Thursday, March 31, 2011

Elizabeth Warren

I can't stop thinking about Elizabeth Warren, who the Times reports spoke yesterday to the Chamber of Commerce and whom President Obama chose to oversee the development of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is the perfect progressive - sensible, thoughtful, not at all extreme, but with the best interests of ordinary people in mind. Her mission: to protect people with relatively little information or knowledge regarding financial practices from the manipulations of banks and other lending agencies. In a better world, Elizabeth Warren would be widely regarded as a heroine, as a public official who represents the highest standards of government service. But in the current political climate, she is seen as an extremist, as an enemy of commerce and capitalism. This could not be further from the truth. It is true, though, thankfully, that she does insist that government has an important role to play in ensuring that people have reasonable and trustworthy options when it comes to securing consumer credit and that financial institutions should not enjoy an unfair and built-in advantage when dealing with consumers.

How I wish the Obama administration could promote Warren as the person who represents the Democratic Party as its best. In addition to everything else she is a person of unimpeachable character. Yet I fear that the right-wing may cow Obama into not supporting her for the permanent director of this bureau. How Obama deals with Warren is a key test of his fortitude before the absurd anti-government onslaughts of Republicans.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Letter in the Times

I can't resist devoting this post to my own letter that has appeared today in the March 30, 2011 New York Times. See this link: A few days back David Brooks wrote a column which concluded that if you want to be a dictator for 42 years in a poor, developing nation like Libya, then you should be more than a little crazy. Or, as my letter says, "megalomania pays." While I didn't disagree completely with Mr. Brooks, I countered that Qaddafi's staying power has much more to do with the largesse of the American-based multinational corporations that have been propping him up and paying him off for decades.

What especially bothers me about Brooks's column is his reluctance to consider the kind of power analysis which has far more explanatory power than the "wacko" thesis ("wacko" is his word, by the way) he employs. There is something safe and even reassuring about the idea that Qaddafi can be explained away by individual and idiosyncratic behaviors, not something as complex and as enduring as the hegemony of American economic and military self-interest.

Of course, on the other hand, David Brooks is an easy target. He is the conservative we progressives love to argue with because, well, because he's still pretty reasonable and not in some utterly foreign ideological universe. He recognizes the strengths of someone like President Obama and how extreme and strident most right-wingers have become.

So, I guess this is just my way of saying that although I hope to write more letters to the Times in the future and to see some of them published, I also hope to resist the temptation to take on David Brooks. He is much more friend than enemy, a lot closer to being an ideological ally than some inveterate and unmovable foe.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The New York Times reports again today that New Yorkers should not expect the high temperature to get out of the 40s. In other words, despite an occasional warm day here and there, winter prevails after at least 4 pretty relentless months of it. New Yorkers have not witnessed a winter quite like this in a long time and it is taking its toll. The brisk gaits so common to the denizens of this city have slowed to a kind of collective trudge, making it very difficult for any fast walker to negotiate the city's sidewalks. The desire to cast off the heavy, unattractive clothes of these past months could not be stronger, but every time it looks as if the overcoat can be stored for good in the back of the closet, the cold winds return forcing us once again to bundle up. These repeated disappointments are also having an effect on the expressions New Yorkers wear as they board the subways. Never very happy while fighting for space on jammed train cars, New Yorkers now scowl openly in reaction to the winter gloom.

We keep thinking winter cannot last, but is this one of those years where the hope that springs eternal is only meant to break our hearts?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mission-Driven Leaders

Sometimes it is interesting to peruse the business leadership interview column that Adam Bryant does on page 2 of the Times Sunday Business section. Today, Bryant does an interview with Doreen Lorenzo, the president of Frog Design, a company which contributes innovative design ideas to enhance other people's products.

Lorenzo emphasizes two points about leadership in organizations that also strike me as important: 1) Creative people want to be listened to and to see their ideas tried out; 2) A leader must be willing to articulate the mission of the organization repeatedly and to show how the work being done is helping to realize this mission.

