Sunday, June 28, 2015

On Writing; On My Writing

    I actually prefer the activity of writing to that of reading.  That may seem odd, downright heretical, for an old academic, even a retired one.  While I became fully conscious of that trait only quite recently, partial evidence is contained in the fact that during my stint in the Navy for exactly one year from July 1945, I wrote 148 letters home to my parents, even though the Navy kept me busy and I wasn’t at all homesick.1 When I was working on my autobiography2  and became a whit more introspective than usual, I developed a little typology of kinds of character. Although it is quite unlike the classical one that distinguishes between the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy, it shares with those humors that while one of them may dominate in a person, there is some of each in everyone.
  Originally I only spoke about two types; here I will add a third and take them up briefly. In Mostly About Me, I distinguished between Doers and Makers. I imagine that business executives, military officers, actors, among many others, are primarily doers. Such people get their kicks out of the actions they perform, out of what they do, from the activities they are engaged in. Makers, by way of contrast, act in order to create some sort of product; their activities are directed toward making some change in the world; they are motivated to act to bring about something—anything—that didn’t exist before their actions. Artists of all kinds are paradigms, but so are cooks and gardeners and people in a great many other trades.
   Now for the wrinkle. Since both Doers and Makers act, you often can’t really tell which kind you are dealing with. It matters how the actor conceives of his or her activities. So you think that as a dean, making a great many decisions every day—or doing homework to prepare for decision—I was essentially a Doer. No doubt that is how observers thought of me. Nevertheless, I regard myself as dominantly a Maker. More often than not, I think of my actions as a means to some addition to the world: an improvement of a department, say, or a means to getting a grant, etc., etc. My mindset tends to be “product-oriented.” 
   I can offer some proof in support to this thesis about my beliefs. I resigned as provost of the University of Pittsburgh because I did not think that I could accomplish anything (bring about desirable goals), even though things had been going smoothly, with my getting the paper satisfactorily from the inbox into the outbox, with my actions keeping the machinery going. Outside the professional realm, there is the fact that all my life I have been making things, mostly of wood, from useful objects to sculptures, lots of all of these, and expressing my musical bent by singing in various choruses and not just listening to others perform. Finally a kind of negative evidence. I have always much disliked filing my ever-accumulating papers because I look at that activity as making a great many trivial decisions and can’t see “making order” to be a worthwhile product.
   There certainly exists a third type of character. I will mention it to flesh out this mini-theory, but it is othervise relevant here only because there is less of it in me. I don’t have a good name for it, but will make do with recipient, someone who is basically passive vis-a-vis the world and does not primarily derive satisfaction from acting, but from experiencing, even savoring whatever there is to be experienced. I’m sure there are many such people—maybe they are even in the majority—but as someone who has spent very little time in front of a television screen or in a movie theater, I am not one of them.
   The above is surely longwinded enough an explanation as to why I lean more toward writing than to reading. But now a bit about that writing itself. Let me start by something of a boast. I think that I am not an amateur at writing, but that I am a professional writer. Furthermore. I think that I write well. One sign of the former is the fact when I am writing some piece I just about never leave it at a single draft. To be sure, for a long time now I have been writing on a computer, where making changes is so easy that often one becomes hardly aware of doing that. Still, except for very short and trivial pieces, I also print out my last draft and, reading it, pencil in hand, just about always find myself making changes, often a lot of them and not infrequently quite elaborate ones. So if you agree that my writing is pretty good, that is importantly due to the fact that a lot of work has gone into it.
   But other things do as well. Start with my vocabulary. While it is not a particularly big one, I use all of it. I may be characteristic of someone working in a second language in that there is very little difference between the words that I understand when I read them (my passive vocabulary) and the words that I use when I write (my active vocabulary). While English soon became very much my better language, I spoke and wrote only in German until coming to the United States at the age of twelve. I am sure all these relationships have been much studied—but not by me.
   To talk about the sources, so to speak, of my style, I need to make a small detour. I am a slow reader, indeed, a very slow reader. (I thought when I became dean that I would have to take a speedreading course to cope with all that documents I would have to deal with. That turned out not to be needed.) I have at least a partial diagnosis of this handicap—for that’s what it is. I don’t move my lips when I read, but I silently hear the words I am reading. I don’t just read with my eyes, but imperceptively also with mouth, tongue, and throat the machinery used in speaking. No doubt this proto-vocalizing slows me down, since without it, my eyes and brain could move faster.
   Unsurprisingly, these traits of my reading habits effect the way I write. To put it succinctly, I write the way I speak even when I’m not conscious about speaking. My talk is usually clear and, when need be, persuasive and that’s what I aim at with my prose. But I’m not an orator, striving for eloquence. No passages of the kind to be found in Henry James or Proust, but rather more like the deadpan prose of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” My style serves me well in the exposition of and arguments about ideas, but is not particularly suited for fiction. I have never sensed a talent in me for what is interestingly called creative writing. So I leave that world to be cultivated by others.



