Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Two Popes - a film review

I am having difficulty finding the words to express my reservations about the film, The Two Popes, without breaking one of my cardinal rules in judging a work of art.  I think works of art should be judged by how well the artist accomplishes what they set out to do, not by what the audience hopes to find  in them. But that's pretty much what I have to do here. I was offended by the film because it presented two of the world's most powerful figures - two popes - as two kindly old men, leaving out any serious recognition of the devastation they can inflict - and have inflicted - on the world by dint of the power they hold in their hands.

Maybe a better place to start is the beautiful acting job by the lead actors, Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict/Ratzinger, and Jonathan Pryce, who plays Francis/Bergoglio. It's a bromance. The two men start out on opposite sides of the fence, Ratzinger the arch conservative and Bergoglio the reformer, and do an intellectual fancy dance in the garden at Castel Gandolfo, the reigning pope's summer residence. Bergoglio, still Archbishop Cardinal of Argentina, has flown in to ask the pope to allow him to retire. Ratzinger ends up grooming him to be his successor instead. Far as I know that's pretty much pure fiction. In real life Bergoglio would write a letter and the pope would say yes.

But then we wouldn't get to hear the delightful debate between the two views splitting the church down the middle, the conservative view that what makes the church great is its devotion to unchanging truth, and the progressive view that the church must remain relevant and not fail to distinguish between what is in fact eternal - faith in the divinity of Christ, for example - and what is merely conventional practice at any point in the history of the church, everything from eating fish on Friday (no longer required) to clerical celibacy and the subordination of women to men, which progressives urge it's time to toss aside. Again, if I have my facts right, pretty much fiction. What we have in Ratzinger and Bergoglio is a radical conservative and a moderate conservative (if support of the patriarchy and celibacy doesn't mean calling Bergoglio "moderate" is going too far.) No surprise here, of course. Even a casual moment's reflection should make one realize there's no way they could put a radical reformer in power and change church practices overnight. Bergoglio is more open than Ratzinger, without a doubt, but he's not rocking the boat all that much - and in any case not at all as much as the film suggests.

It's a PR job, in other words. It softens the edges of two powerful men, makes them warm and fuzzy instead of cold and crackly (which is how I see Ratzinger) and kindly, perhaps, but crafty for sure (which is how I see the Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio).

An article appeared in yesterday's National Catholic Reporter which mentions the film in passing. While it may have the right words when it refers to the film as "the charming new Netflix movie," it misses the woods for the trees in my estimation. The film pretends to view the two men in very human terms. They show Bergoglio, in the end, teaching Ratzinger to tango and the two watch the 2014 World Cup between Argentina and Germany with all the passion their countrymen show in rooting for their home teams.  Less flashy, more moving, are the scenes where the two of them confess their sins to each other.  Unfortunately, here's where I found my mind wandering to a term a professor I once had often had which could reduce us to a puddle of insecurities: she would speak of a "fatal flaw" in our work.  With apologies to writer Anthony McCarten and filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, that's where I began to see the film as fluff.  Ratzinger barely mentions the name of Marcial Marcel, a Mexican priest whose corruption reached staggering proportions, before the sound fades away. Ratzinger, we know, played a role in covering up the extent of Marcel's corruption. 

Bergoglio's dark moment gets much better treatment. He was in a position as head of the Jesuits in Argentina to stand up to the dictatorship under General Videla, who seized power in 1976, famous for throwing protesters out of planes into the sea off the coast of Buenos Aires. Two of Bergoglio's subordinates in the Jesuit Order, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio are taken off by Videla's men and Yorio doesn't survive. Bergoglio's opponents insist he could have used the power of the church to protect these men if he had chosen to. Bergoglio maintains that he didn't see that possibility, and the charge of cowardice has nagged at him ever since.

I've decided that I'm in no position to cast the first (or any other) stone at Bergoglio for this "failing", and that allows me to continue to give the man some space - although I must admit his hard line on LGBT dignity and legal rights as well as his patriarchal views on the status of women still prevent me from becoming a fan. Ratzinger is another kettle of fish. I can't get past his role as head of the erstwhile Inquisition, what is today called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger was prefect (head) of that organization from 1981 to 2005, during which time every reported case of child abuse came across his desk. Where it sat, apparently, and went nowhere.

That's what I'm talking about when I speak of missing pieces in the story of The Two Popes.

The word is Ratzinger resigned over his inability to put the child abuse scandal to rest. I think the failure to address the question directly, and with the same kind of thoroughness given to Bergoglio's history detracts from The Two Popes, as appealing as it may be as a fictionalized tale of a clash between two towering figures of power and intrigue. There is sufficient ambiguity in Bergoglio's story to suggest he might not be a total bad guy, but Ratzinger gets off virtually scot free. And that's what bugs me. It makes the film a whitewash.

Whatever one thinks of the Roman Catholic Church, one cannot in good conscience support a whitewash. It's corrupt to the core. If you don't believe me, I recommend reading Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. Just as the Republican Party of the United States is illustrating the maxim these days that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," money that "makes the world go round" is at the heart of the Vatican's hypocrisies, as well. Sitting on the child abuse scandal, leaving its victims high and dry may be the better way to go if you are a Machiavellian church leader like Ratzinger - God knows what all those legal suits might cost the church! 

Maybe it's not just money; maybe it's what they say it is, that they are interested in protecting "the good name" of the church, and simply calling the shots wrong. Maybe they're not sinister, but simply subject to human error and weakness in making policy decisions.  To return to the focus at hand, it's not just the pope at the top, obviously. The church is much too big and powerful an organization to be run by a single figure - despite all we hear about the pope being an absolute monarch. Check out that National Catholic Reporter article I mentioned above for the story on Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for example. Or listen to how they got the goods on Australia's Cardinal Pell.  And while you're at it, if you've got some time to spare, listen to the Australian judge tell the story of how he reached a verdict in the case - it will take you just over an hour, but it's worth every minute. You get to see what a marvelous legal system Australia is working with. And see what can be accomplished by civil authority when the church fails to police its own.

I know it looks like I've gone off on a number of tangents here, but the point is I don't think one can do a decent job of telling the story of The Two Popes without providing the context in which they live and breathe, the world of power-mongering and hypocrisy and manipulation. The buck stops with them. They don't get to the top without becoming at least part-time enablers of the system. 

The question is how much.

That's the story I would have liked to see told in a film carrying the title, The Two Popes.

photo credit

Friday, December 20, 2019

Trump iz impitsht!

Interesting word, this word impeach.  Despite the fact that Stephen Colbert has been riding the impeachment process for all it’s worth for a couple months now with his series of skits on “Don and the Giant Impeach,” in which a large bouncing peach gets squashed, I assume that most people realize the connection between impeachment and peachy-keen is purely coincidental.  It is the word of the hour, and I must admit, I find both the fruit and the goings-on in the House delicious. I’ve been waiting, like most people I know, for that sucker to get taken down, and this is a dream come true. I know, I know, it’s but the beginning and the Senate is about to show its true colors as a cowardly bunch in thrall to the lowlife-in-chief. They’re pretty certain to let him off the hook, and demonstrate that the once proud party of Abraham Lincoln has now become the party of the cravenly rich, unabashedly tapping into native xenophobia to keep its paymasters in charge of things.

I know that Nancy Pelosi, bless her heart and her political savvy, wants us to think big and consider the impeachment of a president a black mark on our longterm democracy project. But I can’t help myself. I feel like singing and dancing to see this bozo have to carry the title, “Third Impeached President of the United States.”

Since my voice now cracks when I sing God Bless America, and my joints now limit my dancing to a couple kicks in the air and no more, I have to make do by playing with the concept and the sociolinguistic scope of the word impeach itself.

