Category Archives: Journal

“So they went out and found religion.”

Even what we know, or what we think we know, is not what we may think it is. Take Christianity, take the Big Bang, take evolution. These are all unfinished achievements of men (man and woman). They are at best what the moment would have them. They are moments in history. But they are not end points, definitive statements of this or that. To be a Christian is always something new, if it would survive. Otherwise it is dogma as is so much of the church, mosque, temple, and synagogue words and writings. As for the Big Bang, clearly it’s not yet understood. And evolution, well it’s very nature is change. What evolutionist, such as myself, would ever say this is the way it is and always will be.

Christianity is one of the biggest sinners in trying to fix things for all time as being the truth about man (and his God).

But Christianity was at its beginning anything but the dogma that is ensconced in the Vatican, and in many other religious hubs. There were Christians, in the early years, and more and more of them, but they were of all kinds and most often competing for the top spot on the mountain and flinging their rivals down. And the history of Christianity, instead of being of the rich differences of men’s understanding of the story of Jesus, is a long sad tale of something much like the train of kings, as in France or England, those who fought to be on the top, bishops and emperors, popes and the alpha dogs of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (what’s the word for emperor or pope in each of the hundreds, thousands of the world’s religions?). And for a long time, through the long night of the Middle Ages, it seemed that Catholicism had won.

(For the article about Karen King  by Lydialyle Gibson in the Harvard Magazine of November 2018, and from which I take most of what follows, please go here.)

King in her study of Christianity’s origins makes it clear just how varied were the earliest stirrings of Christianity, how rich and  diverse were the various congregations who called themselves Christians. And King makes it clear that much has been lost by Christianity becoming in King’s words a single trunk of the tree of Christianity. Better than the single fixed trunk of a tree would be the myriad directions taken by the branches of a bush. Just as our own biological history is best represented by a bush, so is Christianity according to King.

And perhaps because of this she turned, and had her students turn with her, to the study of the World’s Religions, that being clearly a bush with innumerable branches, not a tree with a single trunk. And in particular with her students she looked closely in her introductory course to the religions of the world, right next door to where she was teaching at Occidental College, in the city of Los Angeles that held within its neighborhoods almost an infinite humber of cultures, and along with cultures religions.

She and two other instructors divided their students into teams and asked them to pick “a something,” she says. “It could be the local farmacia”—which, in Latino culture, dispenses folk cures, religious amulets and candles, and limpias (“spiritual cleansings”)—or a church, synagogue, temple, or whatever.

“LA has everything. So they went out and found religion, that is religions.”

King rented a bus and took the class to Pentacostal meetings, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Hindu temples, a Buddhist monastery, a Muslim community center, the temporary synagogue of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. “Sometimes we would pick a spot on the map and draw a circle around it and send the students to find out what religion looks like inside that circle,” King says. The students would start by asking, “What do you believe?” By the end of the course, they were paying attention to artwork and architecture, music or the lack of it, teaching and meditation, prayer. They watched how worshippers gathered, whether men and women sat separately; they traced groups’ immigrant history.

The class altered King’s understanding of how to treat early Christianity. The thesis of the course had been that religion is at least partly a function of place. “I started noticing that scholars would talk about the ‘pure essence of Christianity,’ or what Christianity ‘is’ as a singular thing.

“But what Los Angeles shows you is that religion is always fully embedded in the culture of its place. It is diverse and always adapting.”

“And so that purity and synchronism are really artificial categories that don’t help us understand the complex beginnings of Christianity.” In Los Angeles, she once visited a Greek Orthodox church that displayed a timeline of Christian history in which the main trunk, from the origins of Jesus, led directly to the Orthodox Church, with Catholicism and Protestantism as side branches. In their own churches, of course, Catholics and Protestants each see themselves as the trunk.”

But of course the tree is a bush, and Christianity is just one (if you can even speak of it as one) among many branchings.

Orangutans and Tigers during the Trump years.

