Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Blogging vs. TV and newspaper commentary

April 10, 2018

An old friend of mine made this comment on a previous blog post—

I have a question for regular readers of this blog. Do you have any theories about why we can’t get commentary like Phil’s on TV, or in the New York Times–let alone on Fox News? Respectfully, Steve Badrich, San Antonio, Texas.

To begin with, my friend gives me much too much credit.  Unlike when I worked on a newspaper, I do very little original reporting.

Most of what I write is based on facts and ideas I find on other, better blogs and on-line news sites. The best thing about many of my posts is my links to those blogs and news sites.  Go far enough upstream from those blogs and news sites, and you find the ultimate sources are in traditional journalism.

Blogging is very different from reporting, or even writing a newspaper column or appearing as a guest commentator on TV, which I have done.  As a reporter, I was accountable to an editor for being fair and accurate.   Editors were accountable to a publisher for producing a product that would appeal to readers and bring in advertising.

This discipline improved the quality of what I wrote, but it also made me think twice about going against conventional opinion.  When I wrote something, for example, that reflected favorable on Eastman Kodak Co., my community’s largest employer, it was accepted without question.  When I wrote something that Kodak executives didn’t like, I was usually called in to justify myself.

I usually was able to justify myself.  I was fortunate to have editors that stood behind reporters when they were right.  But the further my writing went deviated accepted opinion or the wishes of the powers that be (which was never very far), the higher the bar for justifying myself.  I was surrounded not by a barrier, but by a hill whose steepness increased the further I went.

As a blogger, I am not accountable to anyone except myself.   I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards of fairness and accuracy except my own.  No gatekeeper asks me to justify my conclusion, whether orthodox or unorthodox.

I am as free as anybody gets to be in 21st century America.  I am retired, and I’m not in the job market.  I have good medical insurance and a sufficient income for my needs and desires, which many people don’t.  I don’t belong to any organizations, associations or cliques that would kick me out because of my opinions.

If these things didn’t apply, I wouldn’t feel free to post under my own name, and I’d be more cautious about what I did say.

Since, in practice, I enjoy a greater amount of freedom of expression than many people do, I have a right and responsibility to exercise it.

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My life history as a story of race

March 29, 2018

My previous two posts were about my reactions to Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.  As I stop and think about it, I have been entwined with race and racism my whole life.

My parents

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the little town of Williamsport, Md., are of my mother and father arguing about white guilt.  My mother would go on about how badly black people and native people were treated.  Finally my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Negro.”

My mother would resume talking about how Negroes were denied basic rights and forced to ride in the backs of buses.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “I’d never let anybody treat me that way.”

Or my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Indian.”  My mother would resume talking about how whites stole the Indians’ lands and forced them to live on reservations.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “If the Indians had what it takes, we would be the ones living on reservations.”

My father was not, in fact, unfriendly or unjust to black people or anyone else.   He was friendly and at ease talking to anyone, whether an African-American janitor or the Governor of Maryland.   He was not impressed by wealth or social status, and he did not look down on anyone.

I think this ability stemmed from a genuine liking for people, and interest in them, but also from a self-confidence based on knowledge of his own strength and competence.  He would not let anybody take advantage of him.

My mother was kind to everyone, but she had genteel standards of behavior, which included good table manners, correct grammar, no cursing and swearing, no dirty jokes and no racist epithets or remarks.

My mother was the daughter of a lawyer who’d fallen on hard times.  My father was the son of a poor farmer whose life consisted of unending physical labor.  My maternal grandfather died in bed.  My father’s father was found dead in his barn one day where he’d gone to do the morning milking.

Both my mother and my father were respected members of their community.  My mother was a school teacher all her working life, and lived to see the children and grandchildren of her first pupils pulling strings to get their own children into Mrs. Ebersole’s class.

My father was part of the first generation of his family to attend college, which is where he met my mother.  He had a varied career; at the time I was born, he was a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).    He ended up as a civil servant in the Maryland State Employment Service, which administered unemployment compensation benefits and a job referral service for the unemployed.

When he reached retirement age, he chose not to retire, which was contrary to the plans of his superiors.  They sent someone—who happened to be a black man—to take over the duties of his office, while my father sat on the sidelines.  He understood what was going on, and decided to retire after all.

He had no resentment of the black man who replaced him.  On the contrary, he praised him.  He said the man had the quality he most respected—”quiet competence”

∞∞∞

Boyhood

Both my parents taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless and until I had a good reason not to.  My mother in addition taught me to think of racism as both unjust and low-class.

In those days Maryland schools were still segregated.  I had a black playmate named Jim Tyler when I was a small boy.  He was a member of the Tim Mix Ralston Straightshooters club I organized, which was based on living up to the ideals of Tom Mix, the hero of a radio serial, and eating Shredded Ralston breakfast cereal.   As I grew older, I lost touch with him and never thought about him.

I was bookish, precocious and opinionated, and included to argue with my elders about matters of race and other things, mostly to their amusement.

“Be honest, Phil,” they would say.  “Would you be willing to have one of them marry your sister?”

I would answer that I didn’t have a sister, but if I did have a sister, in the highly unlikely event that she wanted to marry a black man, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but, if she really loved him, I could accept it.

The attitude of my elders was that I would give up my foolish theories when I became a mature adult.  Neither of these things happened.

