Monday, December 12, 2011

The Essentially Tragic Human Condition

I have many religiously devout friends and acquaintances.  Here is a short note I wrote yesterday in response to an Army Chaplain acquaintance (former client) who sent me a Facebook message containing a photo of a bumper-sticker with a religious message on it:

Dear ___________________,

Thanks for sharing that bumper-sticker quote with me:  "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

I agree that we all have a spiritual side but I see no evidence that it survives our deaths. I don't remember my purely spiritual existence before I was born and I join Thomas Jefferson in believing that our spirits -- which I would simply call our capacity for self-awareness and our knowledge that we will all die -- are "corpuscular." The idea of a spirit existing independent of a physical body strikes me, in my humble opinion, as irrational to the point of absurdity.  I guess what I am saying is I don't believe in ghosts.  What happens when we die?  I'm not sure.  But on the available evidence, we rot. (Shout out to the late, presumably rotting, Madalyn Murray O'Hair.)

I share your sense of the sublime when it comes to the stars and the mountains. I am quite a fan of star-gazing on clear moonless summer evenings while camping in Pike National Forest.  But one can contemplate the great mysteries without believing absurd things about the universe, such as, it is only 6,000 years old. There are cave paintings older than that.  Geologists actually have a scientifically plausible explanation for where those mountains came from as my son learned when he visited the Garden of the Gods Visitor's Center in first grade with his Cub Scout Pack.

The human condition is essentially tragic. We are all going to die, and worse, we know it.  All religion and philosophy are attempts, in my humble view again, to grapple with this fact. The efforts of pre-scientific people writing thousands of years ago were the best the human race could do at that time. But in my own grappling with man's essentially tragic fate, I prefer not to limit myself to the teachings of the Bronze Age.  These people were mired in terrible ignorance -- having not even the good sense to keep their excrement out of their food. (Shout out here to Sam Harris.) There is some wisdom in the Bible, even in the mostly abhorrent Old Testament. But there is also wisdom in Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Jefferson, Wordsworth, Darwin, Einstein, and too many others to name. All of these humans, including the very human authors of the Bible, have something to say to us from their own quests to come to terms with our essentially tragic fate.

I don't need final dogmatic answers to the great questions. I am satisfied pondering what history’s great thinkers have had to say about it. I am willing and able to admit, ultimately, that "I don't know." This, in my view, is a far more intellectually satisfying answer (and a far more intellectually honest one) than saying, with dogmatic certainty: "an incomprehensible being using incomprehensible powers made it so." That does nothing for me.  Nothing.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Random Rambling Reflections . . .

. . . on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001[1]

Our memories may be the single faculty separating us from the animals.  But memory is a tricky and often deceptive gift.  Wallace Stegner was able to construct an entire novel – his nearly flawless final effort Crossing to Safety – out of the blurry line between the seen and the remembered.  And of course the great English romantic poets – Wordsworth supreme among them – employed their memories to sublime artistic effect:

The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.[2]

What do I remember about September 11, 2001?  More than I probably would have if I had not written a detailed journal entry of my experiences in midtown Manhattan that day.  And here, already, I am confronted with a question:  do I really remember these things or do I just think I remember them because I have re-read my journal entry several times over the past ten years (usually around the anniversary of the attacks).

A good way to test my memory is to try to recall the days and weeks immediately following 9/11 – the things I did not write down. 

If memory serves:

I did not go into Manhattan on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  I seem to remember the financial markets were closed for a few days.  My office was also closed – for what is a Wall Street law firm to do when the markets are closed?  I had previously scheduled to spend Friday at my alma mater, Seton Hall Law School, interviewing potential summer associates for my employer Davis Polk & Wardwell.  There was no reason to cancel those interviews because they did not require travel into the city. (We lived in Clifton, New Jersey.)  I remember going to the interviews but little else about them.

I am fairly certain I went to work the following Monday – September 17th.  I have no specific memories of that first day back in the office.  But I do have flashes of memory about what it was like commuting into the city from September 17th onward.  I used to take a bus from near Allwood Circle in Clifton to the bus terminal in midtown Manhattan.  This involved a trip through the Lincoln Tunnel every day.  Immediately after the attacks, they began stopping everyone entering the tunnel for a detailed security check that involved sliding bomb-detection mirrors under the vehicles.  I remember thinking how hard it would suck to die of drowning if someone managed to blow up the tunnel while my bus was going through it.

In the Port Authority bus terminal, safely on the other side of that underwater death trap, a large ad hoc display sprung up containing photographs of missing people and touching letters from their loved ones.  It started as a small affair but it grew into a massive spread of several tables with posters, cards, and photographs.  At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, someone started playing a looped recording of “Amazing Grace” – the dreadful Scottish bagpipes version.  This God-awful music echoed non-stop throughout the entire bus terminal.  I do not remember it ever ceasing from those first days after 9/11 until I stopped going through the Port Authority in March of 2002.  I sometimes wonder if it is still playing there – in all of its dreary monotony.[3]  (In fairness, one should not expect the grieving families of lost firefighters to subordinate pathos to musical taste.)
One day, probably several weeks after the initial clean-up had taken place, I was downtown to take notes for my boss at a hearing in the federal bankruptcy court. (Davis Polk represented a large Enron creditor.)  The courthouse was close to Ground Zero so I took the opportunity after the hearing to peer through some of the chain-link barricades surrounding the still devastated area.  There was a massive glass and steel globe-shaped thing lying on its side on the ground.  It looked like something out of Mad Max’s Thunderdome.

