Friday, August 29, 2014

Yes means yes = Stand your ground?

California's legislature has passed a proposed law (subject to Jerry Brown signing it into law) that may or may not re-define elements to prove a sexual assault, one that may have liability ramifications not just for individuals, mostly men and young men, but for institutions such as colleges and universities. It is fairly clear to me that the universities have not been policing the sexual assaults that are occurring on campuses, though there is some evidence that hook up culture may be considered one of several factors--though at some point, that is not only not an excuse but a mantra that allows the universities to blame the victim, i.e. the woman sexually assaulted.

My personal initial reaction to the law, which I only barely followed through the hearings, is to ask whether this is a change in the initial burden of proof for the accused (the person who is alleged to have committed the assault) and whether the effect is going to be like the "stand your ground" laws that have become prevalent in southern States of our nation. In such a context and comparison, the question is whether what sounds like a re-affirmation of something we should all agree with is something far more than intended.

When Governor Brown was California's Attorney General, I found him to be legally sharp and thoughtful, and very judicious in understanding the needs of victims as well as the civil rights of persons being prosecuted. I will try to read more on this topic and try to follow it more as the Governor makes his decision to veto or sign the proposed law. There is little doubt that universities have only begun to get the message that they have a duty to protect the mostly female victims from sexual assaults. And I think the guys are getting the lesson to be more cautious, which is frankly a good thing--which is why hook up culture may in fact be on the wane.


Vaughan Williams died 56 years ago this week...

Thinking about Vaughan Williams, and I noted that he passed away 56 years ago on August 26 of this week.

I find in the classical music world, he is today more remembered with fondness and respect than he was in his time, when he was often considered reactionary, old fashioned, and even dull, as Aaron Copland once implied (Williams' work was like listening to cows graze, he said, and he was not in the least being complimentary). The irony is the atonal and polytonal works are now seen as less than worthy of continued listen, while Williams shines on. This too may change over time, but I think Williams will not lose the luster he has gained since his passing. My sadness for him is had he managed to live another 15 years, he may have really enjoyed the progressive rockers of his native England. They certainly revered him.

Here is one of my all time favorite "classical music" pieces, from Williams, "The Lark Ascending." It is with the legendary Hugh Bean on violin.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Borat's brother shines in a response to a guy who says we should lessen our desire for empathy

Paul Bloom has offered a provocative analysis that posits we are putting too much stress on developing empathy. Yeah, I guess because we can drown from water so we shouldn't say water is good for you....

Simon Baron-Cohen, yes, Borat's brother, is an internationally recognized expert in autism and related conditions. He responds to Bloom in the forum, sponsored by the great Boston Review, here. It is as an effective a slap down as I've read in awhile, particularly the point by point refutation. Paul Bloom struggles in his reply to Baron-Cohen and makes only one salient point, which is that he would not demand a cost benefit analysis only include financial considerations. Otherwise, I have to go with Baron-Cohen's way of approaching the issue.

In all, outstanding reading.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The war against poverty is only going well for those who don't like poor people

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a very respected public policy research organization, explains in a series of charts and explanations about the 18 years since President Clinton sided with Republican ideologues to "end welfare as we know it." What ended was a commitment to help people in poverty as benefits eroded, less people were helped and childhood poverty increased even with a declining population growth rate among the poor.

The first few years looked like a success because it occurred within the backdrop of the late 1990s dotcom boom, but since then poverty has retreated to the shadows, as in the time Michael Harrington wrote about "The Other America." Elite ideologues who do not wish to help the poor at all through government action have focused on "food stamps" because they know what this series of charts shows. They are now focused on doing the same to the food stamp program.

There has been an explosion of people using food stamps in this country since the Great Recession of 2008. However, the growth has been from military families and single women with children who have fallen further and further behind in an economy that works only for the top 20% of workers and owners of capital.

Real public policy changes that are humane will never occur in the United States until we lose our love for "means tested" programs and drawing distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. But that is for another day...

