J.D. Salinger

Standard

I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and didn’t get it, so I never became a fan, unlike (I guess) most of the rest of the country. I read his other books too, later on. I don’t remember making much of the short stories, rather liking Franny and Zooey, but not enough to reread them.

I lived in the same general area as he did for more than a decade, and drove through Cornish, New Hampshire every now and then, aware that he lived somewhere there, but not being very interested. I certainly had nothing I wanted to say to him, unlike a lot of other people.

Years before that I had picked up a short book by Joyce Maynard, called Looking Back. She wrote about junior high school (at a time when she was only just out of high school herself), which brought back the experience to me, but she had clearly been much more aware of what was going on around her than I had been when I was a student.

Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, she wrote a column for the local paper, which I read pretty regularly. It was interesting, but I felt there was something wrong there, I can’t say what, because I don’t remember. It wasn’t that she listened to country music when writing a book, though that wouldn’t be my taste. I’m not sure I knew at the time that she had had an affair with Salinger, nor that she had written the book I read while they were together.

Later I read his daughter’s memoir. I didn’t have a LOT of interest in him, but still some curiosity. This morning I watched a movie about him.

I think it would be fair to say he was a strange man, with a number of paradoxical elements. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t, he grew up in a Jewish environment, privileged, but not liking it much. He messed up in private schools, was sent to a military school where, according to the movie, he got himself together.

He seems to have decided early that he wanted to write, and began to be published in the early 1940s. He wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and the magazine had accepted one of his stories, but didn’t publish it because of Pearl Harbor. He was upset about that.

He almost immediately tried to enlist in the army, but was initially rejected. He kept trying, and managed to enlist later in 1942. His first experience of combat was on D Day. He told someone later that he carried a manuscript about Holden Caulfield when he hit the beach, because it was necessary to his survival. Obviously he did survive, and it seems that not much later he met Ernest Hemingway (whom, according to the movie, he idolized) in Paris, got him to look at a manuscript, and that Hemingway loved it. The story is told by one of Hemingway’s grandchildren in the movie, so it may be true.

Paradox: after VE day he had a nervous breakdown, and spent time in a hospital in Germany. But he reenlisted to “track down the bad guys”. He had been in Intelligence with his company, which meant that he talked to citizens of each town they came to to find out where the Germans had machine gun nests set up, where clear areas were that ambushes could be set up, and generally anything else useful. He must have had a clearer than usual idea of local life and how it had been affected by German occupation.

His company also entered a camp in Dachau, so he saw many corpses and a few survivors. This must have made an impression on him, quite possibly especially because he was Jewish. Maybe that’s why he wanted to punish those who had done such things. Which makes it quite surprising that he married a young Nazi woman (clearly against regulations) and brought her back to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long. When he divorced her he said she had misled him.

He pursued his writing after the war, got published in the New Yorker as he had hoped, then published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, which was an almost immediate best seller. Many people identified with Holden Caulfield, the young narrator. Friends say that Caulfield was Salinger.  They also testify that he was taken aback by his sudden popularity and loss of privacy, and that he didn’t want to cooperate with the publicity, but wasn’t really a recluse either. He still enjoyed going out to bars and interacting with friends, but didn’t want strangers asking him for things, as he made clear later in New Hampshire, to someone who waited in his driveway to meet him. He had given his work to the public, but said he couldn’t tell anyone how to live.

The latter seems not to have been so true in his private life. After he married his second wife (19 years old to his 34, and with a troubled background) and they had their first child, they settled in New Hampshire and he isolated himself from her and the children much of the time to write. He had apparently been fascinated by her youth and beauty, but didn’t find her so fascinating after she’d given birth. It took some time–she probably lacked confidence–but she eventually divorced him, His daughter Margaret’s memoir (as I recall it) emphasizes that she didn’t feel she could please him. According to the movie, his son disagreed with her portrayal of their family life.

Joyce Maynard’s account of their affair, beginning in the early 1970s is interesting too. He insisted they meditate in the morning after eating uncooked frozen peas (pouring hot water over them to warm them), then writing, for which he donned a jumpsuit. They watched the old movies he liked in the evenings.

