Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Triumph of Willful Men (and Women), and What to do About It

The best thing to come out of the health care debate, as far as I can tell, other than a lukewarm bill whose merits and demerits will continued to be debated ad nauseam (I’m for it, though I’m glad I don’ t have to vote for it, on the record) is the call for the reform of the filibuster. If the filibuster is changed or eliminated, that would be, in my opinion, real, lasting reform. I’m not so sure about the health care bill. And getting rid of the filibuster would be a salutary change in progressive thinking. For reasons that I cannot fathom, liberals, progressives, democrats, have been over the past decade profoundly uninterested in discussing structural reform of the American government. The Bush-Gore election should have been an occasion for serious talk about Electoral College reform, and no more Floridas should have been a top issue for any new Democratic administration. And likewise, on January 20th 2009, Obama should made clear that ending the filibuster (at a time when the Dems only had 58 seats in the senate) should have been a top priority, rather than wasting months with oleaginous talk of bipartisanship.

The complete lack of interest in the reform of any constitutional arrangement is a hallmark of contemporary progressives, and it distinguishes modern progressives from Progressive era progressives, New Deal progressives, or Great Society progressives, all of whom expressed great interest in changing the way the government works in fundamental ways, and often tried to neuter the filibuster’s potential for gumming up the government works. (But, BTW, kudos to the “little band of willful men” who tried to prevent US entry to WWI. ) Getting around the nine old men on the US Supreme Court, and if Roosevelt’s court packing was too blatant a way around it, the need to do so spawned all sorts of constitutional innovations. And trying to loose the southern grasp over the senate, both in terms of committee chairmanships, procedure, and filibusters, was a major cause for civil rights liberals in the 1950s and 1960s. But for all the talk of change that ushered in Obama, there has little serious talk until now of changing the structure of government. There are reasons for this. Sstructural change is not inherently partisan; changing the filibuster or electoral college rules could help either party. They are not bread and butter issues. And arguably the filibuster is more murky now then it was half a century ago. It is no longer the prerogative of dixiecrats but is an equal opportunity delaying tactic, used by both sides freely. But besides adding to the profoundly antidemocratic nature of the senate, it makes the senate a place where serious legislation goes to die. Its fine to expand the health care system, try to pass a cap and trade bill (good luck), or tackle immigration reform (good luck again), but it is only when progressives learn again that the forms of the government are not inviolately given, and are, in the hands of the people, possess an inherent plasticity, that reform will really matter. The rest is just soundbites. The Obama presidency has had its first real encounter with structural and procedural reality, and I hope they and we learn from it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Incrementalism, in Part

One of the major questions in the health care legislation and the endless conundrums of the debate is whether one can start with small gains and advance to bigger and bigger ones. And the answer is, of course, sometimes incrementalism works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those who defend the current senate bill sometimes point to social security and civil rights as successful examples of incrementalism. Perhaps. One can read the evidence in both ways. While it is certainly true that by excluding domestic and agricultural works from the original social security act in 1935, at the behest of southern senators, there was a huge gap in the coverage and fairness of the social security act, which was only remedied in subsequent decades. On the other hand, the creation of social security system strikes me as a far more radical act than anything contained in the current health care bill, which fits into the model of regulated capitalism, and does not, it seems fundamentally transform the health insurance industry. (This might be debated in some quarters. Much depends on how the health exchanges work in practice.) And civil rights seems like an even worse case for incrementalism. This is a complex subject, but I would argue that though the series of executive orders and state and federal laws from 1941 through the early 1960s on civil rights were significant, but racial equality was really instituted in this country by a wrenching revolution in the mid-1960s, in one convulsive fell swoop.

One thing is clear. If all the big issues are delayed until a future date–I think of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians—incrementalism will get you nowhere, and the unresolved issues will unresolve all the issues the parties thought they had resolved. There is a Zeno’s paradox of incremental reform; of perpetually taking half steps and never arriving at one’s destination. This has me very worried. On the other hand, Edward Bernstein was right, and Kautsky and Lenin were wrong. I think the current bill is okay, and if I were a member of congress, I would support it. However, it does mean that for the foreseeable future, health insurance in this country will continue to be doled out by for profit private insurers, and the United States is likely to continue to have one of the worst health insurance systems in the developed world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama and the Morning After

President Obama's speech on Afghanistan left me hoping that he succeeds but deeply skeptical about the prospects of his escalation. The left and right are already picking it apart for obvious reasons, and if it fails he may well stand alone. The biggest fallacy behind it, I fear, is the belief that a surge in Afghanistan will have the same useful impact as the surge in Iraq. But any analogies between the two countries are badly flawed.

As Juan Cole points out, Afghanistan and Iraq are very different societies. And the factors that aided the success of the Iraq surge--some of them ugly forms of ethnic cleansing--won't necessarily apply in Afghanistan.

No two wars are alike, and it is a great mistake to assume that what works in one will work in another. In countries as different as Iraq and Afghanistan, the complexities and dangers of each nation make for vastly different military situations.

President Obama has devised a strategy that recognizes conservative desires for a military solution and liberal desires to get out. Both sides can find much to criticize in it.

My fear is that there is no war that the US and its allies can "win" in Afghanistan the way you win a conventional war. That will make for a very messy ending to this conflict. While I hope that President Obama's policies hasten the end of this fight in some form, I can only contemplate them with a deep sense of skepticism.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from LBJ

While the nation and the world await President Obama's decision on Afghanistan, it helps to look back on another president confronted with the prospect of escalating a war in a far-off land: Lyndon Johnson weighing his options in Vietnam. Comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are a dime a dozen, but Bill Moyers has done an excellent job of bringing to life Johnson's agonized thinking.

So if you haven't yet seen it, check out the latest broadcast of Bill Moyers' Journal and LBJ's Path to War, Parts I and II.

LBJ's Path to War is composed almost entirely of still photographs accompanied by tape recordings of Johnson's telephone conversations with politicians, friends and government officials. Johnson's strong sense of Vietnam as a bad war, and his fear of the political consequences of withdrawal, make for agonized musings. I've seen references to these tapes before, but still find them riveting--and proof that you don't need "high production values" to make great television.

Moyers' broadcast is a great service. Let's hope our president and the country learn something from it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Mayoral Election in New York City

Mayor Bloomberg's surprisingly narrow victory over William Thompson illuminates two important issues: the mayor's relatively thin popularity in the city and Democrats' failure to win mayoral elections

With all the money he had to spend, all his ads, and all the powers of incumbency, Bloomberg won by far less than expected. Early in the evening, when the returns had him and Thompson only one percentage point apart, some people were even talking about an upset.

Early explanations with the narrowness of the race have turned on pollsters' fallibility, voter disgust with the mayor's flipflop on term limits, and resentment of his massive spending. But there's also the gnawing fact that Bloomberg's New York seems less and less hospitable to the middle and working class people who form its majority.

In his victory speech the mayor promised more jobs and more affordable housing, but it is his relatively thin achievements in this area that explain a lot of voters' frustration with Bloomberg. In many ways, he has been a very good mayor. But it is hard to escape the feeling that his city functions better for the rich than for the rest of us. And that, I suspect, contributed mightily to Bloomberg's relative unpopularity.

Thompson ran a weak campaign and came closer than anyone expected to beating the mayor. There will be many explanations for why this happened, but it is part of a pattern in recent New York history: the Democrats' inability to come up with strong, winning candidates.

In a city where Democrats are the great majority, more than once we have seen Democrats lose narrowly to Republicans. Giuliani over David Dinkins and Ruth Messinger; Mike Bloomberg over Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer, and now Bloomberg over Thompson. The Democrats don't seem to be able to turn their advantage in numbers into consistent mayoral victories.

The explanation for why this is so will have to wait for another day. But the Democrats really have some soul searching to do. In retrospect, more than anyone imagined, this was an election that their candidate could have won. Now they job is to figure out why he lost.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Needed Revision

Political debates often turn on an interpretation of history, especially in today's New York. One of the most potent lines of attack is to say, "Do you want to go back to the bad old days of David Dinkins?"

Rudy Giuliani wields this tactic with relish. But as Michael Powell points out in today's Times, this charge involves a misreading of the Dinkins administration.

Dinkins was far tougher on crime than he is credited, and he worked to create more housing for the city. He had managerial flaws, but in general he worked far harder to meet his opponents than they did to meet him.

Powell's piece is a healthy antidote to the belief that only Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg know anything about running New York City.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews

Mick Moloney's musicianship, scholarship and showmanship have long enriched our understanding and enjoyment of Irish music in America. Most recently, he has turned his talents to the little-known story of Irish and Jewish collaboration in vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley from the 1880s to the 1920s. The result is a splendid CD, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews," which was launched in great style tonight at Symphony Space in Manhattan.

The CD itself is a fine recording, thanks to Moloney's own musicianship and the playing of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a band with a special talent for recovering the beauty of early jazz and show tunes. Tonight's launch was heightened by additional contributions from Dana Lyn, Jerry O'Sullivan, Billy McComiskey, Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, John Roberts, Susan McKeown, The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, and a splendid array of step dancers and more.