ADDENDUM: I'm with the so-called Grinch who broke the Starbucks pay it forward line. It is a gimmick because really, folks, most of the poorer women on food stamps are not driving through a Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee costing $3 or $4. While I would assume the fellow, a political consultant, is not a "liberal," I share his disdain at the initial nice gesture that was in danger of becoming a marketing opportunity for Starbucks.

Friday, August 22, 2014


I get a kick out of the attack on my alternative history novel that it is unrealistic because RFK succeeds in a few (and only a few) of his policies. This is the latest negative reading of my novel from an Amazon reviewer:

Too Good to Be True...Even in an Alternate Universe

If I could, I would give this a 3.5 out of 5. I really liked the beginnings of the book, covering the campaign and election. But once RFK becomes President, everything he touches turns to gold. He ends the Viet Nam war, expands union membership nationwide, all but eliminates inner city poverty, brings down the Soviet Union, makes China irrelevant, and helps end apartheid in South Africa...all in his first term! The further into the book I read, the less plausible I felt the storyline became. As a huge RFK fan, I appreciate the effort that went into this book, but I think it needs to be a little more realistic.

The writer of this review does not think it plausible that a president in a particular moment of time could effectively push through some of his or her policy proposals? What about the first term of FDR? What about the first two years of LBJ's term?

I love the line about "expands union membership nationwide..." as that is not because RFK understood this at all. RFK's support of labor law reform was, in RFK's stated view in the book, a political payback and he really had no idea what he was unleashing, and was reacting to unions' foray into the South, as opposed to directing it. Inner city poverty goes down, but his Bedford-Stuyvesant plan going national went in that direction in ways that he again did not direct, and again was often merely reacting, particularly as computer development (RFK's biggest business booster was Tom Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM) and jobs in ghettos changed cultural attitudes in those areas. He also does not direct China's downfall, and his effect overall on foreign policy is a result of different actions taken in response to world events that would have likely occurred anyway, and it is that set of different reactions that leads to different outcomes as each year pulls us further away from what we know or think we know.

The presentism in the reviewer is evident because the writer only sees in our time partisan gridlock, a growth of an oligopoly, and a deep cynicism that we cannot do anything about the forces in our lives, starting with corporations and a government that becomes more militarized each decade.

I wish the reviewer had been able to think more about these things. My book does get harder to read after the election cycle of 1968 unfolds. It deals with policy fights back when both Republicans and Democratic Party politicians did engage in such things. It is perhaps the most difficult thing for us to culturally accept in our present disjointed, humanly disconnected yet software and hardware wired time. And it is exceedingly difficult for many Americans, again in our present time, to see the utility of labor unions as an institutional bulwark against capital, which makes portions of the book somewhat impenetrable because I am not spoonfeeding us with as much explanation as a directly political theory book would provide. I instead let the events and arguments unfold in the arena, as Booth Tarkington wrote 100 years ago in a series of politically based short stories. It is not to say the policies are unexplained. They are. And that too is difficult for a person looking for a breezy, mystery book read.

"A Disturbance of Fate," however, is not difficult to read overall as the prose is consciously written to be understood and, as one reader said to me, it is as if each page's ending implores the reader to turn the page to see what happens next. Yes, that was conscious. I wanted it to move and push us forward both as a reading experience and as a way to rekindle our confidence in our nation and ourselves. The ending is often seen as an attack on the rest of the book, and indeed it is to some extent--again conscious. It is my cynicism, perhaps, talking, and it is designed to help us maintain balance as we move forward, and not be too mired in a past that did not occur in our time.

Oh well. Another reader who exercises what I think is a bit of cognitive dissonance. The ears and mind are closed to anything outside of the immediate experience and immediate present in our lives.

Education is a social activity

The fundamental challenge for massive online course courses (MOOCs), at least at this point, can be summed up within a proposition that is eminently testable, which is that education is a social activity. Effective education requires interaction on a personal level. It requires a near constant back and forth, "Are you getting this? Let's see..."

This article from David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books is one of the better articles on this subject because, in a drive-by way, he is starting to get at this proposition.