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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Enormous Crimes and their  Punishment

   There is an article by Karl Ove Knausgaard in the May 25, 2015 issue of The New Yorker about Anders Behring Breivik, the man who killed seventy-seven people “most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye.” The article, however, is not about this horrendous event, nor about the perpetrator’s trial, but about his person. It’s subtitle “The terrible enigma of Anders Breivik,” is certainly appropriate when writing about such a mass murderer, prompted by a huge “manifesto” he had written, much of it, I take it, consisting of long quotation from other people’s writings. Its theme: ‘we are at war with Muslims and multiculturalism.” The murders were “meant to be a wake-up call.” The article shows Breivik to be a self-involved, petty, indeed despicable person. Breivik killed seventy-seven people “most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye.” He was tried and convicted.
   On April 19, 1995, Timothy James McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the  Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It killed 168 people and injured 684 others. McVeigh’s motives, too, were ideological; his actions were to inspire a revolt against what he held to be a tyrannical government.  The dénouement was quite rapid by the standards of the American legal system. McVeigh was indicted in August of 1995; on June 7, 1997 he was found guilty of all charges, with the jury recommending the death penalty a few days later. After spending an atypically short time on death row, Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.
   The aftermath of Anders Breivik’s conviction is very different.  Although he received the maximum sentence possible under Norwegian law, this murderer was sentenced to be jailed for twenty-one years, with the possibility that this term can be indefinitely extended if it is feared that, if freed, he would be a danger to others.
  Breivik killed seventy-seven people “most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye.” Jailed for wenty years?  Many outside Norway expressed the opinion that for a sane person who committed so huge a coldblooded massacre the death penalty should be brought back. Not so in Norway: Breivik’s crime did not spur a movement to return the death penalty to the books, with polls indicating that most were “satisfied” to have him receive the maximum penalty as now stated in Norwegian criminal law. 
   What is the difference in what the two sentences accomplish? First, it is highly improbable that the punishment for either of them would deter others to commit similar crimes. Such mass murders are committed by fanatics who, even if they are correctly regarded to be sane, will not be prevented from acting by  an envisaged punishment. Second, the punishment meted out should assure that the criminal will not be able to commit further crimes. While execution does this definitively, no one expects that Breivik will ever be allowed back into society. As long as there are prisons in Norway, while alive, he will inhabit one of them.
   [As I started to think further about the punishment of these two criminals, I suddenly realized that I had been this way before. More than half a century ago, I wrote a short essay, “Two Theories of Punishment and a Crime of the Greatest Magnitude.”1  Surprisingly, I quickly found the paper in my files and, on rereading it after all these years, it turns out to be very useful in this context.]
   The first of those two theories of punishment, the  essentially liberal corrective theory (to provide an oversimplified summary) “looks forward to the future . .  . ; the wrong was done; nothing can change that.” Society’s job is to aim at modifying the criminal’s future behavior. That may indeed involve incarceration,  but much more is required. 
   The retributive theory calls for restoring the moral order; “so that justice may be done, punishment must be equal in magnitude” that is, in pain and harm, to that of “the crime that was committed.” An eye for an eye . . . .
   I concede, in the 1952 paper, that neither theory can be applied “with mechanical ease” to that crime of the greatest magnitude. It seems absurd, indeed offensive, to engage in corrective measures—therapy?!—aimed at modifying such a criminal’s future behavior. But then there can’t be adequate retribution either—inflicting equivalent harm and pain on the criminal, so as to restore the moral equilibrium. “The criminal’s capacity is for pain is too limited; his single life is not enough, . . . making death too good for him.”
   But the death penalty is also immoral. In my 1952 piece I did not take a stand on that ultimate punishment, though I certainly do so now.2 Taking the life of a person is as wrong when enacted by the state as it is when “justified” by a cuckolded husband. It is time to join the countries of the European Union and get rid of the practice of killing convicted prisoners.
   What remains for either theory of punishment? Without remembering my long-ago thoughts, I nevertheless came to the same conclusion: that in the case of crimes of the magnitude of McVeigh’s and Breivik’s, both theories will opt for the same sentence.       
   Regarding the corrective theory, it may well be that no “treatment” can be devised that would assure “good behavior” in the future. There is a necessary step, however, toward such a correction: the criminal must come to “recognize that what he has done was wrong. He must see that wrongness and the full magnitude of it; . . . and that he did that wrong . . . . Unless we know that the criminal knows that he is guilty, . . .” we cannot speak of correction.
   Even if morality permitted it, which it emphatically does not, what I called “the tortures of barbarity are inadequate” for retribution. To abbreviate, “Perpetually recurring torture leads either to the destruction of that sensibility that makes genuine pain possible or it engenders not only resentment but a sense of glory in mere survival. . . it may well instill a feeling of self-justification.” The retributive theorist, too, must make the criminal “see the evil of his actions and his responsibility for their occurrence,” an insight that may well lead to “keen suffering.”
   On the theory here proposed Timothy McVeigh was let off too easy. It is hoped that the Norwegian system is able to bring Anders Behring Breivik to realize the enormity of his guilt with its accompanying pain.

