Sunday, December 26, 2004

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

I need a palatte-cleansing slurp of medieval scholarship after chewing out David Brooks.

An odd quote has been rattling around in my head, as I read about plans for the upcoming Iraqi elections: "It is easy to tear apart what was never joined -- our song together!" Something from a rant by a Kurdish opposition leader? Or maybe a rejected draft of a Kerry concession speech? In fact, this eloquent tidbit comes from a 1000 year-old Anglo-Saxon lyric known as "Wulf and Eadwacer", one of the shortest and saddest poems to survive the wreck of the Norman invasion. It's your basic girl-falls-for-wrong-boy-lovers-
laments-fate's-savage-contradictions kind of story. Aeschylus couldn't have crafted a more intense tragic monologue. A modern Arab reader would probably grasp the predicament immediately. Makes you wonder (OK, makes me wonder) why certain quarters of the U.S. government, on the other hand, can't admit that reality isn't always what you want it to be.

Here's my free rendering of the full poem:

My people behave like Christmas came early --
Will they take him if he comes to rescue me?
Our ways are parted...

Wulf is on an island, I'm on another.
Closely guarded is that island, ringed by swamps,
Full of cruel warriors.
Will they take him if he comes to rescue me?
Our ways are parted...

With hope I endured Wulf's exile,
When the rain poured down, as did my tears.
Then my battle-fierce husband took me in his arms.
Pleasure it gave me, but pain as well.

Wulf, my Wulf -- it was hopes of you
That made me heartsick,
Your absence that made me mourn,
Not hunger for food.

Do you hear, my lord Eadwacer?
Wulf has stolen to the wood with our wretched infant.
It is easy to tear apart what was never was joined:
our song together.

I'm not up on current Wulf and Eadwacer scholarship, but it wouldn't surprise me if Christian-minded critics had interpreted the poem as an allegory of the Church's exile from Christ. Reading it as an object lesson for U.S. foreign policy doesn't seem that much more far-fetched.

[Note: Here's a somewhat more literal translation, with notes on the Old English text. The drama of the closing line is hard to capture in modern English: þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs, uncer giedd geador. to-slitan = wound, rend, tear asunder, destroy.]

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Reason or treason

David Brooks is an intelligent man and wants to appear an honest one. But his column in Monday's New York Times betrays both intelligence and honesty by its rush to praise George Bush'"judgments" on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Brooks wouldn't be the first columnist and would-be political pundit -- even on the Times' Op-Ed pages -- who gave up the boring job of speaking truth to power and climbed up on power's shoulders, only to patronize his colleagues still toiling in the murk of uncertainty and critical thinking. But Brooks does one better than writers like Tom Friedman, the Times' resident Mideast expert, who came out in support of the Iraq war only to grudgingly backpedal as the disaster unfolded. Brooks doesn't just invent reasons for agreeing with the White House's views. He invents out of whole cloth the very view that he wants to agree with, in turn giving the White House and himself credit for a seasoned realism above the grasp of other commentators.

As in the following: "[George Bush's] judgments now look correct. Bush deduced that Sharon could grasp the demographic reality and lead Israel toward a two-state solution; that Arafat would never make peace, but was a retardant to peace; that Israel has a right to fight terrorism; and that Sharon would never feel safe enough to take risks unless the U.S. supported him when he fought back." Does anyone who's watched George Bush in action believe he'd have had the reasoning power or regional knowledge to concoct even this cartoonish policy argument? Does anyone imagine the Bush administration's reflexive support of Israel's stubborn and disingenuous policies had anything to do with a real stake in a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as opposed to a knee-jerk response to its own "anti-terrorist" war cry, and a spineless readiness to be manipulated by Sharon's masterful mixture of bluff and ruthlessness (now there's a political realist for you)?