She met William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, and Shawn’s longtime lady friend in New York City, and apparently said something gauche. She said Salinger hustled her out of the lunch and bought her an expensive coat.

They broke up, she says, after going to the beach with his son. He and his son played in the water, he came back out, and told her he was really tired, that he wasn’t going to have children anymore. She wanted children, so she said she couldn’t stay with him, and he told her she should leave right away. He took her to the airport and gave her some money.

Later, she found that, just as he had with her, he had written letters to a number of young girls–they were always young–one of whom became his third wife. She also eventually decided to write a memoir of their affair, went to his house to tell him, and had him denounce her for it.

He stayed in New Hampshire the rest of his life, and seems to have been well accepted by people there. People who came to town looking for him found that local people weren’t cooperative. They didn’t want to be part of invading his privacy. One writer interviewed a famous man’s widow on just the other side of the Connecticut river from New Hampshire, and remarked that Salinger lived there. She remarked that he did, and that he had sat in the same chair the writer was then sitting in the previous night. She asked him what he would ask Salinger, told him that Salinger was all right, and was writing, and added, So you don’t need to meet him at all.

Why have so many people been fascinated with Salinger? Was his writing that good? For some I guess it was. I suppose part of the fascination may have been that Salinger didn’t behave like other writers in playing the celebrity game, which he easily could have. New Hampshire probably seems like a distant and foreign place to live to many. Actually, it’s not so different from other states, but may have fewer big cities, especially in that area.

Of course his response to fame was unusual, which didn’t make it wrong. He could have moved to New England just to run away, but he continued writing. The movie said that he had added more stories to the series about the Glass family already published, and possibly more about Holden Caulfield as well. According to the movie, these stories were supposed to start being released in 2015. I haven’t heard anything about that as yet. Was that story inaccurate? It doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but it seems curious.

He seems to have been convinced he was meant to be a writer, but what did he actually express? How important was it? I must have been too young when I tried reading him, because his stories made little impression on me. I don’t know if he really fulfilled what he was supposed to do.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

Standard

Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.

My Favorite Football Game

Standard

I became a New England Patriots fan about forty years ago when Steve Grogan began playing quarterback for them. They had some other good players too, but it took them a long time to get anywhere in the playoffs. Still, when I moved to New England myself, that kind of reinforced my being a fan.

It was 1985 when they made their first Super Bowl, and that was against the Chicago Bears team with the tremendous defense. New England got stomped. Their next time to the Superbowl was in the late 1990s. They didn’t get slaughtered that time, but still lost pretty badly.

Two things changed all that: the arrival of Bill Belichick and the arrival of Tom Brady. Belichick became one of the most successful coaches in the NFL. Brady became arguably the best quarterback in the game today, and one of the best all-time. I understand why a lot of people don’t like the team: they win an awful lot. But they didn’t used to, and I rooted for them before they became this good. That said, this year’s Super Bowl was possibly the best football game I’ve ever watched.

The Atlanta Falcons were a very good team this year, both offensively and defensively. They pretty much started the game hitting on all cylinders.

The game was scoreless when I began watching, but didn’t stay that way long. Brady was intercepted, and the Falcons quickly scored a touchdown. It didn’t take long for them to score a second one too. Meanwhile, their defense was putting pressure on Brady and covering the receivers well. Brady threw another interception, which was run all the way back for a touchdown. At that point I thought I’d never seen the Patriots play so badly in a big game, and began thinking about congratulating friends rooting for the Falcons. A field goal late in the first half didn’t seem to make much difference.

This was accentuated early in the second half when the Falcons scored another touchdown. At 28-3, a Patriot’s win seemed impossible. An article I read the next day said at that point the chance of their winning was less than 1 %. But at that point things began to change.

The Patriot’s defense began to be more effective, holding the Falcons scoreless the rest of the way. Julio Jones made a pretty amazing catch on the sideline, but the Falcons couldn’t take advantage.

