Monday, April 27, 2015

Old History, But Not Forgotten
This letter to The New York Review of Books may be the longest they have ever printed. Alas, to get a full sense of its import, the reader would have to do some research about the events of the 60's, with special attention to California. My letter was noted by Lee Sherman Dreyfus, a fellow crew member on "my" LST, who sent me a note when he saw it. Lee, a shipmates on LST 919 (1945-46), later became a governor of Wisconsin. Small World.


In response to:
Trouble at San Francisco State: An Exchange from the April 11, 1968 issue

To the Editors:
There is trouble at San Francisco State College, all right, but I am not at all sure that the Windmiller-Gerassi exchange (NYR, April 11, 1968) has made clear what it is: With a certain amount of eloquence—surely with a fluency that befits the literary setting of the exchange—Messrs. Windmiller and Gerassi are giving the world a look at a rather private scene of the play that has been unfolding, in San Francisco. Although the trouble at San Francisco State has relevance for all of higher education in America, the issues posed in the exchange do not bring this out. Marshall Windmiller, as one who played an important role in Gerassi’s firing, defends himself at length; his method is historical: he gives an account of Gerassi’s hiring, his career at San Francisco State, with special attention to the eruptions of December 6 and their aftermath. Gerassi, the one who was fired, is concerned with justifying his actions; his method is polemical: he proposes to show how everyone who is not a student or gung-ho like himself belongs to the same corrupt establishment. Windmiller’s history has a flaw that Aristotle found in all of history: it does not permit one to see the general in the particular. Gerassi’s fiery polemic does not illuminate enough. As someone who was quoted by Gerassi with approval, but who is one of the “liberal, ingrained, faculty-ized academicians” of whom Gerassi so sharply disapproves, I should like to open the curtain to the larger scene, in the hope that something can be learned from the story of S.F. State.
For some time, San Francisco State College has been a lively place in which fairly solid academic work has been carried on side by side with interesting as well as scatterbrained experimentation and with routine teacher education. The attractiveness of San Francisco as a place to live, the opportunities provided by rapid institutional growth as well as the general demand for more and better public education on the college level largely go to account for the flourishing of the college from the late Fifties on. I believe the period of upswing has ended and that a decline is inevitable. I do not see how anyone can prevent it. The outburst of December 6 and its aftermath, including the Windmiller and Gerassi exchange, are symptoms of conditions and trends that are largely independent of personalities and of particular events.
Public education in California bears a heavy burden; only a small proportion of its huge educational needs are fulfilled by private institutions. Just about every year for a decade a new campus of the University of California or a new State College was created, not to mention the expansion of institutions that already existed. This costs a lot of money, but for some years—starting well before Reagan’s election made manifest to the world what California was all about—the state has shown increasing reluctance to foot the bill. (In 1965 California spent $10.79 per $1000 of personal income on institutions of higher education, whereas the twenty-five Western states exclusive of California—where there are also relatively few private institutions—spent $17.89.) The State Colleges are particularly hard hit by this: the skimpiness with which they are financed in the first place (as compared with the University of California, for example) is made worse by unbelievably inflexible methods of budgeting and by a stifling control exercised through the pre-, during and post-auditing habits of the state’s Department of Finance.
California’s unwillingness to adequately support the State Colleges is not just a product of the universal desire to keep the tax bill down. A lot of California money is agricultural money: education is not an interest of enterprises whose fortunes are made by having lettuce picked, packed and shipped as cheaply and quickly as possible. Industry in California is relatively new and not so deeply rooted; it does not have the political voice that it has, say, in the mid-Atlantic states. Then California also has more than its share of America’s anti-intellectualism with its suspicion of any education that is not obviously aimed at training people to perform “useful” tasks in society. At the same time as relative budgetary support decreased, the know-nothing streak in California widened. As increasing parsimony became, with the election of Reagan, public orgies of budget slashing, California’s anti-intellectualism found noisy and flamboyant spokesmen in an experienced actor-governor and in Max Rafferty, an articulate nineteenth-century schoolmaster, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The administration of the State Colleges also changed. With the creation of a much touted but disastrous master plan in 1960, second-class citizenship was officially conferred upon the California State Colleges and confirmed in law. This status was implemented by the creation of a central Board of Trustees that was to rule over all the State Colleges, by means of an executive arm headed by a Chancellor. From the beginning, appointment to this board has largely been a matter of political reward, with the result that the Trustees of the eighteen or so State Colleges must, by all counts, be regarded as a remarkably undistinguished group. In their attitudes and in their ignorance they have been representative of the politically dominant class in the State of California, as they have been in their willingness to act and act swiftly upon their ignorance. As a part-time lay board they have made it their task to administer a dozen and a half colleges from afar. Under an obedient chancellor a bureaucracy was created, full of vice and assistant chancellors and of super-deans (such as a student-less dean of students) whose job it is to promulgate rules for, supervise the procedures of, exact reports from, and otherwise harass their over-worked counterparts at the various colleges. Above all, they are at the upper end of the immensely long ladder of decision.