More than any specific image, however, I mostly remember how it felt in those first weeks and months: as if civilization was beginning to unravel.  It was a completely helpless feeling.  Someone, somewhere – probably on one of the right winger websites I frequented in those days – had posted lines from W.B. Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .

The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity . . .

Another staple of right winger websites at the time was Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the terror and peril awaiting societies who reject the ancient moral verities (“copybook headings”) in favor of embracing fashionable, trendy, politically-correct bullshit:

As surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings in terror and slaughter return. 

For weeks, I was in a stupor as I went through the motions of showing up to work and pretending I gave a rat’s ass about JP Morgan’s rights as a creditor in the Enron bankruptcy.  Everyone seemed concerned about my well being – even an old girlfriend who looked me up and called to see how I was doing.

I needed to get as far away from New York City and the East Coast as I could – and fast.  Was that a snap judgment?

Fast forward ten years.  I marvel at all the changes in my personal life as well as out there in the big bad world.  Back then, I was a brand new lawyer (a glorified paralegal, if truth be told) working at a large Wall Street firm.  (Would I stoop to representing Wall Street for a good salary today?)  It was before 9/11, of course, but it was also before many other important events:  Before two costly and unnecessary wars.  Before Abu Ghraib, secret torture prisons and widespread illegal wiretaps (all in the name of security).  Before relocating our family to Colorado and away from the East Coast.  Before Hurricane Katrina.  Before the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman scandals.  Before I had any clue about Peak Energy or climate change or the “tragic-comedy of suburban sprawl.”  Before the BP Oil Spill.  Before the rise of the Tea Party, FoxNews, the conservative media, and their perfect exemplar (in anti-intellectual bufoonery) Sarah Palin.  Before Facebook, iPods, iPads, texting and "sexting."  Before collaterized debt obligations and the financial crisis of 2008.  Before my Dad died.  Before the kids were out of diapers.  Before Sparks Willson or Wood & Ramirez.  Before I gave a shit about gardening, or poetry, or the important difference between a "Hamiltonian" America and a "Jeffersonian" one.  Before reading some two to three hundred books – especially life-altering ones like Walden, Angle of Repose, Affluenza and The Long Emergency.   

Lots of change, to be sure.  But looking back at my journal entry for January 8, 2001, I am struck by how little my core values have changed:

            I have such mixed feelings about life as a Davis Polk associate.  It is certainly a great firm offering unmatchable opportunities for young lawyers.  I like the work and love the people (and of course, the pay is nothing to sniff at!!).  Yet in many ways I feel out of place there.  I'm convinced I have the intelligence to succeed at a big firm like DPW -- though I'm not sure that I can embrace the "lifestyle" (or perhaps I mean the "persona") of the big city corporate lawyer. 

            When you get right down to it, I'm just a blue-collar kid from a small town in New England.  I want to earn a good living -- sure -- but time at home with family is much more important to me.  I don't care about many of the things that my co-workers care about -- professional prestige, opportunities to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, status symbols, etc. etc.  Maybe this is related to my small "l" libertarianism and my desire to just be left alone.  Cliché though it sounds, I'm a firm believer in the saying "I work to live, I don't live to work."  Basically, I want to earn a decent living and be done with it.  At Davis Polk, the controlling mentality is diametrically opposed to my point of view.

            To the ultra-rich, my current DPW salary ($135,000) would appear extremely modest.  Yet if I could make this kind of money for the rest of my life (adjusted for inflation), I would consider myself the luckiest SOB on the planet! 

            I mean, how much does one need?  Right now I've got a very modest, but comfortable 4 bedroom house, two cars, plenty of cash to pay my bills and eat well, and enough spending money to take vacations once or twice a year.  I'm richer than probably 90% of the people on the planet.

            American standards of living have changed so much in the past few decades. So much so that my current level of comfort -- modest by today's American standards -- would have been undreamed of by the overwhelming majority of people forty years ago.  L---- sometimes chides me for using standards of 40 (or 400) years ago to say that we have it really great -- but I think it's an entirely fair way of looking at things.  How can we say that what was good enough for a king 400 years ago -- a fucking king -- is not good enough for us?  Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (a.k.a. William Shakespeare) -- who lived in relative luxury 400 years ago -- did not have 1/100th of the creature comforts that I enjoy today.  Yet he was able to lead an amazingly rich life.  Gee, how could he have led such a rich live without SUVs, satellite television, junky decorative knick-knacks, and over-priced (e.g. Starbucks) coffee -- to name just a few of the outrageous things that I waste money on?

            Madison Avenue has got us all thinking we must have so many things that we could frankly do quite well without.  Most Americans would be immeasurably better off if they would just work hard from 9 to 5, save 10% to 20% of their wages, turn off their fucking TVs, and read!!  Instead people waste countless trillions on crap that adds little or no value to their lives.  I'm as bad as an offender as the next guy.  I would love to go cold turkey on a lot of this crap -- but I have more than myself to consider.  When it comes to material possessions, give me a kitchen to cook good meals in, a warm bed to sleep in, my guitar and CDs, and a small room (i.e. library) to keep this computer and all my many books in and I'm as happy as a pig in mud.  (Notice how even this modest list exceeds the typical possessions of 99.999999999% of the human beings who have ever breathed air upon this earth).

