Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Names of Mexico City’s Streets

There are neighborhoods in Mexico City in which the names of streets are not the result of historical or random developments.  The street names, in the areas I have in mind, are organized by themes and with the exception of an occasional interloper, each street within that area falls into the chosen category.  The large upscale section of Polanco is a splendid example.  There the streets have the names of novelists, of scientists, of poets, with a few politicians thrown in—in effect the streets are named after writers of many different kinds.  Polanco is literate!

   Almost twenty years  ago I spent many hours walking through that neighborhood, taking note of the intersections.  I even took snapshots of many crossing street signs.  I still have a very long list of intersections, but I threw out the poorly done pre-digital black and white photos.  My intention was to make a selection of crossings and create a brief conversation between the two authors, imagining what they might say to each other.  A few would be easy, the intersection of Newton and Galileo, for example, but many would challenge one’s imagination.  Try to envisage an exchange between Poe and Homer or between Plato and Dickens, a conversation between Shakespeare and Madame Curie, not to mention one between Spencer and Euler.  I may one day tackle that formidable problem, but not just yet.

   Here I want to acquaint you with our own neighborhood, never going beyond an easy walking distance from the house—my little camera, a Canon PowerShot 800 IS with a really good zoom—strapped to my belt.  I have not yet graduated to do photographing with a cell phone.
   We not only live on Atlanta, but the streets in our immediate neighborhood are all of them the names of United States Cities.  Here is a small sample; there are more.

Other streets in our neighborhood are named after artists.  There are a great many of those, ranging further South, beyond easy walking distance.  Herewith  a few samples.

And if you walk in a Northerly direction, you will be crossing a whole cluster of American States.  Again, just a sample and, as above, in no particular order.

Come visit and see for yourself!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Request of My Readers

   I started this blog last January and while my readership is not huge, the number of so-called Pageviews has slowly but gratifyingly been increasing.  What has been quite disappointing, however, is that I just about get no comments.  I understand that commenting via the feature at the bottom of a particular post is cumbersome.  To go around that obstacle, a very simple feature has now been added at the bottom of the column on the right, below a second picture of me (which we couldn’t get rid of).  By that method you can send a message directly to the inbox of my email address.  You need not identify yourself and while a return address email is required, nothing prevents you from putting in a fictitious one.
   I am not fishing for praise nor for expressions of agreement.  I want to hear other views on the topic of the post or objections to mine, where such are relevant, or any other remark that comes to mind.  My blog may be a Home of Strong Opinions; but it is not the home of dogmas.

Rudy Weingartner

Monday, August 25, 2014

Liberal Zionism and I

   An op ed piece by Antony Lerman, “The End of Liberal Zionism,”  in the New York Times of August 24 spoke to me.  I urge you to read it:


   Current events in Israel make it tough for Jews who also propose to uphold humanistic values, for want of a better word.  I’ve expressed my views as they pertained to a stage before the current conflict in a post of  May 31 of this year.  But I am perplexed as to what I should now do, if there is anything that I could do in response to current Middle East events.  Let me just use the Lerman piece as an excuse for giving a brief history of my relationship to Israel, starting well before the creation of the Jewish state itself.
   As a kid in Germany (which I left in 1939 at the age of twelve), I belonged to the Habonim and vaguely recall talk about the possibility of a Jewish state, but remember better the Hebrew songs we sang, especially the Hatikvah, the Jewish national anthem avant la lettre—that is, avant l’état.  I became a Zionist, if not a very reflective one.  My next (relevant) recollection, either just before or just after the creation of the state of Israel, is seeing a cover of the New York Times Magazine depicting “soldiers” of the Haganah marching diagonally across the entire page.  I recall being very dubious about the suggestion of Jewish militarism and even thought vaguely about the desirability of a  bi-national state.
   In Jewish fashion (a practice certainly not limited to Jews), I have been writing modest checks annually, ever since I had a predictable income and some of those checks went to the United Jewish Appeal (which supports Israel) and a couple standard Israeli organizations.  I might also add that I much enjoyed two visits to Israel.  During those years of the Mapai there was no conflict for me between Zionism and liberalism.  But this harmony came to an end.
   At Northwestern University, where I was dean of arts and sciences at the time, it ended with a bang.  In 1976, a Northwestern faculty member, Arthur Butz, associate professor of electrical engineering, had published a big book entitled The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jews, making him a member of the species now known as Holocaust deniers.  All hell broke loose in the Chicago area Jewish community when that became known, propelling NU’s president into a defensive crouch. 
   In response, several high profile Philo-Judaic events were scheduled, with Elie Wiesel among the speakers.  I was tapped to introduce Lucy Dawidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews.  Since there had been a lot of pressure to get Northwestern to fire Butz, my tack, appreciated by some, was to contrast the policies of our university that only considered a faculty member’s professional behavior with those of the Germany Butz defended.  It had been established that he kept his political views out of the classroom, where he stuck strictly to his engineering subject.  Hence no procedure would be initiated that would lead to his being fired.
   Northwestern’s penance concluded with the awarding of an honorary degree to Menachim Begin—at a specially created ceremony rather than, as was normal, at an end-of-academic-year graduation.  By then, given the Likud practice of establishing settlements, my liberalism had tested my Zionism severely, so I actually considered staying away from the Beginfest.  I showed up, as did a bunch of vigilant athletic-looking Israeli bodyguards, since I feared that the absence of the Jewish dean would be interpreted in fanciful and undesirable ways.
   Not long afterwards I stopped contributing to the United Jewish Appeal and limited my modest charity to dissenting Israeli organizations and to local Jewish outfits.
   Now we have reached a new low, rightly dubbed the end of liberal Zionism.  I fear that for me at least liberalism is more basic than Zionism.  Yes, nothing excuses or justifies the actions of Hamas.  Still, I cannot help but believe that the Israelis are powerful and astute enough to contain Hamas without large numbers of civilian deaths and the destruction of countless homes that appear to have no military significance.  Netanyahu may be retaining the support of his own citizens, but he is in grave danger of turning a larger world against Israel.  After the demise of liberal Zionism, will Zionism of any kind also come to an end?