∞∞∞

College Days

At the age of 15, I won a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.   This scholarship enabled boys to go from the 10th grade of high school directly to college, on the theory that they could complete their college educations before becoming eligible to go fight in the Korean Conflict.   I learned later I got the scholarship based on a form of affirmative action.

Prof. Herbert Howe, who administered the scholarship program for the University of Wisconsin, initially decided to award the scholarship based on test scores and the letter of application.

What happened was that all the applicants with the highest test scores were from two high schools in New York City, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.   In the interests of diversity, Prof. Howe decided to restrict students of those high schools to 50 percent of the scholarships, and to set aside 10 percent for Wisconsin residents.

He told me later that my own test scores were little better than average.   He decided to take a chance on me because I was an interesting outlier—someone who chose to be tested in history and English rather than the sciences, and someone from a rural high school in the South (he thought of Maryland as the South) rather than a big city.

My college grades were all right, but below the Ford average.  My subsequent career was all right, but not as distinguished as my college classmates.  All the arguments against affirmative action applied to me.

I don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about having taken advantage of an opportunity that was offered to me.  I don’t criticize anybody for taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered to them.

During the time I was in the program, I knew of no black Ford scholar.  Maybe there was one later or at a different college.  I never thought about this at the time.

My student days were the first I ever had a serious conversation with a black person or a Jewish person.   One of my favorite professors was a Dr. Cornelius A. Golightly, a teacher of philosophy.  He was a brilliant man, and kind to me.  I heard that he didn’t get tenure, supposedly because he was a pragmatist, and the philosophy department only wanted logical positivists.

As a student, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal.  I was a champion of academic freedom, an opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy and an opponent of fraternity charters that excluded black members.

∞∞∞

Military Service

After graduating from college in 1956, I volunteered for military service, including two years active duty.  This was in peacetime, and military service can be a good experience in peacetime.

The U.S. armed forces were probably the most diverse and multicultural institution in American society, and still are.   I met people from even more varied backgrounds than I did in college.  I encountered more black people then in positions of authority than I did for a long time afterward.

Now is as good a place as any to say that I never had any problem taking orders from black people, I never had any fear of black people and I never, so far as I know, was ever harmed by a black person.

∞∞∞

Journalism in Hagerstown, Md.

I worked for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., from 1958 through 1974.   I made a special effort to write about racial discrimination, civil rights and Hagerstown’s tiny black community, although I was often blundering and naive in the way I went about this.

My friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, married Georgiana Bell, who was black, and I attended their wedding.  The Chief of Police had a detective park in a police cruiser outside and take note of every wedding guest.  That night he phoned my publisher to let him know that I was the kind of person who’d attend an interracial wedding.  I never thought my job was in danger, but this shows the predominant attitude in those days.

The story I’m proudest of having written was about a black riot when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came to town during his 1972 presidential campaign.   The Wallace staff had a policy had a policy of having campaign appearances on National Guard armories, and the armory in Hagerstown was on the outskirts of the black community.

In the middle of Wallace’s speech, a group of young black men started to interrupt Wallace’s speech by chanting.  Their leader was named Ken Mason.  He happened to be the son of Bill Mason, the chief sheriff’s deputy, whose appointment was resented by white racist rank-and-file deputies.     A group of deputies grabbed Mason and started beating him, while a city detective blocked me from getting close enough to see what was going on.

I was later able to quote eyewitnesses, including the chair of the local Wallace for President committee, as to what happened.  He was willing to speak to me because I had always reported on the Wallace people fairly.

Anyhow, I ran over to the nearby county jail, which was besieged by angry black people.  They went on a rampage all that night, but only within their own neighborhood, which, however, was on a main through street.  Bill Mason pleaded in vain to do the obvious thing, which was to set up roadblocks to divert traffic.

None of the heavily armed deputies or police ventured into the riot area.  Only I walked through it—admittedly walking very quickly.

After the bars closed, many drove their cars through the area.  One driver—a recently-discharged combat veteran of Vietnam—was killed by a brick thrown through his windshield.  Ken Mason was later tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, and given a suspended sentence.

I was able to write a fair and accurate article as a result of having previously written fair and accurate articles about all concerned.  I am proud that people who wouldn’t talk to each other would talk to me.

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Finding myself in the story of race

March 22, 2018

As a young newspaper reporter just starting out in the early 1960s, I once found myself covering the same event as a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American.

He remarked to me that he was a member of the “black press” and I was a member of the “white press.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought he was mistaken.  He served the black community of Baltimore; I served the entire community around Hagerstown, Md.

But then, as I thought about it, I recalled that not one black person was employed in my newsroom, and probably never had been.  In fact, not one black person worked in the entire building, and that was true for the entire time I worked there.

Having achieved this insight, I promptly forgot it.   It never occurred to me to raise the issue.

I wrote in favor of civil rights and against racial discrimination whenever the opportunity arose during my 40 years on newspapers.

But there were weeks, maybe months, at a time when I never thought about race or myself being white.   If I weren’t white, I wouldn’t be able to do that.   Awareness of racial attitudes would be a survival skill that I wouldn’t be able to do without.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, a liberal white women from Massachusetts whose aim is to make other white people more self-aware.

Her accounts of her limitations and misunderstandings have been “cringe-worthy” by reviewers, but as I look back on my own life, I think my well-meaning blunders were as cringe-worthy as hers.

∞∞∞

Debby Irving wrote that the cultural values of middle-class white people make us unable to understand poor people or black people.

