Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Ungrateful Generation

I used to write a lot of short stories and have recently begun trying my hand again. Tastes have changed since those early days, so I have been browsing story collections. A glowing review in The New York Times led me to a collection by David Gates entitled A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. Wonderful title, right? The following comment in the review made me want to read more: "a smart book about smart, articulate people who get in their own way again and again, engaging in episodic festivals of bad decisions and then talking about their plight with arresting candor, in language rife with humor and allusion." I have made my share of bad decisions. Sometimes I think I have learned from them, become wiser. Mostly I wish I had never made them.

Associate professor, University of Montana
So, I checked the book out of the library yesterday and began reading. The first thing that struck me was their totally in-the-present character, mostly about places and people in New York and the Northeast. The first story I read, "An Actor Prepares," dropped references to the theater Circle in the Square, The Fantastiks, episodes of Kate & Allie, Cherry Lane theater, David Sedaris, Ben Kingsley's performance in Twelfth Night, and a Singapore Airlines commercial.  Had I not lived in New York City for the last 30 years, the topics that come up in conversation in the course of the story would totally have escaped me. The story appeared in The Paris Review in 2014, but already it is outdated.

Now, for the bad decisions. The story concerns an actor, handsome in his youth, who had some breaks, bringing him minor, local repute, but nothing big. He has aged out, and his sustenance (aside, we assume, from commercial residuals) is a teaching gig in "theater arts" in Westchester. He travels to Vermont to appear in a summer production of Twelfth Night, is not wise enough to avoid being seduced by the girl who plays Viola, ends up with a broken nose and is out of the play. At the end, the mood is wry. He spends the rest of the summer in a small house overlooking a lake in Dutchess County, a man alone without any attachments, getting along, enough money to be able to float through life without any deep personal investments. He is a bit like the remittance men in the novels of Dickens, having enough money to get by, but lacking the incentive to undertake the real work of life.

A reference in the story to the actor's father having worked with Stanley Donen (b. 1924), whose most famous films (Singin' in the Rain, On the Town) were made in the early 1950s, situates the actor in the same generation as David Gates, born 1947. This is the generation that now makes up much of the teaching staff in colleges and universities across the land. In another story we are introduced to just such an academic couple -- teaching at Yale. Although now divorced, they are forced into contact because of an out-of-control teenage son who runs rings around them. Without any backbone, but with those teaching jobs (tenure in the case of the wife) they are never faced, like the rest of us, with responsibility for what are minimized simply as "fuck ups." Only one generation in history has had the benefit of this irresponsible cradle-to-the-grave existence, the kids born in the late 1940s and who entered the institutions of American life in about 1974. They went to school in the early 1950s, where they learned the 3Rs, were taught to write in a comprehensible hand, as well as the ability to sit at a desk for several hours straight. They became the best educated generation in American history and are really characterized by their articulateness. Not only do they fill the teaching professions, they are also in advertising, the media, and the law.

Despite all the advantages they have enjoyed -- and I have to add here that, of course, I am a member of this cohort -- appreciation for all America has given them is not their reigning attitude. American is always lacking, chiefly as represented by their political attitudes. Why did I not find it surprising that the director of the play in "An Actor Prepares" says that he loathed David Mamet before he became a Republican? There is the expected derision of houses displaying American flags. Making bad decisions and bearing no consequences has been their privilege.

This is the kind of stoy that gets you published in The Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Liberal dogma

Dianne Feinstein used an interesting phrase when questioning one of Donald Trump's judicial nominees, Amy Coney Barrett, a professor at Notre Dame with seven children (!). Concerning Barrett’s writings regarding the professional obligations of Catholic practitioners, Feinstein said of Barrett: “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”

Lives loudly in you.

Definition of dogma: a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. The original meaning comes, of course, from Church doctrine, but Catholic dogma has now been replace by liberal dogma. The views of liberals have become so naturalized that they take for granted that their views are the default setting. And liberals are in lock-step as much as people were in lock-step in the Middle Ages.

One of my favorite instances of this lock-step concerns the role of humans in climate warming. It is always contended that 97 percent of scientists believe that climate warming is caused by humans. My response: 97 percent of theologians once believed that Galileo was wrong when he contended that the earth revolves around the sun. When 97 percent of people agree on something, I am always suspicious.

