Category Archives: Personal

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.

What White Flight Looks Like Today

Below is a letter/article I submitted to my local community paper for publication.  After some back and forth, the paper decided not to publish it, at least in its current form, for reasons that are not worth reciting here.  I have changed the location references but the rest of the article remains unchanged.

*****

My wife and I live in [Springfield], next to an eyesore that is one of the many newly constructed homes in the area. These new housing projects tend to share common characteristics like massive foundations (the one next to our house promotes itself with a sign that says “SIZE MATTERS!”), cheap construction and a confusion of styles (a Craftsman, bungalow townhouse with the vibe of a ski chalet). What often happens is a bulldozer swoops in and makes quick work of an older house – one that had no defects to speak of except perhaps for those that arose out of the developer’s post-purchase neglect. The house is demolished because it is considered too “old” and too small even though countless families have once called it home. It is replaced by a behemoth of a house that is built with blazing speed out of what looks like clapboard, and has an expected lifespan that is a fraction of what was once the standard for newly constructed homes in this area. But the family that ends up buying and moving into this new and “improved” house won’t know any of that. They will be told it is a state of the art home with the best amenities and “green” technology money can buy. There is nothing “green”, however, about demolishing a single-family house only to replace it with another single-family house that is twice and sometimes triple the size of its former self. The only thing “green” about such a process is in the massive sums of money that will change hands, and most of that will be going to only one or two individuals.

Not all new housing projects are objectionable. Some occupy once vacant lots or replace structures that are no longer habitable, and can longer be made so. Some are modest in scope and seek to improve the existing structure without ballooning its footprint and overall size to absurd proportions. But such projects are few and far between. Instead, what one sees in the area with increasing regularity are larger and larger houses that dwarf the 1,200 square foot house that was once a staple of [Springfield’s] housing stock. The houses now being built invariably cost upwards of half-a-million dollars thus making them prohibitively expensive for almost everyone except the rich. These are the same people who once fled the city to the suburbs only to realize that their distaste or fear of city life was no match for their frustration of having to crawl along the interstate at five miles an hour on a Friday afternoon. So they decided to import a piece of suburbia into the city.

And we are now forced to suffer the consequences. Many who have considered moving to [Springfield] are forced to look elsewhere, depriving [Springfield] of the diversity that is necessary for a vibrant community, not one that just cares about keeping “suspicious looking youths” off its streets. And for those who chose to stick around [Springfield] and brave the “white flight” that has, strangely enough, contributed to all this development craziness, all I can say is: my condolences. Your neighborhood is quickly becoming just another gated community.

As I Please (George Orwell Birthday Edition)

George Orwell was born on this date in 1903 in the city of Motihari which was located in what was then British India (now India).  Aside from having written 1984 and Animal Farm, he also produced a great deal of journalism, some of which he fashioned into novels, like Homage to Catalonia.  Orwell also liked the outdoors and for a period of time grew and raised his own food on the desolate island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.  When he had a brush with death nearly drowning in a whirlpool along with his young son, Richard, one of his first remarks upon returning to the safety of land concerned the remarkable features of a bird he had just seen.  The Tribune is one of the publications to which Orwell contributed articles when he was still working as a journalist.  After Orwell died on January 21, 1950, at the age of 46, the editors of the Tribune published in place of an obituary about his death what they considered to be their favorite piece by Orwell from among the many he wrote for the paper.  The piece was part of a long running column by Orwell entitled As I Please; this one happened to be the 68th installment and was dated January 3, 1947.  Here it is in full:

Nearly a quarter century ago I was traveling on a liner to Burma.  Though not a big ship, it was a comfortable and even a luxurious one, and when one was not asleep or playing deck games one usually seemed to be eating.  The meals were of that stupendous kind that steamship companies used to vie with one another in producing, and in between times there were snacks such as apples, ices, biscuits and cups of soup, lest anyone should find himself fainting from hunger.  Moreover, the bars opened at ten in the morning, and, since we were at sea, alcohol was relatively cheap.

The ships of this line were mostly manned by Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel.  One of these quartermasters, though I suppose he was only aged forty or so, was one of those old sailors on whose back you almost expect to see barnacles growing.  He was a short, powerful, rather ape-like man, with enormous forearms covered by a mat of golden hair.   A blond moustache which might have belonged to Charlemagne completely hid his mouth.  I was only twenty years old and very conscious of my parasitic status as a mere passenger, and I looked up to the quartermasters, especially the fair-haired one, as godlike beings on a par with the officers.  It would not have occurred to me to speak to one of them without being spoken to first.