The function of this board with its bureaucracy is other than might be expected. It has never faced the State in behalf of the colleges; it has never understood the goals of the colleges and interpreted them to the public and to the politicians who make the laws and appropriate the monies; it has done little fighting for the needs of the State Colleges as genuine institutions of higher learning. If one sees through occasional flurries of rhetoric, the central governing body of the State College System has unfailingly served as a one-way funnel through which the untutored desires of politicians are forwarded and implemented.
What these desires are must be clear enough in the light of what was said above. The politicians want the State Colleges to keep in their classrooms as many students as possible at the lowest possible cost. The State wants as many of them as can be managed trained to perform the various tasks which need to be performed in California. In as quiet and orderly a way as can be achieved and with a minimum of expenditure, the California State Colleges are to make their contribution towards the continuous increase of the gross income of the State. Rule from the center will facilitate this, because it will foster uniformity, orderliness, and efficiency.
Finally, there are the two most pervasive and complex conditions which, for the readers of the Review need the least elaboration. There is the war in Vietnam, with its draft, and racial injustice in all corners of American society, including its colleges. These two issues have converted phlegmatic students into passionate moral agents and adolescent rebelliousness into profound opposition to the establishment.
All this was far too much for poor San Francisco State. (It is still an open question whether the much more established University of California can withstand the pressures.) After all, the members of the faculty and of the student body that have given S.F. State its—I think deserved—reputation for a certain amount of freedom and creativity were never more than a significant minority of all those who go to classes there—sitting on either side of the lectern. Interference from the outside, an unwieldly bureaucracy, a scarcity of money with no options to transfer funds from one function to another leave one no room within which to operate when particular problems need to be solved.
As the pressures mounted, the faculty coped by passing more and more ringing resolutions. No one has yet paid any attention to them. An attempt by the American Federation of Teachers to lead a walkout in protest against the crudest infringements of the College’s academic autonomy fizzled ingloriously. No one has yet figured out how to face the demands—partially legitimate, I believe, and partially not—which the active students make of the College.
Under the pressures I have listed, the College’s administration, too, began to change. Like the administration of the System, it came to develop an interest of its own: the smooth working of all the wheels in the machinery. Whereas in the past, the College’s administration had for a time reflected and served the creative impulses of the faculty, it is now rapidly losing touch with what is best in the faculty and student body alike. The silent majority has not found its voice, but it has acquired spokesmen in the various administrative officers who have of late been coming into power. I do not see what can stop San Francisco State College from becoming just another branch of the California State College System.
It was on this point that Gerassi quoted me, but this point is only the next to the last of a long series that has to be made. The final observation must be about what all this has done to the individuals who have been teaching at S.F. State.
Polarization covers much of the ground. Pressures from the outside and the sense of impotence engendered by the lack of room for maneuvering pushed many of those who cared at all to one extreme side or the other. Some, like Gerassi, found themselves maintaining the view that the genuineness of feelings—mostly those of students—were the one value to which everything had to be sacrificed. The nihilism of Gerassi’s views and actions is reminiscent of its classical models in Turgenev and Dostoevsky, including its painfully suicidal qualities. Gerassi got himself fired before his first year was out; what he did at San Francisco State will not lead to improvement there.
Windmiller, liberal, knowledgeable, reflective, was pushed the other way. For him the pressures drove a painful wedge between theory and practice. At an institution less prey to political interference, Windmiller would have seen that for the sake of free colleges and universities, the distinction between professional and unprofessional conduct must be made closer to the instructor’s classroom and his profession, that Gerassi’s climbing into a window, though reprehensible, was not sufficient ground to yank him out of his classes in the middle of a semester. But, under the circumstances, no one, Windmiller included, was free to consider Gerassi’s case calmly. A full assessment of it is yet to be made.
John Summerskill, a new president at San Francisco State College, bright, perceptive, good impulses, though not equipped to be a cog in a machine, soon found himself caught in a three-way crossfire coming from outside (the politicians and the System), from the students at the College, and, with bb guns, from the faculty. It took less than two years to render him ineffectual inside and outside the College; he had no way of dealing with the problems that arose. He then did the only sensible thing. He quit.
I have been at S.F. State since 1959 and I’ve liked the College, the students, my department, the great city. But I became weary of the academic battles and the losing. The only victories we have celebrated in the last couple of years have been on occasions at which others—the System, the Legislature, the Governor—had failed, for once, to worsen our lot still more. Usually, though, they have been successful in making inroads on our dignity as an institution of higher learning and on our financial support. I have given up hope and am leaving the College and the State of California.
No more than Gerassi’s actions are Windmiller’s, Summerskill’s, and Weingartner’s likely to lead to change for the better.
Others are staying. Some—too many—go about their business as they always have. Nothing has altered for them; nothing did when, earlier, the College came to flourish; nothing does, as it threatens to wither. For others, much has changed and they go about their business grimly, hoping against hope that the course of events can be reversed. To them, I wish the very best of luck and hope that my bleak vision of the future for S.F. State is somehow wrong.
But if I am right and if for some long years San Francisco State will be just another state college, there are many colleges and systems around the country who can still learn from its fate. For some, it may not be too late.