1Bucknell Review, Vol XI, No 1 (December 1962), pp 109-115. Subsequent quotations from that article.

2Also see, in this blog,” Capital Punishment Now and in the Future,” posted on March 14, 2014, above.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Here is a Navy letter with a brief account of my first visit to Northwestern University

Oct. 19, 1945
   This time my shift ran from midnight to eight – and it’s now pretty near its end – pretty near light. Yesterday I hitched down to Evanston to see the Northwestern University – a huge place. After looking around for quite a while, I met a senior in sociology who showed me around the campus. She turned out to be a Methodist Minister’s daughter who also took me to dinner at her house. Her father used to be connected to Cornell, but now works with Northwestern. I hope that he’ll be able to answer some college questions I have.
   The girl is a very ardent socialist & took me to a meeting where [there was] a very interesting speech on The British Labor Party. Then I went back, and just made it to stand my shift here.
   A little after midnight, we went to the kitchen to eat chow, where we were served on plates, and were actually asked what kinds of eggs we want, a very un-Navy thing.
   (To your list, please add one small, black pocket comb – since I lost the other one.)
   With not much more news, except that I hope to see Parsifal in Chicago with a Met cast Saturday, this shall be.

   This was my first visit to Northwestern University which is quite close to the Great Lakes Naval establishment. I recall a second visit some days later, to a Hillel getogether with a talk by the philosophy professor, Paul Arthur Schilpp who much later came to be known to me as the founder and first editor of the Library of Living Philosophers, a useful series in which a number of philosophers comment on different aspects of the chosen philosopher’s work, who then writes a “Reply to my Critics.”
   But Schilpp’s volumes are certainly not he most important way in which I am connected to Northwestern, because in 1973, about twenty-eight years after those visits, I was appointed dean of Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences and served in that role for thirteen years.
   It’s worth talking briefly about Northwestern University during the years between those visits and my showing up there to be dean. NU came up on several occasions during my search for a college—an attractive institution at the edge of a vital city with a great symphony orchestra. But more than once I as told not to bother applying, since as a Jew, not to mention one from New York, the odds were not great that I’d be admitted. Years later, when I became an academic, I found out that this was not idle gossip.
   I was teaching at Vassar and chairing its philosophy department when I became a candidate for the Northwestern deanship and then found out, in outline, what had been going on there. It’s not that the university was anti-Semitic—there were plenty of Jewish faculty members—it was the head of Admissions (of students) who was anti-Semitic and acted in conformity with his beliefs.
   I should interject that often universities are not very conscientious in supervising the administrators of its various departments, so I don’t know how aware the academic administrators were of those leanings of the admissions officer. But at some point they found out and Robert Strotz, then dean of the College, and Raymond Mack, a sociology professor who headed a policy institute led the effort to rectify that situation. Bob Strotz and Ray Mack also played important roles during the “unrest” of the sixties. By the time I came to Northwestern, Bob was its president and Ray the provost; they were the ones who hired me. Our deal was sealed at a restaurant outside the dry zone of Evanston, with Bob and Ray each downing two Martinis, while I had one, followed by a beer. That lunch was repeated every few weeks for some years. I outlasted them in office, however.
   As it turned out, I was the first NU Jewish dean, indeed, the first Jewish administrator above department chairman. But change was very much in the works: the three presidents that followed Strotz were—and are—Jewish. While Strotz and Mack were not the most creative university administrators, they deserve high praise for turning around an institution that had been quite out of sync with the times. And as for me, Bob and Ray gave me the best job I ever had.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

How Prevalent is Clannishness?