These are, of course, at their best two integrally related ideas. What people are coming up with should advance the mission, but they often need help in seeing this, so leaders must be prepared to explain and elaborate on that mission whenever possible. Mission and mission-driven organizations are sometimes belittled by people. I probably was one of those people at one time. But I think it was after reading Bill George's work on mission that I became convinced how critical a clearly explained mission is. Such a mission inspires people to do work that is identified with the organization but that also helps to stretch that mission. This identification with the mission intensifies a sense of community and underscores the feeling that what you are working on is both uniquely yours and also helpfully tied to what others are trying to do as well. This balance of the individual and the group, of the unique and the broadly organizational can be incredibly motivating to people, especially those who are creative. I guess I just want to thank Ms. Lorenzo for stimulating these thoughts this morning.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Best Wishes, Bob Herbert

Sometimes called "the conscience of the New York Times," Bob Herbert, op-ed columnist for the Times for almost 18 years, wrote his last column today. How shattering! Losing him is at least as sad as losing Frank Rich, the Sunday columnist, who also recently stepped down. No one has written more consistently or more eloquently about the tribulations of the poor, the jobless, and the underemployed. He is irreplaceable! Oh, and by the way, he has never won the Pulitzer Prize. Please, Pulitzer Committee, next time around recognize Bob Herbert for excellence in news commentary. No one has done more to keep the focus on those who need help most and the responsibility of government to ensure a social safety net and to reverse the increasingly scandalous disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor. As he reports today in his last column, "In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation's wealth," while "the bottom 80 percent collectively held just 12.8 percent." Such an insane disparity is a symptom of a sick, maladaptive society (See Peter Corning's "The Fair Society) and must be halted through aggressive government intervention to prevent social and political catastrophe. Mr. Herbert has brought such facts to our attention repeatedly and has expressed his well founded concern that if we do not do something to alter this situation, the result could be disastrous.

Mr. Herbert offers hope and good news, though, even as he relinquishes his Times' bully pulpit. As he says, he will be writing a book and expanding his efforts "on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society." He should be applauded for these efforts and watched closely, as few pundits are better guides for what it will take in the coming months and years to restore a sense of community, mutuality, and fairness to American society.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Obituary Follow-Up

Our most discerning readers noted a rather large mistake in yesterday's post about how famous famous people have to be to get an obituary on the front page of the New York Times. In the post, I included a list of 10 living luminaries and asked readers to guess which of them are likely to enjoy a front page obituary when they die. This list included Roy Lichtenstein, the great comic strip-inspired pop artist. The only problem is that Mr. Lichtenstein died in 1997. Talk about a major error. I mean it's not like he died last year; the poor man has not been with us for 14 years! Now that's a ridiculous oversight.

Ah, but what an intriguing opportunity it provides. It should be easy to check to see whether, in fact, Mr. Lichtenstein made it to the front page of the New York Times when he died on September 29, 1997 by consulting, most likely, the September 30, 1997 front page. Now, remember, Lichtenstein was one of the most creative and inventive artists of his generation. Many critics would call him more versatile than somebody like Andy Warhol or even Jasper Johns (actually still living!), though many of us are familiar only with his larger than life pictures seemingly taken directly from the pages of comic books. For me, though, his sculptures that are direct adaptations of this style are among the most brilliant pieces of art from this period. So what do you think? Likely to make it to the front page or not?

The answer is: YES, he made it. Michael Kimmelman, still the Times lead art critic, wrote the front page obituary leading with this: "Roy Lichtenstein, the quintessential master of pop painting and a major figure in American art since he began scavenging comics 'Winnie Winkle,' 'G.I. Combat," and 'Secret Hearts,' ("I don't care - I'd rather sink than call Brad for help") died yesterday at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 73 and lived in Manhattan."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Front Page Obituaries

It amazed me to see this large, beautiful picture of Elizabeth Taylor on the front page of the New York Times today announcing her death. She was a great movie star but what makes her deserving of a front page obituary? Have you ever wondered how the Times decides who gets a front page obituary and doesn't? I have often. What, according to the Times, makes a recently deceased person worthy of inclusion on the greatest front page in the world? Could be a fun game. Name ten people, preferably of advanced age, and decide if they are front page material or not. Write this all down. If you get all 10 right, you receive a million dollars, something like that. An even better game, of course, is to name 10 dead people and to decide whether they were front page material. Person naming the most wins a million dollars, something like that. Wait a second. Am I on to something? Could the Front Page Game be a big seller? Let me know what you think. In the meantime, here are 10 living people. How many will enjoy front page obituaries?

Martin Scorsese
Philip Roth
Roy Lichtenstein
Yo-Yo Ma
Stephen Sondheim
Tony Blair
Vanessa Redgrave
Barbara Boxer
The Dalai Lama
Warren Buffett

I think there is a chance that all these folks will make it to the front page. Least likely to? Probably Lichtenstein, Redgrave, and Boxer. Interestingly, Boxer's status is especially time sensitive. If she dies, say, ten years after serving as senator from California, she might not make it. If she dies now, she probably will. Time sensitivity may also affect somebody like Yo-Yo Ma, if he stops playing or even Philip Roth. Most likely to make it: Tony Blair, The Dalai Lama, and probably Warren Buffett.

