My Teacher

February 20, 2013

He was unassumingly regal in bearing and he was a  small man, humble and self effacing.

He was icon to many, unique in countless ways and despite his protestations was thrust into the limelight. He was at the same time an every man, happiest in the back of the room or lost in a crowd. If you didn’t know him, he was almost invisible. If you were fortunate enough to be in his sphere, his very presence was the silent thunder of greatness and dignity.

There are the legions of students- those who spent years with him and will tell you they were better for it. There are others, more unfortunate souls who knew him only in passing.

He was a man who appreciated the discoveries and wonders of science but more than that, he was a man who celebrated and whose life revolved around the morality of real human connection and the human condition.

He was a deeply religious man but he never wore his religion on his sleeve. Imposing his beliefs on others was an idea that was abhorrent to him.  Like all moral men, his intimate relationships remained private.

He would tolerate no hate or bigotry and at the same time he demanded equal morality and ethical behavior from all.

He served his community in ways seen and unseen with never failing devotion and conviction.

He never spoke ill of others (save the times a goal wasn’t scored despite a missed golden opportunity or in the case of an obviously blind umpire) and would not stay in the presence of those who freely maligned others or engaged in gossip.

He was a good- no, a great- father, though he never thought so. He believed his work, commitments and obligations shortchanged his family. Of course, he never really saw the impact he had on others. It was the totality of his life, the way he lived his life which inspired his family, students and others. As far he was concerned, there was always room for improvement and more to do.

He could be profoundly absent minded and clueless, which frustrated those who marveled at his insight and attention to nuance. He surrounded himself with like minded persons and others of the eyebrow raising variety. To the casual observer it seems all they shared in common was the same bespoke tailors, Rumpled and Sons.

His small troupe of colleagues, friends really, seemed to have a language all their own, a kind of shorthand which referenced ideas and individuals by referring to their work. “Remember what so and so said? No, not the January Journal but  the November issue!” That seemingly contrived method of communication seemed  to deliberately exclude and frustrate  just about everyone else. The strategy proved highly effective.

Every now and then after spending time together, he and I would have occasion to walk to the train station together to head our separate ways. Sometimes we’d continue an ongoing conversation and other times I’d just listen. Years later he would say the best times were when I asked lots of questions. I once noted how silly some of those questions were at the time but my teacher just laughed.

He had the highest expectations from all, each according to his ability.

A most memorable lesson, discussed and refined over the years was a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

Mostly, he loved his family. Family legend has him once absentmindedly asking, “Do you think they know?”

Despite his stature and earnest, simple and moving eloquence, both silent and spoken,  his most profound lessons were taught by example. There just weren’t enough of them.

That’s the way it is with teachers.

Unscheduled Interruption

January 9, 2013

Posting will resume on or about January 18, 2013

The Hierarchy of Sports

January 9, 2013

Via US News

The life of an illegal immigrant is not an easy one. There is the matter of the day to day- work, taking care of family and in the case of younger illegals (the vast majority of them) simply growing up. Then there is the underbelly- the exploitation many illegals have to live with, the challenges they face in procuring necessary documents in this increasingly document- and computerized- society. 

While the media tends to focus on the criminal element (Jose Q Public going to work day and day out won’t sell newspapers), the vast majority of illegals are honest, law abiding and hard working  seeking no more than than a better life for themselves and their children.

There are many Americans who believe that is liberal spewed hogwash but it is the truth- and it has nothing to do with politics.

Imagine you lived in an environment in which it was virtually impossible to support your family. Imagine your parents, grandparents and other close relatives lived in poverty with no hope of escape. Imagine that environment was filled with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats or criminal gangs. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to change that reality? Isn’t that what generations of immigrants- legal and otherwise- have done?

Since when has offering the teeming masses an opportunity for a better life, become a political football? How have we become a nation which turns it’s back on ‘wretched refuse’?

Yes, we are a nation of laws- but we are also meant to be a merciful nation. We can find a way to accommodate those who have circumvented the legal and appropriate ways to apply for immigrant status. They may have to wait for those legal applicants to move to the front of the line (where they belong) pay back taxes and so on.

This nation has been enriched by immigrants since her inception, believing in and following the American dream. Shortchanging those law abiding illegal immigrants will hurt them, to be sure- but it will us as a nation, even more.

National Affairs:

In the controversy over illegal immigration that has roiled our politics for decades, the image of “living in the shadows” has been invoked by all sides. For immigrant advocates, “the shadows” are where the undocumented are harassed by overzealous law-enforcement officers and exploited by unscrupulous landlords and employers. For many other Americans, “living in the shadows” conjures vaguely sinister intruders using public services to which they are not entitled and preying on law-abiding Americans through illicit activities and crime.

Yet regardless of one’s views on the issue, this imagery is profoundly misleading. It helps to perpetuate the myths and exaggerations that have made our immigration debate so fruitless. Undocumented immigrants are hardly mere victims of economic or political forces beyond their control. But neither are they dangerous criminals or public charges lurking on the fringes of our society. Rather, they are responsible agents who have made difficult choices in a complicated and risky environment — an environment for which all Americans bear some blame.

These choices produce both beneficial and negative consequences for the nation and for the immigrants themselves. And our policies must contend with both sets of effects. If we are to find our way to a solution, we must examine the genuine predicament of the millions of illegal immigrants in our midst without ignoring the legitimate concerns millions of Americans have about their presence.

If we succeeded in removing the hyperbole and stereotypes from the immigration debate, our politics might open itself to a balanced approach to the problem: legalization for as many undocumented immigrants as possible, but citizenship for none of them. Under this proposal, illegal immigrants who so desired could become “permanent non-citizen residents” with no option of ever naturalizing.

Such a policy would do much to address the predicament faced by the undocumented while at the same time respecting and addressing the concerns of those Americans who have long demanded that illegals be penalized for breaking the law. It would respond to the challenge of illegal immigration in its genuine complexity and ambiguity. And only when we acknowledge that complexity, looking beyond the simple caricatures that too often shape the immigration debate, can we see our way to a plausible policy solution.


The first step in clarifying our debate is to move beyond some familiar distortions about just who illegal immigrants are, how they live, and how and why they got here. Based on a variety of surveys and estimates, we actually have a decent understanding of the illegal-immigrant population in America. The latest figures compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, a number that includes more than one million children under the age of 18. Overall, the undocumented represent approximately 4% of the nation’s population, 5% of its labor force, and 28% of its foreign-born population.