The answer is, I'm sure there are people who do believe this. But I don't think Brooks in his heart is among them. In this column, as frankly in so much else he writes and says these days, Brooks appears dedicated to using intelligence against itself, outsmarting his fellow smartypants, and proving himself dumb and self-deluded enough to join the crew guilty of some of the most destructive policy mistakes in recent American history. The news these days from the very worst of those mistakes, the Iraq war, being hard even for Bush himself to whitewash, Brooks slyly shifts the camera to a scene where the president's tough guy image has, he seems to think, more sticking power. But I doubt even the President would be convinced by Brooks' story-telling here, and certainly most readers won't be. The snide and and manipulative way the whole piece is written only further undermines his credibility.

I've never thought much, truth to say, of Brooks' writing or his politics, and the work of a single opinion-monger wouldn't normally be worth the effort of a protest -- especially when he shares an Op-Ed page with William Safire. But Brooks' subordination of truth-telling to political truckling is really just one, though a particularly sleazy, example of a syndrome that has infected American reporting and commentary from the first rumblings of the Iraq war, if not before. It takes a wide range of forms, from a refusal to risk any critique that might compromise "support for the troops" to the blatant advocacy of the Fox Channel. A review article by Chris Hedges in the recent New York Review of Books explores this issue with compelling eloquence, trying to come to terms with the failure of American journalists and American news outlets to tell the full truth about the war, especially its awful impact on Iraqi civilians. He concludes "If we do not confront our hubris and the lies told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, we will not so much defeat dictators like Saddam Hussein as become them."

This conclusion obviously reaches beyond the work of the journalists who are Hedges' main subject. And Hedges risks being carried away by the force of his own rhetoric, even as he fights with other people's. His readiness to see the dictator in the mirror, however, should remind contemporary writers that the "treason of the intellectuals" -- an expression first applied to apologists for Fascism and later to justifiers of Stalinism -- isn't just a bygone sin. Whether or not the two great analysts of how politics corrupts language, George Orwell and Czeslaw Milosz, would see the true aura of totaltarianism in George Bush may be debated. But they would certainly recognize in the self-serving fabrications of David Brooks, and that of many another modern pundit, the creativity of the "captive mind" daubing pictures of Big Brother, or Big Dubbya, on the walls of its own prison cell.

[12/25: For comic relief, see David Brooks' Christmas present to his readers on today's Times Op-Ed page -- the first installment of his "Hookie" awards, named (sort of) for the controversial neo-conservative philosopher Sidney Hook. The award purportedly recognizes essays for the educated reader that explore "the nature and destiny of man," but the focus of most of them speaks for itself. The first three listed are: "When Islam Breaks Down," by Theodore Dalrymple, a British M.D. who critiques a Radical Islam at odds with modern science and itself; "The Other Sixties," by Bruce Bawer, on late 1950's hipsters like Jack Paar and Sammy Davis Jr adrift in the era of flower power (I see a would-be autobiographical slant here on Brooks' part); and "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews," by William J. Stuntz, a Harvard Law professor who also belongs to an evangelical church (can you dig it?). You don't know whether to be annoyed by Brooks' pretense or to laugh at his transparency. I doubt whether Hook -- a one-time Marxist and a man of great intellectual depth and conviction, despite the polemic extremes of some of his later writings -- would feel honored by this suave attempt to hijack his name and reputation.]

Thursday, December 09, 2004

George and Benito and Bert

Was my rough-edged but expansive Jewish grandfather an admirer, as a young man, of Mussolini? Did this conservative, worldly-wise businessman, with his love of good living and good jokes, once enjoy a friendship with a notorious psychic and spirit medium?

Not the kinds of questions most people get to ask about their relatives!