As the Patriot’s defense became more effective, Atlanta’s defense became less. As Atlanta’s offense spent less time on the field, the defense became tired and less able to put pressure on Brady. In Denver’s win against the Patriots last year their ability to put pressure on Brady consistently all game was a key element. Atlanta began well, but couldn’t keep the pressure on. When Tom Brady isn’t being pressured he picks defenses apart.

The Patriots scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but missed the extra point. They then scored a field goal, which made the score 28-12. A win still seemed impossible.

But when the Patriots scored a touchdown and made a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 28-20, the momentum had definitely changed. I think it was on the next drive that Julian Edelman made possibly the greatest catch I’ve ever seen. Brady passed to him when he was surrounded by three defensive players. The pass bounced off his hands, but he was able to turn, grab it in the air, and keep it from hitting the ground as he fell. The Patriots scored again, made the two-point conversion again, and were tied. They couldn’t score again before the end of the game, so it became the first Super Bowl game to go to overtime.

But not for long. By this time it seemed pretty inevitable. The Patriots got the ball again and scored the winning touchdown. After a difficult start Brady completed some 43 passes for 466 yards. After falling so far behind, it would have been easy for him and the team to give up, but they never did.

Arguably, this was their most challenging Super Bowl. Every one they’ve been in since Belichick and Brady arrived has been close and competitive. But they never fell as far behind as in this one. This was their seventh appearance in the fifteen years Brady has been quarterback, and they’ve lost two of those seven, both very close games to the New York Giants. That means they’ve won five, a record for one quarterback.

Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, which were part of five NFL championships, mostly before the Super Bowl began. The Packers lost only one championship under Starr, so they were arguably a better team than the Patriots. It’s an interesting discussion, though, since they were also arguably much more talented, probably equivalent to an all-star team at every position. There have been other teams comparably talented, but no others as successful.

The Patriots have been unique because they HAVEN’T had great talent at every position. They had Corey Dillon for a couple of years and have LeGarrett Blount now. Those have probably been their best running backs.

They had Randy Moss for one season ten years ago when they went undefeated in the regular season, but lost the Super Bowl. Julian Edelman is a fine one now, as is Rob Gronkowski (who was injured and couldn’t play in the Super Bowl). Otherwise, they were good but not great.

Their defense was pretty good all season. One way of measuring that is that they won three of the four games Brady didn’t play in, using two quarterbacks with relatively little experience. The two played well, but so did the defense. That’s why it was surprising they gave up twenty-one points in the Super Bowl. I have to give Atlanta a lot of credit there, but they weren’t able to keep the pressure on, which is at least partly a tribute to New England. Bill Belichick is a master of making adjustments, and he made them throughout this game.

It almost seemed inevitable when New England scored early in overtime to win the game. The momentum had completely shifted, and Atlanta’s defense, good as they were all season, just couldn’t stop the Patriots offense.

This sixteen year run has been pretty amazing, though not as amazing, perhaps, as the Packers run during the 1960s. One difference has been the Patriots sustaining excellence over a longer period of time. After the 1967 Super Bowl many of the Packers veterans retired (at the same time Vince Lombardi left to coach the Washington Redskins), and they weren’t very good again until the 1990s. In the case of the Patriots, the continuity is been mainly Belichick and Brady. Others have come and gone, but they’ve stayed at the top of the AFC East, and usually at or near the top of the NFL.

To say that no one saw that coming is an understatement. Hardly anyone knew anything about Brady when he was drafted. Belichick had been head coach in Cleveland, with little to show for it. He was named head coach of the New York Jets, succeeding Bill Parcells, but changed his mind after one day, and took the Patriots job. He had one losing season, then went to the Super Bowl the next year, which was when Brady became the starting quarterback. They followed that up with two more Super Bowls in the next three years, winning each one of them. They’ve been near or at the top just about every season since.

It’s not that I want New England to win every year. I grew up loving pro sports teams from Cleveland, Ohio, and would love to see the Browns get somewhere in the NFL. I was thrilled last year when the Cavaliers won the NBA title and the Indians went to the World Series.

But Brady can’t play forever, and Belichick can’t coach forever. I expect New England will fall back to mediocrity eventually, as every team does. But I’ve enjoyed this run, and especially this last game.