I learned the truth of this 15 or so years ago when I undertook to be a chauffeur for Bernice Cook, a poor black member of my church.  She lacked a car and so depended in public transportation to go shopping or keep medical appointments.   Things that I could do in an hour with a car took her the best part of a day without one.

We got to know each other fairly well.  I experienced culture shock the first time Bernice asked me for money.  I was taught as a boy that the one thing you must never, ever do is to ask people for money, except maybe for blood relatives and then only in the direst emergency.

The reason I felt I had no moral right to ask anyone for money is that I recognized no moral obligation to give money to others in need.  My assumption was that everybody ought to be able to look out for themselves.

Bernice’s day-to-day life was a continuing series of emergencies.   She was poor and she did not hoard resources.  She was willing to share everything she had with others in crisis, and so she had a moral right to ask for help from others.

Actually, she lived by the ethic of the Gospels, which is to give to those in need and take no thought of the morrow.  Many poor people are like that.   Come to think of it, the pagan Romans sneered at Christianity as a religion of slaves, poor people and women.

Living by the teachings of Jesus is not feasible for me as a middle-class person.  I could not do it and continue to be middle-class.  The best I can do is to live by the ethic of the Stoics—do my duty, keep my promises, tell the truth (or at least refrain from lying) and not whine about it.

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I’ll be gone, you’ll still be here

December 14, 2017

I’m 81 years old today.  I don’t come from a long-lived family, and I have what they call a pre-existing medical condition, so I don’t expects decades more of life ahead of me.

I sometimes regret I won’t see what the future holds in store.  But the more I think about the future, the more I’m relieved that I won’t.

The odds are good that I will win what Ian Welsh calls the death bet – the bet that I will have enjoyed the good things the world has to offer and die before I have to pay the price.  If you are 60 years old are younger, the odds are that you will lose.

THE FINAL CRASH

Right before the financial crash of 2008, there was a saying among Wall Street speculators about when the financial bubble would burst.  “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

In fact none of them suffered any bad consequences from their actions, up to and including financial fraud.  President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arranged to have the big banks and investment firms bailed out of the consequences of their mistakes, and Attorney-General Eric Holder declined to prosecute financial fraud by heads of companies deemed “too big to fail.”

The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department prioritized reviving the stock market, to the great benefit of owners of stocks and bonds, including investors in mutual funds such as myself.   But then, even under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the financial markets recovered before the job markets did.

Now the U.S. economy is in another bubble, just like the last one—overhangs of debt that can’t be paid, increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the decline of the mass consumer market and the failure of either corporations or the government to invest for the future.

It’s probable, but not certain, that the government will succeed in bailing out the big players, just like the last time.  What is certain is that this can’t go on forever.   Without big changes in the financial system, there will be a final crash in which the institutions are not too big to fail, but are too big to rescue.

NUCLEAR ROULETTE

For more than 60 years, the United States government’s policy toward nuclear war was deterrence.  The theory is that the best way to be safe from war is to have nuclear weapons and be willing to use them if necessary.  In other words, if you want peace, be prepared to go to war.

So far this policy has worked.  We’ve gone to the brink of war a couple of times, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, but we’ve always pulled back in time.   There have long been factions in the U.S. government that wanted to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons, but they’ve always been sidelined or disregarded.

I think it is likely to work—right up until the time it doesn’t work, and it only has to fail once.  If you play a game of Russian roulette, you’re likely—although not certain—to win.  If you continually play Russian roulette, you’re certain to someday lose.

I don’t expect nuclear war with North Korea, although the chances are more than zero.  I don’t expect nuclear war with Russia, although the chances are greater than war with North Korea.   But unless our policy changes, both concerning armaments and our foreign policy in general, there will be a war in which we and everybody else will be the loser.

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Academic freedom then and now

October 12, 2017

From a young age, I’ve believed in American ideals of freedom and democracy, as I understood them.   But my political thinking crystallized when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-1956 and took part in controversies about academic freedom then.

Academic freedom, as I conceives it then and still do, is the freedom of college faculty to engage in scholarship free from outside pressure, and the freedom of students to discuss and debate issues without restriction.

I regard the defense of freedom of expression as a defining principle of liberalism.  Back then most American leftists were liberals.   Sadly this is no longer true.

A plaque on Bascom Hall, on a high hill in the center of the liberal arts part of the campus, contained an excerpt from the Board of Regents declaration of 1894, when they resisted pressure from the state legislature to fire a professor for his outspoken pro-labor opinions.

The regents’ reply was that scholarship required free inquiry and was incompatible with censorship of opinion.

The academic freedom issues on the UW campus in the early 1950s were: (1) Should a known Communist, or a member of a group on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations, be automatically barred from employment on the UW faculty, and (2) Should Communists or groups on the Attorney-General’s list be eligible to participate in students activities?

In the year 1952, when I enrolled as a freshman, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was still waging and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his influence.   McCarthy’s power was based on his charges, which later proved baseless, of Communist infiltration of government and other American institutions.   Interestingly, he represented Wisconsin, but never had anything to say about the University of Wisconsin.

Fear of Communists had a real basis.  It was not just the “intolerance of the intolerant” argument—that enemies of democracy were not entitled to democratic freedoms.