What interests me, linguistically, is the fact that the concept itself seems to be pretty much located in the world of Anglo-American democracies. You can tell that by the way impeach is a loanword in so many languages.

Here’s some background. 

To start with, impeach, the dictionary tells us, is a regular English verb, declined normally: 3rd person present is impeaches, past tense is impeached, past participle is impeached, and the gerund or present participle is impeaching

Synonyms include, when speaking in general, non-political, terms: challenge, question, call into question, cast doubt on, raise doubts about.  And when speaking in political terms: to indict, charge, accuse, or to bring a charge against someone.

Antonyms include the word confirm.

There is a slight difference in British and American usage. In British English it is usually used to mean to charge someone with treason or another crime against the state, and in the U.S., it is used more generally to mean to charge the holder of a public office with misconduct, (i.e., not necessarily treason.)

The word traces its origin back to the Latin word for foot: pes/pedis, specifically to the metaphor of catching someone by the foot, impedicare. Like many Latinate words, it comes to us via the French evolution of the word: empêcher,  a term which went down another path to our word impede, as well.

It remains an Anglo-centric concept around the world, and if you type “Trump has been impeached” into Google Translate, at least 16 languages pop up using the English term, as opposed to a native term. I suspect I'd find even more if I had access to languages whose scripts I am unable to decipher. 

When Brazil’s President Delma Rousseff was impeached, they used the English word, not the Portuguese term, in the slogan Impeachment Já (Impeachment Now).  Mongolian, Tajik, and all the Scandinavian languages have borrowed the word directly as have Dutch and Frisian, even though they might have used native equivalents for “indict” or “accuse” which they no doubt have in their vocabularies.  Which is what the French, ever en garde about ceding ground to the English language wherever they can, have done.  This is not a criticism - there is absolutely no reason why, if there’s a native equivalent, that it shouldn’t be used. I’m in sympathy with folk who resent the power the Anglo-American Empires have held over their realms, including their languages, and I find it noteworthy that they have not gone the way of the 16+ languages which have pressed the English language term into domestic service. 

And I should not be singling out the French here; their Latin origin cousins are with them. French translates “Trump has been impeached” as “Trump a été mis en accusation!” which glosses to Trump has been put in accusation. In Spanish, likewise, it’s ¡Trump ha sido acusado! - Trump has been accused. And in Italian, it’s Trump è stato messo sotto accusa! - Trump has been put under accusation.

Some languages have created a native form in which the English peeks through: There’s Azerbaijani, for example: impichated. Filipio translates it: Si Trump ay na-impeach! Luxembourgish: Den Trump ass impeachéiert ginn!  Maltese: Trump kien impeached! Thai: ทรัมป์ถูก impeached! And my favorite in this special list has to be Uzbek: Trump impichated! Well, OK, second favorite. My favorite favorite has to be Yiddish: טראַמפּ איז ימפּיטשט! which turns out to be, if you can read the Hebrew letters: “Trump iz impitsht!”

So listen up, masters of dirty politics Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, you who have declared that you will not keep your oath to follow the Constitution and carry out a fair trial following the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, as required by law. The eyes of the world are on you. You may win the battle, but you are not going to win the war. 

OK, that's a bit of bravado.  How do I know who’s going to win this civil war between those committed to facts and those committed to a Pied Piper?

One can only hope.

I watched the impeachment hearings all the way through. Was impressed as hell by some of the speeches - Steny Hoyer's, for example. And sobered by the willingness of the Republicans to follow the leader in their party-line argument that Trump may not be a nice guy, but he's not deserving of impeachment. I don't have a high opinion of politicians, so it doesn't surprise me that they are willing to do anything for power. That's the real goal of most of them, to exercise power in the favor of certain interests, and Democrats do this as readily as Republicans do, of course. But this struck me as a particularly craven display of partisanship. To admit that Trump is a nasty piece of work, somebody known to be cruel, mean-spirited, and spiteful” and at the same time declare that since he has made us all rich, we should get behind him, no matter what.

Not America's finest moment, this, when half the governing body tells us money is the justification for excusing all of Trumps misdeeds. Never mind that what they're saying has no connection with reality. We're continuing to generate wealth for the country, but it's going into the hands of a limited bunch and all attempts to get to a more equitable distribution of that wealth are held up by this gang of thugs. No, never mind that. Just listen to the chutzpah of claiming that Trump's pressure on a foreign leader to scatter dirt on his chief democratic opponent in 2020 isn't impeachment-worthy.

You want to talk impeachment-worthy?  How about the time Trump stood in front of an audience, in front of television cameras, and flailed about, mimicking a handicapped reporter. Catholics for Trump tried to defend him by insisting this wasn't a case of him poking fun at handicapped people, that he does this for all sorts of people. Hilarious! And it tells you all you need to know, I think, about Catholics for Trump. 

To the claim that the Republicans are making,“You're only using this excuse to impeach the man because you've always hated him,” the response should be, “We can quibble over whether hate, loathe or despise is the best word choice. It remains irrelevant. Did it never occur to you that I might have the goods on this petty fellow and loathe him, as well? One of those things does not cancel out the other. The guy got caught with his pants down, was tried in the House of Representatives and found guilty on two counts of impeachment. Doesn't matter what we think of his character; the man did the things he was found guilty of. And for that I think we should be glad. There's a joke going around on Facebook which runs, “Is it Happy Impeachment or Merry Impeachment - I don't want to offend anyone.” If you ask me, I'd suggest we use Joyous.

And I appreciate it, Nancy, that you have to keep your caucus in line and not let them forget impeachment is a solemn occasion, and not one for rejoicing. But that's a code of behavior appropriate to your world.

In my world, I'm for popping a few champagne corks.

*               *               *

And for my nerdy friends who like to play with language, here's the complete list of translations Big Brother Google is willing to provide. Since I don't have the capacity to assess the accuracy of all 100+ translations, I leave it to you to put right whatever errors you may find. We can start, for example, with this super-curiosity of using a translation from Livy, Book 2, to answer the question for Latin, which I know can't be right.