These numbers understate things somewhat, for the simple reason that the undocumented often live with relatives who are here legally. Some illegals have spouses who are either legal immigrants or citizens. Still more numerous are the 4.5 million native-born (and therefore citizen) children under 18 with at least one illegal parent. As a result, the total number of individuals living in households with at least one illegal immigrant exceeds 15 million, representing about 6% of the population.

The classic image of illegal immigrants entering our country is one of silhouetted figures sneaking across the Mexican border. About half of the undocumented arrived this way; less noted, however, is that the remainder initially came legally — typically on work or tourist visas — but then overstayed their allotted residency periods. While there are sizable contingents of illegals from Asia, Europe, Africa, and Canada, almost 60% are from Mexico, and about 20% more are from Central and South America or the Caribbean. Therefore, about 80% of illegal immigrants are Latinos.

Today’s figure of roughly 11 million illegals living in the U.S. is actually lower than the record high of 12 million in 2007. This decline reflects decreased inflows since the Great Recession of 2008, though there does not appear to have been much, if any, increase in the number of illegals voluntarily returning home in recent years. This lower number is also the result of steadily tightening border enforcement, including increased deportations initiated by the Bush administration and now sustained by the Obama administration.

Because of these developments, the undocumented population is now generally believed to have stabilized at this lower number. And one result of this stabilization is an increase in the length of time the average illegal immigrant has resided in the United States. In 2011, Pew estimated that more than three-fifths of adult illegals had been living in the United States for at least ten years. More than a fifth had lived here between five and nine years. And only 15% had been here less than five years. By contrast, in 2000, Pew reported that 44% of adult undocumented immigrants had been living in the United States for at least ten years and about one-third for less than five years.

However long they have been here, the undocumented are strikingly young. Pew reports that the median age of undocumented adults is 36.2, compared to 46.1 for legal-immigrant adults and 46.5 for native-born American adults. These numbers reflect the fact that the many risks associated with illegal status — travel through dangerous terrain, larcenous smugglers, unscrupulous employers — are more easily negotiated by the young, and particularly by young men. This is one reason why men significantly outnumber women among the illegal-immigrant population: Of the undocumented immigrants over the age of 18 currently residing in the U.S., there are approximately 5.8 million males, compared to 4.2 million females.

The age and gender profiles of the undocumented translate into a large cohort of young, unattached males — with no spouses, partners, or children, at least in this country. According to Pew, nearly half of illegal-immigrant men are “unpartnered adults without children,” while fewer than one-fifth of illegal-immigrant women are. Such patterns account for the recurrent image of undocumented immigrants as single males noisily crowding into run-down apartments or hanging out on street corners looking for work and getting into trouble.

On the other hand, their youth and fertility mean that illegal immigrants are frequently young parents. They are actually much more likely to live in a household with a spouse (or partner) and at least one child than are legal immigrants and native-born adults. Pew estimates that 45% of undocumented immigrants live in such situations, compared with 34% of legal immigrants and 21% of native-born Americans. Consequently, while illegals represent about 4% of the U.S. adult population, their children account for 8% of newborns. These numbers point to the challenges that illegal immigration poses for schools, hospitals, and other service providers. Anxiety about these challenges has translated into charges that the undocumented are here primarily to sponge off the nation.

But while concerns about illegals’ reliance on social programs may be warranted (as discussed below), most undocumented immigrants are not here looking for “freebies.” Overwhelmingly, they migrate in pursuit of work. This is particularly true for undocumented males: Among all men in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64, illegal immigrants are the most likely to be working. In 2009, for example, 93% of undocumented men participated in the labor force, compared to 86% of legal-immigrant men and 81% of native-born men. Yet the opposite pattern is evident among women. In 2009, 58% of undocumented women were in the labor force, compared to 66% of legal-immigrant women and 72% of native-born women. So while a majority of undocumented women do work, more of them remain at home — presumably to care for their children — than do other women in America.

However hard undocumented immigrants work, their professional prospects are limited by their low skill and education levels. Almost half have not completed high school, and nearly a third have less than a ninth-grade education. Pew notes that 22% of U.S. residents between the ages of 25 and 64 with less than a high-school education are undocumented immigrants.

Their incomes are commensurately meager. Even though undocumented-immigrant households contain, on average, more workers than do households composed of native-born Americans, the former’s median annual income in 2007 was $36,000, compared to the latter’s $50,000. And while legal-immigrant households have experienced significant income gains over time, illegal-immigrant households have not. Moreover, the latter’s poverty rates are also disproportionately high: About one-third of the children of undocumented immigrants are poor, compared to about a fifth of the children of native-born parents.

Little of this comes as news to most Americans, who are not surprised to hear that illegals are concentrated in jobs that are unpleasant, unsafe, or low-paying — and sometimes all of the above. For example, as of 2008, illegal immigrants were 21% of parking-lot attendants, 25% of farm workers, 27% of maids and housekeepers, 28% of dishwashers, 37% of drywallers, and 40% of brick masons. By industry, again as of 2008, the undocumented were 10% of workers in leisure and hospitality, 14% in construction, 20% in dry cleaning and laundry, 23% in private household employment, and 28% in landscaping. In addition to what these data tell us about living standards among the undocumented, they highlight a particularly difficult aspect of the nation’s illegal-immigration challenge: Important sectors of the U.S. economy have become dependent on undocumented workers.

These are sectors where workers are often vulnerable to exploitation by small businessmen, many of them fellow immigrants. In such jobs, wages are meager and benefits are often non-existent. So it’s not surprising that, as of 2008, three-fifths of undocumented adults lacked health insurance, compared to 24% of legal-immigrant adults and 14% of native-born adults. Yet it is too easy to overlook the corollary of this statistic: that two-fifths, or 40%, of illegals do have health insurance. “Life in the shadows” is not uniformly dark.

Similarly, the Pew Hispanic Center reports that, as of 2008, “[o]nly 35 percent of unauthorized immigrant households [were] homeowners, half the rate of US-born households” (emphasis added). Pew goes on to note that, among undocumented immigrants who have lived here for a decade or more, “only 45 percent own their own homes” (again, emphasis added).