Communist parties in those days were subservient to Stalin.   In the 1930s, Communist parties all supported the idea of a Popular Front of radicals, liberals and conservatives against Hitler.   Then, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940, they all opposed the British “imperialist” war.

After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, they became anti-fascist again.   British and American Communists provided the Soviet Union with critical information about the U.S. atomic bomb.

Things are different now, but that’s how they were then.

Nevertheless, I and my friends took the extreme liberal position—the extreme libertarian position—that people should be judged on their individual actions, and not on group identity.

That wasn’t just a matter of justice.   If Communists were outlawed, or denied employment, for being Communists, then they wouldn’t identify themselves as Communists.    The only way to root them out would be to create an inquisition to determine people’s secret beliefs.   The obvious target for this inquisition would be those of us who are pro-labor, anti-racist and pro-civil liberties.

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Your country is your country – like it or not

July 4, 2017

The world is my country, all mankind my brethren and to do good is my religion.
          ==Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, born an Englishman, was an early advocate of American independence and a morale officer for George Washington’s Continental Army.

Later he traveled to France and became an advocate for the French revolutionaries, returning in old age to the new nation of the United States of America.  He said he considered himself to be a citizen of the world, but of no particular country.

A number of posters on one of my favorite Internet sites, as well as a couple of my acquaintances, aspire to be like Thomas Paine.

Although born American citizens, they disavow allegiance to the United States, which they see as a nation founded on slavery of African-Americans, ethnic cleansing of native Americans and enfranchisement of white Anglo-Saxon property-owning males.

None of them, so far as I know, make any actual effort to shed the legal privileges and responsibilities that go with American citizenship.  The question is whether shedding nationality is even possible.

European acquaintances, and friends who’ve spent time in Europe, tell me that Americans are instantly recognizable wherever we may be—by our gait, our body language, the way we speak English and our basic attitudes toward life.   These are not things that are so easy to get rid of!

The black writer James Baldwin traveled to France in the late 1940s and early 1950s to seek refuge from American racism.   What he came to realize, as he wrote in an essay collection called Notes of a Native Son, is that whatever else he was, he was an American.

Baldwin felt a strong solidarity with African students who hated French colonialism.  But he himself understood that he was an American, an African-American—not an African in exile.    He said the idea that nationality is a matter of personal choice is a specifically American idea.

… the American … very nearly unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from all the forces that have produced him. 

This assumption, however, is itself based on nothing less than our history, which is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.

What is overwhelming clear, it seems, to everyone but ourselves is that this history has created an entirely unprecedented people, with a unique and individual past. 

It is the past lived on the American continent … … which must sustain us in the present.

The truth about that past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, has never demanded what it has to give.

==James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity” (1954)

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Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

April 23, 2017

[Update 4/24/2017]  My afterthoughts are in boldface italics below.

Richard Ford

The American novelist Richard Ford, in a book excerpt published in The Guardian, says he doesn’t have any close friends and is happy to have it that way.

He wrote that he has a general sense of good will toward everybody, but doesn’t count on any individual very much.  That’s okay with him, because he doesn’t want anybody to count on anything from him, beyond basic decent behavior.

He criticized philosophers’ ideas of friendship and went on to write—

If I could have a better, more realistic and functioning model for friendship, what would it be?

I wouldn’t like it if it was that I had to be similar to my friend – in temperament, in wit and wits, in interests, experience, age and gender.

It could not be that I’d be willing freely to unpack in front of my friend all my life’s many shames and miscalculations (matters that can be outsourced with therapy or just stuffed).

It would not be that I’d have to always get along with my friend, or even always wish him well (just not wish him ill).  He need not think my shames weren’t shameful.

It would not be that my friend and I have to agree about what constitutes good and bad in the world. He need not feel required to do for me what I can’t do for myself.

I would not have to be willing to take a bullet for him, to have his back, to be there for him, or even renounce something I deeply desire so that he can have it.

I would not have to be always candid or capable of delivering hard truths. (Although I might do it anyway.)

And it could not be that I never complain to my friend, or about my friend – to his face or behind his back.

Friendship ought to be understood as always supplementary in nature. Thus our friends should be as easy to forgive as our enemies.

And as with all things, friendship need not promise to last forever, but only so long as it allows us the freedoms we would want to have without it.

Maybe it is that friendship should do for us what a great novel can (and a novel might of course do it better): reconcile us to life as it is, and make us more real to ourselves. 

In other words, friendship ought not short-circuit one’s faculties for critical thinking and personal preference.  Though to ask this of friendship might be to ask the impossible.

Source: Richard Ford | The Guardian

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In case you’re asking…

November 9, 2016

No, I don’t admit my vote for Jill Stein makes me personally responsible for Donald Trump’s victory.

Dickens vs. Trollope

October 31, 2016

I read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  We read it after reading the six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series and the six in his Palliser series.

Trollope was a good storyteller.  I got a lot of pleasure out of reading his novels.  But reading Dickens after reading Trollope gives me an added appreciation of the greatness of Dickens.

Both Dickens and Trollope created memorable and believable characters, whom we talked about as if they were real people.

charlesdickensbleakhousemd19091475224Trollope’s characters were like people I know, if the people I knew had grown up in Victorian England.  The women in the reading group said Trollope was remarkable for knowing how women talked among themselves when there were no men around.

A few of the Trollope characters were completely villainous, but were mixtures of good and bad, and Trollope regarded them with amused tolerance.