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The True Meaning of the Tea Party
Rudolph H. Weingartner

   On March 10, 2010, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an op ed of mine to which the editor provided this headline:
                            Tea Party paranoia is nothing new
                           Fear-mongering has always been with us, but it never wins in the end
The editor there captured what I had argued in the piece, which had made use of Richard Hofstadter's 1965 essay,  "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."  This is how I concluded:
   History  teaches us  that  we've  been  here before. History teaches  us that  fear-mongering can  cause  great  annoyance, Injury,      turmoil,  even death.  But  history also teaches us  that  paranoia in  American  politics, in  the  end,  does  not  prevail. 
This  too  shall  pass.

   I may have been right in making paranoia the main impetus for the arrival on the American scene of Tea Party polititicos, but I can’t quite think myself back into those four-plus years ago.  However that may be, that’s not how I see the Tea Party now.  Paranoia is a disease; those afflicted with it may be disliked, but should not really be blamed, since they actually can’t help themselves.  Now I believe that people who identify themselves with the Tea Party—and their friends and sympathizers—are mean-spirited reactionaries—not a disease but a constellation of beliefs, not imposed but assumed voluntarily.  (Tackling the question of the plausibility of that common sense assumption would take us two hundred pages into the thicket of controversies about the freedom of the will.) 
   Yes, reactionary, because, without actually saying so, those proponents favor returning to a considerably earlier state of American society, that of the decade, say, of the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, 1923 to 1933, that is, to the time before FDR changed the role of government with the creation of the New Deal.  To call Tea Partiers “conservative” is thus a grave misnomer; they want to change things to the way they were almost a century ago; they are not aiming to conserve what exists now.
   Mean-spirited, because many, indeed most, of their proposals aim at taking away some benefit provided to fellow human beings or of preventing their gaining such a one.  Obamacare, they claim, is a bad law.  The aim, therefore is to kill it off, without even a suggestion as to what might replace it, so that more of their fellow Americans have access to medical insurance.  In effect, the naysayers don’t regard it as a problem that so many of their confrères are without that safety net.  Similarly, Medicaid—an existing healthcare program for people with insufficient income to afford it on their own—need not be expanded to cover more people, even when you federal government will foot the bill. 
   And why has the Tea Party not tackled Medicare?  Surely only because a larger proportions citizens over 65 vote than does of the population generally.  Surely for similar reasons, there have not been loud demands to revive the George W. Bush proposal to privatize Social Security, though there has certainly been propaganda to reduce benefits and to up the age of eligibility—to be sure, not starting with the generation that votes now.
   Finally, to conclude with two additional economic targets, Tea Partiers have dragged their feet about increasing unemployment benefits.  Never mind that the surge in unemployment was caused by the recent Great Recession, for which those unemployed bear zero responsibility.  Wall Street does (and they are not suffering) and so do those Tea Party sympathizers avant la lettre who steadfastly opposed effective regulation of the financial world.