The result was an evening that honored Irish and Jewish musical traditions and their creative mixing in Tin Pan Alley. Thanks to Mick's research, the evening was filled with illuminating anecdotes about Jewish and Irish collaboration and competition in show business, Jewish songwriters penning sentimental Irish songs, and Irish performers passing as Jews.

I have admired Mick's work since I studied with him at New York University in 1980, where he forever enriched my understanding of Irish music in America. (He gracefully favored me tonight with an acknowledgment of my own work on vaudeville that helped him understand the setting of Irish-Jewish efforts.)

Mick's latest offering deepens our understanding of the greatest thing about American culture: its hybrid vigor. Nowhere is that clearer than in music, especially in the Irish-Jewish collaborations that he celebrated tonight. Buy the CD. And if he's on tour anytime soon, don't miss his show.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Art Tatum

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most phenomenal musicians America has ever produced, pianist Art Tatum, born in Toldeo, Ohio on Oct, 13, 1909. In his relatively short life—he died in 1956—the nearly-blind Tatum made hundreds of recordings, primarily of the American popular songbook, and all featuring his amazing technique with its blistering arpeggiations, harmonic creativity, and technical sureness. That he was the most virtuosic of jazz pianists has never seriously been doubted or challenged. But Tatum’s music is easy to admire, and perhaps difficult to love. I know. For a long time I was one.

The problem with Tatum is that he doesn’t fit into neat category, or school. Of the great swing era performers, he was the only one who was best heard by his lonesome. Playing with collaborators diminished, rather than enhanced his music making. He was unique. One- part 19th century piano virtuoso, the heir to Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov, one part cocktail pianist like Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavarallo, endlessly tinkling the ivories in versions of the popular songs of the day, and one part jazz musician, the friend of Fats Waller and Coleman Hawkins, and he sounds like all three. The standard complaint about Tatum is that he doesn’t swing, that his endless runs get in the way of the underlying music. Well, hard swinging wasn’t what he was about, and ornamentation was the essence of his music, and he needed the song forms to confine his talent. And if his challenge was to find an expressive mastery equal to his unrivaled technical mastery, all that one can say is that he got better at this as he grew older, and I think his 1949 Capitol recordings, and his mid-1950s solo work for Norman Granz are the pinnacles of his career, though all the peaks are lofty. The thing is about Tatum, as is the case for all music, if you listen to what he is, rather than for what he is not, his genius becomes apparent, and you get washed over by wave after wave of musical pleasures. Anyway, I have been listening to Tatum all day, and you out there, whoever you are, should too. See Art run. And run. And run some more.

Friday, October 9, 2009

On Nobel Prizes

You don’t expect to know the names of the people who win the Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine, or physics. You count yourself well-informed if you knew anything the particular discovery that prompted the award. You expect to know the name of the person who wins the Nobel Prize for literature, and once again, I have been disappointed, and suspect I will continue to be as long the prize continues to be awarded to European authors who haven’t been much translated into English. (Hang in there, Philip Roth and Amos Oz. )

You never know about Peace Prize, what the criteria are, and why it doesn’t go to the Quakers or some other pacifist organization every year. And when it is awarded to the commander in chief of the world’s largest and most powerful military, currently conducting at least two major wars, the message can become unclear. But the message in awarding Obama the peace prize is simple. It is a thank you note to the American people for ridding the world of the hyper-militaristic and chauvinistic Bush administration, and not electing John McCain. It is an award to America for rejoining the concert of nations. It is an award for not making things any worse, which America is uniquely positioned to do. It is an award of encouragement, calling on America to do the right thing.
The most obvious criticism of the award will be that it is premature. (And the most obvious pleasure will be to see the right fulminate about the prize.) But when it comes to America’s responsibility for keeping the world peaceful, it can’t be awarded soon enough. Obama’s presidency at home has become mired in health care and other debates, and many progressives have begun to wonder about his priorities, and the bloom is off the rose. This is a healthy debate, but the award is a reminder of the way the rest of the world views America, and as Obama ponders what to do in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Israel and Palestine, I hope he remembers that what the world expects him to do is to keep the peace, end wars, and leave office with a safer, less vicious, less nasty world. This won’t be accomplished by easy political compromises or taking paths of least resistance. The American people, and now the world, are holding Obama to higher standards than those usually imposed on politicians. Whether this is fair or not can be debated. What cannot be is that if Obama fails to deliver on his promise, he will be the most disappointing president since the last sitting president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, one Woodrow Wilson.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Springsteen at Giants Stadium

I caught Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium last night. At 60 he is still fiery and exuberant and the E Street Band rocks along just fine. Together, they do something extraordinary: make beautiful music out of the bitterness and the sweetness of living in New Jersey.

A writer once knocked Springsteen for appealing mostly to white fans, but I think that misses the importance of African American culture to his music. Springsteen is deeply influenced by the Black idioms of rhythm and blues and gospel.

Most important, he embodies what Al Murray once called the greatest gift of the blues: affirming life in the face of adversity,

Last night, I was up on my feet dancing and pumping my fist to lines like:
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good.

I grew up in the working-class world of North Jersey. I've always cherished Springsteen's ability to turn its blend of big dreams, shitty jobs, and bruised spirits into moments of pure exultation.

In Springsteen's world, where I was raised, people are bred to what Yeats called "a harder thing than triumph." The greatest gift of Bruce Springsteen is that he finds beauty, resilience, and ecstasy there all the same.

Remembering William Safire

I am uncomfortable speaking ill of the dead, so I will begin my comment on William Safire by noting that my late friend Frank Carvill once said that the Times columnist was the only right-winger he ever wanted to drink beer with. I know what he means: there was a humor to Safire that made him stand out among conservatives. Unfortunately, there was more to the man.

For my money, Safire rarely strayed very far from the mentality of a flack: bending the truth, attacking the enemies of his client, and gleefully poisoning a debate before he would see his side lose.

Of course, Safire was famous for his libertarian streak. To some, this makes him look like a man who knew how to balance extremes, a shrewd thinker who intelligently took no fixed positions. This line of thought could be particularly popular among journalists: admiring Safire made them feel like independent spirits who could admire liberals and conservatives alike--thereby inoculating themselves against the charge that they were knee-jerk liberals.

I'll give credit to Safire for opposing the Patriot Act. But the plain fact is that he spent the bulk of his career promoting the worst tendencies in the USA and Israel.

On Israel, he famously followed Ariel Sharon at his worst. Safire, who was never near a battlefield in his life, called himself a shtarker--a tough guy. In fact, he did as much as any American journalist to encourage the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that so undermines Israel's present and future.

In the US he was a wordsmith to Spiro Agnew, who helped launch Nixon's war on the press that continues to this day. And when Richard Nixon resigned rather than face the music on Watergate, Safire started the habit of calling every political scandal a "gate." In this way, he diminished the gravity of Watergate and contributed to the demonization of politics. Both the war on the press and the denigration of politics continue to coarsen our public life today.

But it was in the latter years of his career, in the runup to Iraq, that Safire committed what was to me his greatest crime. In the Times, he used his column to promote the idea of a link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al Qaeda--thereby making and invasion of Iraq look like an appropriate response to 9/11.

There turns out to be nothing to Safire's claim of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. Nevertheless, this claim helped justify a disastrous war in which thousands, American and Iraqi, died unnecessarily. One of them was Frank Carvill.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Presidential Ordinality

Why are Americans so obsessed with ranking things that really can’t be ranked? For me, it might be an early exposure to top 40 radio, which so mesmerized me that for several years I kept a record of top pop songs of the day, charting their rising and sinking fortunes in a notebook. (What’s your excuse?) Sports is of course the area in American life where this obsession reaches its peak, with every conceivable form of ranking available to the discerning sports nut. Perhaps Americans are so interested in rankings out of a growing sense of national decline—those who shout “we’re number 1” the loudest are probably afraid that we are actually number 2, or even number 3. But rankings exist for one reason, to try to quantify what is basically unquantifiable, and to reduce the complexities of taste and subjective preference to a single numerical value, and the feeling that somehow this is a “harder” and more reliable than mere qualitative evaluation. Nowhere is this American obsession with quantitative ranking more pronounced than for our presidents. Not a year goes by without another attempt at ranking the 43 men who have held the highest country in the land. Do other countries do this? Is there a cottage industry of books ranking the British prime ministers? Do priests in Rome sit around ranking the 264 or so popes? Do members of the imperial court rank Japanese emperors? I do have a book that ranks Canadian prime ministers, from which I learned a lot about Canadian history, but I attribute this to the nearness of Canada to America’s habitual obsessions.

