Sunday, December 29, 2013

From Court Jew to Head of the Fed

   As is well known,  Jews in just about all European countries, from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century, were not permitted to own land, thus barring them from becoming farmers; nor were they admitted into guilds, the necessary portals to the crafts and professions of the times.  So, faute de mieux, Jews became merchants—many on a small scale functioning locally, with a minority becoming serious businessmen engaged in long-distance trade.  Some of the latter came to serve members of the nobility high and low, thus becoming what came to be known as Court Jews. 
   An important function of most Court Jews was to secure loans for their bosses, since Christians were forbidden to charge interest, a prohibition partly based on a variety of not all that univocal Biblical passages, partly inspired—via the Scholastics—by Aristotle who had declared that money is sterile and not at all like cows who beget more cows.
   The status of Court Jews was privileged, if only because they were exempted from many of the restrictions everywhere imposed upon Jews.  But their lives were also precarious, dependent as they were on masters who were in debt to them, with more than one Court Jew tried for (mostly) presumed crimes and jailed or executed.
   Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) may not have been the first Court Jew to distance himself from his court by founding a bank, but he is surely the most important.  Ranked 7th in the Forbes list of the 20 most influential businessmen of all time, not only for founding the House of Rothschild—with branches in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples  already during his own lifetime—but for his insight into the principles of banking, “introducing such concepts as diversification, rapid communication, confidentiality and high volume.”
   If the Jewish banker was thus born, he flourished as late as the middle of the 19th century, when Bismarck, Prussia’s capo, acquired his own banker, Gerson von Bleichröder, recommended by a Rothschild who was not available because he served rival Austria.  Under the leadership of his boss, this latter-day Court Jew not only oversaw Prussia’s financial affairs, but was crucially active in the unification of Germany.
   Was he the last in the line of Court Jews?  Yes and no.  Today, in the New World, the equivalent role of national banker is the head of the Fed, or, more formally, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.  Shortly, Ms. Janet Yellen will assume that office.  As the 15th head of the Fed, she will crown a distinguished academic career to become the first woman in that job,  but also the sixth who is Jewish.
   Before commenting on the role of  today’s descendents of the banker as Court Jew a brief account of those six will be needed.  The first Jewish chairman of the Fed was Eugene Meyer (1930-1933), son of Alsatian Jews who bought the Washington Post after leaving that post, to be followed as its publisher by Phil Graham, the husband of his daughter, Katharine, who assumed that role after Phil’s death.
   The second Jewish head of the Fed was Arthur Burns (1970-78) born in Galicia (with the name Burnseig) who, precociously,  translated the Talmud into Polish and Russian at the age of 6, if the Wikipedia article is to be believed.  He is the first who came to the Fed job after a career in the academy, where he notably persuaded his Rutgers student, Milton Friedman, to pursue the study of economics.
   The third Jewish Fed chairman is Paul Volcker (1979-1987), although that might be considered a case of cheating, since Judaism can claim him only on technical grounds.  Volcker’s father was not Jewish nor was young Paul brought up as a Jew.  But since his mother was born Jewish and according to Jewish law children inherit that ethnicity from their mother, he can be claimed as a Jew, according to one way of reckoning.  Volcker’s classy education did not induce him into an academic career, but led him to a number of private sector and government roles before becoming the inflation killer as head of the Feds.
   The successor to Volcker, Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) missed by a few months the distinction of having served the longest in that position.  He and I would have been classmates at George Washington High School in Manhattan, had I not opted for the shops of Brooklyn Tech.  For a while, Greenspan studied economics under Arthur Burns at Columbia, but later received his PhD from New York University.  Like his predecessor, he did not follow an academic career, but served as consultant and in high-level posts in Republican administrations before being appointed to head the Fed by President Reagan.
   Ben Shalom Bernanke was brought up in Dillon, SC, in one of very few Jewish families of a town with fewer than 7,000 inhabitants.  After the local high school, however, came Harvard and doctoral studies under a group of economics stars at MIT, leading to a thoroughly academic career that concluded after six years of the economics chairmanship at Princeton.  Like Alan Greenspan, Bernanke was appointed to chair the Fed by both a Republican and a Democratic administration.
   Brooklyn-born Janet Yellen, to take over the Fed in 2014,  also had a distinguished academic career, most significantly at the University of California at Berkeley, combined with various economics-related governmental posts, most recently as second in command of the institution she will now head.
      In a way, these six—or five-and-a half are Court Jews, smart, self-made energetic if not downright driven.  Not they so much, but the “Court” has become very different.  The current bankers are no longer high class servants of the rulers of the day, but, as servants of the commonweal, they are related in complex ways to more than one contemporary institution.  Appointed by a president, most likely after having been approved by his Treasury Secretary and subject to confirmation by the Senate of the United States.  Once in office, though immensely influential, the Chairman of the Fed—will it henceforth be the Chairperson?—oversees a Board of Governors no member of which is a patsy.  And, finally, that powerful officer has to deal with institutions that Meyer Amschel Rothschild did not have to be concerned with: a vigilant press and an alert and vocal Congress and public.