English - Trump has been impeached
Afrikaans - Trump is toegeslaan
Albanian - Trump është fajësuar!
Amharic - መለከት ተሰቅሏል!
Arabic - لقد تم عزل ترامب!
Armenian - Թրամփին իմպիչմենտ է տրվել
Azerbaijani - Trump impichated edildi!
Basque - Trump inposatu egin da!
Belarusian - Трамп быў абстраляны!
Bengali - ট্রাম্পকে অভিযুক্ত করা হয়েছে!
Bosnian - Trump je zastario!
Bulgarian - Тръмп беше възпрепятстван!
Catalan - Trump s'ha imposat.
Cebuano - Na-impeach si Trump!
Chichewa - Lipenga lanyengedwa!
Chinese (Simplified) - 特朗普被弹!
Chinese (Traditional) -特朗普被彈!
Corsican - Trump hè statu impegnatu!
Croatian - Trump je zastario!
Czech - Trump byl obžalován!
Danish - Trump er blevet impeached!
Dutch - Trump is afgezet!
Esperanto - Trump senmiksiĝis!
Estonian - Trump on vangi mõistetud!
Filipino - Si Trump ay na-impeach!
Finnish - Trump on hylätty!
French - Trump a été mis en accusation!
Frisian - Trump is impeached!
Galician - Trump foi imperado!
Georgian - ტრამპი იმპიჩია! (pr. "Trump impeachy-a")
German - Trump wurde angeklagt (impeached)!
Greek - Το τράμπα έχει εμπλακεί!
Gujarati - ટ્રમ્પને મહાભિયોગ કરવામાં આવ્યા છે!
Haitian Creole - Trump te akize!
Hausa - An tsige Trump!
Hawaiian - Ua hoʻopuka ʻia ʻo Trump!
Hebrew - טראמפ הודחה
Hindi - ट्रम्प पर महाभियोग लगाया गया!
Hmong - Trump tau raug liam!
Hungarian - Trumpot megtámadták!
Icelandic - Trump hefur verið impeached!
Igbo - Ekpesiela Trump!
Indonesian - Trump telah dimakzulkan!
Irish - Trumpadh Trump!
Italian - Trump è stato messo sotto accusa!
Japanese - トランプは弾劾されました!
Javanese - Trump wis dicampuri!
Kannada - ಟ್ರಂಪ್ ಅವರನ್ನು ದೋಷಾರೋಪಣೆ ಮಾಡಲಾಗಿದೆ!
Kazakh - Трампқа импичмент жарияланды!
Khmer - Trump ត្រូវបានគេចោទប្រកាន់!
Korean - 트럼프는 탄핵되었습니다!
Kurdish (Kurmanji) - Trump hat imkandin!
Kyrgyz - Trump айыпталышы келет!
Lao - ທ່ານ Trump ໄດ້ຖືກກ່າວຟ້ອງ!
Latin - Trump est patrum, reos diceres! (from Livy, History of Rome 2)
Latvian - Trump ir apsūdzēts!
Lithuanian - Trumpas apkaltintas!
Luxembourgish - Den Trump ass impeachéiert ginn!
Macedonian - Трамп е отповикан!
Malagasy - I Trump dia nanala!
Malay - Trump telah dicabar!
Malayalam - ട്രംപിനെ ഇംപീച്ച് ചെയ്തു!
Maltese - Trump kien impeached!
Maori - Kua whakahawea a Trump!
Marathi - ट्रम्प यांना निषेध करण्यात आला आहे!
Mongolian - Трамп импичмент хийлээ!
Myanmar - Trump စွပ်စွဲပြစ်တင်ခဲ့တာ!
Nepali - ट्रम्पलाई निषेध गरिएको !
Norwegian - Trump har blitt impeached!
Pashto - ټرمپ معیوب شوی دی!
Persian (Farsi) - ترامپ استیضاح شد
Polish - Trump został oskarżony!
Portuguese - Trump foi impugnado!
Punjabi - ਟਰੰਪ ਨੂੰ ਪ੍ਰਭਾਵਿਤ ਕੀਤਾ ਗਿਆ ਹੈ!
Romanian - Trump a fost impus!
Russian - Трамп был привлечен к ответственности!
Samoan - Ua matua vaivai le pu!
Scots Gaelic - Chaidh Trump a thoirt a-steach!
Serbian - Трумп је застарио!
Sesotho - Trump e kenyellelitsoe!
Shona - VaTrump vakaverengerwa!
Sindhi - ٽرپ وڌايو ويو آهي
Sinhala - ට්‍රම්ප් දෝෂාභියෝගයට ලක්ව ඇත!
Slovak - Trump bol obvinený!
Slovenian - Trump se je prijel!
Somali - Trump waa la ixtiraamaa!
Spanish -¡Trump ha sido acusado!
Sundanese - Trump parantos diusahakeun!
Swahili - Trump ameshikwa!
Swedish - Trump har blivit impeach!
Tajik - Трамп импичмент шудааст!
Tamil - டிரம்ப் குற்றஞ்சாட்டப்பட்டார்!
Telegu - ట్రంప్ను అభిశంసించారు!
Thai - ทรัมป์ถูก impeached!
Turkish - Trump suçlandı!
Ukrainian - Трамп пересторожений!
Urdu - ٹرمپ کو بے دخل کردیا گیا!
Uzbek - Trump impichated!
Vietnamese - Trump đã bị luận tội!
Welsh - Mae Trump wedi cael ei orfodi!
Xhosa - I-Trump ifakiwe!
Yiddish - טראַמפּ איז ימפּיטשט! (Trump iz impitsht)
Yoruba - Wọn ti fi Trump silẹ!
Zulu - UTrump ubethelwe!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

It's me - not a duck

Здравствуй Kоля! Папа дома?
Zdravstvuy, Kolya! Papa doma?
(Hi there, Kolya! Is papa home?)

Папи нет. Мама дома.
Papi nyet. Mama doma.
(Papa’s not, but mama’s home.)

Russian classes at the DLI began each morning with a recitation of the dialogue we had memorized overnight. The dialogues were a brilliant teaching device. They embedded the grammar points they were about to teach us into the dialogue, so you had the pattern in the brain when they launched into an explanation in the second hour and drills in the third hour. The teaching method was an effective one and the desire not to look like a damn fool was motivation enough to make us perform well, for the most part. Years later, when getting together with colleagues from the day, we’d entertain each other by pulling out a line and seeing who could come up with the next one. The early lesson from above was something you could guarantee everybody would remember. Somebody would say, “Zdravstvuy, Kolya, Papa doma?” and you were pretty much guaranteed to hear, “Papi nyet. Mama doma!”

Another line from a dialogue that stuck with me, from further along in the course, was built around a duck hunting scene. The line was, Не стреляйте. Это я, не утка! (Ne strelyaitye; Eta ya, ne utka! - Don’t shoot; it’s me, not a duck!). Having seared that into memory in 1963, it still served me well years later when I was getting my doctorate at Stanford in the 1980s.  I was having lunch in the cafeteria one day when the people sitting to my back at the next table were listening to a visiting Russian scientist telling a story.  He was doing fine until he stumbled around looking for the right word in English. “Utka…utka…” he said. “Duck,” I said.

You could hear a pin drop. Too late I realized I had done something pretty stupid. First of all, I had revealed that I was listening in on their conversation. And secondly, it’s likely the guy was going to spend the rest of his time at Stanford wondering about the CIA spy they had brought in to keep tabs on him. I sheepishly tried to talk my way out of the embarrassing scene. I never was sure they bought it.

I was among the large contingent of folk assigned to Berlin after graduation. Berlin, right plunk in the middle of the Russian Zone, by now called the German Democratic Republic, had in the American Sector, in the Southwest part of the city, a huge mountain that had been built up of rubble from the war. “Teufelsberg” (Devil’s Mountain) it was called. On top of Teufelsberg was a cluster of quonset huts jutting out from a central point, each one housing “spies” working on separate projects, listening in on what the “commies” were up to. One was the Russian military section, another the German political section, a third housed the Brits who listened in on the Poles. I was assigned, of course, to the Russian military section, along with several of my friends from R-12-100 and R-12-101 at Monterey. To the technical crew, the guys who maintained the radios and antennas and worked with Morse code, we were known as the “Monterey Marys.” Officially, the military referred to us as “linguists.” The lack of language sophistication that enabled them to confuse someone who spoke a foreign language with a specialist in the field of language study bugged me no end. I didn’t mind being called a “Mary” at all, but for some reason being called a “linguist” really got under my skin. I was a linguist, in fact. That wasn’t the point. The point was they were calling me a linguist for the wrong reason!

Which says a whole lot, I suppose, about what a tight-ass I was in those days.

By the end of the first month, I had come to believe that I was going to lose my mind. After a year at Monterey where I had developed sufficient proficiency in Russian to be able to follow Shaky Jake’s lectures on Tchaikovsky, here I was listening to Russian soldiers on the radio counting up to ten and back down again.  1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. On an on all through the day.

They were keeping the lines open and in working order in case the Americans invaded. They had to keep talking and soon ran out of idle chatter, so they simply counted to ten.

The idea of Monterey Marys marching through the Brandenburg Gate and down Unter den Linden into Alexanderplatz had to be one of the most ridiculous notions ever conceived by the mind of man or woman, but we soon realized the Russian military was never going to take second place to the American military when it came to absurdity and paranoia. 

I took my headphones off one day and announced that I was done. I would not be listening to Russians count to ten any more.

Whereupon I was arrested and removed from the base for three months until they could get me an appointment with a shrink in Frankfurt to see if I was mentally stable enough to withstand a court martial.