The other thing Bromwich is getting to is the insight from Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capital" (1974), which is that technology is developed in a society in a manner that reflects elite desires and choices. This is why, said Braverman, automation designed by capitalists tends to beggar workers and reduce the intelligence and creativity of workers to what we would now call software codes--and 100 years ago to the manufacturing process. It is Taylorism (scientific management is how Frederick Taylor phrased it) applied to the latest technologies and now being attempted to be applied to higher education.

The beauty of the small liberal arts college or university is in the near one to one experience. It is why the best of these schools are fairly extraordinary and provide much time and opportunity for deep thought about the world in which one lives, and provides guidance and networking opportunities that are rare and often wonderful. The smaller STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) schools also manage to stuff the heads of young people with again, extraordinary amounts of scientific and mathematical knowledge compared to the more typical large scale often public college or university. My son is a beneficiary of the smaller STEM school, and I daresay he would have loved the even smaller liberal arts schools as well (he was accepted at one of the small, but leading liberal arts schools but the one entomology professor at the school said he had slowed down his research and that my son was better off at the somewhat larger, but still small STEM school he ultimately chose or the University of CA campuses which specialized in entomology, my son's favorite interest in scientific research).

The irony of all this discussion is that, with a program that re-developed physical infrastructure for our nation, so many jobs would be created nationwide that this rush to MOOCs will seem unnecessary, and the number of students applying to college would probably drop to a point where the cuts could be made at the administrative levels that Bromwich identifies. We need to flatten from the top, not the mean, and then see where things stand.

One thing Bromwich is not apparently understanding, however, about "administration costs" is that the growth in administration over the last 20 years is, at least with the University of California's public budget, often traced to the explosion in information technology (IT), or computer people. To maintain up to date research facilities, perhaps the leading reason the UCs are the "crown jewels" of public education, one needs to constantly update the technology. And this costs lots and lots of money. A liberal arts school does not have as much of this, and its ability to attract top students and its small classes make for scarcity and therefore premium charges.

What Bromwich would recognize, but MOOC promoters do not, is that research in a university or college would likely go away in a MOOC world as currently theorized.

Finally, I think Bromwich's best point is the "rock star" metaphor. This is important for two reasons, one of which he hits, which is that, like the technology of music recording, a few of the best (relatively speaking) went to the top so that we could all hear, and we continue to hear, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, Glenn Gould, and Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Think about the 19th Century, for example, where local singers were the toast of the town even though the local singer, if we were to hear the person, would seem mediocre compared to the leading person who may only be heard in a large city. That is what the MOOC promoters are saying. Why not hear, for example, brilliant expositors of biology such as E.O. Wilson lecture on biology or even the sub-category of entomology? It is a wonderful and amazing proposition. The problem is the flip side, which is stated but perhaps not as well, which is that "rock star" also means Katy Perry and Mumford & Sons, doesn't it? And back in the "good old days" of the 1930s, it meant Rudy Valle and Guy Lombardo? Are they really all that great? If we bring the focus "back to the student", as the MOOC promoters say, in the sense of letting the student choose, it sounds oh so democratic, but it is fraught with institutionalizing a dumbing down and a demand for the quick and easy, instead of the slow and hard. We can recognize that slow and hard may or may not be necessary or needed, and as Richard Feynman, the great physicist and teacher of physics said, If we can't explain it to a lay person, then we don't understand it. But, again, when we go back to the first proposition, i.e. education is a social activity and interactive one at that, we may realize the mistaken road the promoters of MOOCs are leading us in thinking we can have 100,000 people listen to Wilson's lectures and rely on a few proctors or assistants (poorly paid of course in the MOOC promoters' world) to try to interpret for the mass, which could bring us back to what we have already in a less organized way. And I ask this as well: Do we really want to Taylorize college professors and turn yet another job or profession into a commodity?