I cringe a little bit at the writing but not at the essential content.  What is perhaps most striking is this:  I was a hard-core, free-market, libertarian true-believer when I wrote those words.  Shouldn’t I have been exactly the type of person who wanted to make a killing on Wall Street while raping the planet? 

And yet, after all the sturm and drang of the past ten years, I am mildly astonished to find that I am still “the stupid old kid from 28 Blake St.”[4]:  overly introspective, almost to the point of distraction (if not paralysis); “spiritual” – though that word does not mean what it meant ten years ago (much less thirty years ago); mostly ambivalent about money and material possessions; generous, I would like to think;  somewhat lacking in social confidence, especially with “cool” men and all women; drawn to interesting or quirky people but wanting mostly to be left alone.

            But I am different in many important ways, too.  I get on Facebook for about 10 or 15 minutes every day and I am struck by what appears to be a complete lack of what I will call “personal growth” on the part of so many of my homies back in New England.  One of my favorite quotes – in fact it’s on my Facebook profile – is from Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr.:

            Man's mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions. 

I recently finished reading Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason and it left me feeling rather depressed about how militantly anti-intellectual our culture has become.  We will never solve any of the bigger problems out there if we have lost the ability to think. 

We will not find any help in the book of ancient Jewish fairy tales.  (Shout out to Bill Maher.)  Nor will praying accomplish anything.  Nor will we get anywhere by pretending that “We’re number one.”  Case in point:  during halftime at the Air Force Academy’s homecoming football game – one day before the tenth anniversary – they rolled out this gigantic flag that covered almost the entire football field (in case anyone forgot what country they were in).  They then blasted over the gigantic stadium scoreboard PA system several patriotic tunes including “Grand Old Flag.” The reader will recall that this song contains the lyric that America is the country where “there’s never a boast or brag.”  Maybe one in a thousand people in the crowd caught the irony of playing that song while that giant boastful flag was on display.  (The pre-game show featured a few boastful fly-overs by military jets.)

We have a major presidential candidate who recently issued an official proclamation asking citizens to “pray for rain” – and most Americans see absolutely nothing wrong with this, when in fact, it is about the most disturbing fucking thing I’ve seen come out of a politician’s mouth in a very long time.  Ten years ago, I was not very far removed from supporting people like this.

            The country has changed tremendously – and mostly for the worst.  We got hit on 9/11 and we lashed out like the spoiled entitled babies that we are.  Listening to the minute-by-minute rebroadcast of 9/11 that MSNBC was playing on the tenth anniversary, I was struck by how many times the news people said – spontaneously – that the attacks will demand a swift “retaliation.”  But why “retaliation”?  Why not hunt down and punish the people who did it.  “Retaliation” suggests “getting even” by killing an equal number of innocent people and destroying an equal amount of their property.  Ten years later, we should be ashamed at what our “retaliation” has done.

[1] I began writing these reflections on September 11, 2011 – exactly ten years after everything supposedly changed.  I discovered there was far too much to write down on a single Sunday afternoon and so I am just now concluding these thoughts several weeks later.
[2] From “The Solitary Reaper,” by William Wordsworth.
[3] If you must loop something without end, why not something beautiful and transcendent like Beethoven’s “Hymn of Thanksgiving” – the middle movement from his late String Quartet Op. 132?  Most people wouldn't know that it's a hymn of “thanksgiving.”
[4] How I once referred to myself, at around age 11, in a pathetic self-pitying letter to my father.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Gem From Robert Ingersoll

I have easily 500 "good" books on my shelves.  Only seven are esteemed enough (by me) to be sitting between bookends, on my desk, within arms reach at all times:  (i) the complete works of Edward de Vere ("William Shakespeare"), (ii) Thoreau's Walden, (iii) Homer's The Iliad, (iv) Willa Cather's My Antonia, (v) Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (vi) Clay Jenkinson's Becoming Jefferson's People and (vii) Joseph Lewis' Ingersoll The Magnificent

Lewis' book is an admittedly hagiographic compilation of "gems" on all sorts of subjects by the great agnostic Col. Robert Ingersoll.  Largely forgotten today, Ingersoll was world famous in the three decades after the American Civil War for his oratory and his brilliant critiques of revealed religion.  Though best known for his witty skewering of organized religion and the Judeo-Christian Bible, look how eloquent he could be on other topics:

I know a great many rich men and I have read about a great many others, and I do not envy them.  They are no happier than I am.  You see, after all, few rich men own their property.  The property owns them.  It gets them up early in the morning.  It will not let them sleep; it makes them suspect their friends.  Sometimes they think their children would like to attend a first-class funeral.  Why should we envy the rich?  They have fear; we have hope.  They are on the top of the ladder; we are close to the ground.  They are afraid of falling, and we hope to rise.