When the day finally came, the shrink asked me if I had ever wanted to have sex with my mother or my father or my sister, and when I said no he pronounced me “arbeitsfähig.” That’s not the word he used. It means “capable of work” and it’s the word the Nazis stamped on Jewish documents to signal a prisoner who could be worked to death rather than eliminated immediately. I know. A bit on the dramatic side. But that’s what I had to work with in those days.

By a great stroke of good fortune, they had just put a new young captain in charge of my unit and when I was brought before him for a decision on what to do with me, he revealed his Minnesota good Lutheran boy roots. “What am I supposed to do with you?” he asked, inviting me to help him in his new job.

In the three months’ wait to see the shrink I had gotten to know the other misfits hanging around the day room watching television and playing flamenco guitar and reading Thomas Pynchon. The guitarist was a German “linguist” and through him I got to meet the civilians who ran the German political section and learned they were having difficulty.  Russian was, in the army’s eyes, a “hard” language - ergo takes twelve months to learn, but German was an “easy” language which one could be expected to get under one’s belt in merely six. Problem is the Marys who had studied German were not properly primed for the Saxon dialect of the speakers from Dresden, Leipzig, and Karl Marx Stadt (today’s Chemnitz). I had grown up speaking with a German mother and grandmother and although Saxon was not familiar to me, it didn’t take me long to realize I could fake it. And soon understand it, actually.

“Put me in Violet section (the German political section),” I said to the kid still wet behind the ears (a fact for which I will be thankful till my dying day). The civilians were glad to have me. In a couple weeks I went from jailbird material to guy in charge.

I bade farewell to Russian and it fell to tatters. If I could do anything over, I’d go back and not let that happen. Don’t know what I’d give up in life to keep the Russian going, but I’d like to think I’d manage somehow.

I miss it. Thanks to the internet, all manner of things Russian are at my fingertips, and I do tune in from time to time. These days the vocabulary I encounter is much more the балетная терминология (ballet terminology) than words like проволочное заграждение (provolochnoye zagrazhdyenie - barbed wire entanglements) of military terminology.

And that, of course, is just the way I like it.

photo credit

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Russian soul - a postscript

When I posted that blog entry the other day (the one immediately preceding) of reminiscences of the Army Language School, I got a wonderful response from friend Bill Medigovich, one of my colleagues from the 100th 12-month Russian course at Monterey. The class carried the not very original title of R-12-100. Bill sent a newspaper clipping (left) from a celebration of the ALS’s ability to pull that off a hundred times already.

That’s Bill in the center of the photo. And that’s Serge Sinkevich, whom I mentioned in the last blog entry, the guy who could do handstands in his 50s. On the railing of the porch outside our classrooms, no less, where if he had fallen he could have broken his neck. Serge (if he ever leaves the States, be sure to follow him) Sinkevich was what one has to think of as a winner. Chased out of the Soviet Union for his czarist inclinations – OK, maybe not; see below – he made a go of it with the Yugoslav army. Landed on his feet, in other words. Whether it was his uncle, Igor Sikorsky, who got him to Berlin I can’t be sure, but when Yugoslavia was no longer to his liking, he made his way to Germany. I do know that it was his uncle Igor who helped him find his way to the United States.

If we could go back in time machines, this is one place I’d go back to. I’d like to pump Sinkevich for more tales of his youth, more information about life post-Bolshevik revolution. He was born in 1907, I just discovered, so that means he was only ten when the czar was overthrown, and that means the exciting tale of dashing into exile just ahead of the fire-breathing Bolsheviks was probably urban legend.  Funny how people tell history. When they say he had to leave the Soviet Union in fear of his life, they don’t tell you he was only ten years old. You have to dig around for that information. Obviously it was his family, and not him acting solo, who made their way to Yugoslavia. History is best written slowly, and by cynics, rather than enthusiasts.

With all the attention being paid today to the bad blood between the Russians and the Ukrainians, Americans are learning at long last about a rivalry that goes back to the very beginning of the Eastern Slavic peoples. The Russians, as well as the people of Belarus and the Ukrainians, all see the nation known as Kievan Rus’ as their point of origin, not unlike the way the Serbians look to Kosovo as a major part of the history of their nation. You guys may think you own it, but we know it's ours.

Uncle Igor was born in Kiev, but he apparently identified as Russian, not Ukrainian. We know Sikorsky today as the inventor of the helicopter, as well as a whole bunch of airplanes, including what became those Pan Am planes known as the “flying boats.” He may have emigrated to the States in 1919, but he clearly kept his ties with the homeland. The Ukrainians are proud enough of his accomplishments, evidently, to have named one of Kyiv’s two airports after him, the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv International Airport. So there.

Protopriest Father Gregory Kravchina (center), other
unidentified, non-smiling Russians (front row) and
smiling Americans behind them
So Sinkevich, whom I remember judiciously avoiding any political discussions, had connections. I doubt he had czarist inclinations, given his family history. But who knows. I just ache at the thought we can’t go back in time and find these things out. We were all of twenty-three years of age at the time and found these people a bit too daunting to approach with personal questions. Only when they exposed themselves, like Mrs. Kravchina, wife of the local Russian Orthodox priest did with her “oh, we were so happy before the revolution” cluelessness, did we get any real insight into the turmoil of these people’s lives.  She, and other "ladies" on the faculty could be counted on to bow their heads when passing Shaky Jake, the Romanoff knyaz' (prince).

Bill confirms my memory of the general with the jowls, General Markov, the one who chuckled at the “primitives” punching the lights out on the jeep. He apparently headed the Soviet Forces who were wiped out by the Finns and when he returned to Moscow he knew his number was up. Hightailed it out of there, pulled a gun, according to Bill, on the pilot of his little command plane and said, “Take me to Berlin!”

So many exiles. So many tales of harrowing flight from the need their homeland had to throw off the rule of the Romanoffs and install a new Marxist way of life. So much more to the story of the Nessins and the Kravchinas in the immigrant community, the Bolsheviks against the czarists, and how they managed to exist side by side in exile. How I'd love to spend an afternoon with Mrs. Nessin and get her take on the fact that the St. Seraphim of Serov Russian Orthodox Church founded by the Defense Language Institute* Russian exiles in 1950, Kravchina among them, I believe, is now part of the organization of Russian Orthodox Churches Outside Russia celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Romanoff Dynasty. Their web page informs you that on the 21st there will be a concert by the (no kidding) men's choir of the Tsar Nicholas the Passion-bearer singers in New York. Revolution? What Bolshevik revolution?

Wonderful thing about history, if you can stay alive long enough to appreciate it... it never ceases to surprise you.

*The Army Language School changed its name to the Defense Language Institute of the West Coast while I was there. I'm still more comfortable with ALS than with DLIWC, but since I'm talking about a name-change from 56 years ago, I guess it's probably about time I got with the drill.

Both photos courtesy of Bill Medigovich of R-12-100.  Oh, and by the way, that’s me in the black-rimmed glasses, three defenders of freedom down from Bill, in the top photo. Witness to history, if only I’d had the wit to ask the right questions.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Russkaya dushá, Russkaya kul'tura

Thinking back on things, I’m sobered at the thought that so much that means the world to me today came to me quite by chance. I feel sometimes as if I backed into life. So much of my personal history is happenstance, not planned.

I joined the army after college. That was deliberate. But I did that because they told me I’d have a pretty good chance of getting into the Army Language School in Monterey to study Chinese, rather than have to join the infantry and go fight in Cuba or Vietnam. (We were experiencing the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam was just getting started.) I was still naive enough in those days to think if I learned all of the official languages of the United Nations I could get a job there as an interpreter. I had it all planned out. I had already acquired a foundation in French and Spanish and Russian. All that was left was Chinese and presto changeo ipso facto they’d have to take me in!

