Sunday, April 08, 2012

What I'm reading and have recently read...

I think I should blog more about what I read as I must admit it's somewhat eclectic compared to average readers.

Recently, I read a biography of Herman Mankiewicz (called "Mank") that was outstanding. The author was Richard Meryman, who wrote with an astute knowledge of the early 20th Century and with a penetrating sense of his subject. Meryman's insight and prose writing is often compelling and even brilliant, and his literary allusions are equally sharp and based upon a strong knowledge of literature and cultural history.

The publisher William Morrow published Meryman's biography in 1978 and is long out of print. It deserves a fresh edition and should be read in literature departments across colleges for those who want to understand the interplay of screenwriting and writing fiction in print form. Mankiewicz was far more of a player among the literary set of the 1920s and 1930s than I ever understood, and his style of screenwriting was informed by a strong knowledge of 19th Century novelists than I ever imagined. Mank's crowning achievement, writing much of the still amazing film, "Citizen Kane," arose from his newspaper writing experiences and his actually knowing both William Randolph Hearst and Hearst's mistress-wife Marion Davies.

I then finished "Desperate Remedies," Thomas Hardy's first novel from 1871, which has more twists and turns than just about any novel of its time--and perhaps even our own peripatetic time. We must, however, read Hardy with the annotations to help us understand colloquialisms and Hardy's use of literary allusions to the Bible and antiquity to truly digest and recognize the artistry in each of his novels. I find the annotations amazing to read, and they are definitely informative. Hardy's prose may also initially seem jarring to a 21st Century reader when first encountered, which may turn off such readers as either dense or "flowery." Hardy's prose is neither. His prose, in fact, is poetry rendered in prose form, and that is what makes him delicious to read for someone (yes, me) who has never been able to appreciate pure poetry. Hardy provides folks like me a sense of the joy of those who love reading poetry.

I then read "An Equal Music" (1999) by Vikram Seth, which did something I did not think possible, which was match and even eclipse "The Rosendorf Quartet" (English translation, 1991) by Nathan Shaham, in turning the emotional and intellectual power of music into prose, and deeply explore the lives of a musical quartet--which is sort of a polygamous marriage of four highly focused and individualistic people. Shaham's novel contains the more momentous back story about Jews escaping Europe for Palestine and eventually forming the State of Israel--which definitely drew my attention. Seth's book, on the other hand, is more narrowly focused about trying to rekindle lost love amidst life changes and decisions. This, though, gives Seth more freedom to focus on the music being played as he is not as concerned with the historical events sweeping over people's lives. Perhaps my personal bias in favor of Seth's book also springs from Seth's obvious love of Ralph Vaughan Williams and "The Lark Ascending," which makes more than several appearances in his graceful and powerful novel.

I am now reading the late Joan Peyser's "The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin," (1993). The NY Times obituary linked to the mention of her name does no service to Peyser nor to her biography of Gershwin. I read the obit this morning after reading the first 50 plus pages of the book. Contrary to the obituary writer, Peyser's knowledge of music theory--and how to write about it--is both beautifully rendered and insightful. That she has also been able to write with insight about Gershwin's personality without sounding like a gossip magazine is a testament to her writing talent. The Times' obituary of Peyser is embedded with a condescending "ladies' writer" sensibility which is obviously sexist. Peyser's Gershwin biography is a must for any true fan of George Gershwin, even if we are going to learn his personality may not have been s'wonderful...:-)

I am also slowly reading through David Bernstein's legal text, "Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform," that is more an extended law review article about the Lochner case. It is certainly magisterial in explaining once and for all how Lochner is misunderstood as a curtailment of federal power when it concerns a state's power. He is making a good case that the decision should not be used as a shorthand of an era where capitalist principles were grafted onto the Constitution. Early on, though, his libertarian ideology comes through when he summarizes decisions of the US Supreme Court in the era that he said were "pro-women" because they overturned legislation that had benefited women--writing "George Sutherland strongly expressed his longstanding support for women's legal equality in a 1923 opinion he wrote invalidating a women-only minimum wage law as a violation of liberty of contract." (Page 5 of Bernstein's book)

That is the equivalent to the Lenny Bruce bit ("The Defiant Ones") where the white guy says to the black guy, "There's a lot of equality out there--people are just causin' trouble. For example, when it comes time to get drafted into th' army, you get drafted along with ev'ryone else, right? So that's equal. At income tax time, don't you pay taxes on what you make 'long wit' ev'ryone else? Well, that's equal, too. And when you rob a store, don't get the same time as ev'ryone else?" At that point, the black man in the bit, often played by a jazz musician appearing with Lenny, particularly Eric Miller, would interrupt and say, "But what about the segregated schools and segregated housing?" And the white guy, again Lenny, would answer: "Hey, you can't shove everything down people's throats there. Those things take a little time. You people need some patience!"