Okay, now the fun begins with dead people. Which of the following actually had obituaries on the front page of the New York Times:

J.P. Morgan
Wild Bill Hickok
Tris Speaker
Harry Houdini
Dean Rusk
Claudette Colbert
Howard Hawks
Piet Mondrian
Robert LaFollette
Marvin Gaye

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Babe and Lou on Film!

In a front page story in the New York Times, John Branch reports that a well preserved film from 1927 has been recently discovered that shows the New York Yankee baseball greats, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in various poses, wearing so-called "barnstorming" uniforms that they donned to make extra money after the conclusion of the regular season. At one point, a rare and vivid close-up of the Babe can be seen. One of the things that makes this an interesting film is that it was recorded just weeks after the completion of one of the greatest seasons any professional sports team has ever enjoyed. Yet, why the front page of the New York Times? How can it be that these two men, particularly Babe Ruth, continue to attract such attention and warrant this much publicity after all these years?

We have to suppose that all the usual explanations apply. Babe was larger than life. Babe was endlessly flamboyant. Babe was an adult who never really grew up. Babe had gargantuan appetites for everything: food, fun, thrills, sex. But you know what? I can't resist asserting that the main reason was his unprecedented and unparalleled greatness as a baseball player. Somehow, in all the talk about the Babe and there is a lot to talk about, this main thing gets overlooked. When baseball was still young but also had already become the sport that most Americans paid attention to, no one came even close to Babe Ruth's amazing skill for hitting the ball out of the park paired with remarkable hitting consistency and superb fielding ability. Of course, consistency and fielding ability could be found in many players, but no one ever hit home runs the way Babe Ruth did and no one ever hit so many of them when everyone else was hitting so few. When he first did this, especially in 1920 and 1921, it must have been absolutely shattering to baseball fans. No other player came even close to his dominance, and no athlete since, not Michael Jordan, not Tiger Woods, not Wayne Gretzky, ever stood so tall above all of his peers. We remember the Babe still for a lot of the crazy things he did, but in the end it was his ability to do something that no one else on earth could do that holds him so strongly in our memories.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy 200th Birthday Oh Mighty Manhattan Grid

On March 22, 1811, almost exactly 200 years ago, the New York Times reports today, Manhattan laid down its now famous grid that changed the city forever. This was one of two transformational reforms pushed by New York City Mayor and State Governor DeWitt Clinton back in the second decade of the nineteenth century (the other being the Erie Canal) that utterly changed the face of the City. The grid plan was part of the effort to develop the northern four-fifths of Manhattan. By laying out an entirely predictable rectangular pattern of numbered East-West and North-South streets, extending from Fourteenth Street all the way to Washington Heights, a pattern was established for expanding Manhattan in a relatively orderly manner. No circles, ovals, rotaries or diagonals to confuse residents and developers. Rather, as The Encyclopedia of New York City explains, the plan for 12 long north-south avenues was combined with the plan’s “signature” – “155 cross streets placed only two hundred feet apart, producing a grid of about two thousand long, narrow blocks.” Although this plan was tinkered with over the years, including the addition of great thoroughfares like Lexington and Madison and the introduction of the one street that did not follow a predictable route – Broadway – the grid survived largely intact, just about ensuring the rapid development of upper Manhattan.

For ordinary folks like me, though, the grid is a safety net, a way to orient myself so that even if I go in the wrong direction for a block or two, I can always find my way back again. Paired with the incomparable subway system, the grid makes the whole borough accessible and navigable to pedestrians. That is something that often goes unrecognized and makes Manhattan such an inviting place to explore. Phillip Lopate, writing in his wonderful Waterfront: A walk around Manhattan, comments that those who deride the grid as boring have overlooked the grid’s “power to invoke clarity, resonance, and pleasure through its very repetitions.” It is that underlying structure, then, that solid, reliable base of comprehensible quadrilaterals that help to make possible Manhattan’s endless creativity and inventiveness.

