?  Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?  — But this is more pleasant — Dost thou exist then to take they pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?  Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to nature?

There is a modern equivalent to this passage, and it comes from everyone’s favorite “neighbor” and TV personality Fred Rogers, more commonly known as Mister Rogers.  Among the many rituals Mister Rogers used to have on his television show was the one where he would sing a little tune while he changed his shoes and jacket as he came into and out of his television home.  The songs signaled to the audience the beginning and the end of another episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and always left the viewers with a sense of anticipation — to see what would be on today’s show, and when that show was over, the one after that.

The song Mister Rogers sang when it came time to leave and to say goodbye to his audience went something like this:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I’ll make a snappy new day.”
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that
I’ll be back,
When the day is new,
And I’ll have more ideas for you,
And  you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about,
I will too.

I miss Mister Rogers, and George Orwell for that matter.

On Same-Sex Marriage

In 1952 William Rehnquist, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote a memo he called “A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases”.  At that time, Rehnquist was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Robert Jackson, and the memo was apparently addressed by Rehnquist to his then boss.

In his memo, Rehnquist mapped out his vision for how the Court should deal with a series of cases brought by the NAACP challenging the practice of racial segregation that were working their way through the lower courts and almost certainly bound for the Supreme Court.

Rehnquist, for the most part, urged restraint.  Rehnquist thought that because public opinion had already spoken on the topic of racial segregation — largely receptive of the practice — it would be inappropriate for the Court to get involved simply because its members  “dislike[d] segregation” or considered it “morally wrong[]”.  Only in “extreme cases”, Rehnquist cautioned, would it be appropriate for the Court to step in to “thwart public opinion”.  In Rehnquist’s mind racial segregation did not meet that test.

In concluding his memo, Rehnquist offered the following observation:

I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by “liberal” colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson [the case that established the principle of “separate but equal”] was right and should be re-affirmed.  If the Fourteenth Amendment did not enact Spencer’s Social Statios [sic], it just as surely did not enact Myrddahl’s American Dilemna [sic].

Rehnquist’s view, we know now, did not prevail.  The Court ultimately took the so-called “segregation cases” and voted unanimously to strike down as unconstitutional the practice of racial segregation in its landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

Chief Justice Robert’s recent dissent in the same-sex marriage case makes a lot of the same points Rehnquist made in this memo, which is not surprising.  Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative.   And he had at one time clerked for Rehnquist.  At one point in his dissent Roberts uses the same reference to Spencer’s Social Statics and the Fourteenth Amendment that Rehnquist used at the end of his memo, language which Roberts correctly attributes to Judge Friendly and Justice Holmes, but he almost certainly had Rehnquist and perhaps his 1952 memo in mind in writing that and the rest of his dissent.

The approach advocated by Rehnquist and Roberts — that is, let the legislators and voters decide — has some appeal.  One might counter however that they only suggest this approach because they know it is one that is self-defeating; that there will always be a majority of lawmakers and their supporters somewhere who will refuse to recognize the fundamental right at issue.

Right approach or not, what matters ultimately are the facts on the ground.  And that, to a large extent, is determined by the hearts and minds of everyday folks and how they wish to shape the society in which they live.  Court rulings and statutes carry some influence in that respect.  More so, however, is the unwritten code of life that governs how we treat one another  — with dignity, respect and fairness.  That it took years of hard-fought litigation and a sharply divided Supreme Court to confer on homosexuals the right to marry is proof that this code is sorely lacking in this country, or is simply not being observed to the extent that it should.  Were the opposite true, the debate about gay marriage would have ended a long time ago and with the “self-evident” conclusion that “all men [and women] are created equal….”

Charleston, South Carolina

The other night a 21 year old white male shot up a church and killed 9 people, all of whom were black.  Reports soon followed that depicted the shooter as a white supremacist.  He favored decorative license plates bearing confederate flags and is said to have expressed concern about black men raping white women as a reason for why he felt compelled to shoot up a black church.

It is not surprising an event like this has happened.  If a shooting spree can happen in an elementary school attended by mostly white children it can surely happen in a historically black church.   The Sandy Hook shooting is the new normal so they say.  Until something fundamental changes in the way the country regulates firearms or commits violence in the name of its citizens events like last night’s shooting only bring us one step closer to another Sandy Hook-like massacre, except this next one will be even more horrific.

But what do you expect from  a country whose leaders care more about their bank accounts than for the welfare of their communities?  This goes for communities of all races and colors.  Whites don’t have a monopoly on corruption and moral failings.  They are just better at getting away with it than blacks are.  But blacks of course pay a much heavier price than whites do when they are thrown under the bus by their leaders, and that will remain the case for a long time to come.