Naive is one word. Clueless, in retrospect, is a better one.

The army was true to its word. After making me shout, “What’s the spirit of the bayonet? Kill! Kill! Kill!” for a while at basic training in Fort Dix, they sent me to Monterey to study Chinese. Where I immediately found a kink in the system. Chinese classes were started only once every six months and I had just missed the latest intake. I would have to wait six months for the next round, and that would require me to re-up for another year. 

I was already committed to three years (as opposed to two if I had let myself be drafted) and the thought of wearing a uniform and picking up cigarette butts from beaches on weekends for yet another year, like I was doing from day one at Monterey, was just too much. I had been placed in a barracks with Russian students and I quickly got in the Russian mood. I had taken two years of Russian in college and had already caught the bug. Chinese can wait, I decided. There was a new Russian class opening up almost immediately and they would take me.

Once we made it past the “This is a pencil” stage, where I was able to establish myself as way ahead of the pack, it sank in that I had a marvelous advantage. I could rise to the head of the class in a very competitive environment and who wouldn’t want to look like a golden boy without half trying? I sailed through the year and loved the experience. One year down, two to go, and it was not only relatively painless; it was fun. For one thing I was making friends with the guys who - I didn’t realize at the time - would be closer than brothers in the years to come. They would be chosen family and live their lives out (three of them are gone now) at the center of my life. As for Russian, try as they might, the Army could not make us look at the Russians as the enemy. Not that they didn’t try. They forbade “fraternization,” that wonderful word they used during the occupation of Germany and Japan to keep us from getting too cozy with the enemy and forgetting we had an empire to run. But we managed to connect with these people despite the prohibition.

The Russians at Monterey, about 150 on the faculty, plus their families, were a great bunch of folk. There was Serge Sinkevich.  He had left Russia for Yugoslavia early on and become a captain in the Yugoslav army until things got hot and he had to leave for Germany. When things got too hot for him there he made his way to the United States. We used to say, if Sinkevich ever leaves the States, the smart thing would be to follow him. He used to do hand stands on the balcony.  He must have been in his 50s, but had the body and the stamina of a 20-year old. And he played the balalaika. 

Then there was Shaky Jake. He was a Romanoff, and an expert on Tchaikovsky. Don’t know if the shakes were from alcohol or some nervous disorder. He had the saddest face, and would sit and sigh so deeply that you'd think the world was ending. Probably should have been on anti-depressants, but I don’t think people did that in those days. We wondered if he was too close to Tsar Nicholas and family and just never got over the slaughter. Or whether he simply wanted to spend his life in a concert hall listening to Tchaikovsky and not teaching American kids in uniform how to do prisoner-of-war interrogations. 

Then there was General Markov - I believe that was his name - who used to tell us tales of his time in the Soviet army many years ago when he was a new recruit. Like the time they went to someplace in the middle of nowhere in Siberia for maneuvers. They were marching through the woods when they suddenly realized the guys in the jeep at the back of the line were missing. They went back and found them all dead, and the headlights of the jeep smashed out. “Heh, heh, heh,” said Markov. “Such primitives!” They actually thought the jeep was alive and punched its eyes out. “Heh, heh, heh.”

My favorite person was Mrs. Nessin. She was a no-nonsense Bolshevik who had been quite political in her day. She didn’t get along well with the rest of the faculty, especially people like the wife of the local Russian Orthodox priest, whom we called Minnie Mouse, because she had such skinny legs and wore shoes three or four sizes too big for her feet. Minnie Mouse used to go on about the happy days before the Bolsheviks eliminated the tsar. “We were so happy then. We had so many balls and get-togethers with our friends.” Mrs. Nessin, you could see, would cheerfully have thrown her off the porch if she could have gotten away with it.

Then there was Kovalenko, who we learned was Ukrainian and that explained his accent. Another of many gentle souls in this large displaced community of Russians. All highly educated, cultured people, all happy to get a chance to break away from the scheduled curriculum to reveal the secrets of the “russkaya dusha.” (the Russian soul.) “Oh, how we suffered under the yoke of the Tartars!” said Minnie Mouse. “Oh, how spoiled you Americans are who have never been close to starving from hunger,” said Mrs. Nessin. I loved them all.

I also came to love the Russian language. Began to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I went to the Znanie Bookstore on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco every weekend and bought books by Lermontov and Pushkin and Gorky and Turgenev, thinking I’d surely get to them one day. I believe I sold them all to a used books store some twenty or thirty years later, once I realized that was nothing but another youthful sign of naive ambition. Well, not all of them. I did get into Tolstoy and Dostoevsky a bit. In English. My Russian became good enough to follow a lecture by Shaky Jake on Tchaikovsky, but not good enough for Tolstoy. And yet, somehow, I think good enough to believe I knew what our teachers were talking about when they spoke of the “Russian soul.” A deep, dark, pit within the mind, a well of depression that could swallow you up if you didn’t drink enough vodka and fall asleep before it had a chance to snatch you away from your daily routine.

Fortunately, if you can find a way to build a resistance to the dark side of the “Russkaya dusha,” you find the other pieces as well, the proud, often arrogant, haughty side and the passionate side, where song and dance take hold. My friend Jerry loved how they used to sneer at something and pronounce it “nekulturniy” (literally “uncultured” - their word for tacky, uneducated). Culture was very big in their lives. And to this day I am still profoundly moved by the way the Russians support ballet, the theater and and concert performances. High culture, we call it. The Russians simply call it “culture.” And thanks to YouTube, I spend hours some mornings listening to precocious children who have been pulled aside and trained, the same way Olympic champions are trained, to be concert-level pianists and cellists and singers. Or adults, like the opera singers Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who stabbed me directly in the heart not long ago by dying way way way too young. Or Anna Netrebko.

A wonderful new video just showed up this morning - which got me off on this tangent - of the Igor Moiseyev dance troupe, my idea of what must be the best folk dance ensemble in the world. Have a look here (you’ll probably want to skip ahead of the talky-talk if you don’t speak Russian): 

I’ve mentioned all these folk in previous blog entries, but let me repeat a couple of my favorite videos:
The world is full of musical cultural richness. I love French chansons. I love German Lieder, Italian bel canto opera, Portuguese fado. I love blue grass and Irish country dance. I perk up to mariachi on occasion.  How would I make it through the day without these gifts of the gods. But I have to tell you that there’s something about Russian folk music that gets to the nervous system ahead of most forms of jazz, folk or classical.

I think this is due in large part to the fact that I got to sing in the Russian choir at Monterey, and learning the songs we were given to work on led to other connections, like the Soviet Army Chorus, for example, and the awareness that Russians were still living (at least in the 1960s when I was experiencing this all for the first time) with vivid memories of the loss of more than 20 million Russians in the war. I got to experience the music not just as catchy tunes that you can't shake, but as soulful personal expressions of the harshness of life, the combination of words and music that becomes more than the sum of its parts, that goes beyond the realm of written poetry.

We used to poke fun, we insensitive American kids still barely out of our teens, at how maudlin the Russians could get when talking of the war. They were too proud to tell us too much. Maybe it's because they simply saw us as too young to understand, maybe it's because they saw it as casting pearls before swine, maybe it's because it's hard to put horror into words and, once experienced, you spend the rest of your life running from it, I don't know. Probably different things for different people. We managed to learn from some that others had endured the siege of Stalingrad, and when they spoke of fear of dying of hunger, they knew what they were talking about. When you hear Hvorostovsky sing and you see the tears in the eyes of the audience, it’s not just the beauty of the music, it’s the words. So many songs are about soldiers who never came home. They were a wounded lot, these Russians I got to know at Monterey. They had all been forced to emigrate and live out their lives in a land they found lacking in soul and in culture. Grateful, they were, for the most part, but profoundly sad.