All that is solid melts into air, is what Karl Marx famously intoned, and what he was also seeing in the middle of the 19th Century was the ability of capitalist thinking and organizing to turn anything and everything into a commodity. Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle also saw this process from a more traditionalist bent, as did the poet William Blake at the start of that century. Robert Kuttner gets at this quite well for the modern reader, without the 19th Century cant that makes Marx and the other 19th Century writers a bit difficult as the language style has changed over time, in Kuttner's book, "Everything for Sale."

I am not against MOOCs. However, I am skeptical that education is a product and I am not in favor of the use of technology in ways that are anti-human--and which beggar most and reward monetarily the few. I am also in favor of restoring free or near free higher public education across the nation. I am in favor of universities and colleges as either research institutions or institutions which favor unusual and eccentric thinking. I wish these ideas and propositions were in the rooms where MOOCs, cutting costs and visions for the rest of the century are discussed. Somehow, somehow I am wondering whether that is the case at all...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When emotions overwhelm discourse...

This article in New York Magazine touches on the inability of people to discuss the latest conflagration in Gaza on Facebook or otherwise polite conversation. I have personally experienced this where people were upset at my own comments. This occurs when people are unable to argue about something because they are too emotionally tied to the subject.

One reason for this outbreak of emotion and inability to accept regular discourse is because for too many American Jews, their personal identification of Israel, a foreign country, as a part of their Judaism makes any criticism of Israeli political decisions during a warlike situation tantamount to anti-Semitism.

There are definitely anti-Semitic actions being taken against Jews in Europe, and outbreaks of vandalism against synagogues and temples even here in the United States. For those who perpetrate these acts of violence against people and vandalism against property, they too have confused a foreign nation with a religious philosophy.

For those of us who recognize the history of Zionism as a political-nationalist movement which was a reaction to anti-Setmitism in Europe, and who also importantly recognize that the people who settled in Israel starting in the late 19th Century built an astonishingly successful, forward looking nation, these conflagrations and contradictions arising from the occupation that followed the 1967 War have become increasingly painful to witness.

I do not confuse my religion with a foreign country that has its own interests, own foibles and own follies, as I have written a couple of weeks ago. However, I am having to remind those who automatically think I am anti-Israel for opposing the escalation and war of the last month that I am a Zionist, that I support Israel's right to defend itself and that I have no use for the philosophies and actions of Hamas and before that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) before its latest incarnation as the Palestinian Authority under Abbas. I simply oppose the occupation of the West Bank and oppose the building of settlements there. I simultaneously support peace talks that Haniyeh and Mashaal in Hamas have even endorsed in the past. And as I blogged before, if Israel can negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas, it also has the power and ability to negotiate a longer term truce and eventually a peace treaty with the Palestinians overall, including Hamas.

What was also interesting to me about the New York Magazine article is how those who oppose Israeli actions can also be overly harsh against those who support it. I have not found any personally directed venom expressed on Facebook against those supporting the Israeli government's actions in my admittedly very limited circles, but the article shows it is out there in the conclaves of progressive activist networks. Such people would probably think I am a Zionist lackey when I point out the limits of their position, too, and the unassailable fact that if the Israelis were to literally lose a single war with the Arabs, one would see a true genocide--one that is against the Jewish people who live there.

Overall, I tend to say to people who express too strongly their views on the subject, one way or the other, that their positions are incompletely argued. They leave out significant exceptions or challenges to their positions, "significant" being the operative word. Those who talk about Israeli genocide and apartheid against the Arabs tend to avoid the Hamas Charter, the rockets and the violent rhetoric and the militarized aspects of the tunnels in Gaza. Those who talk about the right of Israel to defend itself against implacable Arabs tend to avoid what David Grossman and Yuval Diskin (former Shin Bet director) note, which is that Netanyahu continues to miss opportunity after opportunity to reach a long term truce and permanent peace with the Palestinians.

Incompleteness is a part of the competing narratives of victimization which both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis have told the world countless times. This is why Isaac Deutscher's metaphoric analysis from his prescient essay published in the New Left Review the wake of the Israeli victory in 1967 remains so powerfully relevant. Duetscher, an old Red whose family included Rabbis, wrote in the summer of 1967, before his death that same summer:

"A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning building in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person's legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man's revenge, insults him, kicks him and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitious at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds."

And, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote so many times, so it goes...


ADDENDUM (8/13/14): This is another manifestation of the issue.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I thought Israel can't negotiate with Hamas...

It appears Israel cannot negotiate with Hamas until it can. See this latest JJ Goldberg article from The Forward.

I forget where I read it, but I read someone from Israel last week (Uri Avnery?) who said that talking with Hamas now is another way Netanyahu undermines the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Abbas. The writer was not saying don't talk with Hamas, but he was saying this is all of a piece going back to Netanyahu wanting to punish Abbas for having the temerity to create a unity government with Hamas back in May of this year.

I find it interesting that the Likudnik acquaintances and friends on Facebook are still snarling against Hamas, and not seeing the significance of what is occurring.

As I say, if Israel can speak with Hamas about cease-fire terms, they can speak about longer range cease-fire terms and possibly lead to a permanent peace. It is worth the try. War doesn't seem to get people on either side what they really want--or is that Netanyahu and Bennett in Israel like the periodic outbreaks of war because they think they are winning in the West Bank with more and more settlements being built...Hamas has its delusional folks who think they are winning each round as they sit mired in poverty and destruction all around them. We will see, we will see...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

An excellent meditation on the meaning of "literature"

Last month, Evgenia Peretz wrote an excellent meditation in Vanity Fair magazine on the meaning of literature through the lens of the disagreement among various literary critics over Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch." Count me in with James Wood and Francine Prose about the specific criticisms of Tartt's book. However, it is ridiculous for any of the literary critics (I am speaking more of Wood here than Prose) to say Tartt's book is not "literature." Of course "The Goldfinch" is literature. Whether a novel contains cliche-filled writing or has absurd premises and plot twists is only to say it is weak literature. And really, if it is not literature, what is it now? A chair?

I admit I had not read Peretz before. I did a Yahoo! search and learned she is a screenwriter married to a director, David Schisgall, and that her brother Jesse directed a film she wrote that starred Paul Rudd several years ago. She is the daughter of Martin Peretz, the Likud-drenched former publisher of the (Even the Liberal...) New Republic. Regardless of her pedigree, she is a marvelous writer and has written a truly incisive piece that helps us understand the process by which novels are evaluated.

Below is a particularly outstanding paragraph where Peretz spoke with one of Tartt's defenders, Lev Grossman, a contemporary and renowned literary critic equal to Wood and Prose:

To Grossman, this slavish devotion to reality is retrograde, and perhaps reviewers like Wood should not be reviewing people like Tartt in the first place. “A critic like Wood—whom I admire probably as much or more than any other book reviewer working—doesn’t have the critical language you need to praise a book like The Goldfinch. The kinds of things that the book does particularly well don’t lend themselves to literary analysis.… Her language is careless in places, and there’s a fairy-tale quality to the book. There’s very little context in the book—it’s happening in some slightly simplified world. Which to me is fine. I find that intensely compelling in a novel. Every novel dispenses with something, and Tartt dispenses with that.” As for Francine Prose’s query “Doesn’t anyone care how a book is written anymore?”: Grossman admits that, with story now king for readers, the answer is no. Wood agrees that that’s the state of things, but finds it sad and preposterous. “This is something peculiar to fiction: imagine a literary world in which most people didn’t care how a poem was written!"