But then most people's family archives don't contain a letter like the one we found in grandpa's papers after he died in 1986. It's still in the original envelope, addressed in a bold, spiky hand to

Marchese Paulucci De Calboli, Baron
Privat Secretary of Mr Mussolini

The engraved return address on the envelope is of a "Prof. Bert Reese", of 230 W. 99th Street, New York. The enclosed letter, also on the professor's letterhead, and in the same dramatic handwriting, reads as follows:

May 29th [19]25

My Dear Baron

The Bearer of this is a large Real Estate Man, and a very good friend of mine, Mr. Gross. He wishes to shake hand of Mr Mussoline, please dow anything you can for him while in Rome thanking you in advance for any Curtese you show him Iam with best regards to you and Mr Spavini [?] please if Mr Spavini from Napilo is in Rome at present show him this letter and he also can ad to this Gentleman who is accompanied by his wife my best wishes to Mr Mussolini and yourself I am yours

Very truly
Prof Bert Reese

Since we found this letter only after he died, I never got to ask grandpa whether he and grandma ever did meet Mussolini and if so what kind of handshake the dictator had. (George Gross's handshake, at least in later years, was firm and insistent, punctuated by "How are ya, how are ya, how are ya".) No one in the family had heard stories of what happened on this trip or knew anything about the Prof. Reese who tried to serve as go-between.

We'll likely never know whether or not the handshake took place. But I wonder about George's interest in meeting Il Duce in the first place. While in 1925 Mussolini's alliance with Hitler was more than a decade away, it had been three years since the Blackshirt's "March on Rome" brought Mussolini into power as Italy's Prime Minister. He was hailed as a statesman of genius, the savior of Italy -- even as he forged a corrupt and brutal one-party police state. In May of 1924, a year before George's visit, the assassination of a Socialist leader by Fascist thugs triggered a crisis that almost brought down Mussolini's government. In 1925, however, he was re-elected as Prime Minister, in a fraudulent election that confirmed his grip on power, as well as his loyal support by Italian oligarchs and much of the middle class.

I like to think George, a conservative but big-hearted man, saw the historical writing on the wall before shaking the hand of the writer. But it's not so shocking, after all, that a rising American real estate mogul should want to brush acquaintance with one of Europe's biggest bigshots. As something of a self-made man, George respected success in every walk of life, and had many friends in high places in local and national government. He could've been one of the millions in the 1920's, including many intellectuals, who sincerely admired the charismatic strongman who rebuilt his country, made the trains run on times, and drove back the rising tide of Socialism -- even at the cost of some lost liberties and a few broken heads. Real estate too was a world where you had to be smart and tough. Or perhaps young George was drawn to the sheer power of celebrity, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of his own hard work and high connections.

Which brings us to Prof. Reese. Who was this "good friend" of my grandfather's, with his florid handwriting and colorful foreigner's English -- and a close acquaintance with one of Europe's leading dictators? Unlike Il Duce, history has almost forgotton Bert Reese. In his day, however, the Polish born "Professor" (1851-1926) was a world-famous psychic and "mentalist" -- hailed by audiences, studied by Thomas Edison and European psychic researchers, debunked by Houdini, and the subject of at least one lawsuit for "disorderly conduct" related to his act (which he won). Reese's most famous trick was "reading" the contents of notes scribbled either by audience members or his assistants, and then shuffled or passed around so that no one could recognize them.

I could use some of that talent now! Thanks to the post-modern magic of Google, however, I have at least been able to piece together some of Reese's story, including his residence for much of his life in New York City. And, thanks to my grandfather's letter, we also know about Reese's association with another of history's great showmen -- the father of facismo. Perhaps Mussolini shared the same fascination with the occult as Hitler and many another paranoid, delusional dictator. Unlike Mussolini, the professor managed to weather the ups and downs of notariety and die a natural death, to all appearances at the top of his game. His achievements have been honored posthumously by many professional magicians, for whom the name "Bert Reese" still conjures up one of the field's most ingenious illusions.

In many ways, the idea of a friendship between my grandfather and a figure like Reese is even odder than grandpa's wanting to meet Mussolini, courtesy of the professor. It's here though that the family historian is stumped by want of data, beyond this single, almost too suggestive item. Perhaps further digging in the collective Gross family memories -- or the private papers of Mussolini -- might yield some fruit. In the meantime, the following modest venture into historical fiction brings us, I feel sure, very close to truth. Here goes (with apologies to the Da Vinci Code):

George was somber on the long limousine ride back from the West Side. He watched the sun set blood red over the streets of New York, and thought about his meeting with The Professor.