Not entirely, though. Mrs. Nessin, normally so disciplined and cool-headed, lost it once when one of us snarked about what a messed-up country we lived in. Laid him out flat. "What do you know of "messed-up countries?" she asked him, catching herself before she was able to say, "you spoiled privileged little shit." I've never heard a native-born American ever express such a passionate love of America as came out of the mouth of this displaced erstwhile Bolshevik.

I’ve spoken often of the time, in Argentina, I asked a profoundly politically-oriented student how he could want to seek out the company of Americans and hate the American government with such a passion simultaneously. He looked at me strangely and answered, “I’m Argentine. We learn with our mother’s milk to separate people from the politics of their leaders.” That fit with my understanding of how hard it was to get Americans to show sympathy for how much the Germans suffered during World War II. So much childish, “Well, they started it!” So little understanding of how innocents get caught up in the follies of those who find their way into leadership positions.

These days I cringe at the very sight of Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB, a man who murders journalists, grabs the Crimea with impunity away from Ukraine, and plays the idiot in the Oval Office like a fiddle.  He’s one face of Russia. Not the Russia I know and love.

The man is nekulturniy. He has no soul, Russian or any other kind.

Sorry for going off on a political tangent like that.

Time to get back to singing and dancing.

Those kids doing the goose-step, maybe.

photo credit:  Photo is from a 2007 New York Times article on Putin's attempt to take control of Russian culture, "Putin's Last Realm to Conquer." The photo shows two Russian policemen and was one of dozens of works pulled from a Russian-sponsored show in Paris. Credit to Marat Guelman Gallery.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

It's beginning to feel a lot like...

Christmas in Sagami Ono, mid November
I'm getting all Christmasy. Friend Bill is coming in next week for the season, as he does now every year. We'll go get a tree and tart her up real pretty and hope nobody stops by that is susceptible to photosensitive convulsions.

The hostes with the mostes are in California this year, not Argentina, and they are putting on their Christmas Eve do, complete with Santa, and suddenly I'm faced with all this evidence that I've got a whole bunch of traditional behaviors to display! And I'm looking forward to it.

My family is less enthusiastic. The husband is excited about Bill's arrival, about Paz's play about Madame Bovary which we have tickets for and about Santa coming down some metaphorical chimney with gag gifts for everybody on the Eve, but he views the notion of Christmas through Japanese eyes. In Japan, Christmas is a time for getting laid for the first time, something high school kids do the way so many do on prom night in America. And it's all about jinguru beruzu, jinguru beruzu, jinguru oru za way... more than it is about the Messiah's arrival being signaled by stars in the Western sky, kings wandering in from a neighboring kingdom not being a Japanese thing.  But he goes along with the rest of us. Miki and Bounce, who make our family complete, have only one request of Santa, that their breakfast and their dinner continue to arrive more or less on schedule.

I've been listening all morning to the King's College Choir at Cambridge. Damn if they don't melt my cold jaded heart. Nothing like boy sopranos to warm you to the idea that not all religious traditions are toxic, that you need to move over and let the Christians have their annual holiday without your anti-religion snarking. Christians feel an uplift toward a transcendental figure who, if you believe in him, takes away your cynicism and disappointment with the human condition. I can get into that. I feel an uplift when I hear those angelic voices and find myself wondering how it is one can create such incredible beauty using nothing more than the human voice - OK, so the gothic church, the choir robes and the organ background also play a role - if one applies the proper discipline and gets the proper training.

The silly people continue to find stuff to object to, of course, the exclusivist political Christians who insist that Christmas belongs to them and not you. And folks on the other end of the spectrum as well, those who find any and all tradition stuffy and fail to understand the power of ritualistic behavior in creating a sense of well-being. Then, of course, there are the really silly-dilly folk like the fundamentalists at FamilyVoice Australia, who have their tits in a knot over the use of a hunky gay couple by Bond's Underwear Company  to sell their wares with a Christmas theme. Seems FamilyVoice doesn't know family when it's staring them in the face, poor fellows.

No matter. The world still turns. We will still say Merry Christmas when speaking to friends who we know, whether for religious reasons or cultural, celebrate that holiday. And we'll demonstrate the Christmas Spirit by saying Happy Holidays in public venues instead of Merry Christmas where it is important to stress that, as citizens of an all-inclusive country, we'd like to make sure Jews and Muslims and Hindus do not feel left out. 

So whether you, like my Lutheran friends do, light the advent candles, or whether you sign up to sing Handel's Messiah, whether you decorate a tree or whether you're planning on sushi for Christmas, I recommend giving in to the notion that "it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas."  

And set aside if you can some time to listen to the Choir at King's College Cambridge, and be thankful for beautiful things. There are many videos. I'd recommend starting here

It will be oh so good for the soul.

photo credit: Taku took this photo at Sagami Ono Station on November 18th. No idea how long it had been up by then.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Getting hate speech right on Thanksgiving

Salt Lake Daddies
Hate speech is one of those issues where you have to get it right. If you shut somebody up for saying ugly things, you run the risk of trampling on their right to free speech. Everybody has the right to be a shit, to say hurtful things. It comes with living in a free society. If it’s directed at us, we simply have to suck it up and know that we have an equal right to say something that will counter the ugliness. Normal rules of etiquette should apply. One should not take advantage of one’s power position to abuse a person for no good reason. But just as making a law that prevents us from being stupid is a waste of time, so is making a law preventing us from being unkind. If I think your nose is too big and I say so in public, I should not have to go to jail.

On the other hand, there are times when your gut tells you that hate speech should be punished. If a vulnerable person is standing on a balcony threatening to throw themself off and you say, “Go ahead. The world would be better off without you,” and they kill themselves, I’m not going to come to your defense if you get arrested. I’ll turn the key on your cell myself and bury it where nobody can find it.

So this is why we need judges. We need people to tell us where the line is between free speech and hate speech.

The key factor, it seems to me, should be the power factor. If you’re a public figure, somebody running for office or somebody actually in office, and you’re called a twit, well tough titties. Comes with the territory. If you’re a Muslim minority wearing a headscarf and I don’t like religion in general, I should be allowed to say I don’t like religion, and maybe Islam most of all, even, but I should not be allowed to advocate action that would hurt you. I should be required, even if I think your choice of a head covering furthers the subordination of women, to distinguish between general principles and your right to express yourself, even if we can’t agree on the symbolism, maybe especially if we can’t agree on what the symbolism actually is. I say you’re insulting women; you say you’re honoring God. You should be given the benefit of doubt here until or unless it becomes clear one of us is insincere and wrong.

I would expect principled advocates of civil rights to err on the side of free speech. I don’t want to live in a world where everybody has to worry before opening their mouths that they might end up in jail for expressing an opinion. And I think the Constitution is on our side here. Free speech is a basic right. If you are a strict Kantian, who puts principled behavior above all else, damn the torpedoes, this will be where you come down. You may want to cite the moral scale that Lawrence Kohlberg came up with where he attributed to the highest stage of moral development those willing to sacrifice self-interest for principle. We feel, instinctively, that there’s something noble about going down that path.

But let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose you’re a judge and you learn about a little boy who wants to be adopted. He finds a gay couple that wants to make a family with him, take him in and give him a permanent home. The kid is on pins and needles waiting for the adoption process to be completed.  It’s Thanksgiving, and his teacher asks his class to express what they are thankful for. He says, “I’m grateful for my two daddies.”

The teacher says, “That’s wrong. You shouldn’t be grateful for two men wanting to adopt you. They are homosexuals and homosexuality is wrong.”

The kid is terrified. He doesn’t want to speak out against his teacher, but on the other hand, he knows in his heart that she’s taking a position that could, theoretically at least, persuade the men to give up on their plan. Or persuade a judge to take a stand against the adoption. Never mind that we’ve come a long way toward accepting LGBT people. These thoughts are taking place in the mind of a frightened child, remember.