Liberalism is a religion, and like the Catholic Church in an earlier age, liberals want to erect great monuments to their religion: thus, the huge government expenditures in the last half-century to implement the world's salvation.

Picture credit: Sultan Knish

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Europe and "the world"

Macron looks tough

It is amusing to observe how European leaders and, indeed, the "thinking" population of Europe believe that they are responsible for managing the world. Every weekday I receive via email a daily digest of news reports from a German site called euro|topics. (The link here is to the English version.) Every weekday there is a topic, and two of the recent topics prompt the observation with which I began.

For instance, on August 28 the question was "Was the Paris refugee summit a success?" Thus, the photo above.

Apparently European and African leaders met in Paris to discuss ways of stemming migration across the Mediterranean. The summit came up with this response to the refuge problem: Asylum applications can now be processed directly in African states. Commentators have reacted variously, "welcoming the move," but doubting that it can be implemented. Others are aghast, and call the meeting "the summit of disgrace." Among the different news outlets weighing in were The Guardian, Deutschlandfunk, La Stampa, Kurier (Austria), and a Czech newspaper. In other words, these are all the responses of editorial writers of European media.

The UN Security Council meditates

On August 30, today, the question was "How should the world deal with North Korea?"


This topic came on the heels of North Korean launching a missile over Japan and the Pacific. Perhaps I am being supercilious: certainly we should be worried about North Korea. But Europe has got itself in a morass because of Angela Merkel's welcome to immigrants. The reaction to the morass is always a summit. The picture here is apparently a meeting of the UN Security Council. I am sure they will figure things out.

Photos: picture-alliance/dpa

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Group think in our time

The Czech Republic is obviously a country not well known by many in the U.S. or Canada. Yesterday on the the ferry several local people were asking a man from that country about his  home. The name "Havel" came up, as lots of people may know of the former president, even if they know very little else about the Czech Republic. The Czech man mentioned the current president, and in doing so introduced several current "tropes" into his comments that show the effect of how group think has taken over the minds of many people. Group think releases you from the necessity of thinking for yourself; you simply have to repeat phrases that people around you are saying, especially if they are saying these things as if they were the truth. As in The New York Times or in American universities.

One trope is "businessman." Business now means for many people greed, lack of concern for others, selfishness, etc. If you are trying to tell another person what someone is like, if your first descriptive term is "businessman," then everyone gets the picture, right?

The comment that really captures group think, however, was the man's characterization of the current president of the Czech Republic as "immigrant hating." Again, no need to think. Hate closes off all discussion, e.g., of the subject of whether there might be a valid reason for limiting the number of immigrants that can enter a country.

Picture credit: Shutterstock

Friday, August 18, 2017

Lithuanian outhouses

The EU's love of regulations strikes again. The Latvian minister for environmental protection has just issued regulations concerning outhouses, of which there seem to be quite a number in this still poor country. My daily European news digest has this startling headline: "Droht lettischen Plumpsklos das Aus?" (Do Latvian Outhouses Threaten an "Out"?). I think "out" here refers to exiting the EU.

The Canadians, it seems, already have regulations for outhouses. It appears that outhouses are part of a growing environmental movement.

Photo credit: Tomasz Kuran

Thursday, August 3, 2017

German anti-Americanism

The title of this post is perhaps a bit overdone (├╝berspitzt, as my friend Eberhard in Marburg would say). I spent six days in Germany last week, visiting friends of my youth with whom I had studied in Marburg so many years ago. I found myself forced into some discussions with several of them concerning American politics.

For several years now I have withdrawn from offering opinions on American politics. Frankly, I cannot bear the logorrhea, whether from liberals or conservatives. In Canada, where I am spending two months, few people have even bothered to ask me about Donald Trump. Whenever the subject comes up, I simply say that I did not come to Canada to discuss American politics.

Several of my German friends, because we go back so far, were more aggressive on the subject, and I occasionally let myself be drawn into responding, but not often. It goes without saying that they are anti-Trump and that they follow, in their newspaper reading, the president's goings on. I suppose it is understandable that they might be concerned about his foreign policy or the fate of alliances between the U.S. and Europe. It goes without saying that they are apocalyptic about the environment. In other words, they sounded like New York liberals.