So far Donald Trump has said nothing about the tigers (nor has Donald Trump Junior yet displayed shot dead tigers on Twitter). So that’s all to the good. But, all to the bad, now in Trump time, is the environmental devastation as well as the numbers of animal extinctions (tigers and orangutans among others) for which not just unthinking and unfeeling people like Trump and friends, but all of us are responsible. Someone has said (I have this in my notes and can’t find it) that —

 Within two years we must commit to saving the web of life. Otherwise of course the web will be further torn and ultimately the tears becoming irreversible.

Mammal, bird, fish and reptile populations have fallen on average by 60% since 1970, finds a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report involving 59 scientists from around the world. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done,” says Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at the WWF.
Runaway human consumption is to blame: the biggest cause of wildlife loss is the annihilation of natural habitats, much of it to create farmland to feed humans and livestock, followed by killing for food. The WWF is calling on world leaders to strike a global deal at the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, similar to the Paris agreement on climate change, to limit and reverse the destruction. “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” says Barrett. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ — it is our life-support system.”

 

This from the Peanuts (Daily Pnut) that I love:

Now, of all the mammals on earth, 96 percent are livestock and humans and only 4 percent are wild mammals.

We Maniacs! We Blew It Up!

Last May a groundbreaking assessment of all life on earth was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The assessment revealed that while humans make up just 0.01 percent of all life, humanity has destroyed 83 percent of wild mammals, and half the plants. Now, of all the mammals on earth, 96 percent are livestock and humans and only 4 percent are wild mammals. Fast forward five months to the new estimate of the massacre of wildlife made in a major report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) involving 59 scientists from across the globe. This report shows the increasing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life billions of years in the making. It is that “web of life” upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
Just since 1970, less than 50 years ago, humans have wiped out 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. The world’s leading scientists are warning that while this huge loss is a tragedy in itself, what it really means is civilization’s very survival is threatened. WWF’s executive director of science and conservation Mike Barrett put it this way: “We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff. If there was a 60 percent decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
Worldwide, 60 percent of vertebrate animals are gone, but freshwater habitats are hit even harder, with populations having collapsed by 83 percent. South and Central America is the worst affected region globally. It’s the impact of unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles. “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” Barrett said. “This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” In other words, the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.

So then, what’s happening to the orangutan?

sumatran_orangutan_8.6.2012_Hero_and_Circle_image_XL_257636

The conversion of tropical forests to unsustainable palm oil plantations destroys the habitat of species like this Sumatran orangutan. As a result over 50,000 of these strange and wonderful creatures on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have died.  Orangutans whose habitats have been destroyed often enter villages and oil plantations in search of food where they are captured or killed by farmers who treat them as pests.

And finally there are the tigers, long time one of man’s favorite creatures. Well, in a word, what’s happened is captivity, there now being more of them in captivity than wild and free. These guys in the picture, in spite of appearances, are captive:

And what about this little guy below? Is he captive or is he free? Men without tigers, tigers free in the wild, will be different. Men everywhere, in tiger land or not, will have lost by their own neglect one more essential ingredient of their lives.

fullsizeoutput_d7c

How relevant and helpful is the liberal/conservative polarity?

My greatest anger and frustration while experiencing the recent confirmation battle over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court arose from having to listen to the conservative Republican Senators whose only interest seemed to be, not in getting at the truth of the allegations whatever they might be, past or present, but in blindly supporting their President, and turning the Kavanaugh nomination into a win for Trump. And in that way, of course, assuring their own eventual reelection to the Senate often from Trump country.

 

 

Were they even ever thinking that the Court ought to reflect the interests of the people. For example, the country by a large majority supports abortion and same sex marriage rights, (not to mention voting rights for minorities), and the Republican Senators would do away with both while clinging to the narrow interests of the Republican Party.

Did the Republican Senators consider anything other than their own selfish career goals while blindly supporting a demagogue president who admittedly doesn’t read and clearly doesn’t think?  Other than Kavanaugh being a conservative like them (whatever that may mean, and we were not told by the Senators what their being conservative means), and even minimally  qualified for the position given his 12 years as a judge on the US Court of Appeals DC circuit, and of course being a favorite of Donald Trump, what did Mitch McConnell et al. ever say of substance in support of Kavanaugh’s nomination? We know only that they did frequent the same social circles.