And the problem with the ranking of the presidents is that they almost always come out the same way, with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR at the top of the list, and Buchanan, Pierce, Nixon, and our most recent ex-president, lurking on the bottom. This has the general effect of ratifying conventional wisdom, and has the pernicious effect of letting people think they know more about American history then they actually do. But a recent book offers the most interesting take on presidential rankings that I have ever read; Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. Eland is basically a paleocon; skeptical of military interventions overseas, and equally skeptical of governmental intervention in the economy or personal liberty at home. He opposes ranking the presidents according to what he calls an “effectiveness bias” (judging presidents on their ability to enact their agenda), a ”charisma bias” (their media appeal), or the “service during a crisis” bias (these crises are often self-created.)

This leads to some interesting rankings. For Eland, there have only been four excellent president, and none since 1897; John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and six other good presidents, of whom the most recent was Jimmy Carter, and before him Eisenhower. (Clinton, is ranked average at #11; George W. Bush is ranked bad at #36.) The bottom feeders are not the usual denizens, Pierce and Buchanan, both of whom are put in the middle of the pack, but James Polk #37, William McKinley #38, Truman at #39, and the worst president of them all, Woodrow Wilson. I thoroughly agree with the ranking of Wilson, who led this country into a disastrous war, and then established a still unmatched record for suppression of civil liberties, and Polk, McKinley, and Truman were warmongers all. (He is somewhat kinder to FDR, surprisingly, ranking him #31, just below Nixon, and just ahead of LBJ, daddy Bush, and Reagn, quite rightly not seeing the latter two
as true conservatives.

Eland has the virtues of consistency, which I lack. I support big government at home, and want the US to mind its business elsewhere in the world. Without a big enough government, big business will simply run roughshod over the interests of average people, and Eland’s belief that
business is essentially self-regulating is more utopian and fanciful than any socialist could imagine. Eland ranks Lincoln #29, and his views on the Civil War are complex, and not reducible to simple neo-Confederatism, but when all is said and done, it seems to me that, as the current health care debate shows, if the southern states had stayed in the union after the election of Lincoln, using the power of filibuster and other tools to disrupt Lincoln’s agenda, there is no way that they would have ended losing all their slaves without compensation, and would have avoided a nasty war besides.

But of course the real reason to provide any subjective ranking is to start arguments, and I should probably end this post here, rather than going on and on. But I applaud his rethinking of the ossified rankings of the presidents, and could not agree more that the usual ranking of presidents seems to privilege war-making and war-waging over almost all other qualities, and the ability to keep America out of war should be seen as at least as valuable as the talent for getting America embroiled in them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Memory of Alicia de Larrocha and Richard Milhous Nixon

The great Spanish pianist Alica de Larrocha passed away the other day, full of years and honors. She was one of the greatest pianists of our time, and one of the greatest pianists I ever saw live. She was peerless in Spanish repertoire, with no equal in the great Spanish masters of the early 20th century, Albeniz, Granados, and Mompou, and was no slouch when it came to the classical composers either, and was the epitome of pelllucidity, precise and profoundly coherent, in the music of Haydn, Beethoven, and, above all, Mozart. It was at a Mostly Mozart concert in Avery Fisher Fall that I saw her, and I will never forget the concert, or its date, August 8th, 1974.

For most readers of this blog, the date will require no further annotation, it was one of those days before the days when everyone remembers where they were, like December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001. But unlike those two days, there was nothing surprising (though it was still very shocking) about what was going to happen; Richard Nixon was about to resign the presidency, and the week’s news was all about the drumbeat of Republican defections, all telling Nixon that the jig was up, the game was over.
Now, I had followed the two years of Watergate like no story I have followed before or since, watched countless hours of televised hearings, read all the articles and books, and knew all the players, major or minor, and watching the demise of the political career of Richard M. Nixon reach its denouement was deeply gratifying. By the time I left for de Larrocha recital, I knew that Nixon had a speech from the Oval Office scheduled that evening for 8 pm, and though I wanted to stay home and hear it, I wasn’t about to eat the ticket I had purchased for the recital, though I brought a transistor radio with me to catch whatever gleanings I could once the concert was over.
So I went, and the crowd was electric, and however much people wanted to hear one of the world’s great pianists, the only thing that everyone wanted to talk about, except no doubt for a handful of sullen Republicans, was the resignation speech that evening. It was the sort of night when strangers started animated conversations with strangers, and it felt more like a political rally than a classical concert.
I was wondering what Madame de Larrocha was thinking about all of this. She was, as far as I knew (and know) completely apolitical, but I also knew that her revered teacher, Frank Marshall, had been a fervent supporter of Franco (who of course was still alive—though his slow shuffling off the mortal coil was already the butt of jokes), and I assumed her politics were rather conservative and Francoist. Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting hear a piano transcription of “Los Quatros Generales” as an encore. And I wondered what the great pianist, who had lived for forty years under a near-fascist dictatorship, was thinking about the amazing eruption of democracy that America was then experiencing.
Well, before the recital began, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker system, to the effect that because of the tremendous interest in Nixon’s address that evening, Madame de Larrocha has consented to let the address be broadcast live. Everyone clapped. (I forget if the speech was before the recital, or during intermission, though my memory is that it was during intermission.) And as loud as we applauded her peerless performances of the K.330 sonata and the last movement of that never-fail crowd pleaser, the rondo alla turca of K.331, the loudest shouts of the evening occurred when Nixon got to the part of the speech where he said, “therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.” I was a thrill to hear that speech in a public venue, with some 2,000 persons, most of whom shared my great excitement at the news.
Anyway, I don’t ever remember enjoying a concert, or being a New Yorker, as much as I did on that evening, walking to the subway with the special glow you can get from great music and the special sort of glee you get from seeing your enemies humbled and vanquished. And if it was the final fall from grace of tumbledown Dick that made the evening so special, we never would have gathered together were it not for the consummate artistry of Alicia deLarrocha, whose artistry will survive as long as people remain interested in the beauty of the piano.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Glenn Beck and Anarchism

So all the talk this week is on the burning question, “just who the heck is Glenn Beck?” I dunno. I’ve never seen a minute of his talk show, so I am not really in a position to offer an educated opinion. Frank Rich thinks he is a descendent of conspiratorial populists like Father Coughlin in the 1930s, though of course the populist critics of FDR, like Coughlin and Huey Long, wanted more government, not less. (If Coughlin was around today, he would be denouncing Obama’s efforts to reform the banking industry as "half measures that coddle Jewish financiers.”) Conservatives seem to think that Beck is not a true conservative, which amounts to that he is consistent enough to sometimes attack American military adventures overseas as a symptom of “big government.” (The great worry of the conservative movement is that their followers would get the consistency to read paleocon websites like “antiwar”—which I heartily recommend—with regularity.) And it is certainly interesting to learn that Beck is a Mormon who follows some conservative Mormon thinker whom even the John Birch society thought was sort of kooky. ( I have nothing against Mormons or Mormonism, but it is a religion that has conspiratorial thinking woven into the warp of its theology.)

But enough about Glenn Beck. I want to speak instead of the left-wing alternative to conservative agrarian populism, anarchism. It is an ideology that has become increasingly fashionable on the left as of late, and I have often found myself with the stray anarchist urge. It is nowhere near as tainted as communism, is less wonky than socialism, and is a way to stand utterly outside the system while not necessarily calling for its immediate overthrow. And anarchism has the immense advantage that every generation, since, 1890, has reinvented in its own image.

These anarchist thoughts are inspired by a recent volume of essays by a young historian which I heartily recommend, John H. Summer’s Every Fury on Earth. He finds anarchism everywhere, in the work of C. Wright Mills, on whom he is completing a much needed biography, in the works of James Agee, in Noam Chomsky. Summer is trenchant is his excoriation of the “need to be connected” through information technology, which is creating a world that is ever more interconnected to nothing, and equally devastating in his account of Marxist orthodoxies. His skewering of British acolytes of C. Wright Mills in the late 1960s—notably the sesquipedalian Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn—who transformed Mills’s free-style radicalism into a jargonish anti-bourgeois hash is hilarious. There is a lot of interesting media criticism in the volume, especially an essay that my colleague Rob would like on the interesting question of why, after a century of sex scandals in the popular press, journalists from the time of Wilson through Kennedy eschewed through-the-keyhole reportage. “High standards,” and a disinclination to stimulate the masses seem to be the reason. And like all good anarchists, he brings his theories down to the personal and practical level, and provides withering accounts of his efforts to make it as a university teacher, and concludes that being a true historian is somehow incompatible with being part of the higher education knowledge machine. I’m not sure that I agree, but it provides an aura of principle to what has been my own inadvertent path to being an independent, untethered historian.

For me the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe that human nature is basically malign and evil, and needs to be constrained in various ways to prevent it from destroying us. (This was emphasized in the obits over the last week for the Neoconservative poobah, Irving Kristol. ) Liberals believe that human nature is basically good, that we were born without sin, and that whatever Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden stayed in the Garden of Eden. Anarchism merely takes the belief in human goodness to its logical conclusion, that the ends of human life should be, in the words of Summers, “voluntary associations vitalized by spontaneous effusions and organized around the latent potentialities of cooperation.” Now, I love the state, and its often over-ardent embrace, and I love paying taxes, and I think “bureaucrat” is one of the loveliest words in the English language, like violet or amethyst. So I am not an anarchist, but I often wish I was one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America, like the history it relates, stands at a crossroads between Chinatown and Soho, New York City and the USA, and the past and the present. The wonder of MOCA is that it navigates all these intersections with depth and humanity, succeeding in its effort to explore "the Chinese American experience within the broader context of American history and culture."

