Monday, September 24, 2012

Free Speech & Riots

We valorize the right to say anything we like, and they valorize the right to kill anyone who says insulting things about religion. We insist our right is right and theirs is wrong, because...? Killing is worse than humiliation? Not to them it isn't, because they have honor, something that once was a great motor of human behavior, and which we have almost entirely lost. They look at our blithe and widespread insults toward Christianity and conclude that we have no real faith, and are worthy of no respect. Because we have no honor, as they understand it, our guys get killed in Afghanistan by their supposed allies. We just don't get it.

 The Enlightenment was what helped to kill honor. Voltaire was beaten up by the coachman of a marquis he had lampooned, and this is taken as a signal event in the development of Voltaire's commitment to free speech. OTOH, Shakespeare was never beaten up, and he wrote some pretty good stuff. Maybe there's something good to be said for circumspection, although now we call it self-censorship and it is a Bad Thing. We believe that if speech is free, the truth will eventually emerge. This is a faith unsupported by evidence, and false on the face of it, since at every instant of history what we regard as truth is subject to revision by truthier statements. The truth actually never emerges, but we wait for it in hope, just like Christians wait for the Last Day.

 Every belief has its downside, including Enlightenment freedoms. Give any religion enough shocks from blasphemy and it collapses, and then where are you? Left with only the belief in fame, sex, power and money, which no one dares to challenge, because the basis for challenging it has been destroyed. And do we like the world thus created? Plenty of people in the Muslim world don't.

 I think it's significant that the most successful terrorists are not ignorant farm boys but educated men well engaged with the west. They've seen what we have to offer and have rejected it, and this baffles us. Are we not the supreme achievement of human culture? Is it not obvious, for example, that the point of all culture is the accumulation of capital and that any misery attendant on this process is therefore justified? Isn't it obvious that the powerful are free, under Enlightenment rules, to heap any scorn they choose onto the weak, or the outsider, and the only response allowed to perpetual humiliation is a counter-insult? A tract?

 Another result of Enlightenment theories of free speech is the collapse of manners. We behave like brutes, secure in the knowledge that we will never be physically called to account for anything we say or publicize. (Movie fantasies excepted: assholes in the movies are invariably physically punished. I think that's significant.) Except we can't say anything bad against the historic subjects of bigotry, or in favor of sex with anyone under age 18 and we can't upload a secretly-taken video of two gays making out. Or use racial epithets in public. But it's perfectly okay to shit on the deeply held beliefs of half a billion people--totally cool, in fact, and how naughty of them to object!

I'm immersed in the world of honor now, in my book, and am exploring the transition between that world and the money/politics-dominated world we live in today. The old regime had its problems, sure, but there was something satisfying about the ability to make someone's body responsible for the output of their mind. Most of the world still thinks it's absolutely okay to kill a writer if they don't like what he writes. Of course, we have to deplore that. We think it better to starve a writer rather than shoot him in those circumstances, but be that as it may, there is something noisome about the paparazzi, about the tabloids, about the anonymous posting, YouTube world we have created. The myth is that total freedom is necessary for art and literature to thrive;  in fact, a huge proportion of the works we cherish were written by people who had no rights of free expression at all.

 A complex issue here. I've just finished reading Der Brand, the story of what the air war of 1940-45 was like from the German point of view. It was the great working of nemesis in our time: as Germans were asphyxiating and roasting children in Poland, the RAF was asphyxiating and roasting the children of those Germans at home. Makes one proud to be human. I wonder what nemesis is being prepared for us, for although the Germans killed more foreign innocent civilians than any nation in recent history, we are number two, a fact not generally spoken by our leaders.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Separated at Birth

I was reading an article in TLS about the efforts of the Allies in world war two to explore the psychology of Hitler and the Nazis, and the piece included a portrait of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's closest aide and the co-author of Mein Kampf. In 1941, Hess had boosted a Luftwaffe plane and parachuted into Scotland, after which, instead of negotiating peace between Germany and Great Britain, which had been his fantasy, he was locked up and exposed to psychoanalysis. He was a key source for these efforts, of course, which was why the portrait. Well, I have to say he looks uncannily like Mitt Romney--like separated at birth. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this.