An Interesting Time

Standard

We live in a fractured nation, and some of us hardly even know it because we’ve imposed a de facto segregation  on ourselves, and often hear few opinions we disagree with, except on TV.

But there is disagreement, and it’s virulent. Conservatives think conservatism is the natural way to be, and think liberals are hypocritical and malicious. Liberals feel the same way about conservatives. Neither lives up to their best ideals; both feel the other wants to impose their views on a whole range of issues. Not just abortion, but in religion, schools, etc. Part of the problem is economic: an expanding economy and good pay makes up for a multitude of sins, but a lot has to do with cherished beliefs too. A Dominionist Christian is quoted as saying other denominations should have their religious liberties taken away. This is extreme, but isn’t different from past Christian attitudes. It’s contrary to the vision our Founding Fathers had, though.

The Founding Fathers weren’t, in many cases, conventionally religious. They amended the Constitution to include religious liberty because of the still remembered (by some) religious wars of the 17th century. One way to avoid these was to allow every religion to practice, but none to impose its views on any other. The monotheistic religions tend to produce fanatics, and fanatics like to impose their own beliefs. Perhaps we periodically need to be reminded how well that works.

Daryl Davis attended Howard University intending to become a spy or a diplomat. He became a musician instead. He also acquired an unusual hobby: he began talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

This may have begun accidentally. He talked to someone after a performance who appreciated how he played piano. That person was a Klan member, and maybe other contacts followed from that one. Davis’s attitude towards him and other Klan members wasn’t accidental, though. He said his question was, How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? It turned out not many could. All many of them wanted was to be listened to. After he listened to them, many began feeling different, and got out of the Klan. Those leaving no longer had any use for their robes, and gave them to him. In the PBS program about him he estimates he has twenty-five or six such robes.

That part is inspiring. He has justified his faith that people can change. What is sad is when he talks to three activists in Baltimore who don’t believe white supremacists CAN change. I couldn’t really blame them: nothing in their experience leads them to believe that, and they feel Davis is a traitor.

They’re not the only people who feel others are traitors, or are angry for other reasons. According to Sidney Blumenthal, our 45th president has always pined for the love of New York City, which has resolutely withheld it from him. This may account for the resentment he displays, and also for his ability to engage the resentment of others, which enabled him to win his campaign. It’s possible we will suffer because New York City didn’t love Donald Trump enough, but many people feel unloved. Christianity told us to love one another, but didn’t teach us how to do that. Consequently, we have done a miserable job of it.

In Mary Renault’s novel about ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, one character quotes Socrates as saying, “Be what you wish to seem.” This expresses much of the exasperation various groups in America feel about each other: not necessarily their views, but that they don’t behave according to those views. Shaming opponents for believing differently doesn’t change their minds, it causes resentment.

It’s not hard to understand why many people oppose abortion. At least until they know someone who wants to get one because of, for example, rape or incest.

Homosexuality is a similarly hot-button issue. Sexuality is a difficult issue for almost everyone, and the idea of not only having sex outside of marriage but with one’s own gender seems alien to most. Some can be persuaded that it’s not so evil when they know someone who is gay, but not all can. Some parents reject their children when they discover they have AIDS. They seem to believe their children have chosen a life of evil, but aren’t objective enough to ask why they would choose an orientation that so many people detest. When asked that question, they take it very personally, as an attack on their faith, as in some ways it is. Faith in the literal truth of the Bible is a kind of anchor for many who find any analysis of its text to be personally threatening. That’s much of the quarrel of a certain kind of conservative with liberals: liberals make them think unwanted thoughts. That some of these thoughts may embody the sort of compassion Jesus Christ taught doesn’t improve matters. We all prefer the religion that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

When such a resentment is present, it’s not hard to play on it and encourage hatred of others. How did Daryl Davis persuade white supremacists that their views were mistaken? He didn’t judge them. He listened to them and, he says, they persuaded themselves.

