Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?


The sky, like a summer smile, is smudged with clouds, and the unwarm spring air baffles the jacket I grabbed on my way out of the house. I turn a corner, and there he is, walking towards me, eyes big with recognition. A few paces back, a woman in her fifties trails behind. It’s his mother, I know.

I see him often on my walks through the broad sides of the town, lying on the sidewalk, or sprawled against a curb, gazing at the meaning of things, his mother nearby but unobtrusive, though his age is at least sixteen. His discourse is with the wind, the texture of concrete, the colors of an oil slick.

Today, he sees me.

“Richard, Richard, Richard!” he shouts in an explosion of joy.

“It’s Mike,” I say. “You got it right last time, John.”

“Mike, Mike, Mike!” He extends his hand to shake. I take it. Like the sidewalk, it is surprisingly rough. A dark cloud scuds past, revealing the sun that was there all along.

We part, each of us with spring in his step.

Time and the swelling tide

I was just out walking in the town I live in.  An unseasonably nice day, warm and breezy, like the best days of early fall.  Then it hit me: my generation may very well be the last to experience habitable climates on most of Earth.

It is almost certainly too late to adopt enough changes to avoid disaster.  As for our social preoccupations, they are vexing, for sure, but not nearly on an order of magnitude comparable to environmental issues.  No matter how our current crises play out, how sordid or how sublime our responses to the xenophobia raging across the planet, it will all take its place in history, alongside all the ages, dark, golden, or forgotten.

If there still is history.  If the effluent we keep pumping into the air leaves us with a future, let alone history.

In a way, it’s a self-correcting problem.  Either we correct our course, which seems increasingly unlikely, or we render our planet inhospitable.  In either case, our cultures will change, and our sheer numbers will decrease, in the former case by intelligent design, in the latter by brute force.  The earth will return to its inanthropic cycles, none the worse for wear, to whatever state counts as normal.

We are far too young a species to grasp what that is.  Earth has passed through phases as diverse as completely covered with ice, an atmosphere poisonous to virtually any life, and desiccation more severe and universal than anything since we crawled out from our ancestral apes into the brave new world.  Through most of it, life had yet to occur, much less evolve, and even when it had, it clung tenuously to existence.  At least five times since it’s emergence, life has been almost wiped out.  Even our own species was squeezed through a fine and narrow filter some 60,000 years ago, when genetics point to a breeding population of Homo sapiens of less than 2,000.  Some scholars speculate that it was during this period that our evolving intelligence was given a swift kick to accelerate it, in response to the demographic crisis.

Given how that is turning out, I’m not very optimistic.  I hope I’m wrong.

The long, long silly season

Hard to believe, but it’s still over a year until the election we’re all obsessing about. That’s more than enough time for all the current front runners to fade away, and for new ones to emerge from nowhere. Meanwhile, we’re filling Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, blogs, with not so much political opinion as ad hominem. Never have slings and arrows so thoroughly disdained outrageous defeat. Have at them now, lads, if they disappear, you’ll have missed your chance to smite those who disagree with your clan. Come to think of it, disagreement isn’t even necessary, just designation as the Enemy.

The worst part of all this is the ugly deterioration of discourse in social media. Of course, the bar was never set very high to begin with, but now it’s steadily approaching negative numbers. More like limbo than the high jump. How low can you go?

There’s an insidious dynamic at work, one which, I admit, has affected me at times as well. You make some statement, simplistic because, in the buzz of the moment, you don’t feel like putting in all the nuance, all the exceptions and caveats. Besides, what sells on social media is the punchy one-liner. In any case, you assume your friends will get all that, because they know you so well.

But then, it turns out they don’t. Someone responds with an objection, which itself ignores nuance, the better to firmly repudiate the shallowness of your post. In other words, by this point, the two of you have posted opinions that, although you generally find the gist agreeable, you do not wholly buy into. It could stop right there, and often does. All it takes is one side or the other opting out.

But sometimes, you just can’t seem to leave it alone. You feel wounded; it’s a kind of betrayal for a friend to think you would actually believe such simplicity. How could they, especially since their response is just as trivial? Besides, you’ve thought of a zinger that will stop the whole process by making it clear you have the superior position.

You’re off and running. The “debate” slides further and further into sheer defensiveness, until each of you finds yourself fiercely defending a position you would never have even acknowledged before things got out of hand. Worse, a friendship is threatened over what usually amounts to a difference in nuance.

With any luck, something truly horrific hits the news just then, and the two of you can come together on what dangerous lunatics the other side are.

Damned PC!

Tired of all the political correctness? Hey, me too! Here’s a list of the rules of political correctness from when I was young.

• If you’re black, always defer to a white person
• If you’re female, always defer to a male
• If you’re a white male, always show your superiority by using the words nigger, chink, spic, pollack, and sheeny every chance you get
• Remember, when a woman says no, she means yes
• If someone uses a racial slur, a good-natured laugh and hearty agreement are the best responses
• Always laugh at jokes at the expense of minorities or women
• Never show an interest in shop class if you’re a girl
• Never show an interest in home ec if you’re a boy
• If you’re male, love sports. or at least pretend to
• If you’re female, wear clothes that emphasize your sexy bits, and give in to rape graciously
• If you’re an overweight college girl, be grateful when a frat boy takes you to an “ugly date” party
• If you’re male, always remember, no matter how ugly or disgusting you are, you get to pass judgment on the appearance of any female

Well, that’s just a few; there were many more. Bet you’re surprised that we’ve been fighting PC much longer than you suspected!