   I have long been an avid reader of New York Times obituaries, now made even easier since I just need to click on “Obituaries” on my morning visits to the excellent Times website. I read most of them, but not all, leaving out sports heroes, for example, since I know practically nothing about that world—at least not after the Brooklyn Dodger days of Leo Durocher and Ralph Snyder, PeeWee Reese, Stanky and Furillo, et al.  and of course Jackie Robinson. Those guys, or at least most of them, have gone to Dodger Heaven that hovers above Brooklyn and certainly not over Los Angeles.
   In the “completeness” of the daily sets of obituaries—scare quotes because of course there can be no complete—and the care with which they are prepared, the Times is truly an exemplary paper of record. While of course I know of some who are there commemorated, far more are unfamiliar. That makes them--and especially the very long obits—part of my education. Indeed, quite often they also make me an educator, since I email copies to others who I think might be interested.
   What will not be news to anyone is the startling increase, during the last decade or so, of the ages reached by the recently deceased. The six whose lives are recounted on June 23, 2015, the day I am drafting this, passed away at 81, 93, 86, 76, 97, and 94, with the 76-year-old “youngster” dying of cancer. During that same decade the number of obituaries of children of Jews who came to America from Eastern Europe, mostly between the two World Wars, came to decrease markedly: that generation, like mine, was getting old.
   I paid special attention to this small but  noteworthy subclass of people who had been accomplished in a wide range of endeavors. For one thing, they refuted, so to speak, the feeling of superiority many German Jews had vis-à-vis so-called Ostjuden. To a degree, my parents were touched by that affliction, while I had never succumbed to it, probably because I left Germany at too young an age to have really become a German Jew. (My parents were not overjoyed when I married the daughter of Russian Jews.)
   But more generally, my scrutiny of those obituaries brings out in me what I can only call clannishness. Unless there are obvious signs to the contrary, I try to determine whether the subject of the obituary was Jewish, especially when I am impressed by his or her accomplishments. The name can be a sign, though a very fallible one; it may be revealed, one way or the other, in the account of the subject’s life; but most often, origins become obvious in the latter part of an obituary, given the Times’s style for this genre, when the parents and childhood of the subject are taken up. “He is the son of a Greek immigrant who owned a small restaurant in Brooklyn” or “She is the daughter of so-and-so, who had emigrated from Russia and was the owner of a New York drug store.” When, in this way, I identify another successful Jew, I am proud. Another one of our guys had made good.
   As the title of this little piece suggests, I conclude with a question. Is my clannishness a peculiar Jewish trait or do members of other subgroups of American society behave in similar ways? Do Italian readers of obituaries have analogous reactions? Do Americans whose families stem from Ireland react with pride when they read about a successful landsman? What about those with backgrounds that are Scottish, Chinese, Mexican, or Korean—and so with many more Americans that have retained some identity from their pre-American background? How many silently exclaim: another one of our guys made good?  I certainly don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect that often the answer is “yes.” The United States may be the celebrated Melting Pot, but for many the melting fire is not hot enough to obliterate all of the traits that had been theirs before they came to these shores.

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Look Who’s Back, A Novel about Hitler Coming Back to Life: Some Comments

