Friday, September 1, 2017

Anti (Generalization, Part Two)

          It ain’t no use a-talking to me
          It’s just the same as talking to you
          Bob Dylan

At some time between two and three decades ago I read an op-ed article in the New York Times that caused me to gape in wonder.* The author, who was said to be in his twenties, was critical of a recent report about the attitude toward advertising of people in their twenties or so. The specific conclusions of the report and the objections of the op-ed writer are irrelevant here, none of the former or the latter being what I was taken up short by. What got me talking to myself were the terms used by the writer in his protest:
[Paraphrasing here] 
My generation feels that . . .
We believe that .  .  .
(and so forth).

I could not comprehend this—for I flashed back across the decades to when I was in my twenties, and practically screamed out loud that not only would I have not attempted to speak as a representative of “my generation,” I most assuredly would not have wanted to. 

I hate all of this generation nonsense (Gen-X, Gen-Y, and now the Millennials). As if the waters of time flow straight down a chute instead of heaving like the ocean’s waters, breaking one way, falling back with an undertow, spinning in eddies, and splashing and separating against the rocks. 

OK, I will admit that people of my age were given a name: “The Silent Generation.” My high school and college years were clouded by the maleficent specters of Senator Joseph McCarthy, HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), and their outriders. Most undergraduates, even members of the most historically political of student bodies, kept their heads low and eyes peeled to the ground. It was also a world, culturally, of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver”—antiseptic wholesomeness.

I could not—and did not--accept this culture. Politically, on campus I worked for academic freedom and civil liberties (when I ran—in a losing cause--for vice-president of Student Government, one of the campus papers called me “a hyper-militant civil libertarian,” a title I accepted as a badge of honor). When the odious Roy Cohn** (henchman of McCarthy and, years later, tutor of Trump) gave a speech on campus in April, 1955, I put it to him during the question period that like Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Senator Herbert Lehman, and one other person I name-checked but can’t remember, one could be a loyal American but opposed to McCarthy and his tactics, I was told off by the odious RC that that was “an anti-anti-communist” statement. I accepted that too as a badge of honor.

That was political. Culturally I also swam against the tide. Nothing could be more outside the mainstream than modern jazz (as Hamlet said, it was “caviare to the general”). I was a member of the Modern Jazz Society (what did we have, a dozen members?), and spent weekend nights at Birdland or Basin Street. 

If ever I had been asked for how many of my contemporaries I could claim to speak, I would probably have stopped at two.

Ah, but today a tidal wave of generational generalization is engulfing us. Here are just the first few hits on one magazine’s (The Atlantic) “millennials” search page:

The Unluckiest Generation: What Will Become of Millennials? - The ...
Apr 26, 2013 ... Coming of age in a recession has set back Millennials for decades. The good news? In the age of abundance, they could turn out to be pretty ...
Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense - The Atlantic
Jul 15, 2014 ... Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, ...
Millennials' Influence Is Growing—Can They Save the Democratic ...
Mar 4, 2017 ... The stakes in the parties' struggle for Millennials' allegiance are steadily rising as their numbers in the electorate increase. In 2000, the first ...
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? - The Atlantic
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they're on the brink of a mental-health ...
The Cheapest Generation - The Atlantic
Why Millennials aren't buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.
Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic? - The ...
May 2, 2012 ... Many books and articles celebrate Millennials (born, roughly, 1982 to 1999) as helpful, civically oriented young people who want to save the ...
Gifts, Debts, and Inheritances: Why So Many Minority Millennials ...
Nov 29, 2015 ... For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren't an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, ...
Why Millennials Aren't Buying Houses - The Atlantic
Aug 24, 2016 ... In the aftermath of the recession and weak recovery, the share of 18- to- 34 year olds—a.k.a.: Millennials—who own a home has fallen to a ...
Why Do Millennials Hate Groceries? - The Atlantic
Nov 2, 2016 ... First, many cultural changes for which Millennials are initially blamed really reflect broader trends affecting even the oldest consumers. Second ...

Enough already!

And apparently everything is done en masse. Crowds line up for a crack at the latest street fashion (assuming they’re not dancing around with bottles held aloft in beer or rum commercials). They scheme to get into sold-out concerts, and watch the same blockbuster streams online. They fall for the same food-craze-of-the-month and pack (or wait on line to pack) the restaurant du jour

If I were in my twenties now, what I would say is this: When arenas and stadiums and restaurants are full, and queueing up for hours is necessary, then it’s all covered; I don’t have to go—there’s no need for one more person. 

And I would look to ancient sages for enlightenment:

Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.” 


*I have tried most diligently in the intervening years to hunt down the piece but have had no luck. Therefore, since I can’t quote directly, I am resorting to paraphrase. 

**Many years later, when my daughter, during her high school summer break, was a volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she overheard that a certain patient was suffering from AIDS. “Who is Roy Cohn? she asked me.
Heavens preserve all fathers from having to answer that question!  

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Line-up

In today’s Guardian (UK)* philosopher Julian Baggini discusses that “symbol of Britain’s civilised, fair, quiet way of doing things”—queueing. Queueing is so ingrained in British culture that “[t]o undermine the queueing system is to undermine the national way of life.” 