   Forty percent of all heads of the Fed have been Jewish.  Not surprisingly, that has led to a certain amount of anti-Semitic chatter.  But this state if affairs would be better seen as the distillate of more than a thousand years of anti-Semitism that prevented Jews from assuming many of the  professions they might have chosen, pushing some of them to become merchants and bankers.  Deeply ingrained habits die hard.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The 2013 Operatic Bicentenary
On a Saturday in December of the bicentenary of the births of the two greatest opera composers of their century and—with Mozart, the greatest of them simpliciter—I enjoyed the HD broadcast of the splendid Met production of Falstaff.  The next day I attended a concert called Wagner Gala, offering arias and orchestral preludes from Tannhäuser to Tristan, presented by the Orquestra del Teatro de Bellas Artes and three singers, the tenor Francisco Araiza, a young soprano and a young baritone.  Although everything that was performed on those two occasions was familiar to me, the juxtaposition was nevertheless something of a revelation.
   It explained to me why the two composers had never actually met, even though they lived almost side by side in the world of operatic Europe.  Franz Werfel—known in the US mostly for his best seller, The Song of Bernadette—wrote an early novel, Verdi. Roman der Oper, in which he did have Verdi and Wagner meet in Venice just before Wagner died there.  But while I don’t remember much of the book—I read it in my early teens when I was still more attuned to reading in German than in English—I do recall that Werfel did not have them talk to each other.
   That also makes sense to me; what would they say to each other?  Wagner is said to have looked down on Verdi’s operas and while it is reported that Verdi made enthusiastic statements about Tristan, there are those who think he was being sarcastic.  Leaving aside their personalities, which, to say the least, were sharply different, the music of the one is remarkably different from the other and so are the aesthetic goals they strove to achieve.  It is most likely that Wagner did not learn anything from Verdi and while Verdi probably adopted from his contemporary the mode, if that’s what it is, of through-composing, that is, eliminating breaks between arias and ensembles, that hardly counts as a significant influence.
   But I must now go on to talk about Verdi and Wagner.  An immense amount has been written about them and I am in no position to contribute fruitfully to that vast literature.  Instead, I want to say some things about their relationship to me, since I know a good deal about me, if not by any means everything, if Freud et al. are right about self-knowledge.
   So, back to my high school days at Brooklyn Tech.  Having been hooked on “classical” music via radio stations WQXR and WNYC, I went to see the Ring in 1943, with Melchior, Traubel and Lotte Lehmann’s last Sieglinde.  From next to the last row of the Family Circle at the Old Met, the Rhine Maidens, behind scrims, were barely visible.  But I could see the orchestra; and since I had denuded the library of its volumes of miniature scores, it was clear to my purist indignant self, that the Met was cheating by providing only four of the six harps Rheingold called for.  But adolescent carps notwithstanding, I reveled in the sounds of the four evenings, even if the sets and staging were pretty humdrum.
   Around the same time I managed to get into a dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, sung by the same veteran pair and conducted by a very young Erich Leinsdorf.  The other opera I saw early was Mozart’s Zauberflöte that led me to buy my first records, two volumes (they were 78 rpm then) of Beecham’s unsurpassed account.  I saw some other operas—not many—in those days and a few more at the Civic Opera, when, right after high school, I was briefly stationed on Chicago’s Navy Pier.
   Did these experiences cause me to become what is called an “opera lover”?  A question I must answer with a somewhat ambiguous “not really.”  I have not yet mentioned that besides much listening to New York’s “good music stations,” I went to orchestral and chamber music concerts.  (If your request, that had to be on a postcard and postmarked on Monday, made it to the top of the pile, you were admitted to the Sunday concerts at the Frick Museum.  Success allowed me once to sit close enough to Mischa Schneider of the Budapest Quartet to follow the cello line over his shoulder.)  All these experiences certainly made me a life-long “music lover,” with a taste for the classics, but also for more contemporary music.  I bought the score of Mahler’s Second Symphony after having been bowled over by a 30-year old Bernstein conducting it—years before Mahler became a repertory staple and long before Bernstein’s ascent to the New York Philharmonic.  I was captivated by the Kolisch Quartet’s performance of Schönberg’s Second Quartet, the dramatic soprano, Astrid Varnay, standing, legs slightly apart, behind the two rows of quartet members.  I heard Cantor Richard Tucker in a Town Hall concert of Jewish music and thought he should be at the Met!  And so on.
   What I have in mind with that distinction is that I prize the music of certain operas, but, even though I enjoy outstanding singing, it is not enough to keep my undivided attention.  This was brought home to me the only time I went to a performance of a Donizetti opera and could not stop my mind from endlessly counting phrases of eight bars.
   So back, finally, to Verdi and Wagner.  I have seen and enjoyed a number of Verdi operas, a couple of them more than once.  I see him—or, better, hear him—as coming out of the bel canto tradition and effectively transcending it.  He cares about singers and writes to their strengths, often—but surely not always—reducing the orchestra to the role of accompanist.  Wagner—certainly in the later operas—mostly treats singers the way he treats the french horn or the oboe, as instruments that create a total musical texture, fatigue be damned.  (I heard Jon Vickers twice as Tristan.  The first time he sang heroically in the second act and was audibly fatigued in the third.  The second time he almost crooned in Act Two and sang all out while dying from his wound.  How anybody can get through Siegfried is beyond me, though I have heard it done.
   Many of Verdi’s arias are captivating; not so many of Wagner’s are.  But if Verdi stands on the shoulders of the Italian operatic tradition, Wagner derives from the impetuousness of Beethoven and from the harmony of his late quartets.  For me, Wagner’s greater musical complexity is alluring.