The old man's strong German accent and awkward English had been almost comical at first. But the rising tone of urgency riveted George's attention.

"Ze Italian musst be shhtopped. He was vith us vunz. But zay haf betrayed ze sacred vision of ze Brotherhood."

The professor looked around his drawing room, smirking ruefully at the trappings of the professional spiritualist. "I haf made of myself a clown to the world, to protect our mission. My life comes now to an end. But I can help you get close to him -- and see his evil deshtroyed, before I close my eyes for ever."

He held out the small envelope, addressed with his familiar jagged scrawl. George slipped it into a side pocket, his gaze never leaving the face of the old man -- now lit up with a strange, stricken look of hope.

"We can never meet again, my friend," said the professor, his trembling hand resting heavily on George's shoulder for a moment. "Got be vith you, and all of us."

George's mind was reeling as the door of the old brownstone closed behind him. A gust of wind blew unexpectedly cold through the May afternoon. He buttoned his jacket and and bundled himself hurriedly into his waiting limousine. He never noticed the white rectangle flicker from his pocket and under the deeply upholstered seats.

It was years before the envelope turned up again...


Saturday, December 04, 2004


Creationism has been on my mind a lot, along with its evil twin (well, more evil twin) Intelligent Design.

I recently watched a news clip of a Georgia school board hearing where the creationist contingent won their case to have science textbooks teaching evolution marked with a warning label, like a pack of cigarettes. The pro-label crowd -- mostly women as far as I could see -- yelled and clapped and waved their arms like soccer moms cheering little Jesse's goal. The leader of the group stood there with a proud, defiant and at the same time humble look on her face. It was the look of someone who had challenged a powerful, impersonal establishment on behalf of the underdog, and won.

Erin Brokovich, meet the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The comparison isn't entirely absurd. Williams Jennings Bryan, who argued the anti-Darwin case on behalf of the state of Tennessee, made his political career as a fierce populist, fighting big business, big government, and what he viewed as their corrupt connivance with one another. (He also opposed the jingoist expansionism of the Spanish-American war, one of the few American politicians to do so.) And although some people see "creationists" as agents of an over-reaching Republican agenda, they may view themselves more as victims of a different kind of elitist power base, represented by liberal school boards, the Supreme Court, and the godless, immoral media who control the movies and television programming they and their families watch. Go figure.

However, given the pervasive anti-intellectualism of American life, it's not enough to simply rail at creationists for ignoring the superior logic of science, as opposed to the faith of the local pastor or their own hometown instincts. As our low world-wide ranking in test scores attests, many Americans are not only ignorant of science but actively disinterested in it, however important it may be to their cell phones and satellite dishes and Viagra prescriptions. And let's be honest: of the 45% (45%!) of Americans who do believe in evolution, how many could give a coherent summary of the evidence and arguments? So righteous indignation alone won't win the day (though I'm all for ridicule, e.g. cartoons showing baboons cheerfully endorsing Jerry Falwell's claim of no family relationship whatsoever). We need to pinch our noses and take a hard look at how the cunningly evolved brains of the creationists are working for their herd's survival.

It's not a monolithic field. The woman in the Georgia school gymnasium, who declared her faith in a literal six day creation, some 4000 years B.C., at least had the virtue of consistency and the courage of her convictions. The advocates of "Intelligent Design," by contrast, are a much more sleazy and intellectually dishonest crowd. This quasi-scientific "re-interpretation" of the evidence of biological history seems to have two primary motives. First, to skirt the church-state issue involved in the Supreme Court's 1987 prohibition on teaching creationism in public schools. Second, to provide cover for those who want to dupe the public or themselves into thinking that that truly open-minded schools should teach a range of "scientific" viewpoints. A recent story on the National Center for Science Education website shows how tricky but also how transparent the advocates of this movement can be.