But, Baggini says, that is what is happening, as cash has made it possible to crash the lines.

In the article Baggini examines the rationale for queueing, noting that queueing “has always been much more a pragmatic means of keeping order than an ethical practice to promote fairness.” At one point in the discussion he claims,”The most egalitarian way to manage demand is by ballot.”

 The Scene: A bus stop during the morning rush hour.

“OK, everybody, the bus will be along soon, so we had better start organizing the vote.”

“Oi, who put you in charge, mate?”

“Well, I thought since I was the first here . . . But if anyone else wants to . . . No? OK, let’s get on with it. To begin with, we’ll have to know everyone’s name. Let’s start with you.”

“My name’s Les.”

“And you, young lady?”


“The fellow in the mac?” 

“Major Heath-Cowley.”


“And I’m Mrs. Hislop. And this is my friend Miss Pym.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Harris . . .”

“Mrs. Hislop. H-i-s-l-o-p!” 

“Er . . sorry. ‘Hislop.’ Got that.”

“John Biscombe.” “Amy.” “Penny.” “Bobo and him’s me mate Mick.” 

“And way in the back . . . the big fella?”

“Mohammad, Mo, for short.”

“I think that’s everybody . . .”

“What about you? What’s your name?

“Oh, yeah. I’m Nelson. So, does everybody have a pencil and a piece of paper.”

“Nah. No paper.”

“Grab that schoolboy, somebody. . . Son, would you tear a few pages from your composition book for us? Thanks. Here’s for your trouble . . . OK, now everybody write down the name of the person you think should go first and hand the ballot over here to be counted.”

“Ey. What’s that bird’s name again? Blondie, over there.”

“Sylvia, you lug.”

“Ha, ha. Here I am running the show and I don’t have . .  somebody lend me a pencil?”

“The Bus!!!!”

“Hey, wait, I don’t have all the votes. Don’t push and shove. Wait! Wait!”

“See you later, alligator.”

“Damn! I better get over there.”

“Sorry, mate, but we’re full to the gills. Catch the next one.”

“But, conductor, I was here first!”


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Entropy (Generalization, Part One)

The photograph is of a general-store-cum-luncheonette late on a hot summer’s day. Its windows stare blankly at the empty street in front of it.

Left of center of the picture are two lean, blond young men (they are in their twenties), dressed in light-colored t-shirts and shorts; they lie on their backs, reclining on sacks of potatoes. 

All is still. There are no other figures in the photograph. No other people caught in a moment of arrested movement. It is a scene of purposelessness; nothing is being done; nothing will be done. It is a picture of decay.

The photograph is in black-and-white.
It is part of an exhibition.
The exhibition is entitled “ENTROPY.”


The meaning imputed to the photograph is untrue.

I know it is untrue, because I am one of the men in the picture—the one on the left. 
I know that it is not a depiction of laziness, of purposelessness. My companion and I have just completed a stage of our trip to view the eclipse. Our bicycles and backpacks are on the left, outside the frame of the picture. 


But what I have just written is also untrue. I am not one of the lean, blond men in the picture. Yes, I had dark-blondish hair in my younger days, but I have never been lean. And, besides, I have never ridden a bicycle. 

The black-and-white photograph is not part of an exhibition entitled “ENTROPY.” The photograph and the exhibition do not exist. They were in a dream I had early this morning. The men seen in the photograph have never existed. The country store has never existed. The heat and the stillness of the air have never existed.

And the female photographer—who is left-handed—never existed.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Now

“If thou be'st born to strange sights, 
    Things invisible to see . . .”
John Donne


(Note: You may stick in “alleged” wherever you see fit.)

What follows was inspired by the heinous vehicular attack today on innocent people in Barcelona, an event similar to at least a half-dozen earlier attacks in Europe. Once again, ISIS claimed responsibility for the atrocity. 


“The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain”—so responded America’s tweeter-in-chief. But, as ABC News points out, “Trump faced criticism over the weekend for not labeling a similar attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, as terrorism.”* 

Instead of finding an equivalence in terrorism between the murderous ISIS vehicle attacks and the murderous Virginia car attack by a White Supremacist, our panoramic president claimed to see a different equivalence: that “many sides” were responsible for the violence of that day in Charlottesville.

I, myself, confess that I don’t see, as I survey the American political landscape, equivalent malignity, hatred, and terrorism on “many sides.”** 

However, I am willing to change my mind the next time a Birkenstocked tree-hugger plows his Prius into a Daughters of the Confederacy cake sale.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

They're writing songs of love

But not for me.*

How terrible it is not to be loved. The abject wretchedness and hollowness of one’s life. What is the best analogy to invoke to try to explain the misery? Perhaps the invasion of Poland by the Nazis? (Bringing in its wake the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the construction of death camps.) 