Of course, the fact that he looks just like the number two Nazi has no bearing whatever on Mr. Romney's politics, which are certainly to the left of Herr Hess's. The only similarity I can see between the characters of the two men are a substantial self-regard and a reluctance to take responsibility for the negative effects of the policies each was responsible for. That said, despite the resemblance (and it would be interesting to see Mr. Romney in Nazi regalia, just to check it out) we should be careful to distinguish the perfectly decent corporate mogul from the loathsome fascist sycophant, the devotee of the worst regime in European history.

Here's the image:


How we value intelligence! Think of how often we include it in descriptions of people—smart, bright, brilliant, sharp, first-class mind, and all the others—and it’s nearly always meant to be positive. We have almost completely suppressed the earlier notion of “cleverness” being a substrate for a certain mistrust. It’s true that Americans are traditionally suspicious of “eggheads,” but the tech revolution has ensconced the successful nerd in the pantheon of American heroes—brains now translate into money, and money is, of course, unambiguously wonderful.

The people good at the intelligence we chiefly prize, which is the ability to handle quantitative data and abstractions and to write and speak about them fluently, do seem to get the top rewards in our society. Our whole education system is geared to finding these people and sending them off to get the credentials that will validate their having this single quality in abundance. And we debate endlessly about whether this quality, and its presumed representation, the IQ score, is distributed equally among our population, or whether some identifiable classes of people naturally have more of it.

When we do this, we are using intelligence as a surrogate for success in the world. Smart people are given the good jobs they deserve and the dull are left to move the heavy objects around on the earth’s surface. But when you actually look at the people with the good jobs, this does not seem to be universally the case. The state of the world, for example, does not seem to reflect the presence of high intelligence running it. Greed, yes, and aggression, and the ability to manipulate others, but not that, not obviously. And when we look at those whose intelligence is certified, as for example the graduates of Hunter High School in New York, whose doors no one may pass who has not scored at least 150 on the IQ test, or members of Mensa, an organization of the super-intelligent, we do not find among them an unusually high proportion of world beaters. It seems that the production of extraordinarily reasoning ability on a test does not automatically translate into substantive measures of success.

At one time, I had occasion to mingle with some of the people who run the world-- high government officials, White House staff, and the heads of Fortune 500 companies—and naturally some were highly intelligent. But not all and perhaps not even a majority. To them, brilliance was a commodity that could be bought, like electricity, or so it seemed to me. What all of them did have in common, as least to my passing eye, was the ability to get along with other people, to make themselves agreeable to others, especially others situated above them in a hierarchy. Because what often goes along with super-intelligence is a lack of just that ability. The super-intelligent tend to develop impatience with slower people, which does not improve their chances for popularity and success in life. Also, very smart people tend to drop out of the rat race early (sometimes after making a quick fortune) and pursue their own interests, more or less alone. We may lament that we have stupid leaders, and this is so, but it is an error to associate this stupidity with lack of intelligence. Stupidity, as Paul Goodman once said, is a character defense that has little association with abstract reasoning ability. In fact, a lifetime of being rewarded for abstract reasoning ability almost guarantees the sort of restrictive arrogance that underlies acts of stupidity by the great among us.

My own experience with all of this occurred after I took my first and only IQ test, at the age of, I suppose, eight or nine. I can’t recall if it was a city-wide Board of Ed affair, or something private, but in any case, through some fluke or other I vaporized the test, coming out of it with an absurdly high score. Now, I was a reasonably bright kid. I read early, and kept reading, but I was not doing major scientific or literary achievements. I was collecting comic books and baseball cards, and not advising rocket scientists. But the score got my parents all excited and it was arranged for me to interview for admission to a special school optimized for kids with super-high intelligence, as measured by the Stanford-Binet metric.