Now I ask myself, and have for years, is the liberal/conservative polarity, that which at least seems to separate the Senators into two political parties, still important, vital to the country, still somehow relevant to the functioning of our democracy?

I’m coming around to thinking it’s not but rather a Red Herring, something that keeps us away from addressing what’s much more important. In this case what’s more important than the  liberal/conservative differences, to the extent that they are even real, are not those differences but that which we share, that which we all, for some tens of thousands of years, have, with a preponderance of evidence revealed by the legions of evolutionary scientists, in common.

For from the time of the Enlightenment, if not before, aren’t there  liberal and conservative shared values, more or less,  those of a free press, free elections, representative government, individual rights and freedoms, freedom of religion while at the same time maintaining a wall of separation between church and state?

And I could go on with any number of others, tolerance of individual  differences, a respect for others with different views, and then one particularly important in the world today, given the huge movements of peoples looking for greater security, safety, homes and jobs, our supporting these movements of larger and larger numbers of immigrants, not turning away and excluding them as so many would now do, following the demagogic lead of Donald Trump .

In any case the  movements  of people are going on in spite of Trump and other leaders who would return us to the closed societies of the past.  And in fact today in the present time Trump is not making us great again, far from it, but by sealing off our borders to others he is making us not great but little, much less than we were through most of our history. Immigration, open societies, that sort of thing should be at the heart of both liberal and conservative discussions and programs. Why aren’t they?

And finally back to Kavanaugh, there is the great value of a federal court system staffed with strong and independent minded judges. Did the Senators ever tell us about how strong and independent minded was Brett Kavanaugh?  Are there liberals and conservatives, those freed from the unhealthy attachment to Trump, who wouldn’t agree about these kinds of things?

Aren’t the Enlightenment values shared by all of us, although the Republican Senators for their own selfish reasons, while publicly professing to be the only true conservatives (and again not saying what that means) have in fact bound themselves at the hip to an intolerant and thoroughly bigoted president who is probably without any personal knowledge of the historical movement called the Enlightenment, let alone the particular liberal and conservative values contained therein. This is apparently true for most if not all of the Republican Senators, certainly for Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Mike Crapo, John Thune, Roy Blount, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz to mention just the first few Trump followers that come to mind.

Let’s look a bit now (although I’ll have more to say in a subsequent blog) at what we’re told are the real differences between liberals and conservatives, to determine  if they are in fact real and relevant to our public lives. I think we’ll see that other than single issues, such as the death penalty, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. about which people do strongly disagree, even liberals among themselves and conservatives also among themselves, that in fact, there are no substantial differences.

Take the size of the government. Don’t both liberals and conservatives agree that governments are too large, have taken on more than they can possibly chew, and need  to be cut down to a more manageable size? And taxes, don’t they all want to reduce taxes, and don’t they all want not to wage wars and not to increase the national debt? But, and alas, don’t they all go on waging wars and increasing our nation’s debt?

Equality and inequality. Do conservatives not believe that there are societal forces at work that make opportunities fundamentally unequal for certain classes of people? They would have to be blind like the President not to believe that. For instance, a student who has to work a job to support his family and goes hungry every night can’t reasonably be expected to make the grades and acquire whatever else he or she might need to get into a prestigious college or University.

On the importance of work, and individual effort. Do liberals not believe that people should be free to succeed and fail according to their own actions and choices, and in particular that with the free schooling, subsidized housing, college scholarships, medicaid, and the many other services established by the liberals in the government that one will still only succeed by one’s hard work?  And don’t liberals believe that successful people have mostly earned their success and should reap the benefits without being overly burdened by taxes….

To be continued.

Lke what we have done to the chickens…

Thriller writers, I like them, I read them, I read alot of them. While reading them have I ever lost control, blacked out? No! Not yet anyway.