These data are doubly revealing. At one level, they indicate a degree of material well-being that would not be anticipated from the household-income figures cited above. But they also suggest, once again, that the undocumented have not exactly been cowering in the shadows. Rather, these immigrants have taken major steps toward entering the American mainstream, like buying homes. They have been encouraged to do so by an assortment of public policies, including the Internal Revenue Service’s move to supply illegal immigrants with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers in lieu of Social Security numbers, which has allowed undocumented workers to secure mortgages. To be sure, these immigrants relied heavily on sub-prime loans, and their home-ownership rates are undoubtedly lower today than they were before the housing bust. But the tendency to regard the undocumented as victims leads organizations like Pew — as well as much of the American public — to focus on the gap between them and the rest of us, consequently overlooking the advances made by illegal immigrants.

Similarly, illegal immigrants have been joining labor unions and participating in demonstrations, including highly visible and angry street protests in 2006 against proposed punitive legislation in Congress. Meanwhile, their undocumented children have been educated in public schools, with many preparing for higher education and loudly demanding in-state tuition at public universities. Such young people have also been visibly advocating passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide illegal immigrants who came here as minors a path to citizenship.

To be sure, none of this means that illegal immigrants live at ease in America. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that, in 2010, 84% of undocumented Latinos worried “some” or “a lot” that a family member, a close friend, or they themselves could be deported. Only 35% of the polled illegals said they were “satisfied with the way things are going in this country today.” This sentiment tracked with the response among Hispanics generally, which was 36%.

Yet what should surprise us about these numbers is not how low they are but how high they are — higher, in fact, than the 25% of all Americans who expressed satisfaction with the direction of the country. As Pew emphasizes, ever since this question was first asked in 2003, “Hispanics have nearly always been more positive than non-Hispanics about the direction of the country.”

Similarly, after years of vituperative debates over immigration and record-high deportation rates, overwhelming majorities of undocumented immigrants still say there is more opportunity in this country than where they came from. In 2010, 79% of undocumented Hispanics told Pew that “the opportunity to get ahead is better in the United States.”…

Read it all.

The GOP seems to have squandered away it’s traditional strong suits- national security and foreign relations. For a party which has been ravaged by what many consider extremist elements to ideas which now seem tired and out of step,  the Republicans are seeking an anchor, something which might tether their fractious party, together.

In a rapidly changing world, foreign policy might be the glue the party needs. Richard Nixon ended the war in Vietnam and opened up China, Ronald Reagan stared down Gorbachev in Helsinki and at the Berlin Wall. Republican administrations oversaw the reunification of Europe and united the nation after 9/11.

And then came the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the global war on terror.

There were successes and their were failures but mostly, we became tentative which only exacerbated failures. What is clear is the 21st century cannot be understood through the lenses of the 20th century.

The GOP needs to reestablish their credibility. The voters have established that as a fact, not as an opinion. While the party has a long way to go, starting fresh with foreign policy is a good first step.

Foreign Affairs:

Needed: Less Fox, More Foxes

This past fall was not kind to U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It became increasingly clear that Afghan security forces were not going to be ready for the 2014 transition. The New York Times highlighted the administration’s failure to persuade the Iraqi government to allow a residual U.S. force to stay in the country, leaving Baghdad ever more at the mercy of Tehran. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought publicly over how to respond to Iran’s advancing nuclear program. The administration’s much-touted “pivot” to the Pacific seemed like more talk than action, as the United States passively watched tensions rise between China and Japan. And then, the administration tripped over itself repeatedly in trying to explain the fiasco in Benghazi, Libya.

Yet despite all this, Obama not only won the election in November but was more trusted by the public than Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, on foreign policy and national security issues. The Pew Research Center’s last preelection poll, for example, found that more voters trusted Obama than Romney on foreign affairs, by 50 percent to 42 percent, and CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys showed similar figures. Tracking polls suggested that the foreign policy debate helped halt whatever momentum Romney had.

This was all a big change from the past. Republicans had previously possessed a decades-long advantage on foreign policy. Exit polls have shown that voters consistently trusted Republican presidential candidates over Democratic ones on foreign policy from the Vietnam era until 2012. So Obama’s edge cannot be chalked up simply to incumbency. And if this exception becomes a trend, it will pose a serious problem for the Republican Party, significantly altering the political landscape. Foreign policy is rarely the decisive issue in presidential campaigns, but it does matter: even voters who profess not to care about the rest of the world need to feel comfortable that their candidate can be the next commander in chief. A candidate’s command of foreign policy acts as a proxy for assessing broader leadership abilities. As of right now, far too many Republicans flunk that test.

So how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing — the “global war on terror” — and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party’s foreign policy.

Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don’t act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.


Republican presidents from the 1950s through the early 1990s had variegated records, but they had one thing in common: they left behind favorable legacies on foreign policy. Eisenhower stabilized the rivalry with the Soviet Union, preventing it from escalating into a violent conflagration. He dramatically improved the U.S. foreign-policy-making process, strengthened domestic infrastructure, extricated the United States from the Korean War, and limited U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Nixon improved relations with the Soviet Union, opened relations with China, and extricated the United States from Vietnam. Reagan spoke truth to power by railing against the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” but when faced with a genuine negotiating partner in Mikhail Gorbachev, he did not hesitate to sign numerous treaties, reduce Cold War tensions, and cut nuclear stockpiles. George H. W. Bush adroitly seized the opportunities afforded by the end of the Cold War to expand the West’s liberal order to the world at large, as well as overseeing German reunification, rebuffing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and locking in Mexico’s path toward economic liberalization.

Each president built his reputation as a foreign policy hawk, and none was afraid to talk tough or act forcefully when dealing with adversaries. But the key to their success was the ability to combine principled beliefs at the strategic level with prudence and flexibility at the tactical level. Eisenhower took great care to prevent small crises from distracting the United States from its main goal of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon built his political career on anticommunism but recognized the strategic advantage of opening relations with Maoist China. Reagan talked tough on terrorism, but after 241 U.S. marines were killed in a suicide attack in Beirut, he did not hesitate to draw down U.S. forces from a peripheral conflict in Lebanon. And rather than do a sack dance at the end of the Cold War, Bush 41 took care to respond tactfully and nimbly, pocketing and building on an extraordinary strategic windfall.