Why should we envy the rich?  They never drank any colder water than I have.  They never ate any lighter biscuits or any better corn bread.  They never drank any better wine, or felt better after drinking it, than I have; than you have.  They never saw any more glorious sunsets with the great palaces of amethyst and gold, and they never saw the heavens thicker with constellations; they never read better poetry.  They know no more about the ecstasies of love than we do.  They never got any more pleasure out of courting than I did.  Why should we envy the rich?  I know as much about the ecstasies of love of family and friends as they.  They never had any better weather in June than I have or you have.  They can buy splendid pictures.  I can look at them.  And who owns a great picture or a great statue?  The man who bought it?  Possibly, and possibly not.  The man who really owns it, is the man who understands it, that appreciates it, the man into whose heart its beauty and genius come, the man who is ennobled and refined and glorified by it.

They never heard any better music than I have.  When the great notes, winged like eagles, soar to the great dome of sound, I have felt just as good as though I had a hundred million dollars.

It almost sounds like something you might read in Walden.

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11th Journal

Journal entry, word-for-word, from September 11, 2001:

As my bus is approaching the Lincoln Tunnel at approximately 8:50am, I remember hearing a woman seated behind me telling the person on the other end of her cell phone conversation, "I'm not kidding you -- it has a big hole in it."  Having no idea what she is talking about, I continue reading my book, The Black Book of Communism, without looking up.  (Had I only looked up, I would have had a perfect view of the first damaged tower).  Somehow, I manage to make it through the Lincoln Tunnel, across midtown on the subway, and up to the main concourse of Grand Central Station before realizing what has happened.  The time is now approximately 9:15am.  As I pass the "Hudson News" bookstore on the main concourse level, I notice swarms of people crowded around the store's two television screens.  "What's going on?," I inquire of one of the many gathered New Yorkers.  "A couple of planes have crashed into the World Trade Center," comes the reply.

            Crashed?  My split second reaction is that there must have been some terrible mishap.  This lasts for about three seconds.  "Did you say two planes?"  I ask the man again.  "Yes, two," comes the reply.  "Well then that's gotta be deliberate," I answer aloud -- more to myself than to my fellow commuter.  "Holy shit," I mutter.

            By the time I reach my office five minutes later, it seems everyone has begun slowly to grasp the horror of the situation.  Radios are playing in almost every office -- a weirdly exciting fact.  I begin trying to get through to Lisa on the telephone.  After a few unsuccessful attempts, I finally connect.  She is, of course, relieved that I'm O.K. -- but it is clear that the situation has not really sunk in with her, either.  We're talking about it -- but almost as if it's merely an unusual news story affecting people far away.  Eventually, things begin to sink in and Lisa breaks down crying. 

            I manage to get through to Marianne and Clem.  I learn from Marianne that another plane has hit the Pentagon.  Shortly thereafter, we begin hearing that one of the two trade towers has completely collapsed.  This is when the head really begins to spin.  It's clear by now that an event of monumental and historic significance has just occurred a mere two miles down the street.

            We have a real estate department luncheon scheduled today.  I ask Jim McIntyre if it is still on and he replies something like "I don't see why not.  Everyone is here and so is the food."  Needless to say, after the second tower collapses and the enormity of the situation begins to sink in with everyone, the luncheon is cancelled.  I end up eating in the cafeteria with Jim.  I am strangely annoyed at how aloof he seems.  I'm sure he is every bit as affected as me.  How odd that I am annoyed at him!

            I am sure that I will be sleeping in my office tonight.  The mayor has ordered all of the bridges and tunnels closed indefinitely.  At about 1:00pm, I take a walk around midtown (in my stiff, two day old, leather shoes) to try and clear my head.  There are people everywhere but very few cars. A gorgeous sunny day.  It feels very strange.  Looking south down Madison Ave., I can see the huge plumes of smoke from where the twin towers had stood only hours before.  After about an hour of walking, my feet begin to ache so I head back to the office.  On the 8th floor, the tech support people have set up television sets so people can watch the coverage on CNN.  This is the first time that I see the footage of the planes flying into the buildings and the buildings collapsing.  The mind simply cannot compute these images.  I feel as though it must be some fancy special effects from the latest Hollywood action movie.

            The radio stations begin announcing that some ferries are running to New Jersey.  Jim McIntyre and I decide to give it a shot.  If we can just get to the other side of the river, we figure, we should be able to get to our homes without too much difficulty.  After waiting in line for about 45 minutes for the "Circle Line" ferry, we luck-in to a new ferry that has just opened up a few blocks south.  I'm again annoyed at how aloof Jim seems about everything.  As the ferry is pulling away from Manhattan, I am looking back at the forever-changed downtown skyline -- in complete disbelief at what I'm seeing.  Jim is engaged in light conversation with a friend he bumped into on the ferry.  How can light conversation be possible for anyone at a time like this?