There are some that I especially like, in particular Louis Lamour (OK, he’s a Western writer but he still thrills me), John Macdonald, Robert Parker, and Frederick Forsyth,  of these four Forsyth is the only one still alive. Still living also, are others that I read, detective fiction writers, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais being two of them.

Now there are thousands, tens of thousands of thriller writers. More than anyone of us could ever read in a lifetime of thriller reading. And there are millions, hundreds of millions of thriller readers. I give the thrillers only a small spot in my day or week, for otherwise I would never read or do anything else. The books I’m reading right now, all on my iPhone, at least the first 15 most recent of them, “recent” being a helpful Kindle category are:

 

  • John MacDonald’s A Purple Place for Dying,
  • Mikhail B Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,
  • Martha Raddatz’s The Long Road Home.
  • Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison,
  • Paul Davies’ The Goldilocks Enigma,
  • Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws,
  • Martin Rees’ Just Six  Numbers that shape the universe,
  • John Irving’s The Cider House Rules,
  • Jack Higgins’Solo,
  • Simone de Beauvoir’s Pour une morale de l’ambiguité,
  • Edmond Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties,
  • Treasure Island (with my grandson),
  • Kenneth Miller’s Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul,
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
  • Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

No I haven’t yet read them all.  And in fact, if I look at my own past reading history, I’ll never go beyond a chapter or two or an introduction. (Actually my own experience has shown me that non-fiction would do better to be not of book, but of essay length, and then I at least would have read many more of them.)

There are the thousands, not yet ten thousand, hard copy books here at home on our bookshelves most of which I haven’t read through. These few thousand books have for the most part stuck close to us, have “followed” us throughout our now long lifetimes (not followed rather but hauled along after us) from Paris to New York then to St John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, 4 years later back to Rockport, MA, then onto Beverly, MA to the school that my wife and I founded in Rockport in 1972, and now, for the past ten years or so, since 2006, the books are here with us in Tampa, Fl. where we are helping to homeschool our grandkids.

While I recognize them, probably could say even when and where I purchased them, what they’re really doing now, at least from often passing their spines quite visible on my shelves, (where they stay since I no longer read them) is reminding me daily of what I would like to forget, the fact that I have never really read right through most of them, and that now in my 80s I never will. They remind me also that they will soon need a new home. I’m working on that.

 
So what is all this about? What am I saying? Yes I like books, I like to read books. But most books I acquire I don’t finish. Although I never tire of going back and reading the thrillers a second, third and fourth time, in particular Louis Lamour and John MacDonald, I’ve never read through even one time, Kant, Hegel, or more recently John Dewey. In fact probably the only books that I read from one end to the other are the thrillers. While I don’t think I’m alone in this way of doing things, I’m sure there are many also who do read the non-fiction books right through from beginning to end, or actually may even work on a good number of the problems in the calculus texts of which I have a good number and with which I no longer struggle. I admire them.

During my lifetime I have never stopped buying books and mostly not reading them. We don’t do that with clothes and technology and cars, and such, or at least not to the extent that we do so with books. If I had my life to do over would I do it any differently? Probably.

John Macdonald’s Travis McGee series is a favorite of mine. I’ve finished all his books, probably some 60 or 70 of them (ditto for Louis Lamour). Sure I’m caught up in the story, as with MacDonald and Lamour, and Parker, and Crais, and others, but it’s often from MacDonald that I also grow in my understanding, from his own powerful way of describing and seeing life. I felt this very strongly just today when I read the passage below (for at least the third time!).

In any case I don’t think we should get too hung up on our ways of classifying books, even as fiction and non-fiction, and that a more interesting and more helpful separation, would be that between the good writers and bad writers, and we have to decide, each one of us, those who are the good ones and read them, and avoid the others.

In my life MacDonald has been one of the good ones, and he gives us his profound thoughts and observations about much in our lives, as for example about what he calls the “why question,” as in the following passage from Chapter 3 of his A Purple Place for Dying.