   Look Who's Back, the English translation of the German novel Er ist wieder da (literally: He’s here again) by Timur Vermes is a runaway best seller in Germany. It would not have had this success half a century ago (and probably would not have been written, not to mention published) when a good part of the German population had experienced the real Hitler, the Führer, ruthless and fanatical head of a nation that had gone profoundly astray. The closest this book comes to follow an actual model is that of the picture of Hitler conveyed by Traudl Junge, his secretary in the Berlin bunker, when he was essentially powerless and implicitly expecting a self-inflicted end, to avoid far worse were he to be caught. That almost kindly, ruminating Hitler is whom we get in the novel, including a mild sense of humor of which few if any were aware when he was in power or on the way there.
   I have read a few reviews (only ones in English) and was surprised that none of them mentions the book’s pretty important trait, that the person who relates its story is Adolf Hitler himself. I will get to the several important consequences of that fact after very briefly outlining the book’s plot. In 2011, Hitler wakes up in an empty lot in Berlin, dressed in the uniform he wore during his last days that ended in his 1945 suicide. The owner of a nearby newspaper kiosk takes him to be an actor, brilliantly impersonating the long-since-dead Führer and connects him up with some TV people who, also believing that they are confronted with a brilliant impersonator, put him on the air, where he delivers impromptu rants that are lapped up as hilarious by all but a few naysayers. (His entire audience takes him to be a very skillful and knowledgeable actor. Needless to say, no one takes him to be a 122-year-od real thing.) While I was getting to the latter part of the book, I kept wondering about how Herr Vermes would end it and found out, when I got to the last page (or the Kindle equivalent) that he wasn’t ending it at all. Things would go on with a bigger and better television series.
   As I see it, the book has essentially three themes, if you don’t count the reactions of others to Hitler’s talk and actions, since most of them are in the entertainment business, playing along with their profitable find. One important theme actually has nothing much to do with Hitler, though if it were omitted, Look Who’s Back would be a much shorter book. I am speaking of the reactions to the country—its people, its customs, its stores, its gadgets, and much more—of someone returning to the scene after an absence of sixty-six years. Maybe not a brave new world but certainly a new and wondrous one, not to mention that in those olden days Berlin was lying in ruins. A few reviewers mention Rip Van Winkle. The second theme has Hitler parcel out bits of the history of his time, by referring—just about always very briefly—to (well known) events of his life and of the contemporaneous history of Germany and World War II.  In the course of remarks on these themes, he mentions numerous colleagues and subordinates, putting tiny dobs of flesh, so to speak, on the occasional historical bones. In an appendix, Jamie Bulloch, the translator of the book into English, gives brief sketches of 36 such historical actors and while I recognized well over half of them, I suspect that much younger German readers would no doubt benefit from such a crib. But on the other hand, the sense of authenticity is not undermined if the reader does not know who all these characters are, while the names of a few, such as Göring and Goebbels are still familiar to most readers.
   The heart of the novel is of course Hitler’s rants. They are fun to read—anyway, most of them—but quite a few of them are not those of the founder and leader of the NSDAP, the Nazi party, but those of an old-school gentlemen talking about marriage, and proper behavior in a variety of contexts. Foreigners living in Germany are repeatedly “treated,” Turks above all. But Hitler’s discussions of such themes is as much puzzled as censorious.
   Of course Jews come in and out of these disquisitions, the Jewish theme is made up of conventional clichés, without the venom with which Hitler expressed his anti-Semitism. There is no mention of the Holocaust, except for a single incident that is not particularly well handled. When the secretary who was assigned to him—whom he likes and thinks well of—tells her grandmother about her dealings with “Hitler,” the grandmother doesn’t only disapprove, but reveals—showing a precious old photograph—that her family who was Jewish, were “gassed.” That brief scene sort of sits there. Serious scenes are not Vermes’s forte.
   Finally, I want to take up the question as to why this book has been so immensely popular in Germany. It’s well written (I sampled the German), smoothly and with light humor. (Though I agree with one reviewer, that in patches it’s just a bit boring.) Further, the novel is built around a genuinely good idea; Hitler is not just anyone coming back from the dead. But most important, Vermes found a way to talk about a grim past with humor. Germans have been made to feel guilty about that past, even though a person born in 1965, say, might rightly respond with “I’ve not had anything to do with the crimes of the Nazis.” Look Who’s Back in effect whitewashes the past with an invisible brush. All those references to real people and events proclaim wie es eigentlich gewesen war without doing any such thing. It’s a case of have your cake and eat it too. Who wouldn’t be for that?

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Monday, June 1, 2015


A question: can you wreak anything other than havoc?

Best answer gets to post a piece on my blog. (I’m the only judge of the answers.)


Did you know that the Castro regime has been in power longer than any other regime on the globe? Have you ever thought that this small island of eleven million people gets more attention than do countries many times its size. Batista never managed that. I have some thoughts but would be interested in your ideas.

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