            Jim and I part ways on the other side.  He's headed for Holmdel -- I for Clifton.  I walk about a half-mile to the top of the entrance ramp for the Lincoln Tunnel (no cars anywhere -- an eerie feeling!).  On my way, some kind people are handing out cups of water in front a what looks like an old church building.  By the time I make it to the main highway, empty buses suddenly begin flooding out of the tunnel (or perhaps from some other point of origin, I cannot really tell) -- apparently headed for a central staging area at Giants Stadium.  One of the buses pulls over and offers to take me to Giants Stadium.  We get as far as Seacacus when the driver realizes that the road to Giants Stadium has been closed off for some reason.  Now I have no choice but to begin hoofing it home (about 10-12 miles away).  I make my way up to Route 3 and begin heading west.  Some asshole cop gives me a hard time about walking out on the empty highway.  I pretend to comply, walk a few hundred yards west off the shoulder of the road, and then resume heading down the highway proper.  My feet are beginning to kill me.  By the time I hit Giants Stadium (after about 4-5 miles of walking), I begin to wonder how much longer I can walk in these damn shoes!  I end up making a huge semicircle around the north of the stadium -- about 1/4 mile distant from the stadium itself -- in order to avoid bumping into all of the cops who have gathered there.  I just don't want any of them telling me to turn back or making me stay there for some lengthy period.

            On the far west side of the stadium, one of the buses that has gathered there has begun heading out on its route.  The driver pulls over and asks me where I'm headed.  I'm relieved to learn that his route runs within about 1 mile of my house.  I ride that distance -- relieved to be off my feet.  In fact, I'm feeling so good at this point that I get the wild idea to just walk the last mile (it's about 7:30pm at this point). I make it about 1/2 mile -- past at least one church that has its door open and is conducting some kind of impromptu memorial service -- and can go no further.  I end up calling Lisa on a pay phone near an intersection she knows well.  While I wait, I take off my shoes and socks and sit down on some concrete steps.  People are stopping at the traffic light -- many cars already are flying American flags.  I wonder if people can figure out why I'm sitting there with my shoes off.

            I'm of course very relieved when I finally get home.  I plunk down in the chair and watch the news coverage with Lisa for a little while.  A bomb threat at the Empire State Building is being reported.  I fully expect the thing to come crashing down -- but fortunately, it stands fast.  I remark to Lisa how glad I am that our kids are totally oblivious to all of this (ages 27 and 9 months).

            Thus ends the first day of the 21st century and the first battle of WWIII.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Everything Potent Is Dangerous

Wallace Stegner was one of the true greats of 20th century American letters.  Although no writer is likely ever to express "what I believe" perfectly, Stegner's contribution to Edward R. Murrow's 1950s radio show -- This I Believe -- is as close as anyone has yet come. 

Everything Potent is Dangerous

by Wallace Stegner

It is terribly difficult to say honestly, without posing or faking, what one truly and fundamentally believes. Reticence or an itch to make public confession may distort or dramatize what is really there to be said, and public expressions of belief are so closely associated with inspirational activity, and in fact so often stem from someone’s desire to buck up the downhearted and raise the general morale, that belief becomes an evangelical matter.

In all honesty, what I believe is neither inspirational nor evangelical. Passionate faith I am suspicious of because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and generally I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than with the sectarians who hang and burn them. I fear immoderate zeal, Christian, Moslem, Communist, or whatever, because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences, and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand.

I cannot say that I am even a sound Christian, though the code of conduct to which I subscribe was preached more eloquently by Jesus Christ than by any other. About God I simply do not know; I don’t think I can know.

However far I have missed achieving it, I know that moderation is one of the virtues I most believe in. But I believe as well in a whole catalogue of Christian and classical virtues: in kindness and generosity, in steadfastness and courage and much else. I believe further that good depends not on things but on the use we make of things. Everything potent, from human love to atomic energy, is dangerous; it produces ill about as readily as good; it becomes good only through the control, the discipline, the wisdom with which we use it. Much of this control is social, a thing which laws and institutions and uniforms enforce, but much of it must be personal, and I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do. Our reward for self-control and the acceptance of private responsibility is not necessarily money or power. Self-respect and the respect of others are quite enough.

All this is to say that I believe in conscience, not as something implanted by divine act, but as something learned from infancy from the tradition and society which has bred us. The outward forms of virtue will vary greatly from nation to nation; a Chinese scholar of the old school, or an Indian raised on the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, has a conscience that will differ from mine. But in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and the Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.

Man is a great enough creature and a great enough enigma to deserve both our pride and our compassion, and engage our fullest sense of mystery. I shall certainly never do as much with my life as I want to, and I shall sometimes fail miserably to live up to my conscience, whose word I do not distrust even when I can’t obey it. But I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier than most of the world’s millions, I am also born more obligated.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Witness Has Rights

     What is the best line in A Few Good Men – the classic courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise (as Navy defense lawyer Lt. Kafee) and Jack Nicholson (as Col. Jessup, the commander of Marine ground forces, Guantanamo Bay)?  Next to “You can’t handle the truth,” most people would probably choose the climactic moment when Jessup confesses to the crime of ordering the savage beating (resulting in death) of a young troubled Marine under his command:

     Lt. Kafee: Did you order the Code Red?

     Col. Jessup: You’re goddamned right I did!

     But this is not, I respectfully submit to my colleagues of the Bar, the best line in the movie.  The best line is what Lt. Kafee says immediately after Jessup’s confession:

      May it please the Court.  I suggest the jury be dismissed so that we can move to an immediate Article 39 session.  The witness has rights.