 

State Western was one of those new institutions they keep slapping up to take care of the increasing flood of kids. It was beyond the sleepy-looking town. Hundreds of cars winked in the mid-morning sun on huge parking lots. The university buildings were giant brown shoeboxes in random pattern over substantial acreage. It was ten o’clock and kids were hurrying on their long treks from building to building.

Off to the right was the housing complex of dormitories, and a big garden apartment layout which I imagined housed faculty and administrative personnel. A sign at the entrance drive to the campus buildings read: NO STUDENT CARS. The blind sides of the big buildings held big bright murals made of ceramic tile, in a stodgy treatment of such verities as Industry, Freedom, Peace, etc.

The paths crisscrossed the baked earth. There were some tiny areas of green, lovingly nurtured, but it would be years before it all looked like the architect’s rendering. The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes. Khakis and jeans, cottons and colors.

Vague glances, empty as camera lenses, moved across me as I drove slowly by. I was on the other side of the fence of years. They could relate and react to adults with whom they had a forced personal contact. But strangers were as meaningless to them as were the rocks and scrubby trees. They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures on the corridor walls—drab, ended and slightly spooky. I noticed a goodly sprinkling of Latin blood among them, the tawny cushiony girls and the bullfighter boys. They all seemed to have an urgency about them, that strained harried trimester look. It would cram them through sooner, and feed them out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets, binary systems, recreation funds, taxi transports, group adjustments, tenure, constructive hobbies.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

It is all functional, of course. But it is like what we have done to chickens. Forced growth under optimum conditions, so that in eight weeks they are ready for the mechanical picker. The most forlorn and comical statements are the ones made by the grateful young who say, Now I can be ready in two years and nine months to go out and earn a living rather than wasting four years in college.

Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, the measured and guided study of the history of man’s reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: Why? Today the good ones, the ones who want to ask why, find no one around with any interest in answering the question, so they drop out, because theirs is the type of mind which becomes monstrously bored at the trade-school concept. A devoted technician is seldom an educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no more sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence than does one of those chickens fattening itself for the mechanical plucking, freezing and packaging.

 

 
About the Author John D. MacDonald was an American novelist and short story writer. His works include the Travis McGee series and the novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1962 MacDonald was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America; in 1980 he won a National Book Award. In print he delighted in smashing the bad guys, deflating the pompous, and exposing the venal. In life he was a truly empathetic man; his friends, family, and colleagues found him to be loyal, generous, and practical. In business he was fastidiously ethical. About being a writer, he once expressed with gleeful astonishment, “They pay me to do this! They don’t realize, I would pay them.” He spent the later part of his life in Florida with his wife and son. He died in 1986.

Seizing the words of others, and not wanting to let go, Two

Karl Popper (1902-1994) wrote, perhaps first, about Open and Closed societies. Why is this so important right now? Because our president would, if allowed his way, close us off from the world. Whether a society is classified as a Closed Society or an Open Society (Patriotism speaks to the one, globalism to the other) is directly related to the types of freedoms available.

In a Closed Society, its values, rules and traditions are more important than the individuals which live in it. Members of the society are not independent-minded; they are only part of a circle of the larger society. They have to live, behave and think according to the rules of their society. [the Senate Republicans for example –we have just heard from Dr. Ford and Brett Cavanaugh!, September 28, 2018]
In contrast, in an Open Society, personal beliefs and freedoms are more important than the rules of the society.

[See The Economist, Jan 31, 2016]

The first book in English by Professor Sir Karl Popper was accepted for publication in London while Hitler’s bombs were falling, and was published in 1945 under the title ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’. 

20160130_usp506

“MY THEORY of democracy is very simple and easy for everybody to understand. But its fundamental problem is so different from the age-old theory of democracy which everybody takes for granted that it seems that this difference has not been grasped, just because of the simplicity of the theory. My theory avoids high-sounding, abstract words like “rule”, “freedom” and “reason”. I do believe in freedom and reason, but I do not think that one can construct a simple, practical and fruitful theory in these terms….The classical theory is, in brief, the theory that democracy is the rule of the people, and that the people have a right to rule.”