In the meantime, back on the level of my mundane Manhattan existence, it would probably do me good to leave Manhattan more often so that I could get lost occasionally, but while I contemplate that little notion, I can take solace in the fact that when I’m in Manhattan above Fourteenth Street, I can’t possibly lose my way (unless I venture into Central Park, but that’s another wonderful story). Which means I am freed to go places and try things without fear of becoming hopelessly disoriented. There is something, both literally and figuratively, quite liberating in that.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing Short

There were a lot of op-eds in the New York Times today that I wanted to comment on: Tom Friedman on how idiotic it is that the US still has no energy policy; Nick Kristof on what can be learned from the Japanese; Maureen Dowd on the Hollywood adventures of the former Senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd. But the one I settled on both charmed me and offered up a solid strategy for helping college writers that I look forward to putting to good use sometime soon. That piece was Andy Selsberg's aptly titled "Teaching to the Text Message" in which he argues for teaching students how to write a sentence before introducing them to, say, the paragraph. By focusing on a single sentence (or two - more about that in a minute), as Selsberg says, "there's nowhere to hide," and the brevity allows the instructor to give everyone meaningful attention. Such a focus also teaches students concision and economy, still missing in much writing despite the pervasiveness of text messages and twitter.

Selsberg mentions that a few years ago he introduced writing assignments that required students to compose very brief responses. In one case, he asked them to "describe the essence of the chalkboard in one or two sentences," inspiring one student to write the following: "A chalkboard is a lot like memory, often jumbled, unorganized and sloppy. Even after it's erased, there are traces of everything that's been written on it." In his op-ed, Selsberg says, "that was great, but I want to go shorter." And I'm thinking but what about those two sentences? They're clear, creative, arresting, and metaphorically fresh. I mean those sentences deserve our attention. We should dwell on those sentences until we understand how they work and can provide a model for others. Consider those sentences: their looseness, their complete accessibility, their engaging rhythms; their accurate description. When sentences come out like this, it just makes me think that perhaps we can be a little tolerant of the student who chooses to use two sentences to get his idea across instead of one. This is no criticism of Mr. Selsberg, just admiration for the sentences his assignment elicited and a recommitment to helping my own students learn to write a good sentence, even it ends up requiring two sentences to get there.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Embracing Elizabeth Warren

My apologies for being away the last couple of days. Too busy. Today, Joe Nocera in his Talking Business column writes about Elizabeth Warren, the leader of the team to organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a possible appointee for the position of Director. She is a Harvard lawyer and well known to be a relentless critic of Big Banks who use their power to gouge financial customers. She has tried repeatedly to root out questionable practices that put customers at a distinct disadvantage vis a vis the Big Banks and to push for protections from the Banks' most manipulative and hurtful practices. Mr. Nocera reports that Elizabeth Warren has become one of the few people in all of Washington whom financial customers can trust to keep their best interests in mind. According to the Big Banks and the Congress's Republican leadership, she is one dangerous woman. Watch out!

Why so dangerous? Because she is ganging up on the Big Banks by making sure they treat their customers fairly, equitably and transparently. Nocera says, "there isn't anybody in Washington more fearless about standing up to the Big Banks." And Ms. Warren herself says that the mortgage services associated with the Big Banks have become a "national scandal." The Republicans hate Ms. Warren because...well, because the Big Banks do. If you want unemployment to come down and the economy to improve, you gotta lay off those Big Banks. Ms. Warren, can't you see that? If President Obama tries to appoint her to the directorship of this Bureau, the Republicans will oppose it with all their might. Customers don't need protection, Big Banks do.

Joe Nocera says that the reason to appoint Warren is to help the millions of Americans trying to hold on to their homes. But who says that's the main work of Congress. The main work of Congress has clearly become to do everything possible to give the Big Banks all the flexibility they need to do all the gouging they want. And if you don't like it, you can do business with some other bank that doesn't countenance gouging...if you can find one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011

And so things get curiouser and curiouser. Today the New York Times reported that the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 which, in essence, rejects the extremely well founded claim that excess amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by human activity are a threat to the environment and human well being. They can't possibly be as dangerous as the EPA contends the House asserts, because, after all, the resources necessary to limit greenhouse gas emissions will hamper economic growth and the creation of new jobs. The best way to handle all this, at least according to the Republicans who are sponsoring such a bill, is to ignore the evidence and declare carbon dioxide benign. As Mitch McConnell has said, the redoubtable Senate Majority leader who is promoting similar ideas in the Senate, to oppose this bill is "to insult the millions of Americans who are already struggling to make ends meet or find a job." Raising taxes is not the way to help these folks, nor is it a good idea, according to Mr. McConnell, to invest in alternative sources of energy, so instead lies are perpetuated to promote this absurd agenda which only plays into the hands of enormous oil companies and others who can reap huge profits if EPA regulations are repealed. We may be choking on carbon dioxide gas, but at least our tax burden will be slightly less onerous. That will do a lot of good for everyone over the long haul. No leadership. No vision. No understanding of the real problems facing us. Definitely does not bode well for the future. Our only solace: "President Obama has promised to veto any measure to limit EPA authority." Go Mr. President!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Woman Sues Preschool for not Making Her 4-year-old Harvard Material

The New York Times reports today that a mother is suing an elite, high-priced preschool that she claims failed to prepare her 4-year-old daughter for a key intelligence test that pipelines preschoolers to New York's finest private schools and which, in turn, streams them, without missing a beat, into the Ivy League college of their choice.