Rudolph H. Weingartner
Department of Philosophy
San Francisco State College

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Snippets from Recent Reading

Translating Humor
“Works of humor are the hardest part of a literature to translate—even harder than poetry, because although you can think you understand a poem when you don’t, with humor you must not only understand but also laugh, and you can’t fake that. The difficulty of humor’s crossing cultural lines makes the laughter all the sweeter on the rare occasions when it succeeds.” (Ian Frazier, “A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” New York Review of Books, May 7, 2015.)

Barney Frank
   I just finished reading Barney Frank’s A Life in Politics: From the Great Society to Same Sex Marriage. A very good read. I’m prejudiced, of course. Like Barney, I’m Jewish and, more important, I’m a liberal Democrat, a class for which he was a most effective champion. And while Frank’s pursuit of  measures in support of LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] causes were, as himself a gay person, passionately close to the essence of his persona, his goals cohere with my less emotion-laden ideology.
   When I read Frank Bruni’s New York Times review of the book, I was critical of his stressing the LGBT themes of the book. Now, having read it, I feel much more benign, since, indeed, that is an important theme of Barney Frank’s political activity, crowned by his crucial leadership in seeing to the demise of “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell.
   There are extensive accounts, of course, of many other goals he pursued as a member of Congress, down to the monster Dodd-Frank bill which will now, one hopes, play an important role in preventing banks from plunging us into another recession.
   In the case of some of these accomplishments Frank was in charge of the committee working to bring them about. But in the case of many, he was not. But he was a natural leader, whatever his official position, because [1] he is incredibly smart, [2] he is capable of remaining focused through every kind of distraction, [3] he is remarkably quick and articulate, and [4] and not least, he is wonderfully witty—usually more disarming than cutting.
   Barney Frank was a Congressman’s Congressman. So much so that when Tip  O’Neill, then Speaker of the House found out that Frank was gay, he said  to him “I’m sorry to hear that” (quick intake of air?) “because I was hoping that you would be the first Jewish Speaker.”

Young Woody
“The lat year of high school everyone was picking professions and directions to go in and I had no real vision of anything. . . . I had  originally toyed with being a detective, being in the FBI. I thought about becoming an optometrist—that was one of my more mature thoughts. I also thought of the possibility of being a magician. Occasionally in some very spontaneous way, I thought a little bit about becoming a comedian—such as the first time I saw Bob Hope in The Road to Morocco with my mother—then it would vanish off my mind and later resurface again.”   (Eric Lax, Woody Allen, a Biography, Knopf, 1991, p. 70.)

How the Other Half Lives—At Least for a While
   John Barrymore began life with the name John Sydney Blyth, as a member of an acting family. But as perhaps the leading performer on the American stage and as a prolific actor in Hollywood films, he amassed a sufficient fortune so as to enable him, “In the fall of 1927 [to buy . . .]  an estate, called Bella Vista, on the edge of Beverly Hills. . . . The estate ultimately consisted of sixteen structures, including an aviary, and fifty-five baroquely furnished rooms, among them a rathskeller. There were six swimming pools, a skeetshooting range, a bowling green . . . .” (Paige Williams, “The Tallest Trophy,”  The New Yorker, April 20, 2005, p. 38.)