And in fact those who would hold onto their own powerful positions will sooner or later take away the freedom of movement of others  [North Korea, Israel, China, Turkey, and Donald Trump’s America] or go even further and take away the freedom of thought and of the press [China, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Donald Trump’s America].

Freedom of movement and thinking is threatened in probably most of  the 54 countries of Africa. The irony here being that man, Homo sapiens, began his journey in Africa some tens of thousands of years ago, travelled without restrictions to all the continents of the earth, and today the movement out of Africa continues but everywhere is obstructed and restricted.
Am I correct to say that Donald Trump would make of what has always been an open society a closed society of those with the same beliefs? I don’t think even as president he can do this. But from his perch at  Mar-a-Lago he’s sure trying.


Samuel Scheffler, Death and the After Life.  My argument has been that personal survival already does matter to us less than we tend to suppose, and that the survival of humanity matters to us more. In saying this, I am not underestimating our powerful impulses to personal survival or the deep terror that many people feel when contemplating their own deaths. Nor am I denying the importance of self-interested motivations in ordinary human behavior. My point is that despite the power of these attitudes, there is a very specific sense in which our own survival is less important to us than the survival of the human race.
The fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people who we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities. Or to put it more positively, the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . .
This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism. Yet the prospect of the imminent disappearance of the race poses a far greater threat to our ability to treat other things as mattering to us and, in so doing, it poses a far greater threat to our continued ability to lead value-laden lives.

Well, yes, I can agree with Scheffler, but it is still a question for me, as to just how the survival of the race is a greater threat to us than our own survival.

 Klaus Scharioth: “For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment. I think that’s what keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.

Klaus Scharioth, born in 1946, the year after Germany’s surrender in World War II, served as Germany’s ambassador to the United States during both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations. His earliest impressions of America were of a magnanimous, generous country.

 

Seizing the words of others, and not wanting to let go, One

Sometimes I think it might be enough in order to share my own thinking on this blog, to simply post the words of others that for whatever reason have particularly impressed. For I have known for a long time that I am much more what I read than even the clothes that I wear or the food that I eat. We are to a large extent what we pick up by our contacts with others. And unflatteringly although I may live by ideas when was the last time that I had an idea all my own?

Hence a number of my recent blogs that are simply the posting on my own blog the words of others. When I think about it I might say that I live, and come alive, often by what others have  said and written, often the very things I would have liked to have said or written myself. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this. For given the miracle of the internet how easy it is to read what others are writing and thinking. Not a day goes by that I don’t jot down in my journal someone else’s words that I’ve seized as my own and don’t want to let go. But of course I forget them, don’t hold on for long, and by the dawn of the next day am onto something else no less fascinating and important.

Here I will post from time to time  the words of others that I’ve recently noted down in my journal. While these words are probably saying something that I know well from long experience they are saying it better than I ever did. Also  they may be introducing me to a new thought or idea and it’s these I try to hold onto and not let go. Does being in my blog at all lengthen their lifetime? Maybe, or maybe not.

I was struck in Haidt and Lukianoff’s book (The Coddling of the American Mind) by a quote that is almost a perfect inversion of today’s political conversation. “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them,” Martin Luther King said, which is why today’s cultural revolutionaries have so little time for him. But he made a huge practical difference in moving everyone forward a little. He made things better by including more. That was also how we won marriage equality, the biggest civil rights victory of my generation. We did it by drawing larger and larger circles, by treating the other side as arguing in good faith, and appealing to a shared humanity, to what we have in common as citizens, rather than what divides us as members of a tribe. Today’s well-intentioned activists in contrast, are drawing an ever smaller, purer, more tightly policed circle, in order to wage a scorched earth war against another, ever-purer, tightly policed circle. And God help anyone who gets in their way.

[Two “Seasoned Nuts” from the Daily Pnut of September 19: The mention of a “charlatan come to power” in Germany  makes us think of Donald Trump, although fortunately our Trump is not in the same league as Germany’s Hitler. And we recognize our own president even more by his “hardness” becoming cruelty, and his “tendency to bluff”  becoming a seemingly endless series of untruths.]