The suit argues that since the quality of one's preschool helps to determine future success, any preschool that purports to prepare its students for this all-important IQ test and fails to do so, is negatively affecting the life chances of its pupils. Or, to quote the suit, "It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in Nursery School," and further that "entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school." The plaintiff contends that instead of preparing her daughter for the all-important IQ test, she was "dumped" into a class with a bunch of younger kids who just talked about shapes and colors. In effect, those shapes and colors were costing her daughter MONEY and now she wants it back.

So this is what we have come to, more in New York City than elsewhere, the land where life chances are determined by nursery school and where when nursery school fails us there is no recourse but to sue the culprits who think shapes and colors suffice in a world where only close reading and perfect spelling will do. I love New York, but please save me from these maniacs whose only meaningful computation comes down to:

Right Preschool >> Right Elite Elementary School >> Right Elite High School >> Right Ivy League School >> Wealth, Privilege and More Angst About Finding the Right Preschool for Their Overprivileged Children

Monday, March 14, 2011


Detroit has been for too long a symbol of despair, neglect, and unfulfilled dreams. It has particularly become known for utterly failing to educate its students. Unfortunately, Michael Winerip's article in today's Times regarding what has been done lately to improve Detroit's educational system does nothing to restore a sense of hope about what is possible there. Not that he intended to. He reports on efforts to improve Detroit schools by hiring a $425,000 a year budget guru, lowering teacher salaries by disempowering unions (top salary: $73,700), and moving toward the creation of a whole district of charter schools.

Most of these "reforms" have backfired and have led to an even more rapid exodus from the Detroit Public schools totaling some 8000 students a year. In fact, the deficit has ballooned, the system of charter schools has proved no less successful than conventional schools (easily predicted, by the way, from the existing evidence), and the incentives for teachers to face some of the most challenging students in the world have been sorely depleted.

Winerip's article chronicles some of the heroic work that individual teachers are continuing to do. He includes a brief profile of the 2007 Michigan teacher of the year who remains in Detroit, despite far more attractive offers from a variety of suburban schools. But the article offers no hope whatsoever that educational leaders are attempting to build capacity for better schools in the future or that anything is being done to attract and retain strong teachers. Sure, a few great ones will always hang on, and for this we should be eternally grateful. But highlighting these rare and courageous pedagogues is not the way to build a more sustainable system. To get there, it's going to take a lot more than creative budgeting, an undifferentiated system of poorly regulated charter schools, and a compulsion to put unions out of business.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Good-Bye Frank Rich

We (Steve and Karen) were devastated to learn today about Frank Rich's decision to stop writing for the New York Times and accept a position as a monthly essayist for New York Magazine. It has become a ritual in our house each Sunday to read Mr. Rich's weekly column out loud. As Karen has said, his writing helps us to see that the insanity that so often is taken for normal in the political world these days is really not normal at all. His writing has given us a perspective on this world that says it doesn't have to be this way and that it won't continue to be this way when people like him and us speak up.

Frank Rich has communicated with clarity and vigor about the most important issues of our time and has done so, almost without exception, from the perspective of someone who is genuinely worried about the least privileged and the most oppressed people among us. He has exemplified a form of political advocacy that is challenging, compelling, and compassionate. We cannot imagine how he can be replaced, but there is one thing for sure. First thing Monday morning we're renewing our lapsed subscription to New York Magazine.

One other thing. In this final column, Mr. Rich spoke about his wholly positive affiliation with the New York Times, how the paper never interfered with his column, regardless of how controversial his opinions became. He remains an undiminished admirer of the "Paper of Record," a view this blog especially appreciates. To read his praise of the Times after all these years, seems completely right and immensely reassuring at the same time. Let's give him the last words on this point:

"I leave The Times feeling as reverent about it as I did when I arrived. Neither it nor any other institution is infallible, as was illustrated most recently during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But The Times is our essential news organization, and more so now than ever, when so many others have dwindled in size, ambition and scope. Should anyone have even an iota of doubt about The Times’s crucial role in helping its readers navigate the tumult of the 21st century, just revisit its reportage from the roiling tempests of the Middle East in recent weeks. There is nothing like it in American journalism, and that will still be the case whether you read The Times on paper or get it beamed directly into your brain once Apple unleashes that app."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Momentous Montaigne

I have what I figure is a pretty common habit, starting at the back of a periodical instead of at the beginning. Somehow it seems easier to get through it that way, though why I need a smoother path through a magazine I ostensibly enjoy and even actively seek out is beyond me.