Right now our country has no idea who its enemies are.  One would think that with the kind of sweeping data mining and surveillance programs our government has put into place that this question would not be such a hard one to answer.  We like to blame the brown and yellow as the ones who pose the gravest threat to our national security.  For the brown, American- and foreign-born alike, we offer drones and Hellfire missles.  For the less vulnerable yellow we simply snipe and saber rattle.  But mostly we act like the high school bully — you know, the one who will never get it together to leave home and will end up flipping burgers until he is 35, at which point he will spend increasingly more and more time drunk, stoned and in jail.

A Spirit of Prudence

When I was a kid, I had a small, portable radio that looked like a hamburger.  I took it everywhere with me: to the bathroom, in the car, on family outings.  During the summer, I would put it under my pillow as I went to sleep so I could listen to the tail end of Mets games.  Back then, Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy called the games.  Gary Cohen is still calling Mets games but for the team’s flagship television station.  Bob Murphy is dead, whose many years as a smoker finally got the best of him.  I have tried many times to find out where Bob Murphy has been buried so I could tell him how much I miss hearing his voice on the radio but to no avail.  Maybe Gary Cohen wouldn’t mind sharing that information with me.

I used to get excited during Mets games in ways that seem strangely foreign to me now: cursing at opposing players and their fans; mimicking the hitting or pitching motions of various players (Orlando Hernandez a.k.a. El Duque was a popular option); and once, swinging an umbrella — the Mets were up at bat — so hard that its barrel went flying through a wall (good thing I was at a friend’s house without the friend; I don’t’ think I’ve told him to this day about the hole).

As another baseball season is set to begin, I wanted to write about all the things I dislike about baseball today.  And trust me, there’s a lot to say on that subject.  But so what?  No one who is worth a damn in professional baseball is going to change the way the game is presented and played, for me, or anyone else with a gripe.  To most of them, baseball might as well be NASCAR given the way they have turned the game into a slow-motion, ear-splitting, commercial extravaganza.  Of course, I say this without having ever watched a NASCAR race up close and personal, but I’m not sure that really matters.  Who knows, maybe one day I will give up my interest in baseball entirely.  I certainly wouldn’t  be the first one to do so.

But then I would be admitting defeat.  Why should I be the one to abandon the game when it is the game, and its purveyors, that have abandoned me?  As with all things fundamental to one’s way of life, we don’t know what we’ve lost until we’ve lost it.  Tony Judt, the late historian, taught me this in one of his last books.  Of course, there, he was making a case for the defense of social democracy.  But baseball is also an institution deserving of what Judt referred to as “a spirit of prudence”.

If anything needs to change it is the belief that baseball cannot be played in much the same ways that it was played at the turn of the century.  The last time I checked umpires didn’t have  replay machines back then, and I’m not sure the fans would have even stood for such nonsense, given the disruption it creates in the flow of the game.  Not all change is bad, of course.  But, as I again borrow from the Tony Judt playbook,  “incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek.”  As the famous song goes:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

The Character of Man

Here is something from Mark Twain’s Autobiography which he wrote and dictated in bits and pieces over the course of many years, and completed in December 1909, four months shy of his death on April 21, 1910.  The piece is entitled The Character of Man, which was dictated by Twain on January 23, 1906.

The Character of Man

Concerning Man — he is too large a subject to be treated as a whole; so I will merely discuss a detail or two of him at this time.  I desire to contemplate him from this point of view — this premiss: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably matter of surprise and regret to the Creator. **** For his history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable.  Of the entire brood, he is the only one — the solitary one — that possesses malice.  That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices — the most hateful.  That one thing put him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae.  He is the only creature that inflicts plain for sport, knowing it to be pain.  But if the cat knows she is inflicting pain when she plays with the frightened mouse, then we must make an exception here; we must grant that in one detail man is the moral peer of the cat.  All creatures kill — there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge.  Also — in all the list he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.

Shall he be extolled for his noble qualities, for his gentleness, his sweetness, his amiability, his lovingness, his courage, his devotion, his patience, his fortitude, his prudence, the various charms and graces of his spirit?  The other animals share all these with him, yet are free from the blackness and rottennesses of his character.