The result is not a narrow museum of "identity," as a Times reviewer put it, but an exploration of many pasts that illuminates how life in America remade the Chinese and how the Chinese remade America.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I am a friend of the museum's founders, Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai, and I did some bits of work for the museum in the past. (Including helping to salvage some artifacts from a Chinese opera company.) More important, I have been taking friends and students to earlier incarnations of MOCA since the 1980s, when its predecessor was located in an old public school building. We found there aspects of American history and New York history that were too long ignored.

The story of the Chinese in America is much more than the rise to success of a "model minority." It illuminates the exploited labor of Chinese immigrants that built much of the West, reveals the deep strain of racism that once denied citizenship to the Chinese in America, and brings to life the combination of fascination, exoticism and alienation that colored so many American reactions to the Chinese. One look at this kind of history and your sense of the past and present is never quite the same.

The latest incarnation of MOCA, at 215 Centre Street, embodies the best of the old museum and orients it to the future. Like the old MOCA, which had its roots in a community history project, the new version is deeply democratic and egalitarian, honoring the voices of both famous achievers and unsung survivors. Yet the new museum, elegantly designed by Maya Lin, is welcoming and capable of accommodating many more visitors. It also makes great use of digital technology to explore the past and present in exciting ways that can evolve with the museum in the future.

I visited MOCA tonight to celebrate its opening. With all the crowds and my own hectic schedule, I left before I got a full chance to take in everything the museum has to offer--including films and an art exhibit. I'll be back with friends and students in the future.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Secondary Primaries

Tuesday was primary day here in New York State. Less than 10% of the registered voters turned out in Monroe County here . (I am proud to say that I was in the thinning ranks of those who exercised the franchise.) And I gather the turnout in NYC was at about the same level, even for the important race to succeed Robert Morgenthau as Manhattan DA. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to the primary, a political device invented during the progressive era to wrest government from the hands of the bosses, but has now become a tool of the permanent oligopoly, an apparent way to give people an apparent choice in who they will governed by, while counting on boredom and disinterest to ensure that very few people choose to vote.

Part of the problem are party-specific primaries. Perhaps they work for state wide voting (we will get to that) , but in local elections, where one party often doesn’t run any candidates, or mere tokens, party primaries effectively disenfranchise a large percentage of the electorate. And far from loosening the grip of parties, primaries provide a justification for their continued existence.
The alternative to primaries are run-off elections. On election day you have as many candidates run as you want, then the top two or three get to run off against each other, in an election, because it is mano-a-mano will attract more attention then a ten person race ever could.
And there is no reason the same couldn’t be tried in state wide elections, or for that matter, presidential elections. Let’s take last year. Rather than the series of silly state by state primaries, let the 20 or so candidates campaign and debate for a few months. Then, say in July there is an election, and all but the top two candidates are eliminated, who then run against each other. (Or perhaps a somewhat more complicated system where there a preliminary election that winnows down the field to perhaps five candidates, who then run against each other in a race for the final two. ) If this was done last year, who knows, the final race might have been Obama vs. Hillary, which certainly was the most compelling fight of the year.
In any event, rather then helping to create an interested electorate, primaries only serve as a demonstration of our apathy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Music With a Past and a Future

Over the years Andy Irvine, a stalwart on the Irish folk scene, has written great songs about historical figures ranging from James Connolly to Emiliano Zapata to Raoul Wallenberg. At the same time, as a recent concert at the Irish Arts Center reminded us, he's become a part of the history of Irish music.

It was the great idea of the folklorist and musician Mick Moloney to present Irvine in concert with the younger guitarist and singer John Doyle in a series that pairs older and younger players in the Irish tradition. The concert, last Friday at the Irish Arts Center, came off splendidly.

Irvine sang and performed some of his best songs on a variety of stringed instruments and reminisced about his years on the Dublin folk scene in the Sixties. As ever, his instrumental work incorporates the complex time signatures that he picked up from the Balkans.

Doyle sang with a mellow voice and played guitar with the tremendous chord changes and rhythms that have become the hallmark of more recent Irish guitar styles. Together, they were a tuneful reminder that Irish music has a great past and an exciting future.

For me, the most moving moment of the show came when Irvine and Doyle performed "Never Tire of the Road," Irvine's tribute to Woodie Guthrie. (Irvine also does a superb, driving version of Guthrie's "Tom Joad," the ballad version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath.")

Irvine inserted to last Friday's performance of "Never Tire of the Road" a verse about the time when Guthrie led a below-decks singalong on a troop ship during World War II to keep up morale during a torpedo attack. To complement the verse, Irvine injected a chorus that went something like, "Bound to lose, bound to lose, all you fascists bound to lose." I was one of a few voices on the chorus the first time it came around, but by the end of the song he had us all roaring along.

From the Guthrie song to the great musical pubs of Dublin in the Sixties to guitar playing that connects the past and the future, it was a very fine night of music.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Great museum exhibits make you think about the past in an entirely new way, and that's what Mannahatta/Manhattan does at the Museum of the City of New York. The show, presented as a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a stunning evocation of Manhattan's landscape and how it has changed since the arrival of Europeans. It conveys a profound lesson: the same principles that make for a healthy ecosystem--diverse species, an accommodation of interdependence--are also important to a healthy city.

Mannahatta/Manhattan blends historical research, ecological analysis, artifacts and multi-media. The show is well-designed and instructive without being heavily didactic. I marveled at the range of wetlands once found on the east side of Manhattan and the variety streams and ponds throughout the island. And it was a treat to use a special computer program that displays the show's ideas on what contemporary blocks of Manhattan might have looked like 400 years ago. (My block on East 81st Street was a woodland.)

For all its attention to nature, the show persuasively argues that Manhattan was never utterly pristine. The indigenous peoples here had their own impact on the land--from the building of villages to the burning of lands in what is today Harlem to create open fields for hunting.

The genius of the show is to show how ecological thinking leads us a conclusion that nothing--from plants to people--lives in isolation. Eventually, the factors that help or hurt one species have an impact on another.

The show is a product of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Mannahatta Project, whose Web site deserves a visit of its own. Among its many features is the program that lets you look up what any block in Manhattan might have looked like in 1609.

Mannahatta/Manhattan is up through October 12. Don't miss it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Commodore

You’ve been hearing about capitalism’s bad breaks recently, but it is, to continue the paraphrase of Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, the luckiest economic system alive, and, unfortunately, to switch clichés, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. But even if capitalism never dies, it still had to be born, and debates on where and when capitalism emerged is one of the oldest of historical chestnuts. And if he wasn’t the first capitalist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, as the title of an excellent book by T.J. Stiles has it, was the first tycoon, the first multi-multi-millionaire whose wealth simply existed on a totally different level of magnitude from ordinary wealthy people. Worth about $100 million at his death in 1877, when the total value of the US money supply was bout $900 million, he was very likely, in comparative terms, the richest man who ever lived.

Most of the great fortunes made in NYC were made by people like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould , Andrew Carnegie, Michael Bloomberg, were made by people who moved to the city from elsewhere to make the fortunes. Of the great tycoons, perhaps only Cornelius Vanderbilt was native to the city (or to pre-Consolidation Staten Island, at least.) And Vanderbilt career was made in what the first great NYC industry, transportation, first in steamboats and then in railroads. Before NYC was anything else, it was a transportation hub and nexus. And as Stiles shows, Vanderbilt understood capitalism, and the emerging abstract world of stocks and bonds and how to buy and trade them better than almost anyone else. He was his own investment bank (they really didn’t exist in his time), and really, he was his own corporation, at a time when the corporate form of organization was only first gaining traction.
Well, having read Stiles book, I conclude there is nothing particularly admirable about Vanderbilt. He was a hard driving son of a bitch (though, as Stiles shows, generally honorable in his business dealings.) He left no great public benefactions, no museum, no library, no concert hall honors him in his city, and if he is remembered, he is not particularly commemorated in the city, that he as much as any single individual, transformed into a center of world commerce. This is, I suppose, okay with me. But if he doesn’t deserve a monument, he definitely needed a good biography, which he lacked until now. And Stiles book, which goes from his involvement in the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden to his role in the Erie War of the late 1860s, fills the bill.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Farewell to Ted Kennedy

Special post from Arlington Cemetery by Steve Zurier

The day after Ted Kennedy's burial, I just felt that I wanted to be there today to say goodbye to the last Kennedy brother. If I were a history or civics teacher, I would have all my students research and write a report on how Senator Kennedy's work touched their lives.