   Much more can and perhaps should be said, such as the relationship of music to libretti, but anything I might say has probably been said many times before—and better.  So I will conclude with a revelation that may perhaps surprise the reader of my remarks about the 2013 bicentenary celebrants.  In my view, the most perfect opera yet written has a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte and music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, namely Figaros Hochzeit, The Marriage of Figaro, that is, Le Nozze di Figaro.

Monday, December 16, 2013

I moved to Mexico City in August 2012 and wrote these impressions soon afterwards.

Mexico City: Some Notes

   It’s one thing to visit a place and another to live there.  I had previously been only dimly aware of two Mexico City characteristics that became sharply obvious during the long, almost daily, walks I take in every which direction from the house I live in.  The first is a big nuisance: many of the city’s sidewalks resemble obstacle courses more than pedestrian thoroughfares.  Numerous hindrances are manmade, featuring hills and valleys—quite a few of them steep—deliberately created to accommodate garages and building entrances.  Others are the product of neglect: holes—including quite deep ones, some no doubt the result of earthquakes—protruding bricks and stones.  Even the nearby Avenida de los Insurgentes—the city’s longest street at 24 miles, stately, with formidable trees and trimmed greenery lining both sides and the middle aisle—exhibits largish patches of missing tiles as well as miscellaneous depressions.  If I had to be aware in Squirrel Hill of root-raised pieces of sidewalks walking here requires pretty constant attention to the ground beneath one’s feet.
   But not to the extent of blocking out the view above.  I know of no city—though admittedly my repertory is limited—that is as garnished with greenery as this one.  Trees are everywhere, many large and full.  Countless others are smaller and given shape by topiary techniques, some quite whimsical.  In many of the neighborhoods there is a profusion of hedges, on public land and private, almost uniformly carefully maintained; there are numerous walls wholly covered with leaves, sometimes to a height of twenty feet and more.  And while looking up one notices plants and flowers on scores of windowsills and ledges of nearly all buildings. 
   Appearance, the visual, matters here more than it does in most US cities, a fact that is reflected in the imaginative architecture, whether contemporary and high-rise or elderly and residential.  That also goes for dress.  The women striding along the Insurgentes are more fashionably clothed than those I recently observed on midtown Broadway: more colorful, more figure-enhancing; many successfully coping with shoes that are more likely to be seen on fashion pages than on Forbes Street or even on Broadway.
   Fashionable dress is less likely to be encountered at the Sunday afternoon concerts of the Sinfónica Nacional.  Jeans and sweaters are common; the love of music is pervasive.  But it was not until a visiting friend pointed out in astonishment did I realize how large a proportion of the Bellas Artes attendees was truly young.  Dating kids in their twenties, groups of young men in their thirties; no one near where I was sitting recently was over 45.  And when the Saint-Saens violin concerto came to an end, they all gave Paul Huang, all of 22, a rousing ovation.  And deservedly so: that guy is good!
   There are more museums in Mexico City, it is said, than in any other city on the globe.  One internet list of 128 is a bit padded, since it includes a series of specialized exhibits on university campuses.  However, the Lonely Planet list of the “21 most popular” is quite judicious.  While most visitors are likely to know of the great Anthropological Museum, the Tamayo Museum and Museum of Modern Art nearby, I want to mention three, the first of which is not listed among those “most popular.”
   Justifiably so, to be sure, since the Palacio Nacional isn’t a museum, but an immense government building taking up the east side of the Zócalo.  Nevertheless, its large number of remarkable Diego Rivera murals, the “Epic of the Mexican People” make it a Must See for anyone interested in that artist’s work.  The panels reward close study, since they exhibit not only superb aesthetic traits, but also subtle and not-so-subtle political messages, from compositions depicting pre-Hispanic scenes to the time of the series’ completion in 1935.
   From that grand palace to two modest buildings.  Long before Carlos Slim—most years listed as the richest man in the world—recently erected a formidably modern museum named for his late wife, Soumaya, he had established a Soumaya museum in a former factory building—not modernized, but tastefully neatened-up, as the kids put it—as one part of what is now a charming old-fashioned mall.  Not a great museum but a delightful one that exhibits somewhat randomly, numerous small castings of Rodin sculptures, a few of Degas, some paintings by Kahil Gibran (better known for his ever-best-selling book, The Prophet), 18th century Mexican portraits and an immensely long Tamayo canvas—among a cheerful miscellany.  Plans to stay an hour may stretch well past that.
   Another modest but deeply interesting “museum” is the home Leon Trotsky occupied in his Mexican exile until he was murdered with an ice pick by an agent of Stalin.  Not far from Frida Kahlo’s more luxurious home (Trotsky is said to have had an affair with her), the quite humble abode is left as it was when he was killed: pots and pans in the kitchen, typewriter, books, and glasses on a table and more.  All a far cry from Kremlin grandeur when Trotsky was the founder and first leader of the Red Army.