My mom took me to this place, perhaps it was a university, and there was a hall there where all the small geniuses and their moms waited to be called into a room for an interview. I looked at the other kids, and I can recall, even after sixty years, my visceral repugnance. I did not want to associate with these pale, soft, bespectacled creatures. I wanted to go to a regular school, where I could be dreamy and coast, and not be bothered, and learn, if I could, how to be tough.

I got called for my interview. The interviewer was a professorial type, such as I had never encountered in real life, but only in the movies. He had on a tweed jacket, which was how I could tell he was a professor. He asked me a number of questions, of the type that a very bright kid might have been able to answer. Could there be snow on the equator? Why does a feather drop more slowly than a b-b? How about in outer space? Why? What’s a volcano and what produces its heat? I knew the answers, but purposely answered enough of them wrong not to make the cut, and so continued my career in the NYC public school system, and learned enough to be at least semi-tough.

In later life, I understood that this was a counter-narrative to what the culture expects. The kid from humble and non-intellectual surroundings is rescued, given elite opportunity and flourishes. But it turned out that back in the day you could get a public education in regular elementary and high schools that I suppose is almost unobtainable under modern conditions, except privately at huge expense. The teachers who taught us had gone into teaching during the Great Depression, when public school teaching was like bond trading is now—nearly the best job going for a college grad--and they were definitely not, as now, from the lowest quintile. They were really smart and really good. So I never regretted my juvenile instinct, although I probably surrendered the transcendent greatness to which my score entitled me.

Now, I’m not so smart, it seems to me, although I avoid like the plague all those brain teasers the papers print, which are supposed to demonstrate smarts. I don’t do crosswords, or play Scrabble, or Rubik’s Cube. I think inside the box. As I get older, pure smarts seem less valuable than character: decency, focus, hard work, and the ability to give and receive love. And wisdom, which is not at all dependent on pure intelligence. And toughness.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Concert

In the previous post I revealed my complete ignorance of music and my belated efforts to repair it. The novel I’m writing now concerns, among other things, a man growing up in the age of Mozart, who actually knew Mozart, but whose upbringing denied him all exposure to classical music. Write what you know, they say, and this is what I know, lack of knowledge being a kind of knowing.
When I was growing up the only classical music I ever heard was Peter and the Wolf, a shellac disk album of which had come into my possession. The culture in my house held up the Broadway show as the pinnacle of musical achievement. At one time, during my first grade, the school system in New York offered free classical music lessons on various instruments. I came home one day with an application for after-school violin lessons, which my mother refused to sign. Her position was that learning the violin was low-class, as it would suit me only to perform on the street with a monkey. Instead she offered to pay for accordion lessons, since with an accordion I could play show tunes and be popular at parties. I record this incident as a signifier of our cultural level with respect to the classics.

My musical education thereafter consisted mainly in learning to identify short classical themes and their composers. (H-U-M-O-R-E-ESS/ Q U E spells Humoresque, and Dvořak wote this happy saw-ung!) In high school I was for the first time exposed to peers who had received classical music education. Although I could sing, and did sing in a chorus, I regarded the ability of some of my friends to sit at a piano and play Bach as a kind of mystical gift, or a natural attainment, like being tall. In college, I took the required Music 101, during which I was asked to attend two concerts, one an opera performance. Boring.

All this is preface to a remarkable occurrence that, looking back over fifty years, I can hardly believe I experienced. I have not been able to locate any records that confirm my memory, but the memory remains sharp, and I suppose my current novel is in some sense an effort to integrate my sad history with respect to classical music.