In any case, today I started reading the New York Times Book Section by turning to the final essay about Montaigne by the journalist and popular philosopher Anthony Gottlieb, known for writing a successful history of ideas called the Dream of Reason. Gottlieb entitles his piece Montaigne's Moment and more or less offers a running commentary on the renewed interest among philosophers and journalists in Montaigne's life and ideas, especially since Sarah Bakewell's recent book called How to Live or A Life of Montaigne won the National Book Circle Critics Award.

In my humble opinion, Gottlieb finds his writing assignment unappealing and as a result offers nothing illuminating about Montaigne. He doesn't even quote Bakewell interestingly who has loads of fascinating stuff to report about Montaigne's life and ideas. But as much as I like Bakewell's book, I am going to take this opportunity to suggest one of the legacies of Montaigne's ideas by referring to what Max Horkheimer, one of the founders of Critical Theory, once had to say about him. Horkheimer observed that Montaigne's humility and persistent skepticism caused him to see "his role as that of a negotiator rather than an antagonist," or, as James Miller attributes to Horkheimer in his own recent history of philosophy, to be "constitutionally incapable of taking sides in a struggle that demanded hard choices." Harsh words it would seem, but Montaigne lived a life of proud and public uncertainty about almost everything. Because he was so rarely sure of himself, it was very hard for him to take a firm and final stance on any big issue. Like our President perhaps, he was very good at seeing the virtues in many different points of view, but found it difficult to say what he stood for once and for all.

Still, there is one place, at least according to Bakewell, where Montaigne was uncompromising. He despised cruelty of all kinds and publicly opposed both hunting and torture, quite unusual positions in his time. Montaigne had too much respect for human beings both as a species and as distinct individuals to oppose anyone too strongly, but his complete identification with human beings, "his visceral rapport with others," as Bakewell puts it, prevented him from condoning violence of any kind. This set him apart from his time and to this day makes him a teacher of inestimable value.

Friday, March 11, 2011

"How Humans Moved Away from Apes"

Nicholas Wade in the March 11 New York Times reports that a study to be published today in the journal Science helps to strengthen the foundation for an increasingly popular view that "cooperative behavior, as distinct from the fierce aggression between chimp groups, was the turning point that shaped human evolution." Related to this finding is another increasingly well supported claim that cooperation combined with social learning - the capacity of humans to learn from others by watching them and interacting productively with them - was a decisive factor in the evolution of human societies. To put it another way, long before Facebook, social networks were shaping human behavior and technological progress.

The thing this article doesn't mention is what happened between now and then. Why did it take this long for cooperation and social learning to become the new basic skills of the 21st century when they were so fundamental to human development 5 million years ago? Yup. According to economists Murnane and Levy (1996) in their book The New Basic Skills, the ability to work well in groups, sometimes called cooperative learning, is one of the essentials that all businesses demand when hiring employees. But schools apparently weren't aware of this because it is a "soft" skill instead of a hard skill like doing math or giving PowerPoint presentations.

So let's get this straight. Apparently, the evidence is building that cooperation and social learning are what set humans apart from chimps and other animals. These behaviors are part of our make-up as human beings. And yet it takes a couple of highly trained late 20th century economists to teach us that these skills need to be taught more conscientiously by kindergarten teachers, who until recently had always assumed that such skills were the whole point of kindergarten! Indeed, it seems to me that the very capitalism that promoted competition, individualism, and productive selfishness for hundreds of years has now come around to the view that we had it all wrong, that cooperation and social learning are what we really need. I find that conclusion both bizarre and confusing.

So let me propose an alternative view that is one part absurd and one part unapologetically radical. Capitalism, particularly in its greedier and more corporate forms, is contrary to human evolution and has caused us to go against our basic natures. And until we develop a form of capitalism that is more cooperative, social, and, well, compassionate, there will not only continue to be a disconnect between education and the so-called demands of the corporate economy, but a lot of unhappy and unfulfilled people whose basic, cooperative natures are being denied.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Can't Overdo Peace

A couple of days ago, a post appeared here on the United States Institute of Peace. Today the focus is on what Erica Chenoweth calls "peaceful resistance" in a March 10th Times op-ed. The point she makes can be summed up simply: Nonviolent resistance is twice as likely to produce positive results as violent resistance. This is an extraordinary finding and needs to be reiterated to be grasped. Nonviolence is twice as effective as violence. Based on exhaustive research comparing hundreds of violent and nonviolent actions in countries all over the world from 1900-2006, Chenoweth and her collaborator, Maria J. Stephan, found that "over 50 percent of the nonviolent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies."