To be sure, they all had their foreign policy blemishes, too. But their strengths outweighed their weaknesses, especially when compared with Democratic counterparts such as Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Republican presidents during the Cold War skillfully combined the idealpolitik of American exceptionalism with the realpolitik necessary to navigate a world of bipolarity, nuclear deterrence, and Third World nationalism. They relied on a string of steady-handed professionals, such as John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, to help manage their administrations. Indeed, so great was the legacy this era bequeathed that in 2000, exit polls showed that the public viewed the neophyte George W. Bush as stronger on foreign policy than Al Gore, the sitting vice president. Gore’s considerable experience was neutralized by public trust in the Republican foreign policy “Vulcans” advising his opponent.


For a brief time, it looked as though Bush 43 would be able to carry on the legacy. In the wake of 9/11, the neoconservatives in his administration supplied a clear and coherent grand strategy of using unilateral military action to destroy terrorist bases and remake the Middle East, and after quickly toppling hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed to be working.

Over the next several years, however, the Bush administration’s strategic miscalculations became apparent. The administration focused on a mythical “axis of evil,” lumping disparate actors into a single anti-American threat. It displayed little tactical flexibility and no ability to plan for the consequences of its actions. The initial swift success in Afghanistan was marred by a failure to capture or kill al Qaeda’s senior leadership, and when the administration pivoted almost immediately to Iraq, it took its eye off the ball in South Asia and allowed a short-term victory to deteriorate into a long-term quagmire…

Read it all.

Safe Handgun

January 9, 2013

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Preferred Solution

January 8, 2013


Remember the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009? Three plus years later those times seem to have taken place a lifetime ago.

The murder of Neda Soltan, Sohrab Aarabi and up to 150 others (as asserted by CNN) have largely been forgotten. Indeed, there those today who insist we can and should treat as equals, a regime which demanded a $3,000 bullet recovery fee prior to the release of a protester murdered by the authorities. It should be no surprise to anyone by now that Iran is Syria’s most enthusiastic supporter and a long time supporter of terrorism.

Then there is the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, which has been decried by western nations and has resulted in crippling sanctions.

All the while, Iranian protest movements have refused to shrivel up, die and go away. Alone and without visible or media support these young Iranians plod on, driven by one idea: liberalism, the ideology that has birthed more successful revolutions than any other.

There is a lot we can learn and relearn from these driven Iranians- they are inclusive, tolerant and above all they demand human and equal rights for all, religious rights and a free market place for thoughts and ideas.

And they are willing to put it all on the line for those things we often take for granted.

The Liberal:

IN her 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi tells the story of a group of her female students who surreptitiously gathered in her living room once a week to discuss works of Western literature deemed unfit for classroom instruction by the Islamic Republic’s censors. Over a period of close to two years in the mid-1990s, the women snuck into their teacher’s home every Thursday morning, removed the veils they are legally required to wear in public, and mixed it up over Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Henry James and Saul Bellow.

Reading Lolita is about how these women experienced internal freedom amidst external repression – about a struggle to carve out a space for the imagination under the crushing weight of a regime committed to administering the totality of public and private life alike. It’s a story about the transformative power of great literature, its ability to connect and transport its readers to an outside world – in this case, a world that is prohibited, closed, off-limits. It is an attempt to contravene, however momentarily and precariously, what Andrei Codrescu calls “the disappearance of the outside”.

As Nafisi shows, the encounter with books under such conditions has a transformative effect not only on those who read them, but on the works themselves. The women in Nafisi’s clandestine book club see things in these novels that people on the outside are unlikely to see. Nabokov’sInvitation to a Beheading resonates differently for readers in the Islamic Republic of Iran than for those, say, in North America or Western Europe.

In turn, I think it’s fair to say that we in the West can discover a great deal about our own literature by seeing it reflected back through the prism of an outsider. Nafisi poignantly captures this two-way street by explaining that the West’s “gifts to us have been Lolita and Gatsby”, while Iran’s gift to the West “has been reasserting those values that they now take for granted…”. My contention here is that this insight may be applied to international politics.

If you want to go where people are reading Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, Nafisi has admonished, “go to Iran”. Go to Iran, I would add, if you want to discover where people are reading Jürgen Habermas, Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski and Immanuel Kant. “There have been more translations of Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language”, reports Vali Nasr, “and these have gone into multiple printings”. Abdollah Momeni, the leader of Iran’s most prominent student-activist group (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), claims Habermas as his chief inspiration. The speeches and writings of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, are peppered with references to Kant, John Stuart Mill and Albert Camus.

Indeed, there are often “more vibrant resonances of ‘Continental’ thought” in countries like Iran, writes the political philosopher Fred Dallmayr, “than can be found in Europe today”. In an elegant elaboration on this point, he observes:

This does not mean that European perspectives are simply disseminated across the world without reciprocity or reciprocal learning. Nor does it mean that local origins are simply erased in favor of a bland universalism… What it does mean is that landscapes and localities undergo symbolic metamorphoses, and that experiences once localized at a given place increasingly find echoes or resonance chambers among distant societies and peoples.

As the Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi has noted, there is an “elaborate and extremely rich conversation that has taken shape in Iran in the past few years concerning the requirements of a democratic and transparent political system and the relationship between faith and freedom”. The Iranian political scientist Mehrdad Mashayekhi describes “an epoch-making renaissance in political culture and discourse”, while the Tehran-based philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo argues that there is nothing less than “a renaissance of liberalism” taking place in Iran today. (Indeed, Jahanbegloo’s own work perfectly embodies the intellectual conversation between Iran and the West. In addition to his books of conversations, in English, with Isaiah Berlin and Ashis Nandy and, in French, with George Steiner, he has written works on Machiavelli, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Tagore and Gandhi. He has also brought an endless stream of Western intellectuals to lecture in Iran in recent years, among them Nandy, Dallmayr, Richard Rorty, Agnes Heller, Antonio Negri, Michael Ignatieff and Timothy Garton Ash).

Why is there such an intense interest in these authors in Iran? How do books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Origins of Totalitarianism speak to contemporary Iranians? Do the ideas of Habermas and Berlin look the same to Iranian intellectuals and dissidents as they do to us? And of the many intellectual-political currents emanating from the West – Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, subaltern studies, and various blends thereof – why is liberalism the most popular school of thought among Iranian intellectuals and students at this historical moment?