Dickens’ characters were much more extreme—the good ones were much better, the bad ones were much worse, the eccentric ones were much more strange, but they all were memorable and believable.

Both Trollope and Dickens were keen social observers.   Trollope was a keen observer of the middle and upper classes.  In fact, one of his protagonists was a Prime Minister.  But he treated the lower class as comic characters.

Dickens did not reach so high in his observations, but described the lives of the poor as sympathetically as the lives of the middle class.

He depicted characters on every level of society, from aristocrats to paupers in the slums, some caring and responsible, some hypocritical and self-deceiving and some cunning, manipulative and cruel.

He thought that no matter who you were, your moral choices made a difference, and he accordingly was much more judgmental than Trollope.

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How I became radicalized

September 14, 2016

For most of my life, I thought my country was fundamentally sound and moving in the right direction.

I knew there were serious problems and injustices in American life, but I thought that these were aberrations, contrary to our democratic ideals, which under our democratic system would be reformed over time.

radicalismstock-photo-fake-dictionary-dictionary-definition-of-the-word-radicalism-180290102I rejected the Communist belief that the crimes of capitalism are systemic, while the failures of Communism are failures to correctly understand or follow Marxist doctrine.

But my own beliefs were the mirror image of this.  I believed that the crimes of Communist countries were the inevitable result of a bad system, while the crimes of Western countries were aberrations that could be corrected.

The first step in my radicalization was the passage of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001.  I was shocked at how fundamental liberties, such as habeas corpus and trial by jury, could be simply wiped off the blackboard, and the majority of Americans would see nothing wrong with this.

I always thought of torture as the ultimate crime against humanity, because it destroys the mind and soul while leaving the body alive.   Torture became institutionalized, and even popular—possibly because of the illusion that it would be limited to people with brown skins and non-European names.

But I still thought of this as an aberration, part of a scheme by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others to restore executive power that had been lost after the Watergate hearings.  I voted for Barack Obama with great enthusiasm in 2008, not because I believed he would be a strong reformer, but because I thought he would restore the country to normal.

I soon learned that there was a new normal, one that was different from what I thought it was.

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Youth and old age

February 16, 2016

Youth is when the youngest serious Presidential candidate is older than you are.

Middle age is when you are in the same age group as the Presidential candidates.

Old age is when the oldest serious Presidential candidate is younger than you are.

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My motto as a blogger

September 21, 2015

I AM AN OLD NOBODY AND I LOVE WHAT I DO

hat tip to kottke.org

Two resolutions I made early in life

September 13, 2015

I resolved never to make make myself unhappy about things that don’t really matter.

I resolved never to base my sense of self-esteem on anything somebody else had the power to take away from me.

Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth

September 10, 2015

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY on Thursday, September 10, 2015

One of the things that Bertrand Russell wrestled with all his life with a theory of knowledge—how we can know anything for sure.  It is a question we have discussed in different ways at the Russell Forum.

I plan to discuss some ideas of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that have helped me understand these questions better —specifically, his idea that there are different kinds of knowledge, each with their specific tests for validity.

Jurgen Habermas is the grand old man of German philosophy.  He is now in his 80s, and occupies the same position in German intellectual life as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey did in British and American intellectual life at that point in their lives.  Habermas by the way was an admirer of the American pragmatists.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

He served his philosophical apprenticeship as a member of the Frankfurt School – the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt – which sought to develop ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx.

Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt school, believed (like John Dewey, but unlike Bertrand Russell) that philosophy was not a separate academic discipline, over and above the natural and social sciences, but rather must be integrated with and draw on all of them.

Neither did the Frankfurt school believe that philosophy could be separated from the times and the social setting of philosophers.  Its members believed in something they called Critical Theory, which showed how the ideas of any given time were a product of a historical process.

The Frankfurt school transplanted itself to New York City during the Nazi era, and its leaders, like many cultivated Europeans before them, were horrified by the vulgar industrialized American culture.  They thought that Americans in their way were just as manipulated by propaganda and just as lacking in independent thought as Germans under Hitler.

Horkheimer and his follower Theodore W. Adorno wrote a treatise called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I haven’t read, but in which I understand that he said that the ideals of reason and science, developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, have failed.  They have been turned against themselves, and merely resulted in new methods of oppression and social control.

But, as Habermas said, if we are all products of our particular society and historical era, and if the public opinion is controlled by the manipulation of the powers that be, how it is possible from something such as Critical Theory to have any objective validity?  How is it possible that any progress or improvement takes place at all?

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My country, right and wrong

July 4, 2015

Rod Dreher, a Louisianan who writes for The American Conservative, objects to fellow white Southerners who deny the reality of the South’s history of slavery, lynching and white supremacy.

He objects even more to self-righteous white Northerners who condemn everything about the South as if the North had nothing to answer for.

Taking the good and the bad together, he is part of the South and the South is part of him.

I completely understand what he is saying because that is the same as my attitude toward the United States as a whole.

AmericanflagWhenever the Star-Spangled Banner is played, I stand at attention and put my hand over my heart, even when I am the only person who does so.

At the same time I can understand why, for many people, the Stars and Stripes is as much a symbol of oppression as the Confederate Stars and Bars.

I think of people in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries that have been ruled by U.S.-backed dictatorships.  I think of how U.S. intervention has spread death and destruction spread through the Greater Middle East during the past 15 years.