For me:

In the 1970s, Ted Kennedy fought against S-1, the draconian set of laws that would have put harsh restrictions on the press. I can remember those of us who wanted to pursue press careers being very grateful for Ted Kennedy's outspoken critique of the legislation.

In the 1980s Ted Kennedy fought the union busting that went on during the Reagan era. The owners of the newspaper I worked for would have fired all of us and hired stringers if they could, but I was able to hang on a couple of years for some much-needed experience because I was protected by the union.

In the early 90s, my wife Stephanie lobbied hard for the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows young mothers to leave work for 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. While our family did not take advantage of the law, others were helped because of Sen. Kennedy's efforts.

During the recession of 2001, I collected unemployment after being laid off. Sen Kennedy always supported unemployment insurance and any time a vote came up for extending benefits or raising the minimum wage, Sen. Kennedy could be counted on to support it.

One note about the shot with the flag at half-mast. In the background is Arlington House, which was originally owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and step-son of George Washington. Custis inherited the land and between 1802 and 1818, and built Arlington House. It was the nation's first memorial to George Washington and a home for the Custis family.

In 1831, Custis' only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis married Lt. Robert E. Lee (the Robert E Lee) in the front parlor of Arlington House. For over 30 years Arlington House became the home of the Lee family. In 1861 when the Civil War broke out, the Lees vacated the property and federal troops occupied the estate, using Arlington House as headquarters. In 1863 Freedman's Village was established on the estate to assist refugee slaves in the transition from slavery to freedom. Later on during the Civil War, the property became a burial ground for the war dead. By the end of the Civil War there were nearly 16,000 dead buried on the old 1,100-acre plantation.

Anyway, the point is that the Kennedy brothers are all together again. Despite their foibles there's no question that the Kennedy family's story is tightly woven into our nation's history.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Voice of Ted Kennedy

I've always cherished the memory of my work on George McGovern's 1972 presidential cempaign, in part because it gave me a chance to hear the voice of a great liberal orator--Ted Kennedy.

The scene was a rally at the county courthouse in Hackensack, NJ. I was a young McGovern organizer working with other high school students. McGovern was, of course the main speaker of the evening. But what I remember most is the voice of Kennedy.

In strong, bold tones, he sized up President Nixon and offered him mock sympathy: it must be difficult, he said, to be stuck with your hand in the till, your foot in your mouth, and your eye on the polls. We went home laughing and talked about it for days.

Two other Kennedy speeches will always stay with me. I am haunted by his eulogy for his brother Robert ("Some men see things as they are and say why, I dream things that never were and say why not.") And his concession speech in 1980, when he summoned a Democratic Party drifting right to remain true to its liberal heritage, is still inspiring in its conclusion: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Kennedy was a great legislator, a great speaker, and a great steward of the best in the Democratic Party. I'll miss him.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I was going to blog on something else, but I suppose I have to blog on Teddy. I was born in 1954, and I have been trying to remember recently when I first gained an awareness of the news and world events. I clearly remember sitting in a barbershop in the Bronx with my friend Bruce and several disappointed Italian gentlemen on the afternoon of October 13th, 1960, watching Bill Maskeroski’s, home run clear the vines at Forbes Field, as the Yankees lost the 7th game of the 1960 World Series. A few weeks I remember watching, entranced, the coverage of the 1960 presidential elections, as the numbers were changed, and predictions were made.

However, I did not really start to follow the news at age 6, and only bits and pieces filtered into my awareness. I have no memory of the Bay of Pigs, though I remember Moise Tsombe and the breakaway province of Katanga (though I have no memory of Patrice Lumumba, or the death of Daj Hammarskjold) and I remember the Indian takeover of Goa in December 1961, (and Roger Maris hitting his 59th homerun a few months earlier.)
But 1962 is the year when my memory and knowledge of the world really started. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly. And I remember, at the beginnings of my horizon as someone who cared about the world I lived in, the controversies over the election of Ted Kennedy to the senate in the fall of 1962. As long as I have around or cared to notice, Ted Kennedy has been a senator, and for many decades he has been the standard bearer of the ideals of liberalism. I don’t have much to add to what has been and will be said. Granted a longevity denied his brothers, he is probably the most important of the three Kennedy’s in terms of his accomplishments (the Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs aside.)

There has been much talk about the revival of liberalism under Obama, though the jury is still out on whether Obamism will be vigorous in its pursuit of needed change as Democrats accomplished in the Kennedy-Johnson years or under FDR. All that is clear is that the Democrats will have to accomplish without Teddy Kennedy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Up Close, They Don't Look Strong

Up close, the opposition to Obama's health care plan doesn't look all that strong, as I learned at a forum in Rhode Island last night.

Over the last few weeks, the assaults on the Obama plan have started to feel like a replay of the Swift Boat attacks of 2004. So when I heard that there was going to be a meeting on health care in Warwick, RI, near where I'm on vacation, I had to attend. I recruited my teenage son Max, dusted off a quote from John F. Kennedy about the importance of defending freedom when it is in danger, and drove an hour north to Warwick City Hall. There, Rep. James Langevin, a Democrat, was holding a town meeting.

The state chairman of the Rhode Island Republicans, Giovanni Cicione, had called for massive protests, so I expected to encounter only a few Obama supporters, cowed into silence. In fact, Obama supporters narrowly outnumbered opponents inside and outside the meeting. The opponents used volume to make up for what they lacked in numbers: in the meeting they shouted often, and outside they used a bullhorn.

There were some 200 people outside, where Max and I carried signs in support of health care reform. Our allies included union members, lab-coated medical students from the American Medical Student Association, and a broad range of liberal activists. All were in solid form and didn't seem to be intimidated by the opposition.

The opposition seemed weaker in person than I had anticipated. For all the lies about death panels and the reports of gun-toting conservatives, we were confronted by a motley crew of LaRouchites, opponents of immigration, disciples of Ayn Rand, conservative libertarians, anti-abortion protesters, anti-government activists and loudmouths.

Despite claims that this is an "astroturf" movement, the people I saw appeared to be fairly comfortable with political action. All of them seemed to have been doing this for some time. (In contrast, the tea party that I saw in Manhattan back in the spring contained a large percentage of uncomfortable-looking demonstrators.)

Yet for all the volume of the Obama opponents, their message didn't add up to much: lies about death panels, cheers at the mention of the name of Sarah Palin, chants of "no free lunch," and signs encouraging us to read the works of Ayn Rand.

For the opponents of Obama last night, the president's health plan is the focus of a wide range of emotions and ideas. That helps make them effective in opposition, but it is hard to imagine them getting together to propose anything constructive of their own.

Nevertheless, the Obama opponents effectively manipulate the media. Television news thrives on displays of strong emotion, and the shouting opponents of the health plan exploit that to win air time.

They also make great use of reporters' ignorance. Last night, the local news showed Barney Frank dismissing one woman's claim that the Obama plan is a Nazi plan. The woman appears to be a LaRouche supporter. And the news last night also panned over the LaRouchites' despicable poster that depicts Obama with a Hitler-type mustache.

At the very least, reporters have an obligation to identify the people who make absurd claims. If the wildest arguments against the Obama plan come from folks as utterly dishonest as the LaRouchites, people need to know that. "Consider the source," as the saying goes.

As for me, I carried a sign, moved through the crowd listening to people, and mostly kept mum. I lack my son's admirable ability to listen to despicable arguments without losing my temper.

I did get in one good exchange, though. A man who saw me carrying a sign in support of health care reform asked me if I was a fascist. No, I replied, I'm the son of a proud veteran of World War II. They guy gulped with incomprehension--he didn't know what to say.

Bottom line: the fight for health care reform isn't over. After a bad start, Obama is starting to act. We can beat these guys.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Mom, Sarah Palin, and Death Panels

I want to write about health care, and there will be a post on one of my favorite subjects, cooperatives, coming along soon, but first I wanted to write on the subject of the week, death panels, the Republican contention that comprehensive health care reform, by offering end of life planning, is the first step towards euthanasia. As far as I can tell, this campaign, as mendacious and meretricious as any Republican endeavor at dissembling in the recent past, is having a positive short term effect in slowing down the progress of Obama’s health care bill, though it was likely to find itself in the fillibusterable bog and muck of the US Senate anyway. So the death panel campaign has I guess it has been politically useful in the short term. But I cannot but think that it will be, in the end, a tremendous benefit for the democrats.

This debate has been unfolding over the past few weeks, since Jane and myself have moved my extremely physically and mentally debilitated mother (she doesn’t recognize me) into our house. Most people have said we were crazy to do this. The truth is, there really weren’t any other options, and without going into a very, very long story, nursing homes were too expensive, putting her into an apartment would be too much work, so it seemed easiest to follow the time honored expedient of placing an elderly and sick person under the roof of a relative.

And though I think that I and my surviving brother are reasonably smart (between me and wife and my brother and his wife there are two Ph.Ds and two law degrees) we badly screwed up end of life planning, in part because of the inability of my increasingly mentally burdened mom to cooperate with us, and in the end the government has given us little or no assistance, financially or otherwise.