Not all will be persuaded, though. The 45th president may or may not emulate Hitler in every way, but there’s a family resemblance in their resentment. Hitler’s father abused him. The president’s father may not have, but the president does seem to feel unloved. Whether it’s New York City he feels rejected by, or whether the rejection comes from elsewhere, it seems likely many of us are going to be punished for it because many others share the feeling. Liberals are an enemy many can agree on, so liberals will be punished. Ordinary people may find that as liberals get punished, so do they, and regret their vote, but by then it will be too late.

Perhaps less justly, Muslims and Hispanics will be punished too. They too seem alien to a lot of people, so are easy to stereotype. It’s not hard for people who don’t know any Muslims to believe they all are terrorists. That few of the Muslims in this country are, that few are likely to get here, and that we have terrorists of our own seems harder to process, especially if one sympathizes in some respects with the white terrorists. Fear of immigrants is easy to take advantage of. The mechanism seems to be that many fear new immigrants will do to us what our ancestors did to Native Americans and imported black slaves. We all know we haven’t treated minorities well, which gives us good reason to fear them. Because of our fears, we mistreat them again, which won’t resolve our difficulties.

Anger can be a potent fuel, but it doesn’t help us harmonize with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the time seems ripe for a holy war. War certainly releases tensions, though it would be nice if we could release them in a more productive fashion. But that’s a matter of individual decision. Perhaps enough individuals will find a better way to behave than they are being encouraged to. This is an interesting time, in the Chinese sense.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Standard

I remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, though I never read the book. Her thesis that pollution was damaging the natural world always seemed plausible to me, not something that I could disagree with.

That book turned out to be a watershed event: it was only after its publication that laws to protect the environment began to be passed, an issue which continues to be important today in many more ways than Carson enumerated then.

The book had been inspired by the scientists at chemical companies like Monsanto who declared war on insects like mosquitoes and fire ants. They didn’t want to just control, but to eradicate them, and massive amounts of DDT were their weapon of choice. Carson saw the problems with this kind of strategy.

One was that, while the poison killed vast numbers of insects, some that had some resistance survived, and their offspring replaced those killed, and were no longer controllable by DDT, exactly like the misuse of antibiotics creates strains of resistant bacteria. To eradicate resistant insects or bacteria means an ever escalating arms race to find new insecticides or antibiotics.

In the case of insecticides, there were immediate problems. DDT didn’t kill just insects, but other organisms too. Worms were loaded with the poison, and gave it to the robins fed by their parents. They might be poisoned outright or acquire defective immune systems, making their survival more precarious. Earth and water were poisoned too, and the poison became more concentrated as it made its way up the food chain

The problem was also parallel to atomic energy. It became clear, at least by the time the hydrogen bomb was first tested in 1952 that the real danger of atomic weapons wasn’t the explosions, extreme as these were, but the radioactive fallout they generated, which has the potential to destroy much or all life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s not just the bombs that are dangerous, as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated. Radioactive waste is toxic, and for a very long time. The last I heard, the Japanese had been unable to stop leakage of it from Fukushima. Who knows how far the pollution will travel, and how serious the damage will be?

What Carson was trying to combat was the optimism of scientists employed by chemical companies who believed that chemicals were the solution to all problems. DDT was the main insecticide of the 1950s, and thanks to Carson it was eventually banned. But DDT was only a small example of the problem of technology.

Technology can do amazing and wonderful things. It can also generate new problems for every solution it achieves. Technology can be, and often is, poisonous. But it’s also extremely convenient in many ways. How many of us want to live a more natural lifestyle? A life without central heating, inside toilets and electricity could be most inconvenient.

Native Americans always had great respect for nature. They also tolerated heat, cold, and other rigors of mostly outdoor living. Few of us are used to that kind of life or wish to adopt it.

And Carson’s book enraged chemical companies, who did everything they could to discredit her. They didn’t succeed. She was able to demonstrate that they had been reckless in their use of DDT and other chemicals, her book became a best-seller, and generated a movement that passed laws to protect the environment.

DDT has been far from the only environmental problem, though. We now know, for instance, that human activity (like driving cars, for example, or burning coal) has saturated the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide (among other chemicals), causing global temperatures to rise. Consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

We also know that hydraulic fracturing pollutes huge amounts of water, and that injecting the waste back into the ground causes earthquakes. And that insecticides are making bees an endangered species.