      I remember the U.S. Constitution was ratified based on a compromise with slavery, and the USA acquired its present territory through ethnic cleansing of the native people and a war of aggression against Mexico.

That’s not the whole story, of course.   American history is also the story of black and white Americans who fought slavery and Jim Crow.  It is the story of the first important modern nation to be founded on democratic ideals, which we have sometimes lived up to and never completely forgotten.

It is the story of a nation to which the whole world looked as a land of opportunity, and which was the first important modern nation to achieve mass prosperity for ordinary people.

The French writer Ernst Renan said a nation is a group of people who have agreed to remember certain things and to forget certain things.  I don’t accept this.  I believe it is possible to be patriotic without historical amnesia.

I identify with the comment of another French writer, Albert Camus, at the time when the French army was fighting Algerian rebels by means of torture and atrocity.  He said he wanted to be able to love his country and also love justice.

That should be less of a dilemma for Americans.  The United States is a nation whose patriotism is based not on loyalty to an ethnic group, but on the willingness to uphold, protect and defend a Constitution.

We Americans can love our country without having to love our government.

But my love of country is not based these arguments or any other arguments, any more than my love of family is based on arguments.   I love America because I am part of it and it is part of me.

∞∞∞

Loving the South by Ross Douthat for The American Conservative.

Americans of German ancestry outnumber others

May 13, 2015

49840035-germans-live-mostly-in-the-midwest

I came across an article the other day that pointed out there are more Americans who report they are of German ancestry (like myself) than of any other.

A report from Business Insider said that 49.8 million Americans who claim German ancestry, versus 35.7 million Irish, 31.7 million Mexicans, 27.4 million English, and 17.5 million Italians, to name the largest groups.

There are 19.1 plain “Americans” who don’t report foreign ancestry, either as a political statement or because they don’t know it.  And there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska natives, who of course comprise many nations.

Why don’t we hear more about German-Americans?  The reason is that nationality is not a question of ancestry and blood, but of upbringing and, in the USA at least, choice.

I think that very few Americans of German ancestry think of themselves as German-Americans.  Certainly General Eisenhower and Admiral Nimitz didn’t.  Certainly I don’t.

It is interesting to know that some of my ancestors came to Pennsylvania and Maryland from Germany in the 18th century, and that an ancestor, Johann Ebersole, fought in the Continental Army under George Washington.  But if I learned tomorrow that none of these things is true, it would not change my sense of who I am.

In fact, I grew up with a certain amount of prejudice against Germans.  I used to think of Germans as authoritarian, hierarchical and rule-bound, and a perfect contrast to us freedom-loving, democratic and practical Americans.

Since then I’ve come to see us Americans take on all the qualities that I saw as defects in the German national character.  And, although I don’t have a close knowledge of Germany, my impression is that Germany is more egalitarian and more respectful of basic civil liberties than the USA.

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Hungary 1956 and Ukraine 2015

February 26, 2015

I was at the end of basic training in the U.S. Army in 1956 when the Hungarian people rose up against the Soviet occupiers.

hungarianfreedomfighter.timemanoftheyearIt would have been right and just for President Eisenhower to send me and other young Americans to stand with the Hungarian freedom fighters, especially since their uprising had been encouraged by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

It also would have been reckless and foolish, because it could have provoked a nuclear war that would have destroyed the USA, the USSR, Hungary and much of the rest of the world.

The USA and USSR still have sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy each other and much else.  A military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine would be as reckless and foolish as defending the Hungarian rebels would have been then.

A truce, or a freezing of the Ukraine conflict, would not be to the benefit of the Ukrainian people, any more than the Cold War division of Europe was to the benefit of the Hungarian people.

Russia would be left in control of its vital naval base in Crimea and with a presence in the eastern Ukrainian industrial heartland.   Ukrainians ruled from Kiev would be forced to submit to the IMF’s harsh austerity requirements and to sell national assets at bargain prices.

The best that can be said is that it is better than nuclear war.

A footnote on Hiroshma

January 29, 2015

Back in the 1960s, I had a friend named Willis who was married to a sweet young Japanese woman named Teri.

He had not fought in the war, but served in the Army during the Occupation of Japan.  Teri worked in the same office that he did.  He spent a year persuading her to go out with him on a date.  Six months after that they were engaged to be married.

cherry_blossom_The Army forbid troops to marry “indigenous personnel” and he had quite a time finding a job in Japan so that he could be discharged there rather than being sent back to the United States.

Teri as a schoolgirl had been given a dagger with which to kill herself rather than be violated by American soldiers.  Then she met big, gentle Willis, who was the complete opposite of the bestial, animal-like American depicted in Japanese propaganda.

When Willis got to know Teri’s family, he pressed his father-in-law to tell him what he really thought of the bombing of Hiroshima.  The father-in-law was reluctant to answer, he said there was no point in talking about the topic, but Willis pressed him—he was not one to take “no” for an answer—and the father-in-law finally did answer.

It’s been 50 years since Willis told me the story, and of course it was second-hand to begin with, but I think I remember the gist of ir accurately.  It was approximately like this.

We Japanese understand military necessity.  If we had possessed atomic bombs, we most certainly would have used them on San Francisco and Los Angeles.

What we don’t understand is your moralizing over the fact.  You dropped the bomb and killed a lot of people, but you act as if you are not the kind of people who would do such a thing, even though you did.