****  There are certain sweet-smelling sugar-coated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate.  One of these is, that there is such thing in the world as independence: independence of thought, independence of opinion, independence of action.  Another is, that the world loves to see independence — admires it, applauds it.  Another is, that there is such a thing in this world as toleration — in religion, in politics, and such matters; and with it trains that already mentioned auxiliary lie that toleration is admired, and applauded.  Out of these trunk-lies spring many branch ones: to wit, the lie that not all men are slaves; the lie that men are glad when other men succeed; glad when they prosper; glad to see them reach lofty heights; sorry to see them fall again.  And yet other branch-lies: to wit, that there is heroism in man; that he is not mainly made up of malice and treachery; that he is sometimes not a coward; that there is something about him that ought to be perpetuated — in heaven, or hell, or somewhere.  And these other branch-lies, to wit: that conscience, man’s moral medicine chest, is not only created by the Creator, but is put into man ready-charged with the right and only true and authentic correctives of conduct — and the duplicate chest, with the self-same correctness, unchanged, unmodified, distributed to all nations and all epochs.  And yet one other branch-lie, to wit, that I am I, and you are you; that we are units, individuals, and have natures of our own, instead of being that tail-end of a tape-worm eternity of ancestors extending in linked procession back — and back — and back — to our source in the monkeys, with this so-called individuality of ours a decayed and rancid mush of inherited instincts and teachings derived, atom by atom, stench by stench, from the entire line of that sorry column, and not so much new and original matter in it as you could balance on a needle point and examine under a microscope.  This makes well nigh fantastic the suggestion that there can be such a thing as a personal, original and responsible nature in a man, separable from that in him which is not original, and findable in such quantity as to enable the observer to say, This is a man, not a procession.

*****  Consider that first mentioned lie: that there is such a thing in the world as independence; that it exists in individuals, that it exists in bodies of men.  Surely if anything is proven, by whole oceans and continents of evidence, it is that the quality of independence was almost wholly left out of the human race.  The scattering exceptions to the rule only emphasize it, light it up, make it glare.  The whole population of New England meekly took their turns, for years, in standing up in the railway trains, without so much as a complaint above their breath, till at least these uncounted millions were able to produce exactly one single independent man, who stood to his rights and made the railroad give him a seat.  Statistics and the law of probabilities warrant the assumption that it will take New England forty years to breed his fellow.  There is a law, with a penalty attached, forbidding trains to occupy the Asylum street crossing more than five minutes at a time.  For years people and carriages used to wait there nightly as much as twenty minutes on a stretch while New England trains monopolized that crossing.  I used to hear men use vigorous language about that insolent wrong — but they waited, just the same.

We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going; and then go with the drove.  We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy, until habit makes us comfortable in it, and the custom of defending it presently makes us love it, adore it, and forget how pitifully we came by it.  Look at it in politics.  Look at the candidates whom we loathe, one year, and are afraid to vote against the next; whom we cover with unimaginable filth, one year, and fall down on the public platform and worship, the next — and keep on doing it until the habitual shutting of our eyes to last year’s evidence brings us presently to a sincere and stupid loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits; and all the while, their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible-texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.

If we would learn what the human race really is, at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.  A Hartford clergyman met me in the street, and spoke of a new nominee — denounced the nomination, in strong, earnest words — words that were refreshing for their independence, their manliness.  He said, “I ought to be proud, perhaps, for this nominee is a relative of mine; on the contrary I am humiliated and disgusted; for I know him intimately — familiarly — and I know that he is an unscrupulous scoundrel, and always has been.”  You should have seen this clergyman preside at a political meeting forty days later; and urge, and plead, and gush — and you should have heard him paint the character of this same nominee.  You would have supposed he was describing the Cid, the Great-heart, and Sir Galahad, and Bayard the Spotless all rolled into one.  Was he sincere?  Yes — by that time; and therein lies the pathos of it all, the hopelessness of it all, when he perceives, by the general drift, that that is the popular thing to do.  Does he believe his lie yet?  Oh, probably not; he has no further use for it.  It was but a passing incident; he spared to it the moment that was its due, then hastened back to the serious business of his life.

And what a paltry poor lie is that one which teaches that independence of action and opinion is prized in men, admired, honored, rewarded.  When a man leaves a political party, he is treated as if the party owned him — as if he were its bond slave, as most party men plainly are — and had stolen himself, gone off with what was not his own.  And he is traduced, derided, despised, held up to public obloquy and loathing.  His character is remorselessly assassinated; no means, however vile, are spared to injure his property and his business.

The preacher who casts a vote for conscience’ sake, runs the risk of starving.  And is rightly served; for he has been teaching a falsity — that men respect and honor independence of thought and action.

Mr. Beecher may be charged with a crime, and his whole following will rise as one man, and stand by him to the bitter end; but who so poor to be his friend when he is charged with casting a vote for conscience’ sake?  Take the editor so charged — take — take anybody.

All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie.  It does not exist.  It is in no man’s heart; but it unconsciously and by moss-grown inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men’s lips.  Intolerance is everything for one’s self, and nothing for the other person.  The main-spring of man’s nature is just that — selfishness.

Let us skip the other lies, for brevity’s sake.  To consider them would prove nothing, except that man is what he is — loving toward his own, lovable, to his own, — his family, his friends — and otherwise the buzzing, busy, trivial enemy of his race — who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no messages back — selfish even in death.