   And second, Tea Party and friends have persistently opposed raising the minimum wage, now a shabby $7.25 per hour.  Give me a couple of sentences to say what that means.  If someone who is paid that hourly wage works a full forty hours a week for each of the 52 weeks in the year (and who actually does?), he or she will have earned $15,080 for the year, supposing no deductions.  Posit against this that the poverty level for a family of four is now $23,850 a year and   for a family of two it is $15,730.  Think single mother with one child, working non-stop for the year and think of inevitable expenses for the care of the child.  Is it not the case that to be satisfied with this situation is a symptom of mean-spiritedness?  Also reactionary because, since asks for a return of the days before the New Deal.
   Finally, a couple of paragraphs about the Tea Partiers views concerning immigration, knowing full well that they will be inadequate, even though I will not take up the recent surge of unaccompanied children from Central America.  But let’s begin with children.  There may be as many as four million born in the United States, but to illegal immigrants.  According to our law, the requirement for citizenship (other than via naturalization) is not parentage, but the place of birth—that is America.  This simple criterion has historically distinguished us from many a more finicky country, in Europe and elsewhere.  But it has been a good law for the US and accounts in part for the “attractiveness” that has produced so varied and versatile a population.  Still, there are those who want to add further requirements: now that I’m a citizen, let’s introduce hurdles that resemble nothing so much as those of a class-stratified society of 18th-century Europe.
   The central issue, however, for Tea Partiers, is what they have called amnesty.  At this time, there are about 12 million people living in the United States who entered the country illegally.  They all broke the law, so they should not escape an appropriate punishment—not to mention that they should not be rewarded for their transgression with legitimacy or, perish forbid, citizenship.
   I will confine myself to two observation, granted that this is a much bigger topic.  First, a significant number of those “illegals” are illegal in a Pickwickian sense at most.  A sizeable number—I was unable to find a reliable estimate—were brought here as children by their illegally arrived parents.  We consider giving amnesty (or not) to someone for something she or he did, for an action performed.  Those children did not do anything, they did not decide to come here and then come; their parents did that—they were just taken along.  The issue of amnesty is as irrelevant for those children as it would be for someone who failed to show up on time because he got lost in the woods.
   What about the issue of amnesty for the bulk of those 20 million illegals, that is, the adults?  As far as I can determine, Tea Partiers are opposed to a procedure that leads to any kind of legal status.  That would be rewarding people for having committed a sin, to express the point in terms of the Calvinism that underlies the ideology we have been discussing.  But on the other hand, no one proposes out loud that those millions should be deported, not because that would be found to be undesirable, but because it just isn’t feasible.
   Where does that leave us?  Nowhere.  Tea Partiers, to be sure, recognize that there is a problem, a serious problem.  But for them, no solution is acceptable.  So much for governing.
   A final observation of a quite different sort.  Those adherents of this ideology who are members of Congress or are officeholders in various so-called conservative foundations and institutes will not at all be negatively affected if everything all they agitate for were to come to pass. These folks are employed, “earning” salaries that vary from very comfortable to cushy, scare quotes intended.  The same cannot be said for the many ordinary citizens who subscribe to these Tea Party views.  Indeed, any number of those who put their vote where their beliefs are may be unemployed or in danger of losing their jobs, be without adequate health insurance or are liable to be, or are disadvantaged because of the stinginess of the minimum wage.