Jane and I are doing our best to keep my mom comfortable and out of pain, and I think we are doing a good job, and it has its compensations. Jane has been a nurse for thirty years, but its only in the past month that I have discovered my inner Florence Nightingale.

But there are problems and tensions. We are frightened that unless we have all of our papers in order, if something happens, the government might force us to keep my mom alive on a vent or life support, against our will. In short, I think the Republicans have misjudged the public mood as badly as during the Terri Schiavo hoo-hah.

The worry is not that the government will intervene to end the life of a loved one, but that the government will intervene to keep someone alive against the wishes of their closest relatives. The fear is not that the government will officiously and ham-fistedly intervene to tell people how to live their declining years, but that the government, will, as it now does, do absolutely nothing at all, other than to say, as they have in effect to us—“okay, life is a goddamn bitch, and we’re sorry about your mom, but you know, it just ain’t our problem. You figure it out, and be sure to keep good records so we can make sure you didn’t do anything wrong.”

All of us will die, and most of us will need help in dying good deaths, and most of us don’t have the spiritual, intellectual, or financial resources to do this adequately without some sort of government assistance. Every time I put on a new pair of gloves to change my mom’s diaper, I think of Sarah Palin.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Down to the Sea in Kayaks

I've always loved landscapes where ecosystems meet, and none more than the seacoast of southern New England, where forests tumble down to salt marshes and the sea. Like many northeasterners, I've glimpsed such terrain from Amtrak trains running between New York and Boston. But in southern Rhode Island, you can get close to this beauty in a kayak.

Thanks to Narrow River Kayaks, in Narragansett, RI, you can paddle down the Narrow River to Rhode Island Sound at the end of Narragansett Town Beach.

Along the way you'll pass long stretches of marsh grass and the nesting places of birds. At the mouth of the river, you can beach your boat, paddle out into the Sound, or surf your kayak in the waves. I've enjoyed all three.

Most paddlers who rent from Narrow River Kayaks head downstream on the route I've just described. But you can also paddle upstream from Narrow River's base, past more residential river banks, to the birthplace of the painter Gilbert Stuart, who is best known for his unfinished portrait of George Washington. That makes the Narrow River one place where a kayak trip can combine natural history and art history.

I haven't yet made the upstream trip, but I've rented from Narrow River Kayaks several times and I've always enjoyed the experience. Their staff is knowledgeable and friendly.

I've paddled down the Narrow River with my wife and children and it has something for everyone--from bird watchers to bathers to kids and former kids who like to mix it up in the surf.

I can't think of a better way to enjoy the coastal landscapes of southern New England.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

At Sea in Queens

Today's Times reports an extravaganza staged by New York City museums that seems like the ideal solution to dwindling museum attendance: a maritime battle in the reflecting pool at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. In the best spirit of contemporary museum practice, the event was public, participatory and historical.

Libby Nelson's delightful report captures the full lunacy of this event, which was organized by the artist Duke Riley and staged under the name of "Those Who Are About to Die Salute You." Conceived in the tradition of the sea battles staged in the Coliseum in Ancient Rome, the evening's event took the form of combat between "ships" cobbled together by the Queens Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and El Museo del Barrio.

The melee had everything going for it: guests in togas and armor, a rock band, and tomatoes microwaved for maximum splat when participants hurled them at each other. And participants they were, because this was one exhibition where people didn't stay on the sidelines.

The microwaved tomatoes, piled in boxes by the pool, were meant to be thrown during the mock battle, but they proved too much of a temptation. Soon people were flinging them across the pool at one another. A few unfurled umbrellas to protect themselves.

Then the audience began jumping into the thigh-deep pool as the first boat, the one from the Queens Museum of Art, emerged. An announcer grabbed the microphone: “Let’s get it started!” he said.

But that ship, as they say, had sailed.

“Get out of the pool!” the announcer yelled, trying to restore order and using several expletives. “Get out of the water! We’re not starting till you’re out of the pool!”

The audience complied, and the ensuing battle resulted in the disintegration of most of the boats within 20 minutes. Audience members refused to stay corralled and jumped back into the water and climbed onto the boats. The Queens boat collapsed, as did the Brooklyn one, meant to be a battleship. Only a giant pig-shaped boat made of wood, representing Manhattan, emerged mostly unscathed.

Eventually the combat ended, but the excitement stayed with people.

Afterward the spectators appeared exhilarated but slightly shell shocked. Some praised the participatory nature of the art; others were still recovering.

“It was radical, super radical,” said Catherine Harine Connell of Brooklyn. “The fact that it was in a public park in Queens.

“It was free form, but still organized,” she added.

Ms. Connell was euphoric; others were alarmed.

“That was wilder than I ever would have expected,” said Dorothy Trojanowski, who described the event as “out of control.”

“The danger factor was —— ” she paused. “Stimulating.”

I'm having a great time on vacation, but this sounds like something worth going home for. I hope this is one sea battle that is repeated next year

Friday, August 14, 2009

Woodstock Nation

A few cultural notes. I was saddened to hear of the death of Les Paul the other day, an inventive musician in more than one sense, and hearing him gig at Sweet Basil’s or the Iridium was for many years one of life’s little pleasures available only to New Yorkers. And a few days before that was the death of Merce Cunningham, and with his passing, the era of high modernism in New York artistic culture, dating back to Alfred Stieglitz and the 1911 Armory Show, has finally run its century long course. Cunningham’s modernism (along with that of his life partner, John Cage) was so high and elevated that it encompassed and anticipated every type of post-modernism and post-post modernism that has or will yet be invented. But the cultural event of the week is, certainly, memories of the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, and I might as well share mine.

As frequent readers of this blog know, in the summer of 1969 I was at a socialist-Zionist summer camp in the Catskills, where, on July 20th, I listened to the moon landing. Well, about a month later, camp was about to wind up and we were to head back on Route 17 to NYC, but we kept hearing stories of this gigantic music festival about five miles away, that was attracting hundreds of thousands of ardent acolytes, and some of us figured, on the last night of camp, when staying up all night was more or less mandatory, that we would endeavor to check things out. So we tried, but we got no further than the far edge of the soggy mass of humanity that was Woodstock, and I don’t think we heard a single note of music.

The following day, the last day of camp and the last day of Woodstock, there was a monumental traffic jam, with all sorts of cool dudes sort of hanging out on the utterly congested highways, with the spirit of Woodstock pervading all, so that rather than road rage there was road joy, all of these people in and out of their cars. I guess Dylan’s song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” hadn’t been released, but if it had been, it would have been what everyone was singing. I think a trip that usually took two and half hours was at least twice as long, and we loved every minute, vicariously absorbing some of the last lingering vibes of Woodstock.

But, what, as cultural commentators asked insistently at the time, and really haven’t stopped asking since, what did it all mean? Was it a rock concert, or was it a harbinger of a new way of life, the dawn of a new form of culture, or whatever? It is easy, I suppose, to mock the pretensions of the Woodstock nation, and in many ways, Woodstock was, as Debussy once said of Wagner’s Parsifal, the dusk that thought itself a dawn. Was it a utopian moment, one that passed in the very act of perceiving it?

As long as we doing an obituary thing in this post, I don’t think that Greater New York has acknowledged the passing of the great Polish philosopher Leslek Kolakowski, and I have been rereading some of his essays recently. He was a Marxist who became a very fierce one–time Marxist. His essay “the death of utopia reconsidered” is a rather scathing look at utopianism, which he saw as one of the underlying sources of corruption in the entire Marxist tradition. I think he is mistaken, along with many other writers,to view totalitarianism as a part of the utopian tradition, because any real utopianism doesn’t consist of fitting people into a preset procrustean blue print, but has nothing to be with coercion or the state. All true utopias are free standing moments of anarchy, small glimpses of human possibility and transformation.

But I agree with Kolakowski, in what he says is a useful banality. “The idea of human fraternity is disastrous as a political program but is indispensible as a guiding sign.” Like all utopias worthy of the name, what is enduring about Woodstock is its very evanescence.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

To Kill to Kill a Mockingbird

When I was eight, my mom (who in a profoundly physically and mentally debilitated state, moved in with Jane and myself last week), took me and my two brothers to see “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was one of the first films I ever remember attending, and the first impressions has never left me on repeated viewings; the story of a decent man, a good father, trying to deal with the usual foibles of humanity as well as the evil of racism in the South in Alabama c. 1935. I am not sure why my mom took us to see the film, but she had a way of schlepping us to all of the films of great social significance on the schedule at the local bijous. One reason that I am sure never occurred to her was that, as a caption in this week’s New Yorker put it, “In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version) sought to humanize Jim Crow, not challenge it.”

This was conclusion of a provocative, but wrong-headed article by Malcolm Gladwell “The Courthouse Ring: The Truth About Atticus Finch,” that concluded that all of the praise the Atticus Finch character has received over the years has been misplaced. He was a garden variety southern racial moderate of the interwar years, who wanted to purge southern racial mores of their vulgarity but not their fundamental unfairness, and whose gentility and mild paternalism was enough to keep him from asking the bigger questions about the social system into which he was born.