     Jessup is then immediately read his rights.  For this small town American lawyer, that’s the goose-bump moment.  That’s the lump-in-the-throat moment. 

     What this small town American lawyer is going to say next will offend some readers.  At a minimum, in this community of four major military installations, it will sound undiplomatic.  But I’m not a diplomat and this needs to be said:  Our military forces stationed abroad – in places like Guantanamo Bay (of all places!) – do next to nothing to protect our constitutional liberties as set forth in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere.

     I will try to explain.  But first, back to the movie.

     On the witness stand, Jessup is cocksure, condescending, and absolutely certain that Marines like him are the only thing keeping lazy & complacent pansies like Kafee from losing their liberties.  Jessup lectures Kafee that we live in a world with walls and that those walls need people like him to stand guard.  The implication is that if the walls go unguarded – anywhere on the planet, apparently – then some boogey-man aggressor will cross a vast ocean, install a despotic form of government, and rip up the U.S. Constitution.

     And who is going to protect us, asks Jessup, from this terrible (and for some reason, always imminent) fate:

     [to Kafee] You? You, Lt. WEIN-berg?

     Actually, Col. Jessup, it is Lt. Weinberg who will protect us.  Because here’s the thing.  None of the tyrants of the 20th century posed any risk to the constitutional rights of Americans.  Hitler could not cross the English Channel.  (Conversely, think of the almost inhuman effort involved when the Allies crossed in the other direction on D-Day.)  He was not going to cross the Atlantic Ocean – ever – and institute unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  There was no possibility that he would ever come here to institute a state religion or to eliminate freedom of the press or to implement cruel and unusual punishments.  He was a menace to European civilization, he was a murderer, and he needed to be taken out.  American forces played a crucial and justly proud role in his necessary demise.  But the point here is that his demise had nothing to do with eliminating a threat to the constitutional freedoms of Americans.

     Throughout our history, our armed forces have been sent to fight wars for lots of reasons – some very noble (e.g., taking out the Nazis) and some less so (Crazy Horse would have something to say here).  They have fought for territory (the Indian Wars; the Spanish-American War).  They have fought for access to resources (the two Gulf Wars; the Second World War).  They have fought to defend important allies (the First World War) and to destroy murderous tyrants (the Second World War).  They have fought to expand the country’s geopolitical influence (all of the above, as well as Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan).  In a few cases, they have even fought for revenge (the Second World War and Afghanistan).  But at least since the Civil War, America’s armed forces have not fought one single war (or even a limited military campaign) in defense of any constitutional freedoms – for the simple reason that those freedoms have never been seriously at risk from external threats.

     I love our military.  They are asked to do a terrible job and get little but empty praise from politicians in return.  But the idea that our military protects our constitutional freedoms is one of the Grand Myths of American History.  Lt. Kafee’s four simple words to the arrogant war-monger Col. Jessup blows that myth out of the water:

     “The witness has rights.” Here, in an American courtroom, and nowhere else.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Visit to Tulum

An excerpt from the vacation journal (July 12, 2011):

Today, we took the bus tour to the Mayan ruins at Tulum (Spanish for “walls,” we were told).  It’s right on the coast about as far south from Playa del Carmen as Cancun is north.  The area of the ruins is amazing but the parking lot and shopping area where you pull up is all tarted up for American tourists with the standard souvenir shacks and aggressive merchants.  At least they have the good sense to put all the touristy stuff a full kilometer inland so as not to ruin the experience – no pun intended.  We bought a small can of insect-repellent for ten bucks (!) because the tour guide on the bus warned us that disease carrying insects were not unheard of in these here parts.  (He probably gets a commission.)
The site of the ruins is breath-taking in its beauty and awe-inspiring in the sense of the “long view” it tends to invoke in a thoughtful observer.  We received a short walking tour where we learned some fascinating history about the Mayans, their religious practices and class system, their first interactions with the Spanish, and their ultimate demise.  They gave a cheezy little "demonstration" of a human sacrifice – a practice they say evolved fairly late in the arc of the Mayan story (which ran, roughly from 1,500 B.C. to 1,500 A.D).  Proper sacrifice technique was critical because the victim had to be alive long enough to see his own heart beating before dying.  And the Mayan God would not be propitiated by anything less than a still-beating heart.
At one point, the tour guide mentioned that it was considered an honor to volunteer for a human sacrifice.  The Mayan priests convinced the lower class rubes (who, incidentally, lived outside the walls of the city) that volunteers went straight to heaven – by-passing the numerous levels of purgatory and heaven-lite that normal schlubbs had to endure on their way up to the penthouse suites of the divine realm.  I found myself literally laughing out loud at this.  Not at the practice, per se, but at how little the holy-roller hucksters have changed.  We may not have any more religions that practice human sacrifice, but the priests, pastors, rabbis and imams still have the masses convinced that special favors await them if they will just do what the holy man says, which today, usually means mailing in lots of cash!  Or, fly an airplane into a tall building and get 72 virgins in paradise.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Shakespeare's England

June 13, 2011

The Thomas Jefferson Hour
Attn:  Mr. Clay Jenkinson
P.O. Box 7132
Bismarck, ND 58507

            Subject:  Shakespeare’s England

Dear Clay:

            Thank you for all you are doing to bring intelligent discussion of the humanities to a broad listening public.  Our national discourse would be greatly elevated if there were more shows like yours (and fewer hours of talk radio).