Paris, January 10, 2015

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Montrouge hostage situation, something new seems to be happening, both here and elsewhere.  It’s as if, in the wake of a horrific storm, the wind has shifted, away from the stale and toxic recriminations of the past, and a fresh breeze is lifting solidarity and a firm resolve to do things differently.  Yesterday’s Le Monde featured a full page ad signed by hundreds of Parisian Muslims denouncing the violence and declaring a resolve to stand with their country in a time of crisis.  Their country.

For the first time in my memory, Muslim leaders from around the world, including Iran, Palestine, Hezbollah, and others, have denounced the attacks as anti-Islamic, one leader going so far as to say the murderers have done immeasurably more harm to Islam than the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo ever could.

In spite of concerns aired early  on that these events might bolster the positions of the anti-immigrant right wing in Europe, the response from the non-Muslim population has been equally encouraging..  Statements by a host of spokesmen from various religions and institutions have been unanimous in their  insistence on separating the actions of the terrorists from the Islamic population at large.  All around Paris, the air of numb shock of yesterday has been replaced by one of firm resolve, not only to not give in to the terrorists, but to reexamine the policies and attitudes on all sides that might have contributed to the atmosphere which gave birth to the tragic events.

What has shocked people most is that the perpetrators spoke perfect, unaccented Parisian French.  They were French citizens, born and raised here, educated with all the egalitarian principles so cherished by the French.  For once, the city center and the banlieu, the troubled suburbs, seem to be speaking with one voice.  We are Paris, they seem to be saying, and we have been attacked, and we will stand together and defend ourselves.

We, all of us, and not just the French, have been given an unexpected gift in a moment of deep crisis: the opportunity for a real reexamination  of the road we have been following, and a chance to correct our course.

Is that the sun, breaking through the dark clouds?  I certainly hope s0.

The way we (would like to think) we were

People of a certain age, and of a certain background, when talking about poverty, have a tendency to minimize its impact.

“Hell, we didn’t have anything, but we didn’t even know we were poor,” they might say, and sage heads all around nod in agreement.

“We didn’t have television, or the internet.  We made our own diversion from stuff we found in alleys: a ball of tape for a baseball, an old broom handle for a bat.  We always had enough to eat, though.  We just made do.  We didn’t whine about our lives like the kids do nowadays.”

Two things strike me about such sentiments.  One is the inevitable filter of childhood memories.  We tend to remember things as much better than we thought they were at the time we experienced them; the farther away we get in time, the better things were.  Add the fact that, as children, we had a kind of natural optimism engendered by the fact that we weren’t responsible for keeping things above water.  It’s a certainty that our parents didn’t remember those times in such glowing terms.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about abject poverty; people who lived through that rarely even bring it up.  These are typically the lower middle class (working class, if you’re a socialist) reminiscing about days of yore.

The second thing that strikes me is the implicit sense of smugness, as if we were somehow superior to the young people of today.  I say “we” because I, too, come from that history; born in a refugee camp, I came to the US on the boat with my parents.

But what I feel, instead of smugness, is mostly good luck.

True, we didn’t have TV.  Hell, it was just invented.  Every block in my neighborhood had two or three houses with television; every other block someone knew of someone who had a color TV.  The internet simply didn’t exist.  There was radio, and the daily newspaper, and you could take in a movie twice a month or so.  Some of the theaters downtown even had AC, but you might pay a buck or more there; it was typically 25 cents elsewhere.  For anything else, you relied on the rumor mill.

The point is, we really had nothing to compare our lives with.  Like children everywhere, we looked around us, and thought that was what normal was.  You wore hand-me-downs because it was stupid to throw away perfectly good clothes.  You walked everywhere or took a bus because buses were ubiquitous and frequent, and cost pennies.  You’d cross the street to avoid some people, others would cross the street to avoid you.  Occasionally, if you saw someone coming, you’d turn around quickly, and hope you hadn’t been seen.  But nobody gunned you down (unless you happened to be black, and then it was open season).

I have to say, if I want to be scrupulously honest, that we whined as much as anyone today, though we called it grousing, or pissing and moaning.  There was one kind of angst, though, that we didn’t have a lot of, and that was class envy.

Rich kids, if we even knew of any, just seemed incompetent, had to have everything done for them, judging from stereotypes in the movies and comic books; we felt sorry for them, though we had no real idea of how they lived.  We envied guys with construction jobs, or steady work in a factory.

In today’s connected world we all know how everyone else lives, or rather how commercial interests would like us to believe everyone else lives, so we’ll want to buy their stuff.  We are probably the most propagandized and pitched bunch of humans in history, and, for the first time ever, we’re in it all together, all of humanity, pretty much everywhere.  As a result, it’s very easy to become envious of others, even if we don’t have it so bad ourselves, from an objective point of view.

Why is that?

It’s because we’re humans; it’s what we do.  We are the social species par excellence.  There are no authenticated cases of feral humans, that is, humans who have grown up without the company of any other humans, anywhere, at any time in history.  I say this with full knowledge of the alleged cases, none of which stand up to scrutiny.  We’re hard wired to be keenly aware of our situation relative to other humans around us, our place in society, if you will.  Add to that the fundamental concept of fairness (and not just human apparently!) that informs our moral and ethical rules, and poverty becomes a relative thing.

In short, we weren’t any better or wiser then than young people (or old ones for that matter) today, just less informed.

For the first 2.5 million years of our existence as a distinct species, we lived in groups of fewer than a hundred people, all of whom were of roughly equal status; when we interacted with other groups, they weren’t much different either.  Still, forget the paradise of the noble savage; the latest studies suggest hunter-gatherers lives were filled with conflict and jealousy as much as ours, but they didn’t see global disparities, and certainly nothing like the magnitude of the differences we see today.  That, and the hard fact that killing someone put a significant dent in the work force, which for them had an optimum size within a pretty small range, kept actual killing at low levels.

Not us, more’s the pity.  Fortunately, we’re intelligent.

Aren’t we?