It was the summer after I graduated from college and I was bumming around Europe on a motorcycle, a 250 cc Ducati of a certain age. I traveled from hostel to hostel exuding then-stylish Brandoesque malevolence. Somewhere in the southernmost angle of France, where it touches both Spain and the Med, (it may have been Perpignan) I met up with a guy I had known passingly at college, more of a friend of a friend person, whose name I have forgotten, but whom I will call Mitchell. Well, small world! Mitchell was not Brandoesquely malevolent, but round, smooth-faced and sweet-natured, and he was a musician of distinction. In fact, he was a young conductor and a protegé of Leonard Bernstein. Mitchell was rather more anxious to be friends with me than I with him, as I recall, but, while malevolent, I was not really nasty, and so I invited him hang around with me and the crowd of scruffy louts of which I was an ornament.

Looking back—and with later knowledge of the milieu of Mr. Bernstein-- there was probably a gay thing going there with Mitchell, to which I was utterly oblivious at the time.

In any case, Mitchell kept going on about these tickets that Lennie (as he always referred to his mentor) had given him. They were for this really great concert in the town of Prades, which was about forty miles from where we were. Pablo Casals, the world’s greatest cellist at the time, had started this musical event a few years before, as a kind of defiance of the fascist regime in Spain: he would perforn in France, on the Spanish border, but not in Spain, his native land, while Franco was in power.

Well, I knew who Casals was, and I knew about Spain, where I had lately been, and I’d seen the troops in Nazi-style helmets parading around, and received my share of dirty looks from the guardia civil. So since it was too late to join Orwell and the anarchist militia, I decided that driving forty miles over wretched mountain roads with a guy I barely knew to see a Casals concert was the least I could do for the Spanish Republic.

We had a slow ride of it, cold and dusty, and arrived in Prades around dusk. Of course, I had no idea of what these tickets meant and so I was surprised at the scene that greeted us. The little town square was jammed with luxury cars, the gendarmerie was out in force with their white gauntlets and crossbelts, and the streets around the modest church that was the concert venue were full of gentlemen in formal attire and ladies in couture. It turned out that the first night at Prades was the hottest ticket in Europe. The French, especially, having been more fascist in the pre-war and war years than was now thought proper, were intent on showing the world that they were not still fascist, not like those bastards across the borde. The the audience therefore included a slice of the intellectual gratin of France. Was that Simone de Beauvoire? Was that André Malraux? It well could have been.

We got a close look from the cops and the ticket taker, especially me, but I suppose they assumed I was Existentialist Youth, and passed us in. We took our seats in the smallish room, probably 300 seats in all in front of a small stage. Eighth row center—good old Lennie! I stood to allow an old woman and her younger male companion to pass by and she sat down on my left. She was hawk-faced and extremely thin, white hair in a neat bun, black dress covered with a lacy integuenment that had little sparkly beads set in it. Very elegant, I thought, and studied her profile.
Shock of recognition: I had a picture of that profile stuck in one of my very favorite books, Seven Gothic Tales, one of the half-dozen serious books I had read with any real enjoyment during my college time. Yes, I was sitting next to Isak Dinesen, Baroness Blixen. Out of Africa. Babettes’s Feast. To whom I had nothing whatever to say, of course, although in later imagination we had quite a charming conversation, mostly about the music.

Of which I recall nothing. It would have been neat if this concert had set me on the road to a higher level of culture, but it did not. Oh, yeah, Isaac Stern had come too, and he played by himself and joined with Ser Casals in a quartet. I don’t have the program and I see that it has not been preserved on the Prades festival website, or else I could make up a happy lie. In reality, it was like serving a ’68 Chateau Margaux to someone who had been used to Sprite with meals—in one ear and out the other. It is well known that Americans are barbarians but it’s not often one gets to feel it that keenly. (Looking back, I realize that this is why my mom didn’t want me to play the violin. She would have had to mix with the mothers of the other violin-playing kids and they would have condescended to her and made her feel like the slum-raised child of peasants that she was.)