First, let me state exactly what I mean by liberalism. There is of course a robust and complex theoretical debate among philosophers, political theorists, and intellectual historians about the precise contours and varieties of liberal thought, its historical evolution, its tensions and contradictions. Many of the arguments being advanced in that debate are important and useful. But for purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus very concretely on what liberalism means in Iran today. Broadly speaking, it signifies the struggle for human rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, pluralism, religious toleration, freedom of expression and multi-party democracy.

The struggle for these things defines the present upheaval. And the reason is pretty straightforward: Iran is a theocratic police state. The so-called Islamic Republic, established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, defines itself largely in opposition to these things. Its human rights record is atrocious. Newspapers and magazines that criticize the regime are routinely shut down. Dissident journalists and intellectuals are jailed and tortured, in many cases killed. Article 4 of Iran’s Constitution prohibits the establishment of any law or policy not in keeping with Islam. Without the official permission of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, in the words of the Iranian author Naghmeh Zarbafian, “no books or magazines are published, no audiotapes are distributed, no movies are shown, and no cultural organization is established”. The unelected Guardian Council – a body of six clerics appointed by the unelected Supreme Leader – has the authority to veto any legislation passed by Iran’s parliament and decides who may or may not stand for office. Women are required to follow a strict dress code, covering their heads in public. A 16-year-old girl was recently sentenced to death and hung for having sex outside of marriage. That she claimed to have been raped counted for nothing.

Under conditions like these, liberalism is a radical political project. A triumphant Iranian liberalism would involve dismantling the entire apparatus of the reigning political order and constructing a dramatically different one. In the Iranian context, liberalism is a matter of life and death: people are literally putting their lives on the line when they write articles for opposition newspapers calling for an end to theocratic rule; when they take to the streets to participate in student demonstrations for democracy; when they publish a blog at an internet café that dares to criticize the régime’s human rights record.

For Iranians, liberalism is a fighting faith. They have to struggle, at great personal risk, to realize the‘bourgeois liberties’ we take for granted. “Human rights and freedom are luxuries for us”, says Akbar Ganji. “In order to get them, we have to pay. We have to fight, actively resist, go to jail”.

As the French political philosopher Pierre Manent says, most of us who live in liberal democracies have forgotten what it means to be political. We are tempted, he writes, “to forget that [we] are political animals”. We’re largely incognizant of the struggles that had to be waged in order to achieve the rights and arrangements that liberal societies enjoy today: the sacrifices that were made, the blood that was spilled, the lives that were lost, indeed, the world-altering convulsions that were endured. Many, if not most, of us inhabit a liberal landscape whose provenance is invisible. We exercise rights and liberties more or less the way we drink water – as things that simply are, rather than things that we have to fight for.

Left-wing critiques of liberalism, which seemed in many ways to have lost their sting and appeal amid the revolutions of 1989, have been making something of a comeback in the Age of Bush. Whereas in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s collapse, radicals like Peter Osborne were arguing that “the future of socialism seems now to hang in the balance of its reorientation towards the liberal tradition”, liberalism now finds itself, if anything, on the defensive. Liberals are saddled with the burden of disentangling their project from neoliberalism, from the Iraq War, and from US imperialism. They are busy responding, in other words, to the radical critique of liberalism…

Read it all.

Everybody is an expert. Self help books abound and their advocates are convinced and are often enthusiastic promoters of their efficacy.

Too bad the reality is very different. The best of the self help books remind us that common sense is often our best guide. They also reinforce the notion that self help can’t fix everything. Consult a real expert is the mantra when problems are overwhelming. The worst of the self help books usually center around the idea that a) the experts are all wrong, serve corporate interests, serve their own interests and are all a part of a conspiracy to keep you dependent and  b) because you are so special/smart/kind/wonderful you don’t need an expert, all the tools to solve any problem can be found within you.

In particular, New Age ideas have helped legitimize magical thinking. You can be anyone you want to be, succeed at at anything you want succeed at and become a very special person because, well, you already are a very special person. It matters not one bit you may not have the talent, aptitude or mental health- you are special and that is all that matters.

This kind of thinking eventually lead to the acceptable  treatment of depression for example, as a physical illness. In fact, just about whatever ails us nowadays can and is dealt with by self help experts.

Very rich self help experts.

New York:

How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals,” wrote the critic Dwight MacDonald in a 1954 survey of “Howtoism.” “Their books are not born, they are spawned.”

MacDonald began his story by citing a list of 3,500 instructional books. Today, there are at least 45,000 specimens in print of the optimize-everything cult we now call “self-help,” but few of them look anything like those classic step-by-step “howtos,” which MacDonald and his Establishment brethren handled only with bemused disdain. These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.

Many of the books on Amazon’s current list of “Best Sellers in Self-Help” would have been unrecognizable to MacDonald: Times business reporter Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, a tour of the latest behavioral science; Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, a fable about an Andalusian shepherd seeking treasure in Egypt; Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a journalistic paean to reticence; publisher Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, about reading with his dying mother; and A Child Called “It,” David Pelzer’s recollections of harrowing and vicious child abuse. And these are just the books publishers identify as self-help; other hits are simply labeled “business” or “psychology” or “religion.” “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help,’ ” says William Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books. Shinker discovered Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and now publishes books on “willpower” and “vulnerability”—“self-help masquerading as ‘big-idea’ books.”

Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies. History books teach us how to lead, neuroscience how to use our amygdalas, and memoirs how to eat, pray, and love. The former CEO of CNN writes the biography of an ornery tech visionary and it becomes a best seller on the strength of its leadership lessons. The Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes a subtle analysis of our decision-making process and soon finds his best seller digested and summarized in M.B.A. seminars across the country. Philosophical essayist Alain de Botton launches a series of self-help books called “The School of Life,” whose titles will all begin with “how to.” Even before books are written, their advances are often predicated on strong “takeaways” targeted to proven demographics. More like a virus than MacDonald’s frogs, self-help has infiltrated and commandeered other fields in its drive to reproduce. This plague of usefulness has burrowed its way into the types of books that were traditionally meant to enlighten, or entertain, or influence policy, but not exactly to build better selves. It’s generally led to better self-help, more grounded in the facts and narratives that drive the other genres, but also to a nonfiction landscape in which every goal is subjugated to the self-­improvement imperative.