All of the above makes US an endangered species. Without bees, it becomes more difficult to pollinate our crops. Global warming seems to produce more extreme weather and higher sea-levels–at least. It may produce droughts and eventually deserts too. Polluted air, earth, and water, endanger us, and all the other plant and animal species that live with us.

Many of us, especially in the technologically developed countries, live intellectually and emotionally in a kind of parallel universe where nature is found in parks and makes a pretty spectacle. We rarely realize that we are part of nature, and depend on the interaction of all its species to make our own lives possible.

Wars are going to be a strong possibility in the next decades, partly because climate change will make some areas unlivable, and partly because natural resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate. The USA, with 5-7% of the world’s population uses a disproportionate percentage of its resources. That can’t continue without readjustment, maybe drastic and chaotic.

But the real danger may be much more subtle. Pollution increasingly poisons the entire environment, and corporations who consider they have no responsibility except to shareholders continue to behave in environmentally reckless ways. Fracking is by no means the only bad idea (though convenient in the short-run). Oil spills have been increasing, since our demand for energy doesn’t decrease. Hard rock mines may be even more environmentally dangerous than oil. And many people prefer to believe that all these problems are merely lies by a conspiracy to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, some people HAVE to be told what to do. Large corporations have proven they’re not interested in self-government, which means they need to be regulated by public servants, which they resent, and often successfully subvert. Liberty for them is the license to profit without regard for anyone else. If capitalism (to say nothing of the human race) is to survive, its attitude must change. Of course it is unwilling to go gently into that good night.

Carson realized she wouldn’t live long as she was finishing the book. She had had several lumps removed from her breast at various times, and then a radical mastectomy. Her doctor told her he had gotten all the cancer, but lied. The cancer had metastasized. She underwent radiation treatments which made her able to finish the book, but the cancer metastasized further, and she died little more than a year after the book was published. Not before she was able to defend it from critics in the chemical industry who wanted to keep selling insecticides at the same rate they had been. The NPR documentary made it clear that Carson had no problem with the responsible use of insecticides, but did have with using them in huge volumes.

It’s also clear that in the last fifty-plus years industries have been using similar tactics to be able to continue unwise practices. Cigarette manufacturers maintained that smoking wasn’t dangerous, but eventually had to stop denying. There are still climate change deniers who object that scientists predictions aren’t always accurate–true enough, because the world climate system is very large, but not because human activity isn’t affecting climate. A lot of lobbying has gone into preventing effective action to slow the changes down.

The documentary points out that Carson was one of the first to tell people (after the modern age had forgotten) how nature includes the human race and everything else, and that damaging other organisms (plants or animals) eventually damages us too. A lot of people have been inspired by her to try to make positive change in our collective behavior, with some success, but not yet enough. I’m afraid catastrophe(s) will have to be our teacher.

 

Collisions

Standard

We’re told that Congress is preparing to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible, and that substantial changes to Social Security and Medicare are to follow. According to one narrative, the action with regard to the ACA is because it’s a terrible failure. According to another, it’s because it was enacted by President Obama, which is reason enough in itself. The latter rationale fails to recognize that the Act was based on a Republican plan enacted in Massachusetts by then governor Mitt Romney, and that it insured 20-30 MILLION citizens who hadn’t previously been able to afford health insurance. Figures on the possible consequences of the repeal suggest that 43 million or more people will lose their health insurance, and that something like three million jobs in conjunction with the Act are likely to be lost.

Does this make sense?

There is one advantage to the repeal: wealthy tax-payers, who are specifically targeted to fund the ACA would gain substantial amounts of money (seven million per person?) when those taxes are repealed, and this demographic is, of course, one of the main Republican constituencies. They have others, less wealthy, but seem not to be overly concerned about them.

Disadvantages, besides the loss of health insurance for many people, include damage to the economy through loss of jobs. Do Republicans (at one time considered the fiscally responsible party) care about this? Or does the advantage to the wealthy through tax repeal make up for any disadvantage?