You Americans like to think that you are different from other people, but you aren’t.  And if you don’t understand that, we do.

I thought of Willis’s story every time I heard President Bush or President Obama say, “This is not who we are.”

Comfort, risk and coal-fired furnances

January 26, 2015

When I was a schoolboy, one of my chores after I walked home from school was to stir up the coal in our furnace, so that the fire, which had been banked during the day, would flare up start to warm our house again.

Both my mother and father worked outside the home for pay, so there was no sense burning coal unnecessarily when nobody was home.

furnaceThe coal was in a huge pile in our basement, delivered by the coal company through a chute.  We had to remember to shovel new coal in the furnace at regular intervals, especially just before we went to bed at night, lest the fire go out.

Restarting a furnace fire was a major operation.  What we should have done was to start a fire with newspaper and kindling wood, then add more food and then, when the fire was going strong, add coal

What my dad actually did was to splash kerosene onto the coal, toss a lighted wooden match into the furnace and then jump back.  I do not recommend this.

The coal burned down to ashes which collected in the bottom of the furnace in big metal tubs.  Another one of my chores, when I was big enough, was to help my father carry the tubs out to the curb to be collected.

I imagine my father thought having a furnace at all and having coal delivered to the house was a great advance.  He grew up in a farm with only a stove in the kitchen for heat.

I myself have a gas furnace which I control with a thermostat.  That’s a lot easier than shoveling coal.  But on Saturday night, my furnace failed—with temperatures outside below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

I phoned Betlem Heating, and a service technician came by a few hours later.  He quickly diagnosed the fixed the problem—a failed thermocouple—and was on his way.

He told me he had many calls that night, each one to a place 20 or 30 miles from the one before.  But he said he didn’t mind.  That was his job.

I have a much easier life than my father and grandfather.  But compared to them, I am much more dependent on complex systems that I don’t understand—not just the furnace, but the whole interdependent web of people and institutions that bring the gas to my house.

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My first five years as a blogger

January 20, 2015

Today is the fifth anniversary of my starting this web log.

I’m grateful to my good friend David Damico for pointing out that it’s possible to do a blog on a web host such as WordPress without paying any money and without any particular knowledge of computers and the Internet.  If not for him, I might not ever have started a blog.  If I had known what he told me earlier, I might have started this blog years ago.

blogID-10088265When I retired from newspaper work, people asked me if I planned to continue writing.  My answer was that I did not intend to write anything in the future that somebody else had the power to change.  For many years my only writing, aside from articles for newsletters of organizations I belong to, consisted of e-mails to my circle of friends.

I still send an e-mail at least once a month commenting on books I’ve read recently.  I post on my blog about the more noteworthy of those books.

My blog is a perfect means of self-expression, from my standpoint.  I can write as much or as little as I please, although I find myself almost always spending on time on my posts than I originally intended.

I had hoped and expected, when I started my blog, that it would be a means of generating discussion and comments among my circle of friends.  In fact, the majority of my friends seldom or never read it.  But I’m compensated by being brought in contact with a circle of acquaintances in distant states and even foreign countries whom I’d never have met otherwise.

Since Jan. 20, 2010, I’ve made 3,049 posts which have elicited a total of 2,440 comments and been viewed a total of 601,009 times (not counting today).   The most views I ever got in a day was 2,199 on Election Day in 2014.

On a web site called URLmetrics, I’m ranked, as of early last year, number 2,201,006 among U.S. blogs in daily visitors and number 4,066,146 in daily views.  I don’t know whether that is good or bad.

blagofaireSource: xkcd.

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On my 78th birthday

December 14, 2014

December 14, 1936Via simonandfinn.

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SMALL THANKS 2014

November 23, 2014

reasontobethankful.qmI have many things for which to be thankful.  I have never in my life had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether I would have a roof over my head.  I have never been without friends.  I have good health for somebody my age (nearly 78).  I can honestly say I have everything I really want.

But this post is not about these things.  It is about small things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for automobiles that don’t rust out.  When I first came to Rochester, the city and county governments used to spread large amounts of road salt in the winter.  Natives and long-time residents told me it was important to get a good rust-proofing service; I, foolishly, used an inexpensive service instead, to my regret.  Road salt is less of a problem now than it was then, but the plastic body of my Saturn doesn’t rust.

I am thankful for automobiles that always start in the winter.  I can remember when this was a big issue.  I would run my car in neutral when I got home, and before I tried to start the car, in hope of recharging the battery enough to get a good start.  Now, with alternators as standard equipment, that recharging takes care of itself.  I am thankful for automobiles that get good traction on ice-covered and snow-covered streets, for right-side rear view mirrors and for rear-window defrosters.  I am thankful for idiot bells that let me know when I am getting out of the car with my lights still on or my key still in the ignition; this idiot needs the reminder.

I am thankful for ballpoint pens that don’t leak over my shirts when I accidentally put them in the washer.

I am thankful the Barnes & Noble bookstore provides chairs so I can sit and read.

I am thankful for painless dentistry.  As a boy, I once had a tooth extracted without anesthetic.  The dentist used what looked like a pair of pliers.  He pulled and pulled and pulled, then had to stop and catch his breath before going back and finally getting it out.

I am thankful for plastic bottles shaped with grips.