“To some Germans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Berlin. To the majority of Germans Hitler had — or would shortly assume — the aura of a truly charismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgment, for the next twelve tempestuous years.” – William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
“In his case, what had been hardness became cruelty, while a tendency to bluff became plain dishonesty. He often lied without hesitation and assumed that others lied to him.” – Ibid

[And a comment: I’ve never read Murakami but the reviewer’s well chosen words are more than enough to make me want to read him, “our ordinary lives becoming” in his work “something wondrous.”]

“Haruki Murakami is one of those rare novelists who can turn our ordinary lives… into something wondrous” (Newsweek)

[I borrow these words of Max Boot, in The Washington Post, of August 30, 2018]

Two world wars later, Europeans and Americans longed for nothing more than the return of the “lazy peacetime life.” But with the passing of the Greatest Generation and even the Silent Generation (those, like John McCain, born between 1925 and 1945), we seem to have forgotten how precious peace and prosperity can be — and how hard to maintain. I fear the West may be sleepwalking into another catastrophe out of sheer boredom as much as anything else.

[These words are really borrowed from Abraham Flexner (1866 – 1959),  an American educator, best known for his role in the 20th century reform of medical and higher education in the United States and Canada.  But I take it directly as it appears in an op ed piece of George Will,  in the Washington Post,  August 29, 2108]

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims “Eureka!” but when he or she murmurs “That’s strange.” Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists “driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” He wanted to banish the word “use” to encourage institutions of learning to be devoted more to “the cultivation of curiosity” and less to “considerations of immediacy of application.” It is axiomatic that knowledge is the only resource that increases when used, and it is a paradox of prosperity that nations only reap practical innovations from science by regarding them as afterthoughts, coming long after basic science.

[Magicians & Politicians, How Trump Gets Away with Lying, as Explained by a Magician.  Ever wonder how politicians cheat without consequence? Magicians don’t. Ben Chapman, in Medium of June 27.]

Magicians are the best liars in the business. Not because they tell the most lies, or the biggest lies, but because they can get away with them even when you are anticipating the lies. We all know magic doesn’t exist. We all know that magicians are somehow lying to us when they are performing. And yet, the profession of magician has been around for thousands of years. It’s the same with politicians. 

[From an old piece by Michelle Goldberg, ‘Evil Has Won.’ Pro-American Germans feel betrayed. July 13, 2008. Klaus Scharioth,  served as Germany’s ambassador to the United States during both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations…, His earliest impressions of America were of a magnanimous, generous country.]

“For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment,” Scharioth said. “I think that keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls

John McCain at 81 years is dead. And what a life he led, although in important respects it didn’t work out, as he would have liked.

For one, for almost from the time he left the US Naval Academy in 1958 he tied himself irredeemably to unnecessary and subsequently failed wars, wars that may have been well fought but were terribly wrongly conceived.

For two, the heroism of his father’s war, that he so longed to be a part of, had no place in Hanoi where he was imprisoned for five long years. Nor, and for three, was there any real greatness to be had in the wars against the peoples of the Middle East, wars that McCain continued to wage if only as a U S Senator. And finally and for last  there were the  presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008, won by George Bush and Barack Obama, who would one after the other eulogize the Senator in Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1, the two campaigns both ending in failure. McCain remained in the Senate, a frustrated and conflicted man, until his death on August 25 of this year.

McCain wasn’t the country’s hero that he would have liked to have been. But he was a good man, and in some respects a great man (“let them go before me”) and throughout his life, especially remarkable in the age of Trump, he was honest and given to straight talking.

I want to have something good to remember him by. And I found a lot, of this, a lot of good things to remember him by, in a brief, but excellent “vita” of McCain written by George Blaustein  for N+1 magazine. What follows here  are the first couple of pages from Blaustein’s Vita,  My Fellow Prisoners.