Republicans assure us that there will be a replacement for the ACA, but I have yet to hear what that might be. One of my friends told me she had faith there would be no repeal without an adequate replacement. I told her I wasn’t as optimistic. After all, Republicans have been talking about repeal ever since the ACA was enacted. Why haven’t they been able to agree on what ought to replace it?

One hypothesis is that they don’t WANT to replace it. That’s the extreme view, the one which believes that resistance to the ACA wasn’t just partisan, but also racist, and part of the class war which few people want to acknowledge, especially Republicans, who are currently winning it.

Class war suggests that the vast majority of those opposing Republican initiatives (not including elites of the Democratic party, whose views are not so very different from Republican elites) are not wealthy, and therefore deserve to be scorned and mistreated. Is that too radical a view? I suggest that repealing the ACA, to say nothing of defunding Social Security and Medicare, are actions radical in the extreme, and will not be approved by very many of America’s citizens. If Republicans actually intend these actions, I think they either believe their point of view is more popular than it is (dubious, considering their enthusiasm for suppressing votes by those they consider unlikely to vote for them), or they don’t care if it’s popular or not. That suggests they’re willing to use violence to enforce their desires.

If that’s the case, they no longer believe in democracy, nor do they wish to any longer protect the democratic republic that elected them to high office.

If the above is true, Republicans are unlikely to admit it, even if that’s what they consciously believe. And of course there are rationales for not continuing to maintain a truly democratic (small d) system.

One party is largely composed of the poor and middle class, who aren’t as responsible as the wealthy. If they were responsible, they’d be wealthy themselves. It’s the wealthy who really have “skin in the game”, which is what really encourages responsibility. If you don’t have substantial amounts of property, you can’t be considered a serious citizen. The Founding Fathers believed that, and the expansion of the franchise since is a perversion of their vision. The wealthy show their responsibility by demanding bailouts when their ventures fail, which is certainly an interesting manifestation.

The Founding Fathers also made provision for the institution of slavery, which means that slavery, or its equivalent, is quite acceptable. In turn, this means that if you’re unable to avoid the equivalent of slavery, you’re irresponsible and ought not to have a vote on any issue that affects the whole nation.

Another reason is that democracy, and particularly the version practiced in the USA may be considered inefficient. That is, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done. That the Founding Fathers designed the system to function in this way is beside the point, and need not interfere with the sanctification of the American way of legislation. It should be noted, though, that the Founders did this because they didn’t want it to be possible to pass legislation too easily. From that could come tyranny. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that tyranny of sorts can come from blocking the legislation process too.

A third reason is that the capitalist economic system is often seen as equivalent to democracy, though it differs in some important respects. One such is that it doesn’t prohibit taxation without representation, one of the main reasons for the American revolution. Capitalism is largely manifested through large corporations (now legally defined as persons) which are responsible only to their shareholders, and no one else. Anyone objecting to that particular definition of democracy runs the risk of being considered a socialist, which is possibly the most dangerous form of treason, although socialism in the form of the aforementioned bailouts seems to be quite acceptable.

As things are presently constituted, the logical end of the proposed changes is the death of many unnecessary people. One may be defined as unnecessary if one doesn’t fill some important function which also pays extremely well. Such functions are now less common than they used to be, since many industrial jobs have now been automated, and only require programmers in order to produce.

Such workers are most desirable, since they don’t require wages, and never get tired. A certain amount of maintenance is sufficient. This makes it possible for wealthy Americans to castigate the poorer ones for laziness without providing them jobs with which they can actually support their families. The days of self-sufficiency pretty much ended with the steep decline in family farms, partly assisted by legislation that made illegal some of the ways they survived, as well as the advent of factory farms, with which smaller organizations couldn’t compete.

Now nearly everyone is dependent on what the large economic players do, and they are very willing to take advantage of that dependence.

Wendell Berry, the writer who is also a farmer, compares the migration of farmers to the cities in America, which began in the 19th century and continued into the 20th, to the migrations in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The difference, he says, is that in the USA the compulsion was economic, while in Russia it was naked violence.

Considering the alienation of the political class from ordinary Americans, violence of one sort or another is by no means impossible in the near future. Republicans are very comfortable with fulfilling the wishes of wealthy elites at the expense of their other constituents. Democrats may be less comfortable, but don’t object to that role.