What these researchers mean by "success" is not really explained and I, for one, look forward to finding out more about their research, but it can be inferred from the other information Chenoweth provides that nonviolent actions are "successful" when they are sustainable and supported over time by a broad spectrum of the populace.

This inference leads naturally to their other key finding: "Nonviolent revolutions tend to lead to democracy." Not only is this supported by other researchers, such as Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash in their book Civil Resistance and Power Politics, it seems right intuitively. Democracy is, by definition, a process of deliberating nonviolently to take actions that represent and reflect the broad interests of the general public. Although a cynic might note that by this definition things are not working out very democratically in the U.S. right now, time is on the side of the people. And by maintaining a strong but nonviolent position and by "finding and exploiting points of leverage in one's own society," change will occur that tilts toward what is right. As Dr. King, that great and unwavering advocate for nonviolent resistance once said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Even in dark times, it may be tempting to introduce violence, but taking action peacefully is almost always better over the long haul.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Celebrity Contagion

Today, John Tierney in the New York Times reports that people are willing to pay many thousands of dollars for a replica of an Eric Clapton guitar. Now, as Tierney points out, it was bad enough when fans stood in line for the chance to plunk down a cool million for Clapton's famed Blackie, an instrument that he actually used extensively and that over the years accumulated many scratches, dents, and nicks, which only made the guitar all the more endearing to his followers. But since there is only one Blackie, it was inevitable that a perfect replica, with all those imperfections lovingly recreated, would have to be fashioned by some enterprising craftsman. That replica is going up for auction in New York City today and is likely to fetch well over $20,000.

Tierney claims that the desire to possess a celebrity's guitar is not hard to understand. He posits that the theory of "celebrity contagion" explains it all, that the penchant to hold the guitar that was actually used by a rock star or to wear the sweater that really did adorn his body allows fans to imagine that they were somehow close to or intimate with their idol.

But what about the yearning for replicas of such objects? Same principle apparently. If you can't experience "celebrity contagion" with the real thing, why not the almost real thing, or the authentically faked "real thing?" And if you can't have either one of those, how about the knobs he twiddled with from one of his amplifiers? Or the guitar strings available from his favorite neighborhood music shop in London, even though he never actually bought any there. It is plausible, after all, that he browsed there and even considered purchasing some of their guitar strings. Does that increase their value?

Incredibly, it turns out that sections of concrete were recently removed from the sidewalks along Richmond Road in Kingston, UK, that run outside of Kingston College where Clapton was briefly an art student. There is no question that at one time his feet actually landed on these sidewalks, which, according to the theory of celebrity contagion anyway, makes these hunks of concrete somewhat more valuable than run of the mill concrete. Police have accordingly taken preventive action and have initiated a huge project to barricade all of the streets and sidewalks outside of all of the known former domiciles of Mr. Clapton. Considerable research has gone into this project and authorities now see it as a race against time and Mr. Clapton's cagey followers. I'm betting on the followers and the likelihood that a lot of neighborhoods in the UK and the USA will have to get by without sidewalks for a while.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) until I read the op-ed article in the New York Times of March 8, 2011 by Marine General Anthony C. Zinni. Shame aside, if this little blog prompts one more person to read this critically important essay, it will have served a useful purpose.

Unfortunately, General Zinni's piece had to be written to right a wrong and defend the record of the USIP in the wake of the House of Representatives' ill informed decision to eliminate its funding. In the process, he reminds the American people that cutting government programs indiscriminately, without the data or research to back up such decisions, often does far more harm than good.

General Zinni explains that the USIP was started in 1984 with the approval of President Reagan and a bipartisan group of lawmakers and that it has enjoyed the support of Congress from both sides of the aisle for decades. Why? Because it saves lives and money by forestalling conflict, identifying alternatives to war, and promoting peaceful solutions to problems that have been perennially addressed through violence. The Institute goes where others are reluctant to follow, places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and has intervened repeatedly with mediations, dialogues and training programs to bring stability to some of the world's most war-torn regions.

General Zinni goes on to say that "Congress would be hard-pressed to find an agency that does more with less." The Institute's entire yearly budget of $43 million is less than the cost of a single fighter jet, and yet the savings in lives saved and communities preserved is inestimable, easily exceeding many billions of dollars.

