The Dream

August 5, 2013

A friend just shared with me Anne Serling’s book, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. This was a piece I wanted to share, from a commencement address he gave in 1970:

“…It’s simply a national acknowledgement that in any kind of priority, the needs of human beings must come first. Poverty is here and now. Hunger is here and now. Racial tension is here and now. Pollution is here and now. These are the things that scream for a response. And if we don’t listen to that scream–and if we don’t respond to it–we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us–or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

Before reading this, I finished George Packer’s The Unwinding, tracking three “regular” Americans over the last 30 years. Like a modern, non-fiction Steinbeck novel. I think the truck, or the bomb, has hit. But I also hope that, in ingenuity, compassion, creativity, kindness, Americans have enough insurance to start over.

Science and Politics

January 24, 2013

From Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–But Some Don’t:

“What I do know is that there is a fundamental difference between science and politics. In fact, I’ve come to view them more and more as opposites.

“In science, progress is possible…The march towards scientific progress is not always straightforward, and some well-regarded (even “consensus”) theories are later proved wrong–but either way science tends to move toward the truth.

“In politics, by contrast, we seem to be growing ever further away from consensus…one is expected to give no quarter to his opponents. It is seen as a gaffe when one says something inconvenient–and true…

“The dysfunctional state of the American political system is the best reason to be pessimistic about our country’s future. Our scientific and technological prowess is the best reason to be optimistic…If I had a choice between a tournament of ideas and a political cage match, I know which fight I’d rather be engaging in–especially if I thought I had the right forecast.”

Highly Recommended:

July 19, 2012

Music: Carole King’s The Legendary Demos is a must-listen for anyone interested in pop music. The album is what it says: the original demo versions, performed by Carole and her backers, for some of Goffin and King’s best pop songs: Pleasant Valley Sunday, Locomotion, Up on the Roof, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman… It also includes demos for her own songs, mostly from Tapestry, which have a great, quick energy compared to the more staid versions on the finished album. I’ve written a couple times about the genius I think it takes to keep writing great pop songs, and these demos show it in its most elemental form.

Fiction: I just finished Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements.  I picked it up because it sounded like an interesting story. A family descends on their summer home to prepare for the wedding of their first daughter, and entanglements and an exploding whale ensue. I was mostly interested because a great deal of the book is from the father’s perspective, and Shipstead’s author bio said she was born the same year I was, which made me wonder how she’d write a middle-aged man. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, but the book’s depiction of family dynamics and the craziness that comes with a wedding was spot on to me.

Non-Fiction: Finishing Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss. On my left-leaning newscommentary pages there was some discussion that Maraniss is a conservative critic of Obama, but I thought the book was quite well-balanced. When there’s a difference between Obama’s memoirs and the historical record, Maraniss points it out, but he’s perfectly content to ascribe those differences to the fictionalization that happens to any memoir.  A long read, and not the easiest, but offers some significant insight into a person with great depth of experience and, I think, understanding. Reading GWB’s memoir made me lose some of the sympathy I’d gained for him in intervening years; reading Maraniss’ book made me more eager to see an Obama second term.

Movie: Well, we watched American Reunion last night, which was exactly what you’d expect from an American Pie movie. Sort of like the 4th Indiana Jones, it’s just cool to see those characters again. But the movie I came to recommend is Barry Stevens’ documentary Prosecutor, about the International Criminal Court’s first Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. As someone interested in a global approach to systemic international problems, I appreciated seeing a film that exposes the shortcomings of international criminal prosecutions while still maintaining the value of the system.


June 6, 2012

The title Rachel Maddow chose for her book on the influences of, and on, US military intervention could be equally well-applied to What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel.

Sandel makes a convincing argument that it’s time for  honest discussion about where we see the place of market forces, and what realms of life and society are best left off-limits: “These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods and the proper way of valuing them. This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” (10)

And he offers relevant examples of that drift. In confusing the desire to pay with the ability to pay, a market society justifies tiered services, not only in the cultural realm (skyboxes at athletic events) but also in education, health care, and the rest. Where’s the line between legacy admission or making a large donation to a college and buying your way in? Or between buying citizenship or being given a permanent visa for investing $500K in a US business?

“The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another…Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life…For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.” (202-203)

It’s a thoughtful, important book.

The Use of Women

May 28, 2012

I just (ashamedly for getting to it so late) finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s first memoir, Infidel. Nomad, the second, is still waiting on my shelf.

It is an eloquent and powerful insight into the process of rational examination she went through on her transition away from Islam and the developing world.

And it made me reconsider something that had spoken true to me at an earlier time but no longer seemed to fit my worldview, and showed me why.

I heard a keynote speaker once who had just come back from Afghanistan, in the early years of the ongoing war. She talked about visiting women and children and asking them about “women’s rights”, and said they responded that while they were concerned about violence and clean water, it was foolish to worry about gender equality and the oppression of women.

At the time, it sounded right. But looking at the problems in many developing parts of the world, it started to seem inadequate. And Infidel cleared up my thinking on the subject. There is no way these problems can even begin to be addressed without exploiting the social potential of women. And that’s why the treatment of women is a development issue, as well as a moral one.