This new kind of self-help could never thrive in a vacuum. Or rather, it thrives in a particular vacuum—the one left behind by the disappearance of certain public values that once fulfilled our lives. Strains of self-help culture—entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-­reliance, gauzy spirituality—have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack. But in the past there was always a countervailing force, an American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy. That force has gradually been weakened by the erosion of all sorts of structures, from the corporate career track to the extended family and the social safety net. Instead of regulation, we have that new buzzword, self-regulation; instead of an ambivalence over “selling out,” we have the millennial drive to “monetize”; and instead of seeking to build better institutions, we mine them in order to build better selves. Universities now devote faculty to fields (positive psychology, motivation science) that function as research arms of the self-help industry, while journalists schooled in a sense of public mission turn their skills to fulfilling our emotional needs. But since self-help trails with it that old shameful stigma, the smartest writers and publishers shun the obvious terminology. And the savviest readers enjoy the masquerade, knowing full well what’s behind the costume: self-help with none of the baggage.

It was in the seventies that we began to shed that baggage, starting with the outer layer of self-help: common sense. Children of the postwar middle class were weaned on the mass paperbacks of Dr. Spock, and their parents learned how to win friends and think positively from Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. But in the late sixties, that gray-flannel-suit howtoism gave way to the reemergence of an older, more mystical strain, part bootstrapping and part magical thinking. The New Age was really a revival of what had once been called New Thought: a religious movement spawned in the primordial soup of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and William James that preached the flip side of the Protestant work ethic: faith above works and a belief in one’s unlimited capacities on Earth. The new New Thought was the perfect religion for the Me Decade, a ­reality-show version of spirituality in which the meaning of life is to unleash the inner superstar.

You might date the final triumph of New Thought over mid-century pragmatism to the relocation of Harper & Row’s venerable religious division. In 1977, the old Protestant imprint moved to New Age–soaked San Francisco, land of Esalen, yoga, est, and Human Potential. Nine years later, it partnered with the Hazelden clinic to publish Melody Beattie’sCodependent No More. Suddenly, the jargon of AA became the jargon of the USA. Linda Loewenthal, who led self-help beacon Harmony Books, calls the recovery boom “my awakening to the power of naming something.” And, actually, “recovery” named everything, defining every problem as a personal illness to be conquered—toxic parents, women who love too much, obesity, excessive shopping, and above all “codependency,” which could potentially encompass any human relationship.

Recovery-inspired self-help replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, senators, and teachers) with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions. In the insecure nineties, these Martin Luthers translated elite (and expensive) knowledge into news Americans could use. Suze Orman had worked at Merrill Lynch before ending up a financial counselor to the recently laid off. Then she pitched a book to Esther Margolis, the head of self-help publisher Newmarket Press. Now Orman’s the preeminent adviser to a downsized middle class. Deepak Chopra was a doctor at Tufts and Boston University who turned to meditation. He went to Harmony Books with his 1993 breakthrough, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. In one soothing voice, East met West, the mind met the body, and the aging boomers met their age-defying guru…

Read it all.

Front Line Politics

January 8, 2013

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Les Miserables

January 8, 2013

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

His Master’s Voice

January 7, 2013


Every parent recalls feeding an infant-the laughing, smiling and cooing as the infant eats the Cheerios proffered by mom or dad. In tine, there is a ritual which must be performed before the child will eat.. Funny faces, the spoon as airplane and babies mouth as a garage are but a few.

And then a monumental event  in the development of the child occurs. One day, in the midst of feeding, the child proffers a morsel to the parent. In what seems like an instant, the child becomes aware of his or her capacity to please/satisfy the parent. The significance of this cannot be overstated. A child’s earliest thoughts are ‘me’. Feed me, hold, me, change me, etc. Now, the child becomes aware of the other.

But what if there were more to this behavior? What if the behavior is not simple but the result of very complex processes? What if babies can count? Suppose babies were sophisticated enough to determine our moods? What if babies were able to discern right from wrong and good from bad?

There are a whole lot of researchers who believe just that. In fact there are a lot of scientists who believe babies hard hardwired for certain positive (helpful) social interactions. In fact. a strong case can be made that as man evolved the need for social interactions took primacy of the needs of physical interactions.

Of course, the science isn’t so neat and orderly. 

What kind of a role does culture play in the social evolution of babies (if any)? While the innate desire to help/get along may be there under what circumstances are they manifested and when are they withheld? What can we do to enhance these characteristics to help and share and what are we doing that might impede them?

No simple answers to these fascinating questions. One thing is certain- there will be a firestorm of debate surrounding this new and ongoing research.


Arber Tasimi is a 23-year-old researcher at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, where he studies the moral inclinations of babies—how the littlest children understand right and wrong, before language and culture exert their deep influence.“What are we at our core, before anything, before everything?” he asks. His experiments draw on the work of Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, his own undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania and what happened to him in New Haven, Connecticut, one Friday night last February.

It was about 9:45 p.m., and Tasimi and a friend were strolling home from dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. Just a few hundred feet from his apartment building, he passed a group of young men in jeans and hoodies. Tasimi barely noticed them, until one landed a punch to the back of his head.

There was no time to run. The teenagers, ignoring his friend, wordlessly surrounded Tasimi, who had crumpled to the brick sidewalk. “It was seven guys versus one aspiring PhD,” he remembers. “I started counting punches, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Somewhere along the way, a knife came out.” The blade slashed through his winter coat, just missing his skin.

At last the attackers ran, leaving Tasimi prone and weeping on the sidewalk, his left arm broken. Police later said he was likely the random victim of a gang initiation.

After surgeons inserted a metal rod in his arm, Tasimi moved back home with his parents in Waterbury, Conn­­ecticut, about 35 minutes from New Haven, and became a creature much like the babies whose social lives he studies. He couldn’t shower on his own. His mom washed him and tied his shoes. His sister cut his meat.

Spring came. One beautiful afternoon, the temperature soared into the 70s and Tasimi, whose purple and yellow bruises were still healing, worked up the courage to stroll outside by himself for the first time. He went for a walk on a nearby jogging trail. He tried not to notice the two teenagers who seemed to be following him. “Stop ca­tastrophizing,” he told himself again and again, up until the moment the boys demanded his headphones.