I am thankful for thermostats.  My parents had a coal furnace, and we had to be constantly thinking not letting the fire go out, but also banking the furnace so as not to waste coal.  One of my chores, since both of my parents worked outside the home, was to go right home when school let out and shovel fresh coal in the furnance.  Now I have a gas furnace that doesn’t have to be monitored at all, and a thermostat which I can turn up or down when I feel too hot or too cold.

I am thankful for luggage with wheels.  I can remember walking through airports and, before that, train stations carrying suitcases that felt like they would pull my arms out of their sockets.

I am thankful for search engines since as Google that allow me to find information in two minutes that I would have had to spend an afternoon in library to get, if I could find it at all.  I am thankful for web hosts such as WordPress that allow me to have my own web log, free of charge and without needing to be computer-savvy.  I am thankful for being able to communicate with friends in distant places through e-mail.  Not to mention spam filters which free me from having to continually purge my e-mail and web log comments.

I am thankful for direct-dial long-distance telephone service.  I can talk to people in distant states and even foreign countries at an affordable price and without having to deal with an operator.  And for telephone answering machines.  When I was a boy, telephone service was like Internet service today.  Most people had it, but a large minority didn’t.

And not all telephone users had private telephone lines. Basic telephone service in those days consisted of a party line, networking a number of households; the phones of everybody on the line rang on every call, but you were supposed to recognize the distinctive ring of your own line and not listen in to others’ calls.

Microwave ovens are a great boon to a lazy cook like me.  I do almost all my cooking nowadays, which consists mostly of frozen dinners, in the microwave.

What are your non-obvious reasons, small or large, to be thankful?

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My country, both right and wrong

July 5, 2014

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The American naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, like to offer the following after-dinner toast in the late 1810s.

Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!

The immigrant newspaper publisher, Carl Schurz, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offered this toast in 1872.

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

The worst mistake an individual, or a community, can make about themselves is to think they are always right and never wrong.   The second worst mistake an individual, or community, can make is to think they are always wrong and never right.

I love my country, I love my family and I love myself, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking my country, my family or myself are perfect.

The great danger of teaching children that the USA (or any other country) is always in the right, and never in the wrong, is that, when they find out this is not so, they go to the opposite extreme and reject everything about their heritage.

I love my country not because it is perfect, but because it is my country.

The United States is an exceptional[1] nation because our basis of unity consists of a set of ideals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and a set of laws, as laid down in our Constitution.   The Constitution is the more important of the two.  The oaths of loyalty sworn by new citizens, the military and the President are to the Constitution.

But the Constitution and the Declaration did not come out of nowhere.  They are part of the heritage of British liberty under law, which is part of the heritage of Western civilization, which is part of the heritage of the whole human race, which is part of the cosmic scheme of things.

I don’t recall who it was that asked, if you don’t love your country, which you have seen, how you can love humanity, which you have not seen?  That’s how I think of patriotism.

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Should I be preparing for collapse? Should you?

June 3, 2014

I’ve been following a blogger named Dmitry Orlov for some years now. His ClubOrlov blog is listed among my Favorites on my Blogs I Like page, and some of my favorites from his writings are on my Archive of Good Stuff page.

A Russian-born American citizen who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orlov became known for a slide show called “The Collapse Gap

,” in which he compared the USSR just prior to its collapse with the contemporary USA. Both countries, as he noted, were in industrial decline, militarily over-extended and dependent on foreign credit to maintain their material standard of living. Both had economic systems that did not serve the public need, and both had governments in which the public had lost confidence.

Paradoxically, Orlov wrote, the Soviet people were better prepared for collapse than Americans. Russians were accustomed to not being able to buy things in stores and having to fend for themselves. Russian families with many generations crowded into small apartments were better able to face crises than American families, scattered across the country, isolated in suburbs and dependent on availability of cheap gasoline.

global-warming-record-temperatures-2012-537x442This all makes sense to me, but Orlov in the meantime has moved on. He no longer limits his prediction to an American political and economic crisis. Now he predicts a global collapse of civilization, based on exhaustion of fossil fuels, climate change and the inability of established institutions to respond.

In a blog post sometime back, he reviewed a book, American Exodus, by a Canadian author, Gilles Slade, about where to live in North America in 2050 after global climate change has set in.

Slade thinks that Mexico will burn up and that the U.S. Great Plains will dry up. The Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for much of a region stretching from Texas to Nebraska, will disappear. Irrigation water will no longer be available for places such as California’s Central Valley.

northwestterritoriesThe East Coast will be destroyed by rising oceans and increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes. Drought refugees from Mexico will invade the United States, and drought refugees from the U.S. will invade Canada.

Taking all these things into consideration, Slade thinks the safest place to be in North America will be Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

I haven’t read Slade’s book and don’t know the specifics of his research, but this doesn’t sound impossible to me. I can’t guess how bad things will get, or when the worst will be, but the consequences of human-made global warming are already being felt and can only get worse.

So in the light of all this, why do I continue to live my accustomed life as if nothing is wrong?

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The people I regard as enemies

May 6, 2014

I have been enrolled as a Democrat all my adult life, but I do not regard Republicans as my enemies.

I call myself a liberal, but I do not regard self-described conservatives as my enemies.

I am not a libertarian, but I do not regard libertarians as my enemies.

I am not a supporter of the Tea Party movement, but I do not regard Tea Party supporters as my enemies.

I am a religious liberal, but I do not regard fundamental Christians as my enemies.

The people I regard as enemies are people in high places who enable,  justify and cover up murder, torture and theft.