My Fellow Prisoners

On John McCain

THERE IS a right way to swear, a right way to spit, a right way to roll a cigarette on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a right way to drink wine on the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto, a right way to get gored by a bull, a right way to dismantle a welfare program, a right way to blow up a bridge, a right way to taunt your captors, a right way to catch a bonefish, a right way to lead, a right way to serve, and finally there is a right way to die.

The right way is the heroic way and the manly way, which happens also to be the moral or ethical way, which happens in turn to be the picturesque way. You will sometimes fail to follow the right way, in which case there is a right way to grimace and a right way to atone.

“MOST CURRENT FICTION bores the shit out of me,” said John McCain in 2007, surprising no one. He always gravitated to the lost generation, Ernest Hemingway above all. If we are to believe McCain’s account, when he was 12 (this would be 1948) he found two four-leaf clovers in the yard and ran inside to preserve them in the pages of a book. From his father’s shelves he happened to grab For Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and his eyes lighted upon this:

“What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.

“Shoot thee,” said Pablo.

“When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.

“Now,” said Pablo.

“Where?” asked the man.

“Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. Have you anything to say?”

“Nada,” said the civil. “Nothing but it is an ugly thing.”

This is the scene in which Pablo, leader of a band of Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, kills four policemen and has the town’s fascists flailed to death.

The mature McCain who relates this anecdote admires Hemingway’s “austere glare at the savagery that war can coax from even good-natured people,” and notes that the scene “should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting.” There is a wrong way to kill fascists. But young McCain was beguiled: Hemingway’s account of the Spanish Civil War “gave flight to a boy’s romantic notions of courage and love, of idealistic men and women ennobled by their selflessness and the misuse and betrayal they suffered for it.”

The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor of Spanish who has come to blow up a bridge for the Republican side. He falls in love with a girl named Maria. Despite Pablo’s treachery and the mission’s increasing risk and his own doubt that blowing up the bridge will really accomplish anything, he does his duty. Old McCain recounts his younger self’s breathless page-turning:

Hemingway, the rascal, allows the reader a brief moment of hope with a quick feint toward a happy ending as the hero nearly escapes his fate and rides to a better life with his new love. . . . I, still smug because I had penetrated the story’s early mysteries, fell for it and cheered silently.

But instead of a happy ending we get a picturesque death, which, young McCain realizes, is an even happier ending. Jordan is injured by an explosion, orders to safety the Spaniards he has come to love, drags himself to a tree, and waits there with a gun. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate to leave it very much,” he thinks as he dies. That line gave McCain the title for his second memoir—Worth the Fighting For—in which he fondly recounts this romantical reading. “How great it made me feel as I closed the book and charged on with my young life,” old McCain remembers, “aspiring to Jordan’s courage and nobility and certain I would possess it someday.”

It must be nice to have a favorite book, and to have it remain your favorite book your whole life. McCain reread For Whom the Bell Tolls many times, but the first impression of a 12-year-old looking for models of greatness and manly exertion—“how and why to be brave, how a real hero lives and dies”—remained the truest impression. No older, wiser reading could supplant it. To read Hemingway and fall for it, to enjoy falling for it, to think it is your destiny to fall for it—maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.


 

Wasn’t there something said one time about loving your neighbor as yourself?

In the scale of American blunders — from the Dred Scott decision of 1857F36CADD4-0AA8-4F18-A5B7-A4F52D1D6E7D

to the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, to the tragedy of Vietnam — is the Trump presidency really unique?

(Bret Stephens, August 30, 2018)

Stephens is asking, have we done worse things? We’ll sure, but I would say that these single unfortunate and destructive acts of the past are not appropriate actions against which to measure the Trump presidency.

What Trump is doing to America, to all of us, and so far without effective opposition, is undermining the shared humanity that always has and still does account for our very greatest achievements, be they cultural, artistic, scientific, or intellectual. Without our cherishing our neighbors as belonging no less than ourselves to one and the same human family our lives are subject to constant warfare, of tribes endlessly warring among themselves. the Middle East being not the only example but the most pronounced of what may happen when our shared humanity is no longer felt.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.   Leviticus 19-17