   The unpretentious garden may make one more thoughtful still.  Immediately visible is a plain oblong stone marking Trotsky’s grave, his name chiseled across the top and a larger hammer and sickle in the center.  We will never know what the course of history might have been, had Leon Trotsky won the struggle for Lenin’s mantle, perhaps placing Joseph Stalin’s name on that simple grave.

Herewith a somewhat mischievous piece--though I must say that it do mean it.

An Immodest Proposal
   I have been reading how various institutions and associations are working to formulate rules about  what speech is and is not acceptable in their establishments—among them social media sites, broadcasters, colleges and universities, political parties and other kinds of clubs and of course many concerns where people talk about people in print.  This is a big topic and a broad one; and while I will only look at one corner of it, I hope that some of my comments apply to other aspects of attempts to deal with what has generally come to be known as “hate speech.”      
   The goal of  these efforts is to prevent insulting, demeaning, hurting persons by slurring them as members of racial or ethnic or other groups.  It’s OK to call your classmate a jerk or a coward, but it is not OK to call him a mickey or a kike.  The first of these insults attacks someone for what the speaker believes his target has said or done. The second denigrates that person not for an action, but expresses scorn by means of the very group label that is attached to him.
   To attempt such a clean-up may be a worthy endeavor, but the problems with which it is beset suggest that the better part of wisdom is to abstain.  To begin with, it’s a huge job.  It would be ironic if the rules were concocted by a Hitler or a Stalin, both of whom assumed the role of speech policeman; instead they are the outcome  of meetings of many people with different points of view who talk long enough to come to some agreement.                                        
   There is a lengthy and colorful list of ethnic slurs, with—not surprisingly—blacks and Jews copping the largest number.  And the force of these terms have a history.  When I was in high school, dago was the bad word for Italians; today, I believe, it is wop.  I doubt that today anyone is called Aunt Jemima—a black woman kissing up to whites—though that was once a serious insult.  A sheeny—an untrustworthy Jew—is an insult in Britain, but hymie is as close as you get to that in the US.
   Sambo, Tar Baby, and Picaninny are essentially extinct, although coon probably still has real bite.  When Huckleberry Finn was published 125 years ago or so, it was widely condemned for being coarse:  Huck "not only itched but scratched." At the same time, the profuse use of the term Nigger was hardly remarked upon.  Today that term is so torrid that it is most safely grasped with the glove called The N-Word.
   The would-be guardians, let us suppose, come to agree by somehow dealing with the rich historicity of this genre, knowing full well, of course, that history marches on and revisions will ever be needed.  But even more serious are the issues stemming from attempts to enforce the rules that have come out of those high-level pow-wows. 
   Given my ignorance, I stay away from technical issues, but will point to but two big flies in the ointment of such cosmic parental control.  First, any effort will be mighty expensive.  Speech crops up everywhere, in millions of publications and many multiples of that in sites on the internet.  The most clever of systems will require armies of personnel to implement it.  Moreover, however well done, substantial leaks in two directions are inevitable.  There will be plenty of cases the system will not catch and there will be many innocents caught in those nets that should have gone free.  It thus becomes reasonable to ask, Are such huge efforts worth it?  Do these several practical problems indicate that such a project is flawed more deeply? 
   Whatever happened to the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones/But words will never harm me”?  Clearly there are people with mental bones that can be hurt by words.  What fraction of any given population “suffers” from such sensitivities?  And for those who are hurt, how painful are the wounds?  These empirical questions remain essentially unanswered, because the spokespeople for parental control have successfully seized the high ground and have effectively silenced us skeptics.
   I hesitatingly propose that we pull back from this questionable enterprise, in the expectation that in time, the original meaning of that nursery rhyme would again come to the fore—no doubt accompanied by occasional clashes and even fistfights.  The suggestion is to move toward the kind of unhampered discourse that characterized much of past American political and ideological polemics and is still to be encountered in London’s Houses of Parliament. It is reported (The New Republic, May 13, 2013, p. 27) that Twitter “has explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility.”  Bravo, I say.  Bully for Twitter.