Alas, when he died at the age of sixty, Barrymore no longer owned Bella Vista. Alcohol was a major cause of his descent.  Thanks to YouTube you can see for yourself:                                                       

Fiddler on the Roof
   When {Norman Jewison . . . made his three-hour film adaptation . . . he placed Zero Mostel with Chaim Topol . . . . This sort of Americanizing made some others complain that the show wasn’t ethnic enough. Sholem Aleichem had often been cited as ‘the Yiddish Mark Twain’ (to which Mark Twain graciously replied that he considered himself  ‘the American Sholem Aleichem’).” (Robert Brustein, “Fiddle Shtick,” The New York Review of Books, November 18, 2014, p. 83.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Instantaneous Translation: Almost a Miracle

   Herewith a peculiar post. I want to point out and discuss something that is in front of the nose of every visitor to my blog. Accordingly, many will have noticed and followed up, while for others I may be bringing news.
   The appearance of the feature I want to discuss is misleadingly modest. Not far below the picture of my face (on the right side of the blog’s front page) is an invitation that says “Translate” and right below that you are told to “Select Language”—all of an inch’s worth of text. But that modesty ends when you click on Select. What then shows up is a list of 90 languages that this Google-driven feature is prepared to deal with. 
   Ninety languages! Who, among my readers, can name more than fifteen or maybe twenty? Yes, far more than 90 are in use around the globe, but among those for which there is written expression and is also used by more than a tiny population, those 90 constitute a pretty respectable number. Written, to be sure, in different scripts. More than ten certainly. While I went through them all, I can’t be sure of the total without a careful study that would involve printing out a whole bunch. E.g.: is the alphabet used for Serbian the same as that for Russian? There are more such cases that require distinguishing between similar looking alphabets and identical ones.
   If you haven’t tried it, the Translation feature is very simple to use and remarkably fast. With a text, presumably in English—a post, as the lingo has it—on the left side of the page, click first on the arrows in the box under “Translate” and then on the language into which you want your piece translated. In five seconds or less, in my several trials of not very long pieces, the text is transformed into the language you have chosen. And as a bonus, the list of labels that appear below the translation is also turned into the language you have selected.
   So far so good. A check of the of these rapid transformations reveals a quite mixed results. I only tested seriously translations into German. Since that is my best non-English language by far, I could judge the adequacy with which the job was done. Let me start by saying that you certainly don’t get good German prose, comparable to the English input. Can you make out what the English author had to say? Mostly, but by no means always. (It certainly helps if you linger over phrases and sentences, mulling, “what could he mean by that?” No doubt at times, a light bulb will go on.) Without having tested more than a few pieces of text, I have an additional observation. The more “concrete” the subject matter—my piece about big-time university sports for example (http://rhweingartner. more intelligible the translation. I compared it with a much more “abstract” essay, that entitled, “Art that is Heard is Not Like Art that is Seen” ( which  was harder to make out in the German translation.
   What to make of all that? The progress that has been made is quite remarkable. Years ago computer people at Carnegie Mellon told me that it would be ages before such translations would be possible, as they also thought the ability of a computer to "understand" speech would be in a distant future. Instead it has come to annoy all of us who have to jump through hoops before we get to talk to an actual  person on the phone. It is my guess, the speculation of someone largely ignorant of the world of computers, that what has been achieved is above all a function of phenomenal increases in memory. Somewhere in Googleland vast vocabularies of all these languages are stored, to be elicited when the button is pushed. Progress is not as far with the more complex matters of syntax and semantics, making the computer not a wholly skilled translator.  These guesses may well be wide of the mark. I hope that some readers of these remarks will comment and enlighten me.
   In any case, the citizens of the United States are hardly known for their knowledge of languages. We should therefore be thankful for what Google hath wrought and has presented to us—yea verily for free.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Here are two letters from my Navy Letters book, the only two that mention the Atomic Bomb. I was of course in boot camp at the time. The relevant passages are in bold.