I loved that line from Grossman that every novel "dispenses with something..." That is true of not only literature but films and even non-fiction books. Grossman, through Peretz's article, helps us understand that at some point we are dealing with subjective taste, not something subject to a tone of pronouncement that borders on E=MC2. Still, it was fascinating to me that Grossman agrees with Wood's and Prose's specific criticisms of "The Goldfinch," which is a major admission that gives an objectively verified strength to Wood's and Prose's criticism. However, he is also saying he enjoyed the story and particularly the rhythm of the way in which the story was told. Now that is taste and he is correct to gently chastise Wood for not being a fan of science fiction, fantasy writing and likely romantic sorts of stories. Wood favors what could perhaps be called "realism" in novels, something fantasy, sci-fi and romance writers may sneer back and say Wood is merely a snob. It is also a matter of taste for someone to suggest that Sinclair Lewis did not write true literature and that he belongs to sociology departments, not literature departments--something implied if not stated in too many halls of the academy around our nation. See this JStor published article from Joel Fisher for a defense of Lewis from such attacks. See also my view of Lewis as our nation's Charles Dickens and perhaps the most important American writer of the 20th Century.*

My own criticism of Wood's and Prose's attack on Tartt is they are ahistorical in saying the praise heaped upon Tartt's book represents another low in the dumbing down of American culture. Tartt is, in fact, simply the newest entry in what nearly a century ago a few equally smart literary critics and novelists called "middlebrow" culture. In the mid-20th Century, one could point to John O'Hara as a prime example of a "middlebrow" writer, who, apart from his late 1930s novel, "Appointment in Samarra," wrote much that is easily and properly forgettable, though it was immensely popular and lionized at the time. It is not a new level of dumbing down to say Donna Tartt is the new John O'Hara. Her book and O'Hara's books are not dumb, as in the culture lampooned in "Idiocracy," for example. Her book remains largely well written and structured overall. Her book, however, simply does not meet my or James Woods' taste in literature, and, as he and Prose state, her book could have used an editor willing to confront an author for an overuse of cliches. (Prose gets special praise from me, though, because she wrote a brilliant essay in Harpers' a few years ago where she voiced my exact criticism of high school literature choices and the way in which high school lit teachers often assign the worst Steinbeck and weak tea writers such as Maya Angelou).

Finally, I found interesting Peretz's suggestion that because James Wood is married to novelist Claire Messud, there may be some envy lurking underneath his horror at the reception to Donna Tartt's book. Peretz notes Messud's book, "The Woman Upstairs," released about five months before "The Goldfinch," received largely superlative reviews, but did not resonate with the mass of literate public readers to the same extent as Tartt's book. I had heard of Messud's book, and Peretz's article caused me to read a bit of it through the Amazon "Look Inside" mechanism. My take on Messud's book was that its prose was sharp and strong in the Salinger "tradition." I just don't know if it meets my taste in literature. For me, it appears too painful to endure--not because it was not of great quality, but because it was so real and raw in its emotive description. My taste tends toward realist narratives that are more sentimental than anything else, which sounds contradictory, but is not (Think Dickens, Hardy, Maugham, Howells and Lewis, as examples). I also like to read literature more in and about the past or future than the present, perhaps owing to the History-Political Science major in me, and the fact that I read late in the evening just before going to bed after long days as a trial lawyer--and the last thing I really want to read is something too contemporary. I did, however, wince at Messud using the F-bomb in the first page of her novel, which struck me as gratuitously placed (I say that as a somewhat "blue" speaker and Lenny Bruce fan, however, so count me in for some hypocrisy...). I admit I often want my literature to be more elegant than I am.

Again, however, Peretz's article is well worth the read. It is a bit about truly classic literary critic gossip, I know, but it also provides a great foundation to understand how to evaluate and ultimately enjoy reading novels.

* One writer-critic on Amazon of my book lambasted my alternative history novel as not "literature," which I found to be a dumb criticism. So perhaps I am sensitive on this subject. :-)

ADDENDUM: Tim Parks, a professor of literature in Milan, Italy, has written a tremendous and powerful blog essay in the NY Review of Books. He uses "literary" fiction to describe good or "high-brow" fiction, and contrasts it to "genre" fiction. I wish we could find different words because genre fiction can be high-brow and literary fiction in this parlance can be poorly written or overwrought. Nonetheless, the point raised, which is that one does not necessarily "ascend" from "Twilight" and "Fifty Shades of Gray" to the works of Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham. And here is Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" from 1948, which Parks refers to and was published in Harpers' Magazine. God bless Harpers' for having this available on the web.