            As I write this letter, I believe you have just returned from your cultural tour of “Shakespeare’s England.”  I assume you are aware that a growing number of historians, scholars, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and Shakespearean actors & directors have joined the ranks of giant intellects like Mark Twain in rejecting as preposterous the notion that the man baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon as “Guilianmus filius Johannes Shakspere” wrote the plays and poems of “William Shakespeare.”  Yet, I gather from your inclusion of Stratford in your cultural tour that you do not share Twain’s skepticism.

            In my more than ten years of reading almost everything ever published on this question, I find that the defenders of the traditional attribution really hate this topic.  And if there is one thing that seems to exasperate them more than the topic itself, it is being pestered about it by people like me.  (This, in itself, I find revealing.)  However, given your demonstrated tolerance for good faith disagreement and spirited debate, I trust you will indulge me in a few pages of comment on this subject – and why it is so incredibly important to us – all with the purpose of suggesting that your return from Shakespeare’s England would be an excellent opportunity to take up this topic on one of your shows.  (I have in mind something similar to the “debate” you had with William Hyland on the Sally Hemings affair.  There must be some way to put a “Jeffersonian” spin on this.  Enlightenment reason versus faith, perhaps?)

            So much has been written on this subject that it is difficult to summarize it in a few pages.  I will do my best.

            The case against Will Shaxper[1] – a man who is well-documented as having been a litigious grain merchant and probable shareholder in the Globe Theater – can be summarized as follows:  the author of the canon, whoever he was, must have been highly educated in numerous fields of study including the classics and the law (to name only two).  On the testimony of his writings, he must have been well-traveled, knowledgeable of Elizabethan court life and court politics, and familiar with aristocratic manners and pastimes.  After centuries of searching, not one shred of evidence has turned up to indicate that Will Shaxper ever (i) wrote anything in his own hand except six illegible signatures (with different spellings), (ii) owned a single book, (iii) attended any school of any kind, (iv) read or wrote in any foreign language, (v) had any knowledge or training in the law, (vi) interacted with any courtier of Elizabeth’s court, or (vii) traveled anywhere except on the road between London and Stratford.  His parents and his children signed documents with an “X” indicating they were illiterate.  And yet, we are expected to believe that in between these two generations of illiterates there blossomed the creator of modern English!  The orthodox explanation for all of this is just one word: “genius.”  But “genius” does not give a person the obscure knowledge that a dish of baked doves was a time-honored northern Italian gift (Merchant of Venice) as Mark Anderson puts it.  Knowledge like that comes only from life experience.

            A truly overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence has been amassed to suggest – I will not say “prove” – that “William Shakespeare” was the brilliantly-chosen nom de plume for the eccentric Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.  (The brilliance of the pen-name is itself a fascinating point that I must pass over here.  Suffice it to say: the pen or “spear”, wielded or “shaken,” is mightier than the sword.)

Only a few highlights of the Oxfordian position are possible in this short space:

            De Vere’s maternal uncle and tutor, Arthur Golding, translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English.  Golding’s translation is alluded to so often in the canon that it has been called by many "Shakespeare’s favorite book."  Another of de Vere’s relatives, Henry Howard, invented the sonnet style we now refer to as “Shakespearean” (14 lines of iambic pentameter).  De Vere was highly educated and fluent in several languages – as we would expect the author of the canon to be.  He had access to all of the sources of Shakespeare’s plays (many of them not translated into English in his time).  He was trained in the law – an area of learning that provides such ready and fertile ground for metaphor in the plays.  He was one of the highest-ranking noblemen in the realm, occupying an earldom that dated to William the Conqueror in 1066.  He had intimate knowledge of the workings of Elizabeth’s court – satired with such ferocity in the plays.  He traveled extensively throughout Italy to the very cities featured in the plays.  (He was so enamored of Italy – where so many of the plays are set – that he was lampooned by his contemporaries as the “Italianate Englishman.”)  He was a documented lover and patron of literature and the theatre.  Some of his teenage poems survive.  They sound just like what you would expect the teenage “Shakespeare” to sound like.  Contemporary records indicate he was “among the best” writers of comedies, yet strangely, none of those comedies have survived under his own name.  The famous Ashbourne portrait of “Shakespeare” is very likely a portrait of Edward de Vere passed down to his descendants:

From the cover of "Shakespeare" By Another Name, by Mark Anderson.
             The above image contains two portraits known to be from Shakespeare's time.  On the left, is the so-called Ashbourne portrait of "Shakespeare."  On the right is a known portrait of Edward de Vere, painted circa 1575 when he was in his mid 20s.  The sitter of the Ashbourne portrait looks a few years older.  But are they not the same person?
            Perhaps most persuasively, events from de Vere’s well-documented life are retold so frequently in the plays that one could be forgiven for describing the Shakespearean canon as de Vere’s autobiography.  The authorship literature is chock full of examples, large and small.  Every newly discovered fact about de Vere’s life seems to show up somewhere in the plays or poems.  Simply put, there are many, many, many correspondences between his life and the canon and they cannot all be chalked up to “coincidence.”  Either Edward de Vere wrote these plays or someone with intimate knowledge of his life – the Warwickshire grain merchant Will Shaxper? – decided for some strange reason to make this eccentric courtier’s life the template for the greatest works in the English language.