Well, I wouldn’t go down that metaphorical path, and I trust that you wouldn’t either. But that was the image in the mind of Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a global private-equity firm. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker three years ago,** Schwarzman was at that time “worth more than ten billion dollars. You wouldn’t think he’d have much to complain about.” But he did; he was unloved by the American middle class, who were blaming his class—the wealthy—for its problems. Schwarzman’s own problem was a proposed repeal of the carried-interest tax loophole, from which, Surowiecki noted, Schwarzman personally benefits. (Raising taxes isn’t always bad in Schwarzman’s eyes, as he has in the past suggested that it might be a good idea to raise taxes on the poor so they had “skin in the game.”)

In this article, entitled “Moaning Moguls,”  Surowiecki yokes Schwarzman with venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, (both of whom “compared populist attacks on the wealthy to the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews”). They are members of the plutocratic set who “believe that they’re a persecuted minority.” (I have just looked out my window, but I failed to see any billionaires on their hands and knees forced to clean the streets with toothbrushes.) 

“Moguls complain about their feelings,” Surowiecki concludes, “because that’s all anyone can really threaten.”

They ought to feel lucky that it’s only their feelings that are hurt. After all, they could be sent to Auschwitz.


*George and Ira Gershwin, of course.

Friday, August 4, 2017

God, Sex, and Money

“My religion? Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.”

George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara


I have never been the most modest of persons, but I’ll be damned (figuratively and most likely literally) if I'm going to claim that I know God’s will. The absolute chutzpah of it. It is hubris asking for a lightning strike.

But, of course, there are other people who are celestial mind readers. Apparently, an abundance of them in the state of Michigan. There is the woman in Ypsilanti, Michigan who informs us: 

“I’m a firm believer that God sent that turkey to bring me friends.”*

And then (on a more serious note?) there is the Michigan billionaire father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Richard DeVos, who has read the deity’s mind as clearly as the Dow Jones Industrial Average: 

“Being a capitalist is actually fulfilling the will of God in my life.”**

(I leave aside here the petty discussion about how slaves, Holocaust victims, battered wives, etc. fulfill the will of God.)


In an Atlantic article exploring “[t]he intense focus on sexuality, purity, manhood, and womanhood in certain faith communities—and its consequences,” Emma Green quotes Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion at Michigan State University (it figures):
“Many American evangelicals have come to believe that good marital sex is not just ordained by God, but is healthy and leads to strong self-esteem, financial prosperity, and heightened spiritual awareness.” (Emphasis mine)***
OK. As I read it: God wants you to have (marital) sex, which will get you money. (Outside of marriage that sounds a lot like prostitution.) 


What the theological telepathists who focus on their financial bottom lines seem not to understand is the major religious point of the great 600-year-old allegorical morality play The Summoning of Everyman. In the opening speech God proclaims:

I hoped well that Everyman
In my glory should make his mansion,
And thereto I had them all elect;
But now I see, like traitors deject,
They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
Nor yet for their being that I them have lent;
I proffered the people great multitude of mercy,
And few there be that asketh it heartily;
They be so cumbered with worldly riches,
That needs on them I must do justice,
On Everyman living without fear.(Emphasis mine)

“The first time I ever heard the word ostentatious, someone used it about Richard DeVos”: Richard Mouw, “prominent Evangelical intellectual.”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Don't Do Something--Just Stand There. PLEASE!

"I called an extra session of the 80th Congress in 1947 and asked them to take action on the housing shortage. They didn't do it. They didn't do it at the regular session.

"Then I called another special session of the 80th Congress, after they had given us a platform in Philadelphia. In that platform, they stated that they were for certain things. When I called them back into session in July, what did they do? Nothing. Nothing. That Congress never did anything the whole time it was in session . . ."

President Harry S Truman
San Diego, California
September 24, 1948 

With the collapse of the Republican attempt to strip at least 20 million Americans of their health care insurance, I was put in mind of President Harry S Truman’s excoriation of the 80th Congress. He contributed to the American lexicon the term “Do-nothing Congress.” 

In a fine turn of historical irony the GOP, which once claimed to be the party of ideas, has turned into the party of nihilism—or perhaps it might be called, more fittingly, the Marxist party. Groucho Marxist, that is. In the 1932 movie Horse Feathers Groucho sings the following song (written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar):

I don't know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I'm against it
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I'm against it

Your proposition may be good
But let's have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I'm against it
And even when you've changed it
Or condensed it
I'm against it

I'm opposed to it
On general principles
I'm opposed to it
(He's opposed to it)
(In fact, he says he's opposed to it)

For months before my son was born
I used to yell from night to morn
"Whatever it is, I'm against it"
And I've kept yelling
Since I first commenced it
"I'm against it”*

Considering what an absolute shower** Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, the Freedom Caucus, and almost the entirety of the rest of the GOP congressional delegation are, I shout, “Thank goodness for a Do-nothing Congress!”

Because it’s what they want to DO that’s the danger.

* Here’s Groucho singing it in the movie:

**Nobody surpassed Terry-Thomas in his rendition of this Briticism. Here he is in I'm Alright Jack:

I will admit that calling a political party Groucho Marxist was used many years ago about the British Labour Party. I don’t recall who wrote it or what magazine it was in (it may have been Punch, and that dates it). I have never forgotten it (or used it before). I figured that it was so long ago that it’s in the Public Domain.