There is a world of difference, however, between these Germans and American liberals. Liberalism in its true incarnation has not had much purchase in Europe. Whatever their commitment to representative democracy, the nations of Europe are strongly interventionist in economic and social policies. They have managed (for the time being anyway) to establish strong welfare states, while at the same time being capitalist. It strikes me that the success of this model has depended on the support of the U.S. since World War II, without being burdened by the large military outlays of the U.S. Evidently, Germans think they have done better than the U.S. (Maybe they think they should rule the world again?) One can't help wondering how long these countries can keep the balls in the air.

To the anti-Americanism. What I found surprising was that my friends would be so concerned about healthcare in the U.S. I mean, what does it have to do with them? America's failures in respect of health care, however, serve to point out the superiority of Europe. That's what I mean by the anti-Americanism, which is not a new phenomenon. American liberals, in their hatred of Trump, have simply given the Europeans a cudgel with which to beat up on the U.S.

What really distinguishes the Germans who criticize the U.S. from their American counterparts is the much deeper level of historical and literary understanding of the former. Whether they are on the right or on the left, Germans know their history and they understand not only its faults and failures (Nazism), but also its achievements. They are balanced about their country. American liberalism, on the other hand, is shot through with disdain for the American past, is embarrassed about patriotism. Ironically, in recent years Germans have taken to waving their flag, at least at sports events.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Childhood reading and the map of life

In the essay “The Lost Childhood” (1947), Graham Greene writes that, for a child, “all books are books of divination.” I stumbled at that word “all,” but by the end I understood what he meant: a child is always looking for “a map,” a path that one will follow into the world, and that certain reading, in giving shape to the child’s imagination, fears, and so on, provides the material for that map. Of course, not all books are able to supply that map.

I felt both envious and superior to Greene when he claimed to recall “the suddenness”  with which he found that he could read, not just the sentences in a reader, but “a real book.” He doesn’t say how old he was, but he was evidently eight or nine years old. In contrast, reading itself was a skill that I mastered very early. In the first grade — we were living in Lynn Acres in the south end of Louisville— I read the Sunday comics page to other kids living in the same block of apartments. I seem to see us sitting on the steps leading up or down to one of the apartments in our unit. One of my earliest memories of "letters" were those of the keys on the Remington keyboard. The machine belonged to my mother, who worked as a secretary, and I have a sort of fixed image of myself standing on a chair -- the typewriter was on a chest of drawers -- with my parents on either side of me as I stared at the keyboard and of asking them about the odd unalphabetic arrangement of the letters, the "a" next to "s," and not to "b," for instance.

My childhood reading did not include the kinds of adventure stories that captivated Greene. He speaks highly of Marjorie Bowen and The Viper of Milan. Indeed, I was a haphazard reader of fiction as a child. Weekly trips to the local library led to historical fiction for girls, but nothing too demanding. The book that most affected me and that provided the kind of map of which he speaks was instead a large book of World War II photographs that was in my parents’ possession. That book, containing very little in the way of text, aside from the captions, was certainly a work of divination, for the story told there, through photographs, inaugurated a lifelong journey to understand myself and the America I lived in. The images of children, for instance, cowering in trenches in Finland, as the Russians strafed their country, made a deep impression on me. I would say they were my first intimations of the underside of life. Greene writes of "the haunting" felt by reading of life lived "on the edge of life." That is what those photos conveyed to me.

It took me a long time to look forward to reading fiction, to escape into novels. In fact, my favorite novel in high school was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. And, like Greene, I admit that, as an adult, I do not have the expectation of pleasure when encountering a new novel. I have to return to Jane Austen for such pleasurable anticipation. Indeed, having just gone through half a dozen copies of the New York Times Book Review, I feel the opposite of anticipation at the prospect of reading any of the novels reviewed. Indeed, the opposite of anticipation … what would that be? If anticipation provokes a smile, a lifting of the muscles around the lips, I feel something like a grimace on reading even the first paragraph of the reviews of these books. How many novels about dysfunctional families can one take? How many memoirs of addiction and childhood sexual abuse? Sad lives galore, but nothing comparable to those Finnish children. But even novels that I choose to read — for the book group that I run — seldom prompt me to rush home and start reading. I dutifully  make my way through them.

Again, I turn to Greene for what one hopes for in a novel: writing in which the visible world still exists, where the characters have the solidity and importance of men and women with souls "to save or to lose."