One day, for some reason, I came up from lunch early.  The deck was empty except for the fair-haired quartermaster, who was scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses, with something partially concealed between his monstrous hands.  I had just time to see what it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway.  It was a pie dish containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.

At one glance I took in the situation — indeed, the man’s air of guilt made it unmistakable.  The pudding was a left-over from one of the passengers’ tables.  It had been illicitly given to him by a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen’s quarters to devour it at leisure.  Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment.  It took me some time to see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward – the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table — taught me more than I could have learned from a half dozen Socialist pamphlets?

A news item to the effect that Yugoslavia is now engaged on a purge of writers and artists left me to look once again at the reports of the recent literary purge in the U.S.S.R., when Zoschenko, Akhmatova and others were expelled from the Writers’ Union.

In England this kind of thing is not happening to us as yet, so that we can view it with a certain detachment, and curiously enough, as I look again at the accounts of what happened, I feel somewhat more sorry for the persecutors than for their victims.  Chief among the persecutors is Andrei Zhdanov, considered by some to be Stalin’s probable successor.  Zhdanov, though he has conducted literary purges before, is a full-time politician with — to judge from his speeches — about as much knowledge of literature as I have of aerodynamics.  He does not give the impression of being, according to his own lights, a wicked or dishonest man.  He is truly shocked by the defection of certain Soviet writers, which appears to him as an incomprehensible piece of treachery, like a military mutiny in the middle of a battle.  The purpose of literature is to glorify the Soviet Union; surely that must be obvious to everyone?  But instead of carrying out their pliant duty, these misguided writers keep straying away from the paths of propaganda, producing non-political works, and even, in the case of Zoschenko, allowing a satirical note to creep into their writings.  It is all very painful and bewildering.  It is as though you set a man to work in an excellent, up-to-date, air-conditioned factory, gave him high wages, short hours, good canteens and playing-grounds, a comfortable flat, a nursery-school for his children, all-round social insurance and music while you work — only to find the ungrateful fellow throwing spanners into the machinery on his very first day.

What makes the whole thing somewhat pathetic is the general admission — an honest admission, seeing that Soviet publicists are not in the habit of decrying their own country — that Russian literature as a whole is not what it ought to be.  Since the U.S.S.R. represents the highest existing form of civilization, it is obvious that it ought to lead the world in literature as in everything else.  “Surely,” says Zhdanov, “our new Socialist system, embodying all that is best in the history of human civilization and culture, is capable of creating the most advanced literate, which will leave far behind the best creations of olden times.”. Izvestia (as quoted by the New York paper, Politics) goes further: “Our culture stands on an immeasurably higher level than bourgeois culture … Is it not clear that our culture has the right not to act as pupil and imitator but , on the contrary, to teach others the general human morals?”. And yet somehow the expected thing never happens.  Directives are issued, resolutions are passed unanimously, recalcitrant writers are silenced: and yet for some reason a vigorous and original literature, unmistakably superior to that of capitalist countries, fails to emerge.

All this has happened before, and more than once.  Freedom of expression has had its ups and downs in the U.S.S.R. , but the general tendency has been towards higher censorship.  The thing that politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity.  A writer’s inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say approximately what he feels.  You can destroy spontaneity and produce a literature which is orthodox but feeble, or you can let people say what they choose and take the risk that some of them will utter heresies.  There is no way out of that dilemma so long as books have to be written by individuals.

That is why, in a way, I feel sorrier for the persecutors than for the victims.  It is probable that Zoschenko and the others at least have the satisfaction of understanding what is happening to them: the politicians who harry them are merely attempting the impossible.  For Zhdanov and his kind to say, “the Soviet Union can exist without literature,” would be reasonable.  But that is just what they can’t say.  They don’t’ know what literature is, but they know that it is important, that is has prestige value, and that it is necessary for propaganda purposes, and they would like to encourage it, if they only knew how.  So they continue with their purges and directives, like a fish bashing its nose against the wall of an aquarium again and again, too dim-witted to realize that glass and water are not the same thing.

From The Thoughts of 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?

It is a good idea to print this well-known exhortation in large letters and hang it on the wall opposite your bed.  And if that fails, as I am told it sometimes does, another good plan is to buy the loudest alarm clock you can get and place it in such a position that you have to get out of bed and go around several pieces of furniture in order to silence it.