   To me it is a matter of amazement that so significant a number of people should vote against their own interest.  In the end, I can only suppose that for many the Tea Party ideology is not a bundle of mere beliefs, but amounts to a theological dogma.  After all, the United States is the most religious country in the developed world. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Is the Demise of the Student-Athlete in Big-time Sports Finally in Sight?
   There is rumbling in the world of big-time college sports and with a little luck there will be an uproar before too long.  It’s about time, since for many decades—a century really—unending numbers of deep problems have been seen to be rooted in the fact that college students, who as such are subject to academic requirements for admission and continuation as students, are the agents who carry out the mission of entertaining untold thousands by playing basketball and, especially, football.  (The football stadium of the University of Michigan has an official capacity of 110,000 and is said to be able to hold crowds larger than 115,000.)  Each time a new problem pops up, a band aid with ineffective adhesive is applied, leading to a concatenation of rules and principles that, while making Ptolemy’s epicycles look streamlined, manage above all to inspire evasions of every variety.[1]
   The recent rumbling began with former football players at Northwestern University who, as co-founders of the College Athletes Players Association, proposed to have such college athletes unionize.[2]  They convince me about the many issues they raise, grievances that reveal that these high visibility student athletes are exploited in a variety of ways.  Indeed, the whole notion of student-athletes in Division I mainline spectator sports is deeply suspect. 
   As long ago as in the first decade of the 20th century—a hundred years ago, that is—David Starr Jordan, then the founding president of Stanford University (after having served a stint as president of Indiana University) declared, presumably with a sigh, that it would be much better if the University hired young men just to play for Good (not very) Old Stanford, letting them take courses if they wanted to.  If the pattern he had in mind were followed, a group of colleges and universities would take on the role for football and, presumably, basketball that minor league clubs do for baseball.  Perhaps the step now taken by the Northwestern football players will lead there in the long run. 
   Were this proposal implemented, there would of course have to be various rules concerning the conditions under which these young athletes are hired, rules about their compensation, treatment, and how long they may retain their positions, and so on.  Such a batch of regulations, however, could easily be a model of simplicity and succinctness compared to the wads of pre-and pro-scriptions of the NCAA.  I would propose that part of the compensation of these youngsters be the permission to take courses and even work toward a degree, but that, on the one hand, they would not be required to do so but, on the other, that in their (voluntary) role as students, they would be subject to the same rules and requirements as are “regular” students, except that they would be permitted to take fewer courses at any one time than those regulars are or, indeed, none at all.
   I flatly reject two possible objections to such a scheme.  The less plausible one is the supposition that these hired hands would not give their all in playing their athletic roles for the institution.  Why wouldn’t they if they are treated well, especially considering that their performance will surely be the main determinant as to whether they will be promoted, so to speak, to the major leagues.
   A more plausible one—or at least one that I have heard expressed a number of times—is that the fans of the University of Michigan’s Wolverines (and their equivalents) would less enthusiastic about their team and lessen their attendance at the games.  I concede that there may be a wobbly period of transition, but I would confidently predict that it would not last very long.  The difference between before and after is, after all, purely cerebral and not at all experiential.  Whether a spectator sits in the first row or in the gods, as the French say, he or she would not note anything different from what they had seen before: broad-shouldered young men running and throwing and clobbering each other.  (See “Gladiators Then and Now,” my post of February 11, 2014.)  Assuming the spectators are there because they enjoy watching football, they will continue to enjoy just as much as they did before the change of the players’ status; they will get used to it.
   And while we are deflating myths, let me conclude by denying two additional ones.  A vigorous student-conducted athletic program is needed to inspire donors to contribute to the coffers of the college or university.  People make contributions for all kinds of reasons, from everywhich sort of motive.  Those who give money because they are enthusiasts for one or another college sport, it has been noted more than once, don’t endow chairs in literary study, the give money that will support some aspect of athletics.[3]
   Nothing wrong with giving money for athletics, especially—to turn to the second myth—since all kinds of games are played with the budget for that enterprise.  The fact is that a woefully tiny fraction of institutions actually derive an income from athletics.  At the vast majority of colleges and universities more is spent on spectator-oriented athletics than it brings in.  This would even be clearer if the bookkeeping were honest.  Alas, it is not unusual to have the recruitment of athletes charged to the Office of Admissions, the maintenance of the stadium debited to Buildings and Grounds, the use of college vehicles charged to the carpool—and so on.  In short, many institutions don’t even know what their big-time athletic costs them—especially when they don’t really want to find out.
   The Northwestern footballers have started something that ultimately may, finally, see the transformation of athletics in higher education.  But while I am eighty-seven years old and don’t expect to live long enough to see the culmination of this new start, I hope that some of my readers will.  

[1] When I was provost at the University of Pittsburgh, I was asked to be the new member of the group of three that would determine which football player candidates would be recruited as one of the few permitted by the NCAA who did not conform to standard requirements.  When I suggested, when the first case was being considered, that we look at his transcript, I was puzzled by the raucous laughter by my experienced partners.  The transcript, I was told, came from a high school that specialized in feeding football players to colleges such as Pitt and that they were all doctored—a euphemism for falsified.  
[2] In the interest of full disclosure, I was dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern from 1973 to 1987.  During some of those years Northwestern and my alma mater, Columbia College, were neck and neck for the longest losing records of their football teams.  Northwestern has done somewhat better since.
[3] When I taught at Vassar, its president came back from a trip to California and reported to the faculty that an alumna had given the College a tidy sum to create or refurbish (I have forgotten which) a playing field.  When he was chastised by the faculty who had very different priorities, he said rather plaintively that this particular donor was a sports enthusiast and would not have provided funds for anything else.  “Should I have turned down her gift?”