In the libertarian world view, federal or state legislation designed to stop the exploitation of women is bad, see? It makes women less equal to men. While Sutherland came from a tradition supporting women's rights (see the Wiki entry on Sutherland), his main motivation was the old standby by 1923, freedom of contract and exulting capitalist values. One also tires of the libertarian canard that the progressive movement was filled with sexists and racists as if those opposing them were the champions of civil rights. Sutherland was one of the few on the capitalist side who were not racist. It was in the air among the elite, along with eugenics and other racist and sexist positions. That we are appalled at Brandeis' famous brief containing sexist assumptions and statements 100 years plus later is a reason to look at the cultural trends of the time, not just convict Brandeis of sexism in a vacuum for current political posturing.

Bernstein's conclusion about Sutherland overturning the women's minimum wage legislation permeates Bernstein's larger analysis with which he is engaging the reader: That the law in the Lochner case, which set a limit on the number of hours one may work in a day or week at a bakery was bad legislation because the law limited the "freedom" of those who "want" to work long hours. My ideological bias, I guess, finds that to be an abhorrent sort of "freedom." I would say "So there's a freedom to starve" and Bernstein would say, "Yes, there is," and then he'd start to argue that poor houses and such would keep people from starving anyway. As with the white guy in Lenny's bit being in fact more wrong than right about whether there was equality in fact with respect to serving time for a crime, such an argument about the effects of private charity would also be more wrong than right. If poorhouses worked so well, why were people starving in the USA in 1967 according to the Field Foundation, which was a study of doctors who went into rural and urban areas and found true instances of starvation in our nation? Those who run soup kitchens are most often the most vociferous advocates of the type of government programs such as food stamps so railed against by people who agree with David Bernstein's libertarian ideology.

Bernstein also says the particular bakers who protested the law were acting against "special interests," i.e. unions and larger shop owners. That is an important perspective, but I see the legislation as ameliorative, and designed to protect workers being exploited with longer hours--even if we find some workers saying, "Yeah, I love working 15 hours a day in a hot, smoldering and often dangerous bakery!" I believe a legislature is well within its power to draw a line about the number of hours worked, and to do so in the name of stopping economic masochism. Call that "patriarchal" or "condescending" (I am not saying Bernstein is using those terms, just noting the argument libertarians often make), but those are cynical uses of those terms in my view.

Nonetheless, I see Bernstein as a true devil's advocate here, and he performs a great service because he demands we defend each step of ground not only with respect to Lochner, but the entire era where courts made a fetish of the "freedom to contract." The fact that our current president speaks in the sloppy way about Lochner that Bernstein criticizes is precisely the value of Bernstein's book.* Bernstein's endnotes are also a delight to read and more importantly ponder, which partly accounts for the slow reading I am giving his book. The other reason for my slow reading is this: I admit, at the end of long days of work and dealing with the synagogue and/or family, I want to be taken somewhere else other than my own life, as I mostly read just before falling asleep. Bernstein's book jars me awake with his detailed arguments and analysis that demands I defend my worldview. That admittedly makes me put his book down after careful reading of five or six pages (plus a couple of pages of endnotes)--and leads me to pick up Hardy or a biography of a long gone personality or historical figure. If I was a professor somewhere, I could read Bernstein's book in the light of day, devour its legal oriented prose (that is a compliment, most definitely for a book of this nature) and fully and actively engage it.

I wish people read more than "The Hunger Games" (a book I saw mostly women reading this week on multiple plane rides). However, seventy years ago, people were reading similarly trendy things. A trend is not a trend if it is not widely read to the point of being a cultural cliche...

* For at least two decades, I and likely some others have spoken of the US Supreme Court era from the 1870s through the mid-1930s as the era of "Gilded Age" jurisprudence, where capitalist ideology was grafted onto the Constitution. I therefore see the "New Deal" era of the Supreme Court that began in the late 1930s as a restoration of the Alexander Hamilton-John Marshall interpretation of the Constitution in the early history of the Republic. I see nearly any economic system the legislature legislates as constitutionally proper, whether it be mercantilist, socialist, fascist, capitalist, or anything in between and beyond--limited only by a "rational relation" test, as John Marshall tried to explain in McCulloch (1819) and Gibbons (1824). That this interpretation is somewhat at risk in the ACA (health insurance mandate) case is of more than current academic importance. My argument against the libertarian legal scholars is they want their world view of libertarianism to limit the scope of legislation under our Constitution. I am far more open to letting Congress pass legislation I abhor, i.e. laws that favor capitalists at the expense of workers, laws that mandate I have to buy health insurance from a private insurer, etc. When libertarians prattle on about "enumerated powers," they often do so in a manner antithetical to majority rules in the economic realm--while they would say they are promoting economic freedom, again using the word "freedom" in I think an ironic and often cynical way.


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