Now, before proceeding I should acknowledge that I have never (or at least not for many decades) read the 1959 Harper Lee novel on which the 1962 film was based, and this is at least a partial disqualification for what follows, but I have to say that I found Gladwell’s article a rather ham-fisted attempt to deal with a profound question: can one be a moral person in an immoral society. There is no easy answer. And certainly Atticus Finch was not a rebel, not a Gandhi, not a Rosa Parks. He was an insider within white southern society. Gladwell assumes that by the 1950s the Atticus Finches of the south, after making a half-hearted attempt, would have learned to tow the segregationist line. Finch is a fictional character, of course, so there is no way of telling what would happened when push came to shove in the South; some southern moderates strongly supported Brown; many others, especially after the rising tide of “southern resistance” after 1954 learned to tow the line. Atticus Finch can of course can only be judged by what Harper Lee wrote.

But the bigger question raised by Gladwell’s article is how one fights evil. Gladwell criticizes Finch for his localism, his belief that dealing with individuals as individuals, in his own little corner of the world, rather than challenging the system as a whole, was enough of a challenge to Jim Crow. But this cuts two ways; if there is a single central flaw to Marxist-Leninism, is the belief that the only sort of change that matters is a global transformative revolution. Everything else is just busy work for do gooders, petite bourgeois reformism at best. And the record of communism amply indicates the pitfalls of trying to bring about revolutionary change, with an army of unanticipated consequences to what might originally be a noble impulse. And often, we change the little things because there is no clear or obvious way to change the big ones. We honor the righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust because they saved individuals, not because they openly challenged Nazism as a whole, which could only be done effectively by Winston Churchill and FDR.

And the key point about Atticus Finch was not his belief in localism, but his belief in the law, and if there was a difference between totalitarian regimes and the Jim Crow South it was there was a possibility of the rule of law, and that the constitutional protection of equality, however traduced and besmirched, would in the end in the rescue the South from its evils, without a revolution, and this is what happened, to radically abbreviate a very long story.

Atticus Finch was a man who believed that he could do more good functioning within the system than agitating from outside the system, and while this is always a tough call, many good persons have made similar choices. And he was a man alert to the contradictions that existed within his society, and tried, in his own small way, to change things. May that those of us who have no choice but to live in the deeply flawed and contradiction-ridden America of our time, as Atticus Finch was obliged to live in his, be able to say as much.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Wisdom From A Soldier of the Great War

Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of World War I living in the United Kingdom, was buried in England yesterday; John F. Burns covered the funeral with great sensitivity for the Times. The ceremonies for Patch had a New York connection--the singing of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger of Beacon--and even greater resonance for all who are willing to learn about war from a soldier who experienced the slaughter of the trenches.

Patch was past his 100th birthday, Burns reports, when he finally started to speak about his experiences in World War I. Instead of resting on his heroism, he talked about death and the common humanity of soldiers on all sides. The band Radiohead recorded a haunting song based on Patch's that you can hear on the BBC site.

Burns' piece memorably recounts how,

A Belgian diplomat read an excerpt from Mr. Patch’s 2007 autobiography, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” in which he described an offensive during the battle at Passchendaele, the bloodiest chapter in the Ypres fighting, when he came across a fellow soldier “ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel” during a British assault on German lines.

The episode reinforced in Mr. Patch, a devout Christian, the belief that there is a life after death. “When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me,’ ” he recalled. “He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy.”

He added, “I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day, I’ve always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.”

Patch's pacifism fits better with World War I than World War II, but it is well worth recalling in the United States today, when military planners talk earnestly about endless war. Those who think along these lines should remember the words of my late friend Irving Weissman, a native New Yorker and a proud veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the US Army in World War II: "war is the ultimate obscenity."

Harry Patch would certainly agree. And if there is a world to come, as Patch deeply believed, I hope he runs into Irving Weissman. I'm sure they'll have plenty to talk about and wisdom to share.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remembering Billy Lee Riley

Billy Lee Riley, who grew up sharecropping in Arkansas and went on to become an early hero of rock 'n roll at Sun Records in Memphis, died Sunday of cancer. Today's Times obituary, picked up from the Associated Press, gets some of the highlights of his career, including his single "Red Hot," with he memorable line "My gal is red hot/Your gal ain't doodly squat." The Memphis Commercial Appeal ran an even fuller obit.

As the Appeal piece noted,
Riley is perhaps best remembered for his classic 1957 single, "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" -- a novelty rockabilly rave-up inspired by the era's U.F.O. mania -- which proved a hit and prompted him to rename his band the Little Green Men.

Despite this promising start, Riley's commercial fate was sealed after Sun put its promotional efforts behind Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" -- a song Riley played on -- which zoomed up the charts and past his own follow-up single "Red Hot."

For a personal appreciation of Riley, who played despite ill health at a concert in honor of the historian Pete Daniel this summer in Memphis, check this dispatch from Pete.

"I met Billy Lee in 1992 when we interviewed him for the Rock 'n' Soul project, and we interviewed him twice more and collected clothing and instruments for the Rock 'n' Soul museum. Some ten years ago he came to the National Museum of American History for an interview/performance that was incredible. He was one of the finest persons I've ever known."

May we all go out with the courage, energy, and strong voice that Billy Lee Riley showed until the end of his life.

Riley's final years were scarred by numerous health problems, including his battle with cancer. According to the Commercial Appeal, he ran up some serious medical bills.

The Appeal obituary concludes with this note for all who are inclined to generosity: "Memorial services are pending, but arrangements will be handled by the Dillinger Funeral Home in Newport, Ark. Those wishing to send condolences or contributions directly can contact: Joyce Riley, 723 Crest Drive, Jonesboro, Arkansas, 72401."

Photo by Sally Stein. Thanks to Bruce Hunt for forwarding the obituary from the Commercial Appeal.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and the Health Care Debate

I urge anyone interested in American history to read the lengthy review essay of recent works on Abraham Lincoln by Sean Willentz in a recent issue of the New Republic. (For those of you who don’t read the New Republic regularly—and I don’t know anybody who does—the article can be read on the Arts and Letters Daily.) Willentz looks at some recent books on Lincoln very critically, and saves as the main target of his barbs an anthology on Lincoln and race edited by Henry Louis Gates (yes, that Henry Louis Gates) and a collective biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by Harvard professor John Stauffer. Willentz’s main point is that the recent curve of Lincoln scholarship hypothesizes two Lincolns, the moderate racist whose biggest problem with racism was that it interfered with the rights of white men, which was the dominant Lincoln until about 1862, when, under the influence of white and black abolitionists, especially Frederick Douglass, Lincoln underwent a conversion (with some regrettable backslidings) to a true belief in racial equality, and this basically misconceives Lincoln. Lincoln was always first and foremost a politician, not a writer (Willentz has an animus against studies that emphasize Lincoln as a literary stylist), not a theorist of American democracy, not an agitator for radical change, but a canny politician, whose main focus was, in keeping with his deep anti-slavery convictions, the art of the politically possible. To give Douglass and others the agency in “converting” Lincoln is to fail to understand what made Lincoln tick, and how politics works.

If Willentz and his critics to some extent, as generally is the case in such debates, talk past each other, I am broadly sympathetic to his position; the change in Lincoln c. 1862 is probably best explained by the exigencies of the war and his ability to work towards creative solutions to his problems, rather than a sea change in his basic views on race, and if people like Douglass played a role in this, the main point is that the war simply narrowed the gap between anti-slavery free soilers and radical abolitionists, and no one was more responsible for the war and the way it was being fought than Abraham Lincoln.

Well I’ll let the civil war warriors thrash out the details of whose right and wrong in this dispute. Willentz is certainly acerbic in his criticisms, and several of his critics respond in kind, but what is most interesting about the debate is that much of it concerns Barack Obama, and Willentz’s very public defense of Hillary (and occasional blasts against Obama) during the primaries last year, and several historians treat Willentz’s views on Lincoln as a stalking horse for his views on Clinton-Obama, and that his basic point is to refight the primaries, with his opponents as naïve Obamaphiles, with Willentz positing a wise and temperate Hillarified Lincoln. Willentz says these sort of criticisms are besides the point, and he is no doubt right, but there certainly is, as with all historical debates, a contemporary angle.

If Lincoln is our greatest president, it is because of what he achieved and how he achieved it. He rose to the apex of political power in this country, and did so the only way to accomplish this; slowly and deliberately, making friends, making deals, with his two feet firmly planted on the political coalition that brought him into office. And yet, by early 1865, there was simply no gap between what he had achieved, and what the most radical of abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison had for so long fought for; the immediate, unconditional, uncompensated end of slavery, the institution that had shackled the American republic since its founding. The political pragmatist, without ceding his pragmatism, had become the true radical.