Alas, neither the work of high-minded science educators or ACLU-sponsored lawsuits seem sufficient in the face of a growing popular viewpoint and zealous and well-organized interest groups that have the support of the Republican power base, on the state level at least:

Hopefully the significant minority of Americans who believe in the evolutionary struggle for survival will take Darwin's lessons more to heart, and voters, educational groups, and politicians will organize themselves to effectively challenge today's Neanderthals -- in the schools, in the courts, and in public opinion. As the great British evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, this is not just a fight for good science: an electorate ready to swallow one set of carefully crafted half-truths can always be led to embrace others.

["Bereshith" = "In the beginning", the first word of the Hebrew Bible]

[12/6: See Tom Friedman's column this morning in the NYT, deploring the cut in the National Science Foundation funding by the Republican-led Congress' . He calls it supremely irresponsible; others would just call it "chipping away at the opposition."]

[1/1: A bracing last word from Stephen Jay Gould in the New York Review of Books, 6/12/97: "The very phenomena that traditional views cite as proof of benevolence and intentional order—the good design of organisms and the harmony of ecosystems—arise by Darwin's process of natural selection only as side consequences of a singular causal principle of apparently opposite meaning: organisms struggling for themselves alone. (Good design becomes one pathway to reproductive success, while the harmony of ecosystems records a competitive balance among victors.) Darwin's system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature's factuality in any case, so why not take the "cold bath" of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life's causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?" The article is also interesting for its critique of a scientific "fundamentalism" in the intepretation of Darwin's ideas among "strict adaptationist" thinkers, including Richard Dawkins.]

[1/13: Well, looks like there is a God, though a God who obviously believes in Darwin not himself: the AP reports a federal judge in Georgia ordered that Atlanta school system to remove stickers from biology texts calling evolution "a theory, not a fact", arguing that "the disclaimers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion". Score one for the ACLU sponsored lawsuits after all!!!]

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Big Sieve

Frankly, I was relieved by the headline:

"I-93 Tunnel to Need Constant Attention"

I had been worried since the Red Sox won the pennant -- against the arch-fiend Yankees no less. With the curse broken -- and the Patriots on their way to a possible third championship -- what would Boston, a city with such long and hard won experience in moaning, groaning and second guessing, have to complain about? Sudden withdrawal can be a dangerous thing. Sure, many fans have bought timeshare vacation condos in Chicago, to be able to root for the Cubs. And speaking personally, I'm still holding out for a winning sports season where at least one student doesn't get run over by a car or shot by the police during after-game celebrations. But the majority of Red Sox nation was out of luck.

Until now. Yes, I know we've been whining about the Big Dig for years -- the traffic hassles, the endless delays and cost over-runs, and mismanagement by the MBTA and Bechtel contractors. Bostonians' complaints about the massive construction project in our city have been second only to laments about the fate of the hometown baseball team. But unlike the Sox's chances of the pennant, the Dig seemed to be making visible progress, however slowly and painfully. When the Central Artery southbound tunnel was opened recently, it appeared completion -- and a new and improved commute -- was almost within our grasp.

But fate has smiled her crooked smile upon the city. As a friend suggested, maybe the Bambino hasn't really dropped his curse, he's just shifted to another venue. Maybe he was the one swatting holes in the concrete with a ghostly bat, or kicking dirt into the slurry walls, while his fans at Bechtel weren't looking. It'll take some time for the dust, or the mud, to settle: who's paying for what (Bechtel said today they'd cover their 'fair share'); what the impact will be on traffic; what the impact will be on city government; how many young Bostonians will grow up with nightmares of dying in underground floods. Take comfort kids -- the Boston Harbor water leaking in is much cleaner than it would have been some decades ago, when the Dig started.

Meanwhile, I think the best way to keep the spirit of futile resentment running high is for the federal government -- who have been paying for a lot of this mess -- to lend Boston the banner that George Bush flew on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in April of 2003: "Mission Accomplished!" The north end of the Zakim bridge would be good place for it -- the last thing southbound commuters will see before they plunge into the Central Artery tunnel. And remember, that won't be a ghostly car wash attendant you see standing and waving at the entryway. It'll be the Babe, still with us -- and not likely to be leaving real soon.