Heretics and Witches

Early in his important new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, Garry Wills observes that Catholics, via the Inquisition, tended to condemn to death heretics, while Protestants were more likely to put to death witches. Well, here and now we don’t burn people at the stake and we have finally stopped hanging them, though we are still far from finding all of human life to be sacred. But what about the crimes themselves, heresy and trafficking with the devil?
To have heresy, there has to be an orthodoxy, usually, but not necessarily, religious. Orthodoxy means right belief, in contrast to which the heretic holds his or her own (erroneous) belief instead. To be a heretic, you have to be a member of the group that propounds the orthodoxy. You can’t just be an infidel, an unbeliever. So the Spanish Inquisition caused the secular authorities to burn Christians who held unorthodox views, while they expelled unbelieving Jews from the country unless they converted to Christianity.
Witchcraft or sorcery refers to all kinds of allegedly supernatural activities and its practices and beliefs are to be found in all ages and most cultures. However, the kind of witches that Protestants persecuted were those who were thought to be possessed by or to be otherwise in league with Satan, a matter of action not just belief: having sexual relations with the devil or doing harm to others with his aid.
But is this all just history, in the past of Torquemada of the 15th century and Salem, Massachusetts of the late 17th. Or does that useful French saying apply, le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same?
We (in the West) may not be as dominated by orthodoxies today than when there was little distinction between church and state, but we are neither without them nor free of the persecution of heretics, even if not to the point of capital punishment. Within more than one religious establishment, among the Episcopalians most prominently, battles are now raging between an orthodox wing and those who dissent from the position that the openly gay may not be ordained as the most conspicuous issue. No burning at stakes today, but institutional excommunication nonetheless.
More than one Catholic bishop, more poignantly, has threatened to withhold communion from politicians who do not support laws prohibiting abortion, even though they are personally opposed to the practice. “Bishop: Denying Communion to Obstinate Pro-Abortion Catholic Politicians ‘in many cases becomes the right decision and the only choice’” is the title of an article on That is most severe punishment for a believing Catholic!
But we also have our secular orthodoxies, making heretics out of those who dissent from them. Take one example. We are all members of the population that is governed by the Constitution, including its second amendment. One group of citizens insists on an interpretation that the Constitution-given right to bear arms pertains to individuals (rather than only to the states’ militias), while others do not regard gun control as unconstitutional, but a legal and constructive social practice. What sets this debate apart from the very many disagreements that characterize our political discussions is that the matter of gun control is often “elevated” to single issue status in election contests. Opposition to gun control comes to resemble those religious orthodoxies in that dissenters are declared heretics, no matter how many other beliefs they share with the orthodox.
Of course, politicians who support gun control are not strung up on gallows in the village square, however much the proponents of this orthodoxy might desire that. But the fierce and well organized defenders of this orthodoxy achieve a significant dual result. In many parts of the country, proponents of gun control cannot get elected and the fear of retribution prevents its advocates from supporting implementing legislation. As a result, the United States is world headquarters of death by shooting—and ever more by juveniles—so that an entire nation is punished by a minority of fanatical defenders of, in my belief, a misguided orthodoxy.
It is fair to ask what, on the liberal side, constitutes a similar orthodoxy. The best I can come up with is First Amendment devotees, of which I am certainly one. However, most of us ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) supporters stop short of the single-mindedness that makes adherence to that amendment a do or die issue. Perhaps there is something to the accusation that we liberals are wishy washy wusses!
You might think that we are done with witchcraft. Well, yes and no. We have mostly banished the devil from our daily lives, but we do pursue people suspected of trafficking with that turbaned man with a long dyed beard, somewhere in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course a belief in the existence of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda is no superstition. Nor is trafficking with them a myth. And it is emphatically not harmless. And yet, there are uncanny resemblances between our treatment of accused supporters of Al-Qaeda and of those accused of being witches.
Like witches, suspected Al-Queda traffickers are identified and incarcerated on the basis of gossip, now called unverified second-hand reports. That’s not so for those suspected of being robbers or even murderers. Supposed witches were notoriously subjected to torture until they confessed. Daily, the matter of “harsh techniques of interrogation” fill the pages of our newspapers—again, not in connection with “ordinary” crimes, but with suspected crimes that are modern analogs of possession by the devil.
Finally, the trials. Gossip also counted as evidence in trials of witches, as were secret communications and, of course, extorted confessions. Evidence against the accused was often withheld from the person on trial. Frequently, the “lawyers” supposedly defending the accused were in effect on the side of the prosecution. Thus many of the trials of people charged with being witches were radically unfair—by any standard, even those prevailing long ago and in societies much less squeamish about procedures than we are. More often than not, to be tried was to be convicted. For many of these practices, similarities can be found in Guantanamo, with, to be sure, indefinite incarceration taking the place of conviction and execution.
Our country is of two minds concerning the treatment of these latter-day witches. There is Cheney-ish hysteria that aims at squelching all signs of sedition at any cost. No lesson was here learned from the fact that now, half a century later, we are apologizing for FDR’s succumbing to the hysteria that led to forcibly “relocating” West Coast Japanese--Americans. Then there are those, of which I am one, who hold that the “war on terror” is not a current emergency, but a very long haul indeed. That assessment entails that if we cannot learn to treat this brand of criminality in ways that remain within the framework of our free society’s traditions, we will change those traditions for the worse. Like them or not, we must allow heretics to have their say and we must deal with those possessed by the devil without ourselves becoming possessed by Satan.