Should this teacher be censored for expressing her religious view that homosexuality is wrong?

There are two ways to answer the question, one from a legal perspective, one from a moral perspective. And both evolve over time. My hope is they evolve in the direction established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That's not a given, of course. Just as we can live in a democracy for a while and that democracy can give way to fascism, if we're not watchful, we can grant someone rights and then take them away again. We can take a moral stand for a while and then tire. We may not have been born in sin the way the Abrahamic traditions want us to believe, but we are not naturally given to doing the right thing, either. It takes consciousness, and it takes effort.

OK, so I haven’t been straight with you. This is not actually a hypothetical. It’s real. It took place in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon Church, one of the central organs of official homophobia in America. This teacher is expressing not only her personal views; she’s reflecting her community’s moral standards. And before you get all fired up by my suggesting that homophobia can be moral, remember that morality is not a static concept. If you are a Nazi and you believe Jews and homosexuals and the mentally ill pollute the master race, then the moral thing to do is get rid of these people. This teacher, in her own mind, is acting with moral certainty.

If that teacher wants to ask me what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, I’ll tell her I’m thankful that the good folk of Salt Lake City, Utah, have come to understand that same-sex desire and emotional attachment does not make one immoral, that that idea has to be tossed on the trash heap of history along with the notion that people of African ancestry should not be allowed to learn to read and women should only be allowed to have a credit card in their husband’s name. And, by the way, shame on you for scaring the bejeezus out of a child.

I’m thankful that we in this country - and that includes Utah - have come this far in embracing LGBT people. And I’m grateful for the two Salt Lake daddies who, I suspect, are going to make some kid very very happy.

Salt Lake Daddies photo (and story) credit

Friday, November 29, 2019

Are we in for another crash?

Marc Friedrich and Matthias Weik

Back in the day when I knew nothing about economics and saw no reason to apologize for that fact, I had a friend who was being trained as an economist at Tokyo University who thought I ought to be embarrassed about my ignorance. “Nobody can claim to know anything about the world today if they don’t have a basic knowledge of economics,” he declared.  That was in the day when everybody was proclaiming the right to do their own thing, and the most important thing was that we all exercise our right to make personal choices.

I had grown up in a much more restricted world, in New England, where shame was a useful tool in education. “What!? You don’t know that? How come?” was a common question.

After I got out of the army, I moved to San Francisco and got a job to hold me over until I could go back to school and get an M.A. in English so I could get a job I wanted that required one. I had filled up with literature courses in French, German and Russian while an undergraduate, but nothing in English. Fine, I said, I’ll take a Shakespeare course. A whole new world for me, but an adventure I looked forward to.

“What were Shakespeare’s years?” was the professor’s first question. Hands went up all over the place, and I suddenly felt like I was in over my head. I could guess it was in the 1600s somewhere, but I couldn’t possibly answer that question with any precision. “1600 to 1650” somebody says. “No much earlier, probably 1550 to 1600” says somebody else. “I think it’s more like the late 1700s,” says a third person. 

“Jesus,” I thought. What morons. Here I thought I was too dumb for this class. Turns out I’m too smart. These people are not only clueless; they don’t even know they’re clueless.

That was the beginning of a long learning curve for me in which I had to learn to disassociate knowledge and learning from attitude toward learning. I was raised in an environment where one was supposed to be modest about what one knew and ashamed about what one didn’t know. And suddenly I was in a world of “I gotta be me!” and everybody spoke less of responsibilities and more of rights. Less of living up to community standards, more of cultivating the self. These kids were simply showing they were unafraid of showing ignorance, confident that that’s what they were in school for - to tack on some more knowledge. In time I began to love this “California” learning style, as I came to call it.

And that’s what I was reflecting when a few years later I told my friend Yusuke that “I don’t care about economics very much.” I thought I had a right to choose what, if any, “academic” topics I would study, and what I would leave for another day, if ever. He thought the choice to be uninformed about his chosen field was a really bad one. I called him a New Englander held captive in a Japanese body.

These days, it’s a different ballgame. I’ve long since shed the oversimplified view of how Californians differ from New Englanders. I’ve also picked up some rudimentary understanding of economics. And I’m even more acutely aware of how terribly limited my knowledge of economics continues to be. I have embraced Karl Marx’s notion that our world view is colored by where we sit in society, that our life experiences are a lens for viewing the world, but that doesn’t mean I can sit in a circle with folk and have an intelligent conversation about the pros and cons of capitalism. I’ve read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (more “read about” than “read” if I’m being honest) and I know that he is both highly praised and roundly criticized by other economists for his thesis that the main problem of the day is income inequality and the problem stems from investment (financial) growth outpacing production. We're good at generating wealth, and poor at distributing it equitably.

 But I support that thesis more at a gut level than out of any deep understanding of economics. As an American, I’m persuaded that there is something tragically wrong with our democratic project, and what’s wrong is reflected in the fact that the rich have for a long time now been getting richer as the poor get poorer. I think the Trump phenomenon is a distraction. He’s a wretched creature, to be sure, but he’s not the problem. The problem is that we’ve come to accept the right-wing claim that truth is whatever they declare it to be, not what is empirically verifiable. What I naively labeled and embraced as "the California approach to knowledge," as opposed to "the New England approach," is now everywhere evident in a seriously toxic form. Moreover, those who have become the ruling class no longer seem to share any concern about the general welfare, if they ever did. Once the leading American narrative was about building a new Zion, something we like to call "the American Dream," available to anybody willing to work for it. We've given that up as naive. Today we live in an “I’ve got mine” and “Devil take the hindmost” society.

I ache with frustration at the media circus over the impeachment hearings and the noble but inadequate attempts to right the American imbalance. The big questions - can we survive climate change, can we survive the ever growing gap between rich and poor, can we survive another crash like the one we experienced in 2008? These are the questions I want answered, even though I fuss as much as anyone over the lesser question of whether the democrats can agree on the candidate most likely to defeat Trump in 2020.

I think it’s a lesser question. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the big questions are directly related to who the Americans put in the Oval Office in 2021. I just don’t know.

I think the American media, like American democracy itself, has been savaged, and most of what we get to hear is determined by its entertainment value. "News" is what the mob is willing to pay for, not information of critical importance to our long-term well-being. So I search for supplemental information in the foreign press, much of which I think puts American political discourse to shame. The Brits do a good job, and in my view the Germans do, as well. I’ve been listening this past week to the views of two German economists who maintain that we’re heading for another crash like the one in 2008. This time, these guys claim, we’re heading for the mother of all economic crashes, because we papered over instead of fixing the problems of the 2008 bubble. 

I’m talking about Marc Friedrich and Matthias Weik, two best buddies who met in kindergarten and have now written at least four books together, the latest being Der größte Crash aller Zeiten (The biggest crash of all times), just out in October. They are near-native speakers of English and much of their work is available in English. Here’s an interview with them if you want to get a taste of what they’re all about.  

I’m still trying to figure out whether these guys are the real deal, or whether I’m being sucked into their work because I’m no better than anyone else at ignoring alarmist cries of coming death and destruction.

To be fair, despite their predictions of impending doom, they are still young (barely in their 40s), and optimistic. They see the crash as an opportunity to get things right this time. It will take longer than anybody would like, but ultimately we still have time to fix things. Marc loves whisky, and they both love to laugh. I’ve heard Marc on several German talk shows now and he’s singularly impressive. 

In my next life, I’ll take up economics much earlier on.

photo credit

Friday, November 8, 2019

Merkel - going out with a bang or a whimper?

