Wednesday, October 28, 2015

If a Woman Becomes President

A great many Republican members of Congress oppose much of what President Obama has done and proposes to do, most prominently, the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. Regarding the former, specific reasons for the opposition are seldom given, if to be a reason it is not enough to say that it kills jobs without saying just how it does that. As for immigration, many of those opponents have rejected what one might call the liberal (small “l”) measures that Obama proposes to take. But on the whole, the opposition to measures associated with Obama has been very stingy with explanations, not to mention justifications. On the other hand, there are columnists and reporters playing pundit who quietly point to an underlying reason for some politicians’ negativity about just about anything their president does or proposes, one that makes the discussion of issues quite unnecessary. They are unhappy about the fact that Obama is president at all, because they resent—are deeply offended by the fact—that the United States president is an African-American, that he is black. Race relations in our country have “progressed” sufficiently so that a Mitch McConnell or a Ted Cruz or any of dozens of others can no longer give public expression to anti-African-American opinions. But progress since Selma or “I have a dream” has come nowhere near to eradicating negative beliefs and emotions, making me quite sure that behind closed doors there is much fuming resentment about our having a president with a skin of the wrong color. Why, you may well ask, am I bringing this up at this time? Obama is not far from the end of his second term; during his remaining time in office Congress will continue to do its best to thwart him; nothing much will change until after the next election. I agree. Things will be different after November 8, 2016. Not in the House, where it would be a major upset if the Republicans were not to retain the majority, though possibly in the Senate. But we do know that we will have a different president. Casting an eye on all those who now put themselves forward as candidates, I am prepared to make a cautious prediction: the odds that Hillary Clinton will be the next president are distinctly better than 50%. And if she makes it, the first African-American president will be followed by the first woman president of the United States of America. That would be a big deal! She would be our 45th president—to be elected just under a century after women were accorded the right to vote by the 19th Amendment. Assuming my prediction comes true, it would be, to quote Schiller, Sp├Ąt kommst Du doch Du kommst (You come late, but you have come), considering the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher or the nuanced governance of Angela Merkel. But if she becomes president, Hillary Rodham Clinton will surely suffer from an analogous handicap as does Obama. Male chauvinism has not vanished from the scene; what has receded if not entirely disappeared, is the respectability of explicitly expressing it. But there will be resentment that the president is a woman. But has male chauvinism disappeared from Great Britain and Germany? Neither Thatcher seems to have suffered from that handicap nor, these days, does Merkel appear to be so hampered? While I’m not reliably informed about current British or German mores, I suspect that regarding male attitudes toward women, there may well be little difference between those countries on the other side of the Atlantic and us. But what is different are the political contexts within which legislators act. In a parliamentary system there is considerable pressure to maintain party discipline. Other things being equal—and more often than not they are—members of the prime minister’s party vote in support of that officer; unexpressed personal beliefs have to be squelched in favor of the reasons explicitly put forward in parliamentary debates. But such discipline does not characterize the Republican and Democratic parties. While I venture to say without having any real evidence, that on the average Republicans are more macho than Democrats, that does not entirely explain current politics. Consider how often the move is made to “defund” Planned Parenthood and in some states successfully so. By now everyone who pays a bit of attention knows that Planned Parenthood receives no public funds to support its clinics that perform abortions. So if a congressman has moral or religious objections to abortion, that need not prevent him from providing funds for Planned Parenthood. But he may well have another reason. In a way the organization’s name is somewhat misleading. It’s not parents (father and mother) who tend to seek the services of the organization, it is mothers, would-be mothers, and would-rather-not-be mothers. In short, the clients are mostly women who act with or without their husbands’ or male partners’ knowledge or consent. In short, Planned Parenthood empowers women. The fact that this is not discussed does not mean that it is not noted. Indeed, I firmly believe that it is a major unspoken cause of the hostility toward what many think of as an organization that performs valuable societal functions. But let me now return to the subject of abortion. There is considerable noisy objection to the practice on the part of our politicians. Why? Religion is one reason. As is well known, the Roman Catholic church takes abortion to be a serious sin. But the Church also proscribes all birth control other than abstinence and the so-called rhythm method. I’d love to have a penny for every “pill” or diaphragm purchased by American Catholics in the course of a year. Clearly, some sins are more sinful than others. Abortion, you say, is morally wrong, whatever your religion: it is taking a life. To be sure, all abortion only if one subscribes to the dubious doctrine that life begins at the moment of conception. While I will stay out of the debate as to after how many months of pregnancy it is thought that abortion should be prohibited, abortion opponents tend not to make such distinctions. They are agin it and I have long been surprised that I have not seen it called murder. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Many of those moral opponents of abortions are gung ho supporters of capital punishment, where the state kills one of its citizens, albeit a criminal if the trial was just. In short, for many, taking a life is not wrong, just taking some lives. Accordingly, while I agree that there are multiple reasons for opposing abortion, I want also to maintain that for many it is an underlying reason that more often than not it is women who are the agents who decide on that path and that some of the men who oppose abortion resent that often it is women who have the initiative. What do I conclude regarding a possible Hillary Clinton presidency. That aside from arguments about this or that presidential move, there will be a substantial negative undercurrent emanating from politicians who hold that the country should be governed by a white male. Obama is not one and neither would Hillary Clinton be the right sort, should she make it to the White House. Genuine enlightenment is likely to come at a more distant future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Achievement of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs

