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The Washington Thing

July 28, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s a big cover story on Caroline Kennedy today in the weekly fluff section of the Sunday NYT, with flattering accompanying photo. When I awoke yesterday morning, it was featured online and I couldn’t resist reading it. Not that I’m a big Kennedy family fan, or a fan of the proliferation of family dynasties in American politics—I’ll sit out the Chelsea Clinton-Jenna Bush 2032 presidential race, thanks—but for anyone around back in the day, it’s difficult to resist reading about Caroline.

Which makes the closing of the article that much more distasteful, as theater and film great Mike Nichols gives us a lesson in “the Washington thing.”

Mr. Nichols described going over to Ms. Kennedy’s apartment last November to watch the election returns come in. “I walked in, and she said, ‘Oh, go find Rupert, he’s in the library. It’s quiet in there.’ ”

She was referring, of course, to Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation.

“It’s the Washington thing: who you work for, what your beliefs are entirely beside the point,” he said of Ms. Kennedy’s attitude. “Everybody is with everybody.”

And that’s part of what he thinks will serve Mrs. Kennedy well in her position in Japan, where she would likely do everything from entertaining at the embassy to meeting with foreign dignitaries and politicians with a variety of ideological persuasions. “If anybody knows those rules,” Mr. Nichols said, “it’s her.”

Ah, yes, beliefs are entirely beside the point. No bad blood between the rich and famous. Fast friends all. Not that Caroline Kennedy hasn’t earned the right to be friends with whoever she pleases. But Rupert Murdoch? Geez.

Categories: Politics, Society

American Exceptionalism

February 18, 2013 2 comments

maternityleave

[NYT graphic, February 17, 2013. Source: Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving by Jody Heymann With Kristen McNeill.]

It’s been a while since I wrote about American exceptionalism, which has evolved in Republican discourse from the belief that the US is special in a way related to its values, its law, its history, its example to the more simplistic belief—or axiom— that the US is just simply the best. Ever. And if you don’t agree, then you’re un-American. Like, you know, that Kenyan socialist Obama.

Which I find hard to reconcile with the enormous map that greeted me yesterday in the centerfold of the NYT Sunday Review section, accompanying a piece by Stephanie Coontz titled Why Gender Equality Stalled. You can see a reduced version above. The eight countries in red—the US, Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, and Tonga— are the only countries in the world without paid maternity leave. Exceptional for sure. But the exceptionalism of greatness? Or is it just possible that we’ve got something wrong here?

By chance, Glenn Greenwald used his column today in The Guardian to ponder Charles C.W. Cooke’s tweeted assertion that the US “is the greatest country in world history.”

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, etc. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

In a similar vein, but with less at stake, I was surprised to discover when I moved to Seattle a few decades ago that some people in these parts thought Seattle was the greatest city, Washington the greatest state. I mean, really! Didn’t they know New York is?

Categories: Politics, Society

The Draft

July 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Late last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of international forces in Afghanistan, proposed bringing back the draft.

“I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn’t be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population. I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.

We’ve never done that in the United State before; we’ve never fought an extended war with an all- volunteer military. So what it means is you’ve got a very small population that you’re going to and you’re going to it over and over again. Because it’s less than one percent of the population… people are very supportive but they don’t have the same connection to it.”

A few days ago, at the New York Review of Books blog, William Pfaff offered his reaction in a post I highly recommend. I hesitate to quote from it, as no short excerpt can accurately represent the range of Pfaff’s thoughts. Here’s just one bit, on a powerful contribution of the draft.

The army, in my opinion, did more to desegregate the United States than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From 1948 on, nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States served and lived side by side with Americans of all colors, all in strict alphabetical order, in old-fashioned unpartitioned barracks, sleeping bunk to bunk, sharing shelter-halves on bivouac, in what amounted to brotherly endurance of the cold, heat, discomfort, and misery of military training—and following that, of service. The kids I trained with—and they were kids—were nearly all of them scheduled to become infantry replacements in what was commonly called Frozen Chosin [during the Korean War].

When their war was over, the survivors, white and black, didn’t go home to Georgia and hang out together on Saturday nights. They hardly saw one another again. But those two years changed them. It certainly changed many of the younger generation of white southerners who served and who a decade and a half later were ready to accept desegregation, even though they disliked it. A man-to-man respect existed for their black contemporaries.

Pfaff goes on to discuss how Vietnam altered the nature of the draft, concluding, “What fundamentally was destroyed in Vietnam was the democratic army. The all-volunteer professional army enables undemocratic wars, ideological in nature and inspiration, and, it would seem, without real end.”