I used to follow the German political news fairly closely, partly as a way of staying in touch with my personal "History of things that never happened" - I decided way back in the 60s I was going to emigrate to Berlin, which I fell in love with during the Cold War days. And partly because I was so fed up with American politics that I found it uplifting to observe what appeared to be a well-oiled political machine, by comparison.

That has become less and less the case, alas. I'm still fed up with the American machine, which sometimes doesn't seem to work at all anymore. But the German machine ain't what she used to be, either.

Does everything have to fall apart?

My friend Jürgen surprised me some years ago by telling me he was a supporter of Angela Merkel. My reaction at the time was astonishment. "But she's such a machine politician!" I think I said when he told me. "Yes," he said. "But she makes the machine work better than anybody else in government."

Jürgen seems to have lost some of his enthusiasm. He just linked me to an article in Die Zeit, one of Germany's news sources of record by one of Germany's leading journalists, Bernd Ulrich, section chief of Die Zeit's political division.

Ulrich has a history of going for the throat of Germany's politicians for withholding information and for being afraid to take up difficult topics, and this article, "Bevor da was verdirbt (Before something goes to ruin)" shows him true to form.  

Ulrich begins by bewailing the fact that after an impressive fourteen-year chancellorship, Angela’s ways of running the show aren’t working anymore. In fact, he says, things are falling apart all around her. First it was the Socialist Party that suffered the loss of its base support. Now it’s the Union Parties, the partnership between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialists (CSU), that’s coming to pieces. And why? Because in the East (he’s talking specifically about Thuringia) some of their party colleagues in the state (Land) government are toying with creating a coalition government with a fascist. And Ulrich uses that word. 

Unlike in the U.S., where we have two parties, take them or leave them, Germany runs on a parliamentary system where support is spread among several parties who have to form coalitions in order to gain the authority required for running the government. Until recently, nobody in the traditional parties - least of all the moderately conservative establishment CDU - would ever consider the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, a nationalistic anti-immigrant party, as a potential partner. But the AfD has seen such a rapid rise in popularity in the East in recent years, that even though this development is alarming progressives in Germany and wherever else progressives are paying attention to politics on the world stage, such a coalition has moved, at least in Thuringia (where Weimar is located), from the unthinkable to the thinkable.

It's not just Merkel facing challenges within the CDU. The Minister of Defense and Merkel’s successor at the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is at loggerheads with Heiko Maas, the Foreign Minister, over how to deal with the crisis in Syria. AKK, according to Ulrichjust isn’t ready to take over. She is unprepared and her plans are not well thought through. As for Maas, he’s over in Turkey kissing the butt of the autocratic Erdogan government as a way, says Ulrich, to take AKK down. The implication is, what we need here is a strong parent figure to keep these kids from fighting within the family, and Merkel is not performing this role.

I have to say, by the way, I feel weird passing on this information from a single source; it’s just that the source is a trusted one. On the other hand, I find Ulrich’s a bit harsh on AKK for lacking the rank required to deal on a level playing field with Macron, for example, or stand up to Maas on her own, because she isn’t chancellor. A flaw in the structure of the system, evidently, this fact that Merkel’s power as both chancellor and head of the leading party is now divided, leaving both leaders handicapped.

And the problems don’t end there. The German army, Ulrich tells us, doesn’t function properly and Germany is now combing Mexico for nurses to deal with its aging population. They are unable to produce enough of their own due to low wages and demanding work requirements. As in the United States (my observation, not Ulrich’s) the need to give in to the demands of right-leaning voters on climate change has left Germany with a woefully inadequate response to the crisis, and it has been breaking treaties one after another. Furthermore, they are failing as well to face the challenges of ever-increasing digitalization. And the critical loss of species around the world.

Of course you can’t blame all of Germany’s problems on Angela Merkel, Ulrich says, nonetheless managing to take a swipe at her “Biedermeier” nature (i.e., stay at home and play it safe) at the same time. Not that Merkel herself is “bieder” (boring); it’s just that after so many years in office, fatigue and irritability have set in - fatigue on the part of the government, irritability on the part of the general public. That irritability (as paralleled in the U.S. by so many who voted for Trump) is evidenced by the advent and rapid growth of the AfD.

Merkel’s power has always been in her ability to moderate what came her way. That no longer seems to be the case. Things have gotten out of hand. In the past, if I understand what Ulrich is saying, Merkel solved problems in a kind of ad hoc fashion, without a clear program for making policy. And now there are no policies in place adequate to the challenges. Everything is about style and identity. Rather than having a clear well-founded argument for bringing CO2 down to a certain level, for example, it’s about being seen to be dealing with the problem. Gestures of moral superiority are assumed to be enough, and clearly they are not. It has not been whether Germany is actually safe, Ulrich complains, only whether it feels safe. “The assertion of uncertainty becomes more important than the crime rate, reality becomes opinion, assertion becomes proof, feelings become argument, concern becomes aggression.” Society has dammed itself up. And because Germany is an open society, these incongruities are there for all to see.

Conflict is everywhere. The government tries to be objective; the public gets hysterical. Negatives get normalized at the same time we face apocalyptic ideas. Depoliticization and over-politicization sit side-by-side and even condition one another.

The problems are huge. The huge influx of refugees fleeing war and poverty seems to be overrunning the continent, and many interpret this as an existential threat. Even historically liberal and progressive folks are coming around to thinking this way. The climate crisis is real and it is serious. The Merkel government’s inclination to continue with more of the same is increasingly seen as the wrong way to go, a more woefully inadequate response with each passing day. These days, says Ulrich, Merkel’s silence on the big issues speaks loudly. You have to wonder if she has anything left to say. What is she thinking? One is reminded of Ratzinger retiring as pope because he was not up to the priest abuse crisis (my observation, not Ulrich’s). But then again (also my observation), that's speculation, and unfair to somebody known for workaholic inclinations who should be allowed, like anybody else, just to get tired.

Is this going to be how Merkel is remembered? As somebody who had to retire because she can’t do anything about the fact that things are slipping away from her? About her failure to deal with the climate crisis? Because she was so wrong about choosing AKK as her successor? She created (and one assumed AKK would further this) a kind of feminist (and anti-Trump) way of governing, based on working together rather than humiliating one’s political opponents, being efficient, curious and unpretentious. Is this approach now to be discredited?

The article goes into the nitty gritty of Merkel's governing style, which I won't repeat here, since I believe this overview tells the heart of the story. As somebody who watches politics as an outsider, and rarely gets into the details where the devil lives, I am easily drawn to sweeping meta-explanations for what's going on. I like to think, for example, that what America is going through at the moment is a serious test of the strength of its institutions, that while we are easily distracted by a corrupt self-serving president, our real problem is that one of our political parties has become corrupted so badly that it has to be allowed to self-destruct and clear the way for a new one, one with integrity, to grow in its place, one that can represent conservative views with integrity. America, if this is what's happening, is righting itself, in other words.

But by that same reasoning it may be that Germany, on the other hand, for a long time in recent years a model for America to follow, may be going in the other direction. If Ulrich has his finger on the pulse of his nation (and I'm not in a position to judge that, I'm afraid), things are falling apart. And there is no one waiting in the wings to take over and put things right.

We're living at a time of tremendous internal churning. The U.S. so good at wealth generation and so poor at equitable distribution of that wealth, has generated a critical mass of folk susceptible to populist politicians ready to pull them out of the frying pan into the fire. The UK is being jerked around by a parallel minority of English voters who have torn Britain apart by Brexit; France and Spain, Holland and Scandinavia and Italy are all struggling with finding the right stance to take in regard to a defense of Western Civilization; Hungary and Turkey have already fallen to dictators, and Poland is drifting in that direction.

There's no joy in telling this story. There is hope, however, that since Europe and America have now had enough experience with democracy that they know how to straighten up and fly right if they want to, a critical mass of enlightened voters in these countries will find a way to make it happen.