Fortunately, the Sixties came soon after that, and we were able to consign all that culture to the trash heap of history and rock on with suitably blown minds. Unfortunately, my brief exposure to traditional high culture prevented me from getting entirely lost in the counterculture, although I did try. Maybe, in the end, it was the memory of that little church and the music I couldn’t understand and the old woman on my left and what she represented, grandeur and horror all mixed together confusingly, like a gothic tale. Not for children, and we so wanted to remain children, did we not? It was closing time in the gardens of the west even then, and now the gates are so overgrown and blocked with trash that we hardly know the gardens ever existed.

I remember, however, if barely, in my barbarous way. This is one reason why I’m trying to write a historical novel, to see if I can enter that world when it still had confidence and could not have imagined its future.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Black Keys

Well, it's never too late to learn something. Music figures in the novel I'm writing, which forms the third of a sort of trilogy that includes,The Book of Air & Shadows and Forgery of Venus: literature, art and music. Unfortunately, I am a complete ignoramus about the last of these. I love music, but it's magic to me, and not in a romantic sense, either. How do they do it? I've tried a number of times in my life to learn to play an instrument or gain a smattering of music theory, always a total failure.

But now I have to know something in order not to screw up this novel,so I dragged out one of those Idiot Guide tomes and put a cheap piano keyboard on my iPad. And, well, it sounds incredibly lame, but I finally, finallygrasped what a key was. I just never occurred to me that every scale had a different series of piano keys to press, and that only C Major used nothing but white keys, and that it was all about intervals. Once you know the interval pattern, you can play any scale, Major or minor, and of course this now explains what is meant by a piece of music being in a particular key. I was playing scales on that stupid keyboard into the small hours.

It's still sort of magic--how do musicians keep all of that in their heads, and how do they make their fingers do all that pushing accurately! And how did the first piano maker figure all of it out? Anyway, I get it now, and I have to say few things in recent years have given me as much pleasure as this little insight. Look for me in a piano bar near you--Happy Birthday, Mary Had a Little Lamb--all the old favorites!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Political Terms (2)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I was raised as a yellow dog Democrat in the old New York City way. The first time I voted, at age twenty-one, as was then the rule, I used a classic New York City voting machine. This was a cubical about the size of a restroom stall, set up in the basement of a local public school. You entered it, and yanked a large red lever, which closed a curtain, sealing you off from prying eyes. You then faced a steel wall upon which the names of the candidates were arranged in rows, according to party: Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists. No Conservative party then, of course, not in the City. There was a lever by the side of each name and to vote you pressed it so that it locked down, revealing a tiny colored window. Or you could pull the larger lever that stood at the head of each party’s ticket and automatically vote the party line, which, of course, is what I did. I didn’t need to read the names of the obscure party hacks who were running for the lesser offices because I was actually voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dead then twenty years, and most of my fellow New Yorkers did the same at the time.

After voting, which took twelve seconds, you thrust the big red lever to the side, opening the curtain and recording the vote; at the same time the mechanism pushed up the small levers, ready for the next Democrat to do the same. It was a simpler time, corrupt as the devil, but ensuring a party discipline that is now but a memory.

Many years later, I went to work for government in Miami, Florida, a city that has retained the charming corruptibility of ancient New York. One of the things my mentor, an old pol of charming corruption, taught me was that you should never tell a politician he needed anything you could supply, because every politician only needs one thing—fifty-one per cent of the vote. Another thing he taught was that when you got that vote, all the people who didn’t vote for you became your constituents too, and you had to take their concerns into account. Nobody gets everything, and nobody gets nothing was the rubric, a lesson much forgotten in this era of insane partisanship.

A few years after that I went to Washington somewhat later to work in the Carter White House, and learned first-hand how crazy the Democratic party had become. I still believe it was a harmless nuttiness, based on the desire to do good, but undone by the odd congeries of interest groups (with different definitions of good) that this party had morphed into since the days of FDR. It was a circus barely able to govern.