Speaking of which, it never hurts to recall Dick Cheney’s famous line, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”

Categories: Politics, Society, War

Same As It Ever Was

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Fonthill Castle, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

[From the Mercer and Fonthill Museums website]

Another Sunday, another Vows column in the NYT. I’m addicted to them, as I have discussed before. One of the pleasures of reading them is letting the suspense build as I wonder whether this is the week the paper has chosen an ordinary couple as its newlyweds. Please, please, just a regular couple. Sometimes that hope is dashed the moment I see the couple’s names. Last week, for instance, the bride’s name — Allison Pataki — gave it all away. Yes, that Pataki, the daughter of the former governor of New York.

But this week looked promising, as I read about two physicists, a young American woman who went to Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy as a Yale undergraduate and met a Parisian who was then a postdoc at Brown. She’s now a postdoc at Harvard, studying neutrinos, he’s still at Brown, studying dark matter, and last Sunday they were married on the grounds of Fonthill Castle, pictured above.

Every Vows column comes with at least one outrageously silly line. This week’s was spoken by a colleague at Brown:

They are both cutting-edge physicists. They are so smart that, really, they can talk about things together that few people would even understand. I say that’s perfect.

We also learned that the “couple exchanged rings made of titanium (their favorite element),” the bridegroom’s sister “designed an invitation inspired by the freewheeling trajectory of subatomic particles in ‘bubble chamber’ experiments,” and the bride “left most of the planning of her wedding to her more humanities-minded mother, Rebecca Bushnell, the dean of the school of arts and sciences and an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania.”

The mother’s being Dean of A&S at Penn gave a hint that this might in fact not be all that ordinary a couple. But the punchline came when we learned that during the reception, updates were being given of the Jets-Patriots football game. It was explained that these updates were

meant particularly for Ms. Bushnell’s stepmother, Betty Wold Johnson, who is known as Granny to the bride and who is the 91-year-old mother of Woody Johnson, the Jets’ owner.

Some ordinary couple! The bride’s step-grandmother is a member of the Johnson & Johnson family, her step-uncle the wealthy owner of the Jets. And wasn’t it his daughters, the bride’s step-cousins, whom the NYT featured just three days ago in a big spread? Why yes it was!

Sigh.

Categories: Journalism, Society

Caritas in Veritate

July 13, 2009 Leave a comment
Signing the encyclical at the Vatican

Signing the encyclical at the Vatican

Last Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI came out with his third encyclical since assuming the papacy in 2005. The first was on Christian love; the second on Christian hope. The latest is on integral human development in charity and truth.

I don’t generally make it a habit to read papal writings, but I have read a little bit of Pope Benedict’s, and I have found them to be intelligent and well reasoned. Of course, I start from different hypotheses, and I am likely to reach different conclusions, but I still have an appreciation for Benedict. You may recall that his lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 led to a controversy about his mis-characterizing Islam. But you probably haven’t read the lecture itself. You might find it of interest. Have a look.

On many issues, the Pope is what we would call conservative. But to identify his views with those of conservatives as the term is generally understood in the US would be to simplify his thinking vastly. His latest encyclical makes this evident. Indeed, as E.J. Dionne (yet another of my college classmates) pointed out in his Washington Post column last Wednesday, “While American conservatives, including most Catholics in their ranks, see capitalism in an almost entirely positive light, Benedict — following a long tradition of church teaching — is more skeptical of a system rooted in materialist values. In that sense, he is to the left of his American flock.”

Ross Douthat makes a similar point in his NYT column today: “The pope is not a Democrat or a Republican, and his vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics. … It represents a kind of left-right fusionism with little traction in American politics.”

I have read only part of the encyclical so far, but I plan to keep reading. To give you a taste, I quote below the very long paragraph that forms Section 21 and the second of the two paragraphs that form Section 25.
Read more…

Categories: Economy, Politics, Religion, Society

Made in Detroit

June 30, 2009 Leave a comment

madedetroit

A few weeks ago, I was telling my friend Werner about my two winter trips to Detroit, prompting him to mention Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. A week later, a copy of the book arrived from Amazon, courtesy of Werner (thanks, Werner!), and a week after that I began reading it. Due to various distractions, I didn’t get around to reading it in earnest until a few days ago, and I finally finished it Sunday morning.