Fitting Form to Function: More Advertisements for Myself.

My 1996 book with this title has been selling more vigorously in the last couple of years than ever before, though we are not talking bigtime sales. Still, I am pleased and you (whoever stumbles on this blog) should be apprised. Here is the basic informtion: Fitting Form to Function is the title, while the more informative subtitle is A Primer on the Organization of Academic Institutions. It is published in the Series: American Council on Education Oryx Press Series on Higher Education that now comes out from the Greenwood Publishing Group. Check out

Here are comments about the book:

As a higher education professional, I found this book to be tremendously valuable. Weingartner's dispassionate yet lightly humorous look at the structure of a university makes this book a great resource to consult whenever day-to-day operations become confusing....This would be a fabulous addition, as a balance to the more theoretical texts available, to the reading list for a higher education administration class. —NACADA Journal

This book examines the organization and functions of the major departments and offices within a college and university and offers explicit advice on the best way to integrate the two to achieve efficient governance. —Resources in Education
Rudolph H. Weingartner offers a new, analytical view of the structure of colleges and universities - explained with the help of 27 "maxims" in his latest book....The book is organized according to function....Weingartner does not advocate the traditional departmental structure as the ideal but as the most practical organizational solution available. —Academic Leader
The author uses 27 maxims as guidelines for improved effectiveness. —Higher Education Abstracts

Fitting Form to Function reveals all the wisdom Weingartner has amassed in his long and successful double career as a philosopher-administrator. The book is unique in its combination of the common sense of experience and the rigor of philosophical analysis. Weingartner's maxims catch and summarize his approach beautifully. Above all, at a time when many doubt the possibility of creative and enjoyable administrative careers, Fitting Form to Function gives one reason to believe that the idea of thoughtful and practical educational leadership is not a contradiction in terms. This is a superbly readable and usable little book. —Stanley N. Katz, President of the American Council of Learned Societies

A college president, provost or dean - yes, even a department head - will find much here to assist in marshaling the centripetal forces that are needed to make a university a viable, productive and progressive home for learning and discovery. —Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Computor Services and Psych.

Page by page, Rudy Weingartner's analysis of the organization of academic institutions rings true. His nuts-and-bolts advice on how effective 'function' follows good 'form' will be useful to current and aspiring administrators at all levels. A unique feature of this volume are its 27 Maxims; they distill the wisdom of Weingartner's distinguished career as an academic administrator. I expect to cite them in my daily work with deans, department chairs and faculty. —Gershon Vincow Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Syracuse University

Rudy Weingartner has developed a set of 27 Maxims which provide useful guides for institutional organization, decision-making, and governance....Administrators and faculty members alike will find this book useful and informative. —Alice F. Emerson Senior Fellow, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Anyone interested in, or concenred about, the structure and administration of contemporary universities would do well to read Rudolph Weingartner's newest book, built around a series of maxims about how universities do or do not work effectively. There is much wisdom here, both for newcomers and experienced academic administrators. It is pithy and powerful. —Robert M. Berdahl President, University of Texas at Austin

Description: The way in which the various departments within colleges and universities are organized has a direct impact on their effectiveness. Factors such as reporting structures, what kinds of committees are formed, and how the administration and faculty collaborate to make decisions all play key roles in how well an institution meets its objectives.In a series of succinct chapters, the author examines the functions of each department within an academic institution, then offers explicit recommendations on the types of organizational structures and processes that are best suited to carry them out.


Stanley Fish in the August 1 New York Times

I just sent a letter off to the New York Times, though I have no idea whether they will print it. My history in this domain: sometimes they do; mostly they don’t. But let me reproduce here what I sent:

“Stanley Fish, in his August 1 column, recommends public universities as much the best educational bargain: excellent faculties and a fraction of the cost of private institutions—who may only add the dubious, cache of prestige. I have no quarrel with his praise of (many, if not all) public universities, but his advice ignores the many youngsters who are not cut out for scrambling on multi-thousands campuses. Not every kid is equipped to buck the bureaucracies of large universities, to thrive in large classes, to get attention only when he or she demands it. Liberal arts colleges are good for the shy and reticent ones and they are capable of having them grow into confident adults, able to cope with the world. Unfortunately, very few of these much smaller institutions are public.”