Aug. 10, 1945
Good evening friends!
   Yesterday I received your brush which will receive its trial run in about ½ an hour plus those chocolates which are already successfully consumed: They were good. This morning, father’s letter got here, & this afternoon, Junior’s with the incinerator jokes. 
   News isn’t unusual from here. We had two more shots without any bother, some more drill & work. I missed road work this morning (I was so sad) since I stood relief guard from 0900 to 1030. A worthwhile exchange.
   Next week we have service week – I’ll get a fairly easy job in the barracks (due to the choir). 
   No one, however, knows when we’ll be thru here until about a week before. Peace
rumors & everything else has very little effect on it. The war will be over within weeks anyway due to atomic bombs, Russia and me!
   I really have trouble writing anything interesting, so I might as well quit now. OK?, OK!
Aug. 15, 1945
Hello, –
   They gave you a nice birthday present yesterday, Mutts! While I’m not jubilant (there is too much to be done still and the destruction of the atomic bomb is too infinite) the war is over. This morning there will be services & sure that tonight, Jackson Heights services will be held. Last night when the news came, one thousand of us were rehearsing for tonight’s event. We’re observing a Sunday schedule today, but what will happen to us – we do not know. My guess though, is everything will go according to schedule – for a while anyway.
   I just came back from services which—in one word—weren’t. Something got mixed up and there were no Jewish services at all. Even in the efficient Navy . . .
   Tonite that big show is going on (I doubt whether they’ll broadcast it.) Moving that huge volume of singers often resulted in chaos – especially when they wanted us to march in formation. Baritones & Bases – AttenTION! etc. etc. We’ll see how it comes out. Though I do have an inkling that it sounds good – being in the midst of Baritones I can’t hear the whole business.
   Now – our being here has lost the quarter part of its purpose though I’m not even sure what I want (I’ve got nothing to say anyway – so it doesn’t make much difference).
   Mail from you has been getting rather thin – so let’s hear what’s going on in N.Y. (Times Square must be a mad place now).
   We didn’t know any more than that the bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that the damage was devastating and that Japan would now surely have to surrender, as they did. I don’t recall any additional discussion among us eighteen-year olds.  For me, the talk came much later, in college, where I was on the fringe of those who regretted the existence of the bomb; Edward Teller was the villain du jour. It was not until much later that I came across the persuasive arguments about World War II  by Paul Fussell, a professor of literature and writer who had served in that war. He points out vividly that the Japanese would not have surrendered in the face of superior forces, but would have fought to the death for their emperor. The cost of American and allied lives in the planned invasion of Japan would have greatly exceeded that of the victims of the two atomic bombs. See his “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” The New Republic, August 1981).

"And not just a staggering number of Americans would have been killed in the invasion. Thousands of British assault troops would have been destroyed too, the anticipated casualties from the almost 200,000 men in the six divisions (the same number used to invade Normandy) assigned to invade the Malay Peninsula on September 9. Aimed at the reconquest of Singapore, this operation was expected to last until about March 1946—that is, seven more months of infantry fighting. 'But for the atomic bombs,' a British observer intimate with the Japanese defenses notes, 'I don’t think we would have stood a cat in hell’s chance. We would have been murdered in the biggest massacre of the war. They would have annihilated the lot of us.'" (p.5).
   We have been fortunate—given the turbulent state of the globe—I’m inclined to say “lucky”—that those Japanese atomic bomb explosions have been the only ones, other than of (more or less) harmless tests. But such diplomacy as the ongoing negotiations with Iran notwithstanding, in time, ever more countries will have access to The Bomb and given that large parts of the world are still governed in ways that stuffy people like me would consider irresponsible, I rate the likelihood of an additional malicious use of an atomic bomb to be well above 50%.  While such aggression would be suicidal—retaliation would be swift and devastating—flamboyant suicides are nowhere nearly as rare as one would hope.
    Enough lugubrious speculation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
To get the ebook, A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy: Letters of 1945-1946, Aftermath of World War II, go to and click on the book.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

With the book of my 1945-46 letters from the US Navy now out as an ebook, I plan now and then to reprint on this blog one of those letters or an excerpt and follow it with some comments from a contemporary perspective.

Aug. 8, 1945
     .  .  .  .  . Today we went swimming, a short but nice pleasure. The pool is the biggest indoor pool in the world – but we always have to get out again very soon.
     My inoculations are now complete and the double typhoid shot worked out well.
     Yesterday I had the 0000-0400 watch – boring but otherwise not much happens. Today I took out a $10,000 insurance policy that will surely be sent to you soon. Almost everybody did the same thing, since for 8 years the same premium is due and can then be converted into a civilian policy. Everything can be changed, even the beneficiaries. It costs $6.40 per month.
     What you have in mind about a more detailed letter I don’t quite understand, since it’s always the same thing in a different form – lectures, films, exercise, work & drill.
     Now there is unfortunately not much more time – nor much to say.
     Therefore good bye – Rudy

   I have that policy still, though its beneficiaries have changed serveral times since the original Effective Date of 08/08/46. It is many years since I’ve had to pay a premium—not even that monthly $6.40--since dividends and interest earned (“not subject to federal income tax”)  easily covered the premiums that would have been due. All that boosted the cash balance to $19,846,10 and the Survivor Benefit—that was $10.000 in 1946—to $29,846.10 as of August 8, 2014.

   I leave it to competent economists to determine whether leaving that policy alone for all these years is a better deal or a worse one, compared to cashing it in on some day during those intervening sixty-eight years. The latter seems highly likely, since those what would have cost $10,000 in 1946 is calculated to cost $120,370 in 2015. But if you tackle this issue, make sure to make your assumptions explicit.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

To get the ebook, A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy: Letters of 1945-1946, Aftermath of World War II, go to and click on the first book.