The author grew up in northeast Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, in a white, Catholic family. He writes about white flight, attending Catholic schools and church, the steady closure of Catholic schools and churches, the governance of the city during the long mayoral reign of Coleman Young, city and suburb, racism and religion, his father’s work on autos and his mother’s domestic work in nearby Grosse Pointe, and much more. Well worth reading.

A couple of Saturdays ago, when I was just a short ways into the book, we went to a friend’s birthday party and got to talking with her brother-in-law, a Detroit native, about the city. I mentioned the book, which he knew well, as he did the author’s old neighborhood. We talked about life in Detroit for a long time. An endlessly fascinating city.

Perhaps the best part of the book is Clemens’ depiction of his father, whose understanding of the workings of cars is nonpareil, both as mechanic and as driver. We get our first glimpse of the father’s expertise in the fourth paragraph of the book:

My father had amazed me throughout my childhood with his ability to spin 360s in icy intersections–it had something to do, I noticed, with violently jerking up the parking brake–and he remains the only person I know able to shift his way from first to fifth wihtout his foot once touching the clutch. “It’s how European rally drivers do it,” he once said to me. “They never use their left foot. Their right heel is on the brake, and the ball of their right foot is on the accelerator.” “But how do you know when you can shift that way?” “Without using the clutch to disengage the gears, you mean? Oh, you can hear it when the gears mesh.” Car performance, and upkeep, was everything to this man. …

My own experience with a clutch is extremely limited. There’s the time I helped my brother drive from New York to Oklahoma, in September 1971. I got a crash course in order to share the driving duties, and then we were off. I was pretty good as long as I just had to put it in fifth on the interstate. The first evening, after we had gone around Indianapolis, my brother’s eye was sore and I had to take over for the final 100 miles into Terre Haute, where we were to stay overnight. I didn’t mention that the car was a sports car, whose transmission was not the easiest to master, but it sure liked to go fast and the road was empty except for the occasional semi. I got into a great rhythm, hitting 100 mph for long stretches, slowing to 90 to pass a truck, then getting it back up to 100. All was well until we had to get off to get to our Terre Haute motel, but under my brother’s guidance, we made it. The next day was the worst. We crossed the Misssissippi into St. Louis, had to get on local roads because of some detour, then I took over the drive as we were about to get back on the interstate. But somehow, a few miles on, I got in the wrong lane and we mistakenly exited at a giant intersection for the Six Flags amusement park. A state trooper controlled the intersection, letting cars enter the interstate from the park for a couple of minutes at a time, then letting us get off the ramp into the park. But I wanted to go straight through, from exit ramp to entrance ramp. And when our turn came, I managed to stall the car. He stopped us all again, let the other direction go for a while, then pointed at me, shouted “Are you ready?”, and waved us forward. I was feeling a little pressure. And if I remember correctly, as we headed up the ramp, I screwed up by shifting from 1st to 4th. But we made it onto the interstate and I continued driving to Springfield before handing off to my brother again.

Clemens’ father I wasn’t.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Life, Society

Immersed in Digital Cerebration

April 11, 2009 Leave a comment

roofer1

The New Yorker’s George Packer had an extraordinary post at his blog two days ago. I’ve meant to link to it since then. Here it is.

The short version. Packer has a leak in his roof, hires a local roofer, an Italian from Brooklyn, and they chat. The roofer explains why he hates what cell phones are doing to people. Excerpt below, but read it all.

It turned out that cell phones had become a major headache in his work. Customers called him all the time, expecting him to hear every little complaint even while he was wrestling with a roof hatch. Meanwhile, they were more and more unreliable, not answering their phones, missing scheduled appointments. Even worse: they had no common sense any more. They called him about a leak in the first-floor ceiling—two stories below the roof—without bothering to check the second-floor radiator, which he discovered to be standing in a pool of water. It had all begun in the last couple of years, and it was driving him and every other contractor he knew crazy. They were all noticing the same thing.

“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug”—he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me—“and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said—“the more educated, the worse.” His poorer black customers in Bedford-Stuyvesant had no such problem, and he was much happier working on their roofs, but the recession had slowed things down there and these days he was forced to deal almost entirely with the cognitively damaged educated and professional classes.

“They hire someone—this has happened several times—so they don’t have to talk to me,” he went on, growing more animated and reddening with amazement. “It’s like they’re afraid of me! So they hire a guy who’s more comfortable dealing with a masculine-type person. I stand there and talk to the customer, and the customer doesn’t talk to me or look at me, he talks to the intermediary, and the intermediary talks to me. It’s the yuppie buffer.” … This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions—had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

Categories: Culture, Education, Society