There is not much I want to add here. For many years I have claimed that the most important decision about where a high school gradate should go to college is whether it should be at a large university or at a small liberal arts college. Many youngsters are perfectly capable of bucking bureaucratic rules, while resenting to be “mothered” by professors and advisors. Others are intimidated by rules and regulations and wind up not getting into what are for the not-so-clever “closed” classes. On the other hand, they might not at all mind a certain amount of advising that others might think of as intrusive. The success of undergraduate education is not simply a function of instructors competent in their fields, etc. But given that we are talking about an educational passage that also takes late teenagers into adulthood, more needs to be looked at besides scholarly competence.


Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

The book has had many reviews (of which I’ve only read a sprinkling) and I don’t intend to write another one, even though there is a sense that truly good books—and this is one—can be, and in effect are, reviewed again and again. Here I merely want briefly to comment on a characteristic of The Lost that I have not seen sufficiently stressed and take up some issues raised in Ruth Franklin’s review in Slate.

The characteristic I have in mind might be called structural complexity. Above all, the book is a memoir: it’s about Daniel Mendelsohn, from childhood through the complexities of that search. But because it is a memoir-with-a-theme and not an autobiography, it is about the author’s family, particularly—or almost exclusively—how it relates to the six lost. (Since that is the family of his mother, we find out practically nothing about his father.) Then it is about his growing need to know what had happened—progressive states of mind. Further and above all, it is about Mendelsohn’s many activities to find out what did happen. This becomes the story of trips and interviews and other encounters, but most important, it has him introduce a whole roster of characters who variously become involved in that search. He is very efficient or focused about that: of his siblings only one, Matt, who accompanies him on various trips and takes photographs, makes it to the status of person. Then, of course, there are the people (whose lived before Mendelsohn was born) whose lives and deaths he seeks to resurrect (an apt word never used) and the more peripheral and shadowy ones who are neighbors or killers or both. Finally, there are Mendelsohn’s reflections about all that, culminating (in the sense of “most abstractly” in accounts of Genesis and commentaries on that book of the Old Testament, including Mendelsohn’s, meant to shed a kind of symbolic light on these 20th century events. I read all those italicized passages, though I wasn’t always sure why I did.

Ruth Franklin says that Mendelsohn uses these passages about the Bible “somewhat pretentiously,” but in spite of that and other quite negative things she says, I read her review to be enthusiastically positive—cryptically so, since that positiveness is in spite of herself. Perhaps one quotation will say it all: “. . . he manages to make this moving and insightful but also self-indulgent book something of a page-turner.” We are talking about 500 pages, big ones, that consist mostly of talk and thoughts, presented in not-always-separated layers as just described; a book the forward-motion of which could not be further removed from what usually makes a page turner, as exemplified by adventure or detective stories. (Mendelsohn carefully refrains from “building up” to the final revelation, one that came about by accident, even if it was variously prodded to happen.) I was occasionally puzzled myself as to why I kept reading on, since Mendelsohn certainly did not transfer to me, in the fashion of Agatha Christie, the utter need to know just what happened to Shmiel and his family; what kept me with the narrative was ultimately his—Mendelsohn’s—story.

Ruth Franklin has essentially two beefs. First, Mendelsohn is “self-indulgent” (see above); Franklin refers, as well, to “the self-absorption that is evident throughout this bloated [but page-turning-inducing!?] memoir.” Well, it is a memoir, which is about the writer of it. I called my monster autobiography Mostly About Me, putting the matter up front. Mendelsohn puts the six killed family members in the title. Would it have been better if he had called the book, My Search for the Fate of Six Lost of Six Millioninstead of putting that into the subtitle?

That takes me to Franklin’s second, more serious, objection. Mendelsohn makes some comments—I hardly paid attention to them when I read the book—about the need for his kind of specificity for dealing with the Holocaust, as distinguished from the generality or, if one prefers, universality, purveyed by art. I’m with Franklin in that art can encapsulate experiences of every kind, those pertaining to the horrible events of the Shoah included. If Mendelsohn had written a treatise denying the efficacy of art—or its morality—I would enter my objections as well. Instead, he has, on the side, defended his approach, with his mission stated in the alternate title I gave to his book at the end of the previous paragraph.

Why are these exclusive alternatives—the fleshing out of specific fates and the evocation of the fate of many? Aristotle advised to look for the general in the particular. I don’t see why that should not be a very worthwhile task and why, when you do that in the way Mendelsohn does it, it should not be art as well.


Pittsburgh Arts Indicator

For quite some time now, I have been involved in the Pittsburgh indicator project. That is a very worthwhile effort to provide accurate information about all kinds of dimensions of the Pittsburgh area, as distinguished from the usual and usually unreliable anecdotal information that is purveyed. Not enough people know about this project, so I recommend those who are happening on this blog to check out what has been done so far on the internet:

My involvement has been with the arts indicator subdivision of this effort. We have done a study of arts participation in our region and have put quite a bit of the information that has been gathered on the indicator site. Click on the Arts moving panel and you will be regaled by some of the things we found out. But if you return to the site a bit later, more information will be posted fairly soon. Some of it—the difference between Pittsburghers’ attendance at sports and arts events will surprise those of you—of us!—who think of Pittsburgh above all as a sports city.