The mugging wasn’t violent but it broke his spirit. Now the whole world seemed menacing. When he at last resumed his morality studies at the Infant Cognition Center, he parked his car on the street, feeding the meter every few hours rather than risking a shadowy parking garage.

“I’ve never been this low in life,” he told me when we first met at the baby lab a few weeks after the second crime. “You can’t help wonder: Are we a failed species?”

At times, he said, “only my research gives me hope.”


The study of babies and young toddlers is a perplexing business. Even the most perceptive observers can be tempted to see what isn’t there. “When our infant was only four months old I thought that he tried to imitate sounds; but I may have deceived myself,” Charles Darwin wrote in “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,” his classic study of his own son. Babies don’t reliably control their bodies or communicate well, if at all, so their opinions can’t be solicited through ordinary means. Instead, researchers outfit them with miniature wire skullcaps to monitor their brain waves, scrutinize them like shoplifters through video cameras and two-way mirrors, and conduct exceedingly clever and tightly controlled experiments, which a good portion of their subjects will refuse to sit through anyway. Even well-behaved babies are notoriously tough to read: Their most meditative expressions are often the sign of an impending bowel movement.

But tiny children are also some of psychology’s most powerful muses. Because they have barely been exposed to the world, with its convoluted cultures and social norms, they represent the raw materials of humanity: who we are when we’re born, rather than who we become. Benjamin Spock’s famous book, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, “starts out with the sentence ‘You know more than you think you do,’” says Melvin Konner, an Emory University anthropologist and physician and the author of The Evolution of Childhood. “There’s another point that needs to be made to parents: Your baby knows more than you think she knows. That’s what’s coming out of this kind of research.”

The 1980s and ’90s brought a series of revelations about very young babies’ sophisticated perceptions of the physical world, suggesting that we come to life equipped with quite an extensive tool kit. (Can 5-month-olds count? Absolutely. Do they understand simple physics? Yes.) Recently, some labs have turned to studying infants’ inborn social skills, and how babies perceive and assess other people’s goals and intentions. Scrutinizing these functions, scientists hope, will reveal some innate features of our minds—“the nutshell of our nature,” says Karen Wynn, director of the Yale lab.

“People who’ve spent their whole careers studying perception are now turning toward social life, because that’s where the bio-behavioral rubber meets the evolutionary road,” Konner says. “Natural selection has operated as much or more on social behavior as on more basic things like perception. In our evolution, survival and reproduction depended more and more on social competence as you went from basic mammals to primates to human ancestors to humans.”

The Yale Infant Cognition Center is particularly interested in one of the most exalted social functions: ethical judgments, and whether babies are hard-wired to make them. The lab’s initial study along these lines, published in 2007 in the journal Nature, startled the scientific world by showing that in a series of simple morality plays, 6- and 10-month-olds overwhelmingly preferred “good guys” to “bad guys.” “This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action,” the authors wrote. It “may form an essential basis for…more abstract concepts of right and wrong.”

The last few years produced a spate of related studies hinting that, far from being born a “perfect idiot,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, or a selfish brute, as Thomas Hobbes feared, a child arrives in the world provisioned with rich, broadly pro-social tendencies and seems predisposed to care about other people. Children can tell, to an extent, what is good and bad, and often act in an altruistic fashion. “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children,” a study of under-2-year-olds concluded. “Babies Know What’s Fair” was the upshot of another study, of 19- and 21-month-olds. Toddlers, the new literature suggests, are particularly equitable. They are natural helpers, aiding distressed others at a cost to themselves, growing concerned if someone shreds another person’s artwork and divvying up earnings after a shared task, whether the spoils take the form of detested rye bread or precious Gummy Bears.

This all sounds like cheering news for humanity, especially parents who nervously chant “share, share, share” as their children navigate the communal toy box. Indeed, some of these studies suggest that children’s positive social inclinations are so deeply ingrained that it doesn’t matter what parents say or do: A Harvard experiment, nicknamed “The Big Mother Study” (as in Big Mother Is Watching You), showed that small children helped others whether or not a parent commanded them to help or was even present.

These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops. Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.

“Where morality comes from is a really hard problem,” says Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “There isn’t a moral module that is there innately. But the elements that underpin morality—altruism, sympathy for others, the understanding of other people’s goals—are in place much earlier than we thought, and clearly in place before children turn 2.”…

Read it all.

The Old Man

January 7, 2013

We’ve all wondered what the future holds in store for us. Mostly, we wonder about the events which may influence our lives. In truth,  we are mostly influenced by the small, more nuanced experiences which over time help shape our identity.

Mostly, we are influenced by out fathers. There are outliers of course. There are bad fathers, uncaring fathers and unwilling fathers. Still, to have an average father is to blessed. The average father must make a conscience effort to be a better father and the average father is at times just unsure of himself enough to be uncertain and at other times to be resolute and strong in matters he knows to be right. He knows when to perseveres and when to quit. He knows when to apologize and when to demand an apology.

Some men are destined to be kings or presidents, prime ministers or princes. They may do great things and be feted by many but with the passage of time they recede into memory. Those fathers from whom we learn, not by way of achievement but by way of example are never far from our consciousness. Those fathers, imperfect as they may be,  shape us in countless ways.

Mario Coumo, former Governor of New York and most eloquent of speakers, said it best.

I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in fifty years what my father taught me by example in one week…

Another favorite:

“I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work fifteen and sixteen hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

What the future holds will be determined by the examples we set.


Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.

The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.

Wild tigers claw the poor father for failures real or imagined: opportunities fumbled, aborted marriages, punishments misplaced. There is this, too: a man who has discovered a likeness in his own image willing to believe (far beyond what the evidence requires) that he combines the natural qualities of Santa Claus, Superman, and the senior Saints, will not easily surrender to more mature judgments. Long after the junior partner has ceased to believe that he may have been adopted, or that beating-off will grow hair on the hand while the brain slowly congeals into gangrenous matter, the father may pose and pretend, hiding bits and pieces of yesterday behind his back. Almost any father with the precious stuff to care can adequately conceal the pea. ft is natural in sons to lust — yes, to hunger for — an Old Man special enough to have endowed hi; progeny’s genes with genius and steel. Or, failing the ideal, to have a father who will at least remain sturdy, loyal, and therewhen life’s vigilantes come riding with the hangman.