One that I was pleased to read because of how it took me aback and made me reconsider my own thinking… JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I talked about it here.

In an age where we’ve come to feel that other people should be able to give us the answers and solve our problems, it was refreshing to read JFK’s call for personal responsibility, and that if we required more from the people we support in the public sphere, things would, eventually, improve. Only paying attention to them every four years doesn’t do any of us any good, nor does taking the promises of people who say they can put more money in your pocket.

I’d love to have more money. On the other hand, I also love living in a country that takes some care of its marginalized people, allows the opportunity to become better educated in whatever field I choose, and the freedom to do most anything I’d want. I don’t think higher taxes are too high a price to pay for those things, and I’m ashamed that politicians seem to be able to convince us otherwise.

Not that I think they were avoided, but I wish everyone would pick up at least one of Jeffrey Sachs’ books. They were eye-opening to me.

You can see what I said about them before, here.


July 6, 2011

I’m in a bit of a Hitchens mood recently (not a bad mood to be in). I’m nowhere near as well-spoken or as contrarian as he is, but I like to think that at my best I get into a little bit of both. Just finished The Quotable Hitchens, and next I’m finally getting into Hitch-22. Looking forward to it. So here are some collected bits of Hitch:

“…Much more probable, really, is the countertheory that man created God in his image. This would account for there being so many of Him…and also for His being such a son of a bitch.”

“Human life can and should be respected whether or not it is constituted by a creator with an immortal soul; to make the one position dependent on the other is to make the respect in some way contingent.”

“It’s one thing to be lucky: it’s another thing to admit that luck has been yours.”

“Orwell’s views have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.”

“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”

“In order to be a ‘radical’ one must be open to the possibility that one’s own core assumptions are misconceived.”

“…one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganizing it.”

“I’m very happy by myself–I’m lucky in that way–if I’ve got enough to read and something to write about and a bit of alcohol for me to add an edge, not to dull it.”

“…however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

“The enemies of intolerance cannot be tolerant, or neutral, without inviting their own suicide.”

“…’Tragedy’ is a term that ought not to be cheapened; especially in its original sense of the awful unintended consequences of human action. The pity and the terror are enhanced, of course, if the consequences are the result of human action that is idealistic.”

“The usual duty of the ‘intellectual’ is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae. But there is another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated.”

Plus one more:

“On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis–and all gin drinks–that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few, and three is one too many. Do try to eat the olives: they can be nutritious.”

Rich and Poor

April 26, 2011

Disclaimer: I know, even though it doesn’t feel that way sometimes, that compared to many, I am wealthy.

I keep on coming smack up against the contradiction (to me) in American life where so many in the middle class are becoming so much more impoverished, and at the same time they say things and behave (read: vote) in ways that show that they have no concern for those living in poverty.  I said once that it must be because I’m not rich enough that “spreading the wealth”, the horror of the 2008 US presidential election, still sounds pretty good to me. Or maybe I’m just a communist. Read too much Steinbeck, too young.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a book I should have read a long time ago, she describes working as a house cleaner and having a discussion with her fellow workers that indicated that they were more interested in making enough money to buy the same big houses as the people they cleaned for than they were in the unfairness of the economics they were in. I realize that a critical position is in many ways a privileged one, and that a lot of it is that people living in poverty don’t have the luxury of examining it from a sociological perspective. But I wonder just what it will take, just how unequal things will have to get, before people realize…hey, maybe I won’t be the person who lives out the rags to riches American dream, so maybe I should care about whether everyone has health care or can make a living wage…because maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, it could be me.

Ehrenreich’s book is stunning, and I’m sure 10 years (it was published in 2001, that’s how tardy I am) has only exacerbated the situations she describes.  And no one else is doing the working poor any favours. This is Tavis Smiley’s comment from April 17th’s Meet The Press:

“What I know is this.  I believe that budgets are moral documents.  Budgets are moral documents.  You can say what you say, but you are what you are.  I mean, you put your budget on the table, that’s when we learn who you really are. And I’m not so sure that this is not anything more than an immoral document where the poor are concerned.  Yes, to your point, David, we avoided a shutdown of government, but we effectively locked out the American people, namely the poor.  And I don’t understand why it is in this town that every debate about money always begins and ends with how we can further reward the rich and more punish the poor.  I don’t get that.”

Canadians might not be facing the exact same issue, but we’re certainly facing similar ones. And May 2nd is coming up fast.

Current reads

January 19, 2011

Ebooks and working at a library were both sure ways for me to get into trouble…now everything I read has a due date!

Except one thing: I’m almost done with Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, which is making me very sad that I didn’t take more Can. Lit. in school. It’s beautiful.

On the Kobo, I’m reading the 10th Anniversary ed. of the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, and haven’t yet started Philipp Meyer’s American Rust. 1 week till Art of Happiness “expires” and just under 2 on Meyer.

Physical books: 2 from Annie Proulx, Fine Just the Way It Is, the 3rd volume of Wyoming stories, and the new memoir, Bird Cloud. And also Condoleezza Rice’s memoir Extraordinary, Ordinary People. At least I’ve got 3 weeks to get through those.