After a series of strange transactions, including Reagan’s election, I found myself at a federal regulatory agency, working for its chief, who was a classic moderate Republican. I don’t believe I had actually ever spoken with a Republican before, so it was real interesting. He would come into the office after shooting down workers in the streets and tearing the bread from the mouths of little children and we would talk about political ideas, for I was his speech writer. I rather think that he liked having me (whom he always referred to as an anarcho-syndicalist) as his speech writer. Perhaps it was a sumptuary taste, like a lord of the Baroque age having a trained ape on a golden chain.

For my part, I liked him very much. This guy was America incarnate to me, as un-New Yorkish as you could get. His Midwestern family had helped found the Republican party back in the 1850s and he was on a first-name basis with all the GOP grandees. His personal integrity was unquestioned and he had distinguished himself by an act of remarkable political courage during the Watergate scandal. He thought that federal regulation was the salvation of the capitalist system, not a view characteristic of the people who now run the GOP, to put it mildly. He thought the Republican party was all about fiscal probity, a strong military, a cautious foreign policy, environmental conservation, squeaky-clean government, and investment in the future via public works and educational opportunity. He’d given up a colossal amount of money to come work for the government, simply because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Yes, nothing but an establishment conservative, much denigrated in the 60s and thereafter, one of the grown-ups who used to run the United States of America, and who, together with like-minded gentlemen from across the aisle, built virtually all the great institutions of our nation, from the transcontinental railroad, to the national parks, to Social Security, the interstate highways, the regulatory system, the GI Bill, Medicare, winning World War II--the list goes on.

Later on, I worked at the state level, writing speeches and doing policy work for another of the same sort of Republican, this one an up-and-comer, spoken of as a possible US senator or governor. It didn’t happen, because while he might have won an election, there was no way someone with this kind of politics could get nominated on the Republican ticket in our state. During my time in Washington DC the GOP had changed from being a conservative party to a reactionary one.

This is a bad thing for the liberals, and not for the obvious reason—the famous rightward shift. Productive American politics has always been a liberal-conservative dance. Liberals and conservatives understand each other, and at some level they know they need each other. But reactionaries have no interest in the dance. They are only interested in maintaining the purity of their dream, and their most vehement ire is directed not against liberals or radicals, as you might expect, but against conservatives, which is one reason for the near extinction of that political stance in American politics. Lacking a dance partner, liberals have tended to drift. In the past few decades they have drifted rightwards, attempting to be their own conservative partners. But if reactionaries come to power and attempt to impose a reactionary program, I suspect they will drift left again. This will surprise everyone, because no one has seen a strong left in the US for very many years. (Nancy Pelosi is not what I mean here.) Then the same thing could happen on the left as happened on the right, because the radicals hate the liberals more than the reactionaries do. The center will be hollowed out on the left side the way it has been on the right. Then you have the makings of a cold war, civil style: America in 1855 say, or Germany in 1930: irreconcilable divisions, the end of civil discourse, the stockpiling of weapons and the rest of that awful process.

I guess I don’t really believe this will happen. I guess I still think that at some point, the grownups will come back from wherever they’ve been hiding, sweep the squabbling children out of the control room and get back to running a 21st century nation. But I also recall how stunned I was when Reagan won. How could someone so right-wing be the president! Fortunately, it turned out that Reagan was a fraud as a reactionary. Just a good old country club Republican after all, was Ron: squash the unions, loot the state, help the rich, business as usual. Bush 2 was similar, but significantly departed from conservative orthodoxy by breaking the bank and starting wars. Romney is actually running as a fraud, which makes a nice change.

So one thing I have not seen is a projection of what life would be like in the US if the reactionary program—the current GOP platform, for example—were actually to be implemented in the United States, and if an actual, non-fraudulent reactionary party controlled the White House and the Congress. This is not surprising, since the press won’t even use the term reactionary.

That, however, is for another post.