You see the fix the poor bastard is in, don’t you? He must at once apologize and inspire, conceal and judge, strut and intervene, correct and pretend. No matter how far he ranges outside his normal capabilities, he will remain unappreciated through much of the paternal voyage — often neglected, frequently misread, sometimes profaned by his own creation. For all this, the father may evolve into a better man — may find himself closer to being what he claims, a strong role having ways of overpowering the actor. And if he is doubly blessed, he may know a day when his sons (by then, most likely, fathers themselves) will come to love him more than they can bring themselves to say. Then, sometimes, sons get to know their fathers a bit: perhaps a little more than nature intended, and surely more than yesterday would have believed.

There was that blindly adoring period of childhood when my father was the strongest and wisest of men. He would scare off the bears my young imagination feared as they prowled the night outside our Texas farmhouse, provide sunshine and peanut butter, make the world go away. I brought him my broken toys and my skinned knees. He did imitations of all the barnyard animals; when we boxed he saw to it that I won by knockouts. After his predawn winter milkings, shivering and stomping his numb feet while rushing to throw more wood on the fire, he warned that tomorrow morning, by gosh, he planned to laze abed and eat peach cobbler while his youngest son performed the icy chores.

He took me along when he hunted rabbits and squirrels, and on alternate Saturdays when he bounced in a horse-drawn wagon over dirt roads to accomplish his limited commercial possibilities in Putnam or Cisco. He thrilled me with tales of his own small-boy peregrinations: an odyssey to Missouri, consuming two years, in covered wagons pulled by oxen, fordings of swift rivers, and pauses in Indian camps where my grandfather, Morris Miles King, smoked strong pipes with his hosts and ate with his fingers from iron kettles containing what he later called dog stew. The Old Man taught me to whistle, pray, ride a horse, enjoy country music, and. by his example, to smoke. He taught that credit-buying was unmanly, unwise, and probably unforgivable in Heaven: that one honored one’s women, one’s flag, and one’s pride: that, on evidence supplied by the Biblical source of “winds blowing from the four corners of the earth,” the world was most assuredly flat. He taught me the Old Time Religion, to bait a fishhook or gut a butchered hog, and to sing “The Nigger Preacher and the Bear.”

I had no way of knowing what courage was in the man (he with no education, no hope of quick riches, no visible improvements or excitements beckoning to new horizons) to permit him to remain so cheerful, shielding, and kind. No mailer low difficult those Depression times, there was always something under the Christmas tree. When I was four, he walked five miles to town in a blizzard, then returned as it worsened, carrying a red rocking chair and smaller gifts in a gunnysack. Though he had violated his creed by buying on credit, he made it possible for Santa Claus to appear on time.

I would learn that he refused to accept the largess of one of FDR’s recovery agencies because he feared I might be shamed or marked by wearing to school its telltale olive drab “relief shirts.” He did accept employment with the Works Progress Administration. shoveling and hauling wagonloads of dirt and gravel for a road-building project. When brought home the latest joke from the rural school — “WPA stands for ‘We Piddle Around’ ” — he delivered a stern, voice-quavering lecture: Son, the WPA is a honest way some poor men has of makin’ their families a livin’. You’d go to bed hungry tonight without the WPA. Next time some smart aleck makes a joke about it, you ought to knock a goddamned whistlin’ fart out of him.

Children learn that others have fathers with more money, more opportunity, or more sophistication. Their own ambitions or resentments rise, inspiring them to reject the simpler wants of an earlier time. The son is shamed by the father’s speech, dress, car, occupation, and table manners. The desire to flee the family nest (or, at bottom, to soar higher in it; to undertake some few experimental solos) arrives long before the young have their proper wings or before their parents can conceive of it.

The Old Man was an old-fashioned father, one who relied on corporal punishments, Biblical exhortations, and a ready temper. He was not a man who dreamed much, or who understood that others might require dreams as their opium. Though he held idleness to be as useless and as sinful as adventure, he had the misfortune to sire a hedonist son who dreamed of improbable conquests accomplished by some magic superior to grinding work. By the time I entered the troublesome teen-age years, we were on the way to a long dark journey. A mutual thirst to prevail existed — some crazy stubborn infectious contagious will to avoid the slightest surrender.

The Old Man strapped, rope-whipped, and caned me for smoking, drinking, lying, avoiding church, skipping school, and laying out at night. Having once been very close, we now lashed out at each other in the manner of rejected lovers on the occasion of each new disappointment. I thought The Old Man blind to the wonders and potentials of the real world; could not fathom how current events or cultural habits so vital to my contemporaries could be considered so frivolous, or worse. In turn, The Old Man expected me to obediently accept his own values: show more concern over the ultimate disposition of my eternal soul, eschew easy paths when walking tougher ones might somehow purify, be not so inquisitive or damnfool dreamy. That I could not (or would not) comply puzzled, frustrated, and angered him. In desperation he moved from a “wet” town to a “dry” one, in the foolish illusion that this tactic might keep his baby boy out of saloons.

On a Saturday in my fifteenth year, when I refused an order to dig a cesspool in our backyard because of larger plans downtown. I fought back: it was savage and ugly — though, as those things go, one hell of a good fight. Only losers emerged, however. After that we spoke in terse mumbles or angry shouts, not to communicate with civility for three years. The Old Man paraded to a series of punishing and uninspiring jobs — night watchman, dock loader for a creamery, construction worker, chicken-butcher in a steamy, stinking poultry house, while I trekked to my own part-time jobs or to school. When school was out I usually repaired to one distant oil field or another, remaining until classes began anew. Before my eighteenth birthday, I escaped by joining the Army.

On the morning of my induction, The Old Man paused at the kitchen table, where I sat trying to choke down breakfast. He wore the faded old crossed-gallus denim overalls I held in superior contempt and carried a lunch bucket in preparation of whatever dismal job then rode him. “Lawrence,” he said, “is there anything I can do for you?” I shook my head. “You need any money?” “No.” The Old Man shuffled uncertainly, causing the floor to creak. “Well,” he said, “I wish you good luck.” I nodded in the direction of my bacon and eggs. A moment later the front door slammed, followed by the grinding of gears The Old Man always accomplished in confronting even the simplest machinery…

Read it all.

A Tale of Two Towns

January 7, 2013

Via Newsday

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Tails You Lose

January 6, 2013



January 6, 2013

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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