In Front of Your Nose

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a piece called In Front of Your Nose in which he famously said that “[t]o see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”  This is so, Orwell thought, because people have a habit of  “ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later.”  As Orwell explained:

[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.  Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

We all know what it looks like when false beliefs bump up against solid reality on a battlefield.  Paris is but one example of that.  Others that come to mind are Ferguson and Hong Kong.  In Paris the false belief was that terrorist watch lists and “intelligence” were effective tools in keeping a check on disenchanted, frustrated and angry youths.  In Ferguson, it was that blacks would be content living  in poverty and ignominy for the rest of their lives, under a power structure dominated mostly by non-blacks.  And in Hong Kong, it was that everyone who wasn’t rich wouldn’t also like the chance to become rich or at least level the playing field for those who weren’t rich.

But little seems to change even when the battle between myth and fact makes it way from the sterile confines of the internet and the legislature on to the streets.  If anything, it is the status quo that has  prevailed in most places.  In Paris, as in the United States, post-September 11th, the talk, no doubt, is of bulking up the security state to further marginalize those who “hate the values of the freedom-loving West.  In Ferguson, blacks have gone back to living their miserable lives  hoping that they won’t end up like Michael Brown even though that may be a fate better than what is surely in store for most of them, being  poor and black in the United States.  And in Hong Kong the Chinese Communist party had its way with the protestors, giving not one inch to their demands and barely acknowledging their months-long existence.

It may be that we have not yet reached the battlefield to which Orwell referred in his essay.  That the events in Paris, Ferguson and Hong Kong are simply a preview of what is to come: more hardening up of positions, more violence, and more deaths.  But it may also be that none of what Orwell feared will ever come to pass.  Not because we will have finally come face to face with the brutal facts but because the governing class will have succeeded in eliminating all unpleasant facts; in fact, we are already halfway there given the current size of the surveillance apparatus.  That would be the scariest proposition of all.

Removing the Barriers to Happiness

Linda Greenhouse, the Times’ former Supreme Court correspondent, recently wrote about the shifting views of the public on gay marriage and the prospect of the Supreme Court deciding once and for all whether  the Constitution confers a right on gays to marry.  In her piece, Greenhouse made the observation that where once it was taboo for one to come out in support of gay marriage, now that sentiment is almost  de rigueur.  In Greenhouse’s words:

Twenty years ago, even many well intentioned straight people found same-sex marriage a challenging concept to grasp, if they thought about it at all.  Today, it would take an act of will to ignore the fact that as barriers fall, the sum total of human happiness increases and any theoretical downside remains — as the states have found — impossible to articulate convincingly.

Greenhouse seemed to include herself among the “well intentioned straight people” for whom gay marriage was until recently an afterthought, which is admirable, if only because she tried to level with her intended audience, which most other writers today would never do.

But Greenhouse breaks no new ground in her piece.  She is mostly preaching to the choir when she reveals that even  “well-intentioned straight people” may have at one time denied gays the right to marry.  Discriminatory attitudes are not exclusive to born and bred bigots.  They are held by everyone, and can be shed by them.  But to say that one’s neighbor down the street in left-leaning Park Slope, Brooklyn, might have at one time disliked gays is to say nothing at all.

The more interesting question is what has caused the widespread shift in attitudes toward a greater acceptance of gays and their right to marry and why a similar shift hasn’t taken hold with respect to other groups and their ability to exercise fundamental rights.  Certainly lowering the “barriers” for the poor or even the middle class to affordable housing would increase the “sum total of human happiness”.  But why hasn’t such a change taken place, and with the kind of momentum and fanfare that has accompanied the gay marriage movement?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the process of conferring a right upon a group once denied to it to the exclusion of equally deserving groups is itself an exercise in discrimination.  The unspoken truth is that society is making a judgment that one group is more deserving or of greater worth than another.  Nothing has changed in the past few decades for gays or for the poor in terms of each group’s defining characteristics; if anything the destitution that has come to characterize the condition of being poor is even more pronounced today than it was ten, twenty years ago.  What has changed, however, is that the gay community has, as a whole, become more influential and affluent, even before it  started winning in the courts to solidify its status as an equal with heterosexuals.  It didn’t hurt that government officials pursued their anti-gay agenda with a kind of ferocity once reserved for blacks in the Jim Crow south.  Other groups that have not been able to remove the “barriers” to “happiness” that the gay marriage movement has been so effective in removing have failed in their efforts mostly because they remain an afterthought for most people.  The public might sympathize with their condition and their causes but by and large it will ignore these groups just as it once did with gays.

Recognizing that gays have a right to marry is a positive development.  But it shouldn’t be done in a kind of vacuum where the motivation for change is generated by the same kind of hysterics that prompted the government to ban gay marriage in the first place.  This is especially true for those who once rejected gay marriage as a fundamental right.  For  persons who fall into that category, and I imagine there are a lot of them,  it is just as important to figure out why they decided to switch positions.  The answer may not be a pleasant one but it is worth knowing nonetheless, if anything so that we can understand the true character of the society in which we live.