Finally, though, let's affirm that an institute like the USIP, which is so unyieldingly devoted to building up instead of tearing down, is not something to be curtailed but to be expanded, not something to be eliminated but proliferated. Whatever else war is, it is always a temporary condition and invariably destabilizing, designed, at best, as a stop-gap, but never useful as a strategy for realizing potential, promoting growth, or establishing permanency. Helping people find their way to peace through nonviolent methods is something we should all be able to get behind. We must remind our elected officials that an agency like the United States Institute of Peace deserves our support because in addition to being a courageous and effective agency that saves lives and money, it represents both the means and the end to a better tomorrow, and remains the last best hope for an increasingly conflict-ridden world.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Andy Cohen, Sad Man or All Too Typical

You've all heard it by now, I guess. How the Vice President for Programming at Bravo Network, Andy Cohen, called the performance by Staten Island's PS 22 (a school I actually know of) of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" at the conclusion of the Oscars "awful," "horrible," and "the worst." He also supposedly said, according to the New York Times "If I wasn't going to go out to some parties I would have slit 'em right there. I was looking for a knife to stick in my eyes, it was so terrible."

Now, not only is this a ridiculous assessment, as it was a perfectly charming and energetic performance by a group of enthusiastic elementary school students, Cohen used an incredibly violent and blood thirsty metaphor to express himself. Somehow, I don't think this is an accident. The kind of people who put on Bravo programs such as the Real Housewives of Orange County or New Jersey or Washington, D.C. or whatever the latest new version is, are quite happy to inflict this wound on American culture that oozes with bad taste and is justified simply and solely as a money making proposition. It has no purpose other than to rake in capital and to exploit rather odd people. Such programming lowers American culture to a new nadir and it is hardly surprising that it is served up principally by a man who could say such vicious things about this innocent group of kids.

Hardly surprising, too, that such talk ends up on another right wing television program that enjoys accentuating our basest instincts and the least angelic part of our natures. I think we can do better. Such language must be challenged at every turn. It is not just talk but a manifestation of hate, sometimes subconscious, but more often than not a characteristic part of what it means to be American, where wielding a gun or using an angry profane word is the surest way to prove one's manhood.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Oh, C'mon, Mike Huckabee

Did you know that Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a possible presidential candidate, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth? Or that he was involved in a rather messy sexual harassment case? Or that he flunked out of college...twice?

Oh, wait, hold on, I'm sorry, I misspoke. These things are not true. They are not associated with Mike Huckabee, but with a fellow named Huck Huckabee, a county sheriff from Missouri. I really do want to apologize for suggesting anything that might twist or distort Mr. Huckabee's record in the public mind. Please forgive me.

What I say above is no more outrageous or ridiculous than the lies Mike Huckabee recently spewed on a right wing radio program about President Obama. Michael Shear in the New York Times reports that Huckabee expressed concerns about the "fact" that Obama was raised by a Kenyan father in Kenya and that his critical stance toward British imperialism stems from a feeling that a "bunch of imperialists persecuted his grandfather."

Except that Obama was not raised in Kenya, though he did spend significant time in Indonesia, and saw very little of his father, in any case. A spokesperson for Huckabee said that he misspoke, but what both Huckabee and any spokesman should have said is that all the conspiracy theories about Obama are hateful, racist, and distractions from the things that really matter. How about it, Huckabee? From now on, why don't you pledge to keep the focus on the issues, not your made up stories about the duly elected President of the United States?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Duke Snider, the great center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, died the other day and this sad event prompted thousands to recall those simpler times when superstars walked and lived among ordinary people. And make no mistake about it, Duke Snider was a superstar. Perhaps only the third best center fielder in New York in the 1950s (those were also great years for Mays and Mantle), he nevertheless became one of baseball's all-time greats. He hit more than 40 home runs for five years running, a level of consistency never even approached by Mantle or Mays. Additionally, he not only hit for power and for average, he partrolled the outfield with unmatched grace and effectiveness, though never quite as sensationally as the Say Hey Kid.

In a piece in today's New York Times, residents of the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn recalled the years when Snider and his family used to rent a house in their neighborhood and would even car pool with other members of the team who lived nearby to games with their arch rival the New York Giants. This was literally a time when great baseball stars, who never commanded the outrageous salaries of today, lived in ordinary neighborhoods and interacted regularly with ordinary people. It is almost always dangerous to nostalgically recall a simpler, better time, as there are always aspects of that earlier time that were backward or pernicious. But there is also something appealing about great athletes living down the street and coming over for barbecue after a long hard day in the sun in the outer reaches of Ebbets' Field or the Polo Grounds.