            To the defenders of tradition, all of this is so much lunacy.  When they do stoop to address the matter at all, they often leave the impression that no Oxfordian scholar has ever made a single good point in defense of Oxford’s candidacy (or against Shaxper’s).  Check out any of the brief “biographies” of Shaxper that one finds in the most widely-used editions of the plays (e.g., Signet, Pelican, Folger, etc.).  The authorship question is briefly raised and quickly dismissed with accusations of “snobbery” (i.e., only a snob could think that only a nobleman could be a genius).  (The Oxfordian argument goes more like this: this particular genius sounds an awful lot like a certain nobleman.)

            The traditional attribution strikes me as having many of the hallmarks of a religious dogma.  It has its high priests (nowadays, more or less limited to the ivory tower and the Stratford souvenir peddlers), its holy shrine (Stratford) and its resistance to open inquiry (a tiny minority of English departments tolerate “authorship studies” – akin to teaching Darwinian evolution at Oral Roberts University).  What I would give to get someone like Harold Bloom in a room, tie him to a chair, and inject him with truth serum!  I find it impossible to believe that he would not at least admit that one or two Oxfordians have made one or two good points over the years.  And yet, in public, Professor Bloom condescendingly dismisses the whole topic as the “Oxfordian lunacy.”  Who is the snob?

            More and more, the argument one hears from the Stratfordians is that “it doesn’t matter” who wrote these plays.  It absolutely matters, Clay!  First, there is the simple notion of historical truth and justice.  Why would anyone want to be ignorant about the true identity of the greatest author in our language?  It matters.  And why would anyone want to deny the true author the immortality he deserves?  It matters.  We have good reason to believe that de Vere chaffed under the anonymity forced upon him by circumstances.[2]  If the penny-pinching Stratford burgher is not the true author, could there be a greater literary injustice than that he has worn the laurels earned by de Vere?  It matters, Clay.  It really matters.

            Also, if you don’t know the first thing about “William Shakespeare” – namely, who he was – how can you even begin to understand his works?  On a recent show you described Much Ado About Nothing as a “problem play.”  It is only a “problem” if you have the wrong author.  Read in light of de Vere’s known and documented life experiences, the play is easily understood as one of his many attempts to come to terms with his difficult marriage to Anne Cecil.  (Anne Cecil, by the way, was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  She was the model for Ophelia in Hamlet.  Lord Burghley, de Vere’s father-in-law, was the universally-acknowledged model for Polonius.  Is it a “coincidence” that Anne and Burghley were part of de Vere’s inner circle?  Does Shaxper have any known or documented connection to these people?)

            I cannot articulate the importance of getting Shakespeare right more succinctly than Mark Anderson did in the final paragraph of his book “Shakespeare” By Another Name:

In the final analysis, repatriating Edward de Vere’s life to the Shakespeare canon provides motivation behind the characters and plots, charts an artistic path intrinsic to the flawed but fascinating life of the artist, uncovers new levels of autobiographical meaning in the greatest works of English literature, and replaces the incomprehensible mystery of a deified genius with a comprehensible – if still incomparable – man who, for all his failures, became the very breath and soul of the English-speaking world.

            I am aware of the fallacy of using “arguments from authority” as logical proofs.  So I offer the following “Honor Roll of Skeptics” only to disprove the common slander that authorship skeptics are a bunch of lunatics and cranks:  John Adams, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Kenneth Branaugh, Justice John Paul Stevens, Justice William Brennan, and Justice Harry Blackmun – to name a few.  There are many, many more.

Hollywood has finally gotten around to telling this story with a blockbuster movie called “Anonymous” (due in theatres on September 30, 2011).  Roland Emmerich of “Independence Day” fame is the film’s director.  From the official trailer (available on YouTube), the movie looks typically overdone with distracting special effects and the like.  (Is CGI really needed to depict Elizabethan England?).  Worse, it appears the script will butcher the case for Oxford with speculative side-claims (e.g., Elizabeth I and de Vere were lovers).  Hollywood!  Despite it apparent flaws, I am very hopeful that this major motion picture will bring some much needed attention to this most important of historical “mysteries.”  I live with the hope that in my lifetime Edward de Vere will be universally recognized as the real-life man behind the pen-name “William Shakespeare.”
            Henry James once wrote:  “I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”  If Thomas Jefferson can doubt the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, surely we can join Henry James in doubting the divinity of William of Stratford.

                                                                                    Kindest regards,

P.S. We met very briefly in Salida, Colorado in September of 2010.  You were there performing Theodore Roosevelt.  Excellent!  I asked you about possibly coming to speak to Care & Share Food Bank about sustainable agriculture.  We may still reach out to you about this through your booking agent.  In any event, I hope to see you again sometime soon in Salida.

[1] It is interesting that the Stratford documents almost always spell the last name in a manner suggesting a “short a” pronunciation (e.g., Shaxper, Shagsper, Shackspere, Shakspere, etc.).
[2] Hamlet (dying):  O God Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.  Hamlet, Act V. Scene II (emphasis mine).