The stage seems to be set for a variety of collisions. Let’s hope they don’t damage the country and its citizens too much.

The Next President

Standard

After reviewing Donald Trump’s history, it seems obvious that public service isn’t a major motivator for him. He’s always been ambitious, and has evidently been thinking of running for president as long ago as the late eighties. Not seriously at that time, it seems, since he confined his efforts to commenting on the UN and other issues. At least until Barack Obama became president.

The birther controversy was probably initiated by someone else, but Mr. Trump put his face on it. No doubt Mr. Obama was somewhat annoyed about that, because he struck back. When Trump had scheduled a press conference to talk about it, Obama scheduled one at the same time to show documentation for his place of birth. Footage in the documentary on his life shows the TV crew disappearing and Mr. Trump walking away alone.

Obama didn’t stop there. At a function attended by Trump he joked about the birther controversy at length, and Trump had no choice but to laugh along with the rest of the audience. As the narrator of the documentary commented, what Trump hates most is humiliation. Obama had found a chink in Trump’s armor. But Trump had, the narrator suggested, at that moment decided to run for president himself.

His plan went nowhere in 2012, but we know what happened in 2016.

The documentary showed Trump speaking at what was supposedly his first campaign speech. He practically sniffed the air, tuned into what his audience was feeling, and put that into words. When he got a response he knew where to go from there. One of his advantages was in not appearing scripted–because he wasn’t, most of the time. Another was his ability to move an audience. President Obama has that ability too, but his style is much different: cool and rational vs hot and emotional. But hot and emotional was the winning combination this past year.

A lot of people were angry, and willing to vote for someone who promised change, even if it was questionable change. They weren’t interested in voting for experts telling them things they didn’t want to hear. Telling them she wasn’t Trump wasn’t a good strategy for Hillary Clinton. Especially since a lot of people were skeptical of her, whether they should have been or not.

Narrowly he won. President Obama has been walking a line with him since. On the one hand, vowing to make the transition of power as efficient as possible; on the other, stating that had he been at liberty to run, he believes he could have won the presidency again. That’s not an opinion Mr. Trump can be happy hearing, though I’m not aware of his having responded. But it seems clear (after seeing the documentary about him) that Trump saw his candidacy for president as a direct competition with Barack Obama even more than with Hillary Clinton. He won that competition; now he has to win the competition with the view of Obama as a great president. That will probably bedevil him for years to come. He may or may not win applause from Republicans. Winning it from Democrats will be more difficult, and he may settle for making Democrats and liberals (there may be no difference in his mind) as angry as possible. That would play into the desires of his most fervent supporters.

He will say he wants the country to heal, but that’s probably just what he thinks he SHOULD say. He wants applause, but how will he go about getting it? From his nominations for cabinet positions, it appears it’s hard-core Republicans he wants to please. His nominations are people who will likely destroy the departments he wants them to run: a man who favors selling public lands to run the Department of the Interior, a woman with no experience in public education and a record of hostility toward it to run the Department of Education.

If the Republican Congress manages to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and radically cuts both Social Security and Medicare, he will be able to please Republican elites by signing those bills. If he does, though, he will be very publicly breaking a campaign promise, which I doubt will make even his supporters happy.

He wants attention always, and would prefer positive attention, but has also shown a taste for negative attention too, if it upsets people he doesn’t like. On the other hand, he’s thin-skinned, and easily upset by criticism, which he’s going to be getting a lot of. That’s another reason the presidency doesn’t seem to be a good fit for him.

It will be very tempting for a lot of people to try to upset him, since it’s so easy to do. Given his desire for revenge, this may not be the best tactic, though. What may work better is praising him if and when he does anything praiseworthy, on the theory that he may then do more of it. But that doesn’t mean we should let him get away with breaking his promises either, or allowing him to make the presidency into a money-making machine for himself and his family (to say nothing of his cabinet members).

It’s pretty clear we’ve never had a president quite like him. The next four years will be interesting. Let’s hope they’re not also disastrous.