But now, I want to send out a call for help. If participation in arts activities measures the vitality of the arts community, determining the degree of exposure to, and education in, the arts of youngsters—say from elementary school through high school—will give an important signal as to the future vitality of the arts community.

As far as I have been able to determine, no one has ever made a study of this early stage for any particular community. At the same time, I have had numerous people tell me that it would be very valuable to make such a study—both to get information about a particular place (in this case that of the Pittsburgh area) and as a model for studies of other communities. I was even told that it would not be very difficult to raise money for such a research effort, though such optimism is often misplaced.

But so far I have not found anyone who could take the lead in designing and carrying out his potentially valuable research. If anyone who sees this blog—assuming that somebody does—has an idea as to how I can identify a person experienced in doing research with children, please let me know.

SUNDAY, JULY 15, 2007

“Jewish Revival” in Poland

“In Poland, a Jewish Revival Thrives—Minus Jews” is the headline of a July 12 New York Times article. On the one hand, “More than three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust” in which many Poles participated with enthusiasm. “Postwar pogroms and a 1968 anti-Jewish purge forced out most of those who survived.” On the other hand “‘Jewish style’ restaurants are serving up platters of pirogis, klezmer bands are playing . . . . Every June a festival of Jewish culture [in Krakow] draws thousands of people to sing Jewish songs and dance Jewish dances. The only thing missing, really, are Jews.” (All Timesquotes.)

There is much more in the article along the same lines—read it; it gets quite elaborate how Poles go about infusing Jewish culture without any participation of those whose culture it is. That article really upset me; the word that came coming to my mind’s lips was “obscene.” But because I was not at all sure that this reaction is rational, I started to look for analogies.

Came to mind the “Greek Games” Barnard put on every year way back when. They were enactments of what was thought to be sporty practice in ancient Greece—without, of course, those parishioners in evidence. But the analogy is very weak. Those Barnard girls or their ancestors had nothing to do with the demise of those original Olympian athletes. More germane seemed festivals or markets featuring American Indian customs or crafts. No doubt the sponsors of those affairs are the descendents of those who done ‘em in. But there is one crucial difference. Indian culture, or a comic strip version of it, is there purveyed by actual remnants of the civilization on display.

In Poland those remnants have in effect been eliminated, so that everything that takes place is a form of play acting; all those thousands of participants in Jewish festivals are imitators of something the reality of which they never actually experienced and which was rubbed out by their forebears, including quite recent ones. It is imitation Jewishness become entertainment. No doubt these exotic insertions into conventional Polish culture constitute a spice that relieves what might well be perceived its current dullness. Invent your own spice, is my response and leave buried what you have killed.

TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007

Stanley Katz on the Condition of the Professoriate

I just came across an article, written some time ago, by my friend Stanley Katz, “What Has Happened to the Professoriate?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B8) and want to make a few comments. To begin with, I think that Katz is wise to point out how variegated the professoriate has become, consisting of quite a number of subclasses that barely resemble each other and certainly have little to do with each other. I also deplore, as he emphatically does, the much lessened stress on teaching and the much reduced loyalty of professors to their institutions. If once upon the time, being a professor was a calling, the role has largely become a job—either a very good one if you belong to the elite segment or an overworked and poorly paid one, if you are a member of the squadron of lecturers who do so much of the teaching.

In the face of this situation, Katz twice invokes John Dewey (writing in 1915), who was instrumental in the creation of the American Association of University Professors, “But have we not come to a time when more can be achieved by taking thought together?” and asking that that happen again today.

I agree it should, but how will it happen, if it happens at all? The agency will not be the AAUP, which has become a union of the “haves” professors, caring not much for the have-nots and less for the professoriate as a company that serves. Twice, Katz mildly disparages the role of deans: “Deans by themselves cannot create educational change.” Professors must become more self-reflective, but “Again, this is the business of professors, not deans.”

Taken literally, I agree with these quotes, but they do not say enough. Professors, especially now in their splintered condition, will not by themselves initiate the discussions that will lead to much needed reforms. Perhaps because I was a dean (at Northwestern, for thirteen years), I am impressed by how necessary it is for someone like a dean to press a button, to initiate. And that is not simply a matter of speaking out, but calls for the use of incentives, positive and negative, to get a train out of the station and moving toward an envisaged goal. (To shift more of the teaching burden back to what used to be the professoriate will cost money and will deprive those bonzes of some of their privileges.)

If, recently, Harvard administrators had not been so inept, they might have served as a model (for curricular reform, anyway) for the rest of the country. When Henry Rosovsky initiated such reform in the seventies, Harvard’s efforts—in my view not at all impressive, but they were efforts—made the front page of the New York Times and became an inspiration, of sorts, for other institutions.

In short (if it’s not too late for that phrase), Katz has valuable things to say concerning the diagnosis of our ailments and he is right that how faculties reform themselves and their curricula must be determined by those faculties. But whether they do any of the above will depend on forceful pushes by academic administrators.