The Press and Mass Shootings

By now I do not think it is a stretch to describe the mass shooting as a truly American phenomenon.  To be sure, similar kinds of shootings happen in other countries, but nowhere do they happen with the frequency and sense of post-hoc helplessness, where even scores of dead children fail to sway federal lawmakers to act, as in the United States.  Like chronic unemployment, this is a deeply troubling trend that will be a way of life for many Americans in the years to come; for those who want or hope to perpetrate such acts; those who will become their  victims; and those who will bear witness to such events, in person or through the media.

Like any other chronic societal ill, the causes are many but some are more significant than others.  With mass shootings it is generally the notoriety of the act that gives the shooters the encouragement they need to carry it out.  The very nature of the act, with its multiple mostly randomized victims and gruesome violence, almost guarantees they will get the attention they crave.

But the shootings, no matter how gruesome or deadly, don’t publicize themselves.  That is the job of the media, which in this context mostly consists of news outlets.  This may be changing now that digital technologies have made news gathering and dissemination more accessible to the layperson and not simply the province of a reporter who has the backing of fact-checkers and editors.  But I would venture to guess that most people still receive their first full story of a news event — the one that shapes a person’s view of the event and its cast of characters for the remainder of the news cycle — from an outfit like the Times or CNN or even Fox News.

There is an inherent social value to the work done by these organizations.  It is the public’s right to know when certain things happen in the community or around the world.  So important is the news-gathering function to society that we have laws which in most circumstances prohibit the government from forcing reporters to divulge their sources even when doing so would serve an equally important societal good: the prosecution of criminal activity.  Such is the essence of self-governance, and is what distinguishes a democracy from say a totalitarian form of government.

But what happens when the reporting that is supposed to be done for the good of the public actually produces a net negative for that same constituency?  What if the reporting on mass shootings is so poor and so sensationalized that it  contributes to more acts of violence even while giving the public the information it needs to govern its own affairs,  information that might involve something as mundane as knowing not to venture into an area that is the scene of a massive manhunt or criminal investigation?

News reporting is now more than ever something to throw at the public hungry for distraction and entertainment.  It is its own reality show but with minimal production costs.  It is something to put on between commercials or to throw up on a webpage to increase or “drive” web traffic.  It is in other words the ideal medium through which another neglected, mentally troubled youth can experience his delusions of grandeur and feel empowered doing it.

I confess that I don’t know what effect, if any, the media’s portrayal and reporting of mass shootings has on the motivation and determination of those who end up carrying out these acts.  And I hope that someone decides to conduct a lengthy comprehensive study on this, if one has not been done already.  But if the conclusion of such a study suggests that there does exist a positive correlation between the two, as I suspect will be the case, then it should fall on the shoulders of the journalists themselves to regulate what may be their own involvement in a problem that is quickly growing out of control.

The Wisdom of Uncle Alex

From Kurt Vonnegut’s, A Man Without a Country:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren.  And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren.  They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess.  But it has always been a mess.  There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days.  And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me.  I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever.  Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth.  Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman.  Today I am a man.  The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.”  So I killed him.  Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex.  He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis.  He was well-read and wise.  And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed it when they were happy.  So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids.  And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Opening Day 2014

Today is Opening Day for the 2014 big league baseball season.  If there’s one change I’d like to see in the way baseball games are played and broadcast it is in the length and pace of the game.  Hitters as well as pitchers today take way too much time between pitches.  Hitters adjust their gloves, helmets, pants, belts and anything else you could think of before deciding to step back into the batter box.  Pitchers, meanwhile, fiddle with their caps, pace the mound, and make pointless pickoff moves before delivering a pitch.  It is unclear whether all these extraneous movements are product of “mind games” that pitchers and hitters are known to play on each other or if they are just a form of procrastination.  Either way, the fan is left to endure all these time-wasting movements and will be lucky if he or she can muster the patience to watch or listen to all nine innings.  Games today are also jam packed with commercials, ads and tie-ins so that sometimes it is unclear whether baseball is the main focus or the car that is being peddled by the announcer for the thirtieth time in the broadcast.

My hope for this season is to be able to score at least one game live (i.e., at the field) which is harder than it sounds if, like me,  you also have an infant and toddler to look after during the game.  With that in mind, I will simply settle for a hot dog, a cold beer, and making it to the seventh-inning stretch, scorecard be damned.