I don’t know what Wilentz thinks of Obama; and he says that since Hillary bowed out last June, he has been an Obama supporter, and I have no reason to doubt him. And what Obama has showed himself to be, above all, is a political pragmatist and a possibilist, a Fabian reformer. And the issue of our time is health care, and it has bedeviled our country almost as long as the time between the constitutional convention and the outbreak of the Civil War. It has hobbled our politics and well-being for over a half century, despite various Wilmot Provisos, Missouri Compromises and other half measures to change things. And Obama was elected, in part, to address it. If he is finding it difficult, it is because it is difficult, and there are vested interests galore to challenge and overcome. And, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, he will overcome, or at least he better. And since announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, Obama has compared himself implicitly, and been compared by others explicitly, to Lincoln. And we will see if he has the talent, the ability, and the fortune of being presented with the right set of circumstances, to see if he can use his genius for pragmatism and garnering a wide current of political support to the utterly radical ends the current situation demands.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arresting Words

While we work our way toward the bottom of the Henry Louis Gates case, some words from Lisa Keller's book, Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London (Columbia, 2009), bear pondering. They were written to edify the London Metropolitan Police in 1830, but they might also have improved police conduct in Cambridge, Mass.

Defenders of Sgt. James Crowley will argue that he behaved coolly while Gates went off, setting off a spiral that ended in arrest. Defenders of Gates will argue that a police officer confronted Gates in his own home in a suspicious and authoritarian manner.

My hunch is that this was a confrontation between two strong-willed men from entirely different worlds, each of whom is accustomed to a great deal of deference on the job. My other hunch is that this was a confrontation that did not need to end in an arrest.

In the end, professors are paid to be knowledgeable and smart. Policemen are paid to be cool in a crisis.

In the words that Lisa found in London, police were admonished that "a Constable who allows himself to be irritated by any language whatsoever shows that he has not that command of his temper which is absolutely necessary in an officer vested with such extensive powers by the law."

Police officers would do well to remember those words today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Anne's Ashes

Well, Frank McCourt passed away the other day. He will be missed. I certainly liked Angela’s Ashes, but I was disturbed by its undercurrent of self-pity, and if it was tolerable in that book, it rather disfigured his others. And though I am a Stuyvesant graduate, I never had him as an English teacher, and the scuttlebutt among my friends was that he was the sort of teacher who was most interested in hearing the sound of his own voice. Whatever.

Well, Frank McCourt passed away the other day. He will be missed. I certainly liked Angela’s Ashes, but I was disturbed by its undercurrent of self-pity, and if it was tolerable in that book, it rather disfigured his others. And though I am a Stuyvesant graduate, I never had him as an English teacher, and the scuttlebutt among my friends was that he was the sort of teacher who was most interested in hearing the sound of his own voice. Whatever.

Today I want to write about someone else born in Brooklyn of Irish extraction, who also recently passed away, my mother-in-law, Anne Kenney DeLuca. She was, in her voice, in her mannerisms, in her interests, her predilections, her eccentricities, New York Irish. Her father was an Irishman working on the Caledonian Railway in Scotland, where she met her mother, the daughter of the Catholic undertaker of Motherwell, near Glasgow. They moved to the United States in 1908, settled in Brooklyn, of whom, Anne, the sixth, was the youngest. She grew up in Flatbush, and thereafter moved to Suffern, New York, and after she married Louis DeLuca, to Bristol, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, and thence to Levittown (PA), and then, in the mid-1970s, to a farm in Addison, NY, near Corning, where these two urbanites and suburbanites spent twenty years growing and tending to crops and flocks. They moved to Corning in 1997. Lou died in 1999.

Anne was vibrant till the end. On our last visit, on the 4th of July, she gave her theories on the death of Michael Jackson, on the best fish fries in the greater Corning area (and offered the opinion that she never understood why the church had abandoned meatless Fridays in the 1960s), talked about the Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra (she was a lover of playing the horses all her life, and often spoke of the time she met the legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. ) She wasn’t in good health, but her death was sudden and quite unexpected. She loved to tell the story of her cousin, Eugene Daly, an Irishman who immigrated to the United States in April 1912 on that most ill-fated of ships, the Titanic, and lived to tell the tale. It represented her philosophy of life. Life has its ups and downs, but even if you hit the occasional iceberg, just keep your wits about you, and you will probably live to tell the tale, and drinking a beer while telling it. She was fun-loving and vibrant to the end. During her funeral, which was lovely, the priest’s cellphone went off, not once, but twice. When my wife Jane began her eulogy, she laughed and said her mom would have gotten a real kick out of the cellphones, and everyone in the church, including the priest, had a good laugh. Like Frank McCourt, she will be missed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A House of Terror

In some of the ugliest decades of the twentieth century, Number 69 Andrassy utca in Budapest, Hungary served a nasty series of occupants: Hungarian fascists, the Gestapo, and the Communist secret police. A museum in such a building would be a great place to meditate on thugs of the left and right and the twists and turns of Hungary's history. Instead, the "House of Terror" museum is a living example of some of the more disturbing beliefs of the Hungarian right today: that Hungary has been uniquely wronged among the nations of the world, that it has never been fairly compensated for its suffering, and that the greatest threats to Hungary come from the left.

Hungary, like other countries of Central and Eastern Europe today, is very much in a conservative and nationalistic mood. Some of this can be blamed on the impact of the Great Recession, but the bitter, xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies of Hungarian conservatives predate the current economic crisis. And they are very much on display at the House of Terror.

The House of Terror formally criticizes totalitarians of the right and left. It also recognizes the deaths of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust at the hands of both the Hungarian Arrow Cross and German Nazis.

Nevertheless, the deaths of the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz take place "off camera," so to speak. Hungary in World War II is presented as a nation trying to avoid being swept into the Nazi orbit. In a museum that is deeply emotional in its presentation, you don't sense much anguish over Hungary's own anti-Semites or the presence of Hungarian troops alongside the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union.

The House of Terror saves its greatest anger for the period of communist rule in Hungary. Touring the dungeons and execution chamber in base of the museum made me angry, too.

But what disturbed me about the museum is its sense of unresolved grievances: enduring resentment at the reduction of Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon after World War I, deep suspicion of anyone on the left, and a sense of grievance and victimization that can't be easily addressed.

My best hope is that someday, the borders in Central Europe will mean so little that Hungarians from Hungary proper and from Romania can meet without a fuss and forget about old woes. Until that happy day, the anger that pervades the House of Terror will fuel not a healthy desire for democracy, but a bitter politics of suspicion and revenge.

Fly Me to the Moon (Again!)

It is obligatory today, I suppose, for all bloggers to blog on the first manned lunar landing, forty years ago today, so here goes. I was fifteen, in a left-wing summer camp in the Catskills, a newly-minted Marxist, a would-be rebel with multiple causes, always eager to find another to wrong to right. But we stayed up late that night, listening to a crummy little transistor radio. Sure we guffawed when Nixon spoke to the astronauts, and mocked when Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, warning the moon people to watch out for napalm raids. So we saw America as the incarnation of all imperialistic rottennesses; we certainly hadn’t forgotten or forgivern Vietnam, and we certainly knew that the prime motivation for the space race had not been an objective pursuit of knowledge, but to beat the Ruskies to the punch. None of this mattered. We sat around the little radio, entranced and enthralled, waiting for Neil Armstrong to plop down his foot, and say something. (The first thing he said on the moon, btw, was “contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override, off. Engine arm off. 413 is in.”) It was, we were sure, one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity. And it was.

And, where are we, forty years on? Why has space exploration seemed so paltry ever since? Why haven’t any humans been to the moon since 1972? Why no attempt to land on Mars? Why has space exploration (save the occasional spectacular accident) failed to generate headlines? 2001 will be remembered for September 11th, and not for voyages to the Moon or Jupiter. There are many theories as to what happened. Tom Wolfe, in the Times yesterday, to my surprise, actually wasn’t too bad. Someone I read last week blamed Philip K. Dick, for replacing the science fiction dreams of space exploration that filled the stories of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke with drugged out dystopias. Perhaps, but I really liked Ubik, Dick’s moon novel.
Anyway, my pet theory is that for some reason, on July 20, 1969, Americans stopped caring transportation, and started to think about communication. From 1903 to 1969 we went from a thirteen second trip in a Wright flyer, to a two-week voyage to the moon. We went from Stanley Steamers to cars going at 200 mph at racetracks. And it seems to me, in the past forty years, our technological innovations in transportation have been absolutely nil; we drive the same way, we fly the same way, and we fly in the space in the same way, except we don’t fly to the moon. In the interim, we have invented generation after generation of new computer technology, we download, we tweet, we google, but as we have wrapped ourselves in layer upon layer of electronic communications, we have forgotten about the world we live in, or the worlds we might explore. The need for energy efficiency, for better mass transit, and all the mundane transportation modes, if done properly, will lead to the stars. Today, the giant leap mankind needs (excuse the gendered language, political correctness fans), will be composed of myriad small steps. The sermon endeth.