   I just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson on my Kindle. It is an excellent book about a remarkably interesting, inventive and, to use too mild a word, quirky person, who propelled Apple (of which in 1976 he was a cofounder) to become the first US company to be valued at over seven hundred billion dollars,1 a distinctions that was merely a byproduct of Jobs’ creativity in the conception and design of Apple products and his leadership of the complex process that brought them into being.
   Read the book: it is a fascinating and complex tale. Here I am not about to write a review of it; rather, I want to provide a glimpse of what went into this complex narrative.2 Surely Isaacson found doing a biography of Einstein much” simpler,” given a huge literature to lean on and filch from. Jobs requested Isaacson to write his biography and indeed cooperated fully with him without seeking any control over the book’s content. While he said that at some point he would read it, he almost surely did not before he died, just days before the official date of the book’s publication.
    Cooperation meant, above all, that Jobs would give him interviews; it turned out there were more than forty of them in the course of two years. But clearly, for those encounters to be truly useful for the book, its author could not have been a passive listener who depended on his interlocutor to be consistently revealing and to the point and neither ramble not push theses that “merely” showed him in a good light. Isaacson had to know what questions to ask what needed a prompt for further information, and much more. And that "executive" role of the author calls for famirity with an enterprise concerning which there was surely not a neat record to take home to be digested. (Compare that with the huge literature about Einstein, his scientific colleagues, etc., etc. that existed before Isaacson’s new biography was even begun.) In short, for those Jobs interviews to be fruitful, a heroic operation bootstrap was required.
   In effect, Isaacson had to become a historian of Apple in order to be a successful biographer of Jobs. A good example both of what is involved in this, as well as an indication of the details (never boring) revealed by the book, is the list of “characters” set down at the outset, together with a phrase or paragraph identifying each. There are 72 of them (if I counted correctly), with the majority of them people most readers and certainly not I had never heard of before encountering them here. But there is more. In an appendix entitled “Sources” Isaacson lists the people whom he interviewed (between 2009 and 2011) as he was working on the manuscript: I counted 119  “respondents,” as the lingo has it, a list that includes Jobs but also a good many who are not themselves a part of the story. There is also a list of written sources and there are notes for each of the book’s 42 chapters. 
   What makes Steve Jobs so interesting is not only the sympathetic yet emphatically frank account of the man on the title page, but its presentation, in fascinating detail, of the history of a remarkable company. Isaacson should be congratulated for gathering and harnessing an immense amount of material and of imposing an order on it—or, perhaps better, extracting that order from it—and finally of shaping it into a coherent and interesting narrative. As I said at the outset: go read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

1Substantially more than the next two: Exxon Mobil and Berkshire Hathaway.

2I am not well read in biographical—or any other—literature, so it may be that the complexity I want to point to is not all that unusual. So be it.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hawaii in 1946 and Hawaii in 1968

May 3, 1946
Hello you all!
   Here it is – your scuttlebutt reporter switches to a bit of fact – pleasant fact! This morning 10 USN men were screened off the ship – screening has taken place – and I am now QM on LST 919 (if you’ll notice , that’s the same one that’s probably sailing for the States tomorrow!) They call that in Navy “A break.”
   I hope this letter shoves off before we do!
   Yesterday we had liberty once more. We headed straight for Waikiki beach and for 50¢ (unusual amongst generally high prices) rented everything – showers, locker, trunk, towel – valuables checked & water – the whole Pacific.
   We had a good time swimming and enjoying the picturesque scenery. Honolulu really lives up to its reputation. It is beautiful.
   Early evening we walked to the Navy Club known as The Breakers – right under majestic Diamond Point. Since it hadn’t opened as yet, we hunted cocoanuts (legal – no one gives a rap) (converting hell – damn to civilian). We succeeded only in getting one unripe one & an old little ‘un – which we ate nevertheless.
   “The Breakers” is built right on the water’s edge – seas-side open with a view of the sunset & moon over the ocean to the rhythmical tune of waves crashing almost on the dance floor. There was a band & music and there also was beer. Good American beer! One bottle of that stuff makes you extremely thirsty & “schreit nach mehr” [yells for more]. After three bottles though (absolutely no effect so stop worrying – it just tasted well) we left – since weekdays there usually aren’t any girls to dance with.
   We saw “Algiers” at a USO (pretty lousy picture) & had a hard time getting back to the ship (crowded transportation facilities) – an hour late. Result a very mild bawling out. We were quote “unschuldig wie ein kleines Osterlamnn!” unquote [innocent like a little Easter lamb]!”
   That’s about all – the next time from the states. There will be a silence of about 2 weeks minimum.
   Solong then – Anchors Aweigh

Twenty-two Years Later
   Above is one of several letters about the LST 919’s stop in Hawaii on our way from the north of China to San Diego. While I didn’t remember many specifics of that interlude, I do recall swimming in a quite warm ocean not to mention the pleasure I felt at being off the 919 on which we had spent nearly a month trudging across the Pacific.  Pleasure, just about unalloyed, the kind much easier to come by at the age of nineteen than in later years.
   Not that I didn’t enjoy my second and only other visit to the 50th state of the US. But it was very different. Very. In 1968 I was chairman of the executive committee of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association and failed to talk my colleagues out of scheduling an APA meeting in Honolulu. My reason: graduate students would have a hard time financing a trip that far (and costly) off the track.
   There were other wrinkles.  I had reluctantly agreed to support Herbert Marcuse as president of the division. Reluctantly, because I was not enamored of his crowd-pleasing performances. But I agreed because he was being attacked by know-nothing California right wingers. On the personal front, Fannia had to leave for Sydney because just before then her father had passed away of a heart attack. Accordingly, appropriate arrangements needed to be made for our kids, then 9 and 7 years old. Since I was (and still am) a fuss budget, this was not just routine.
   We had our meeting, we got to swim, we were guests at a luau (not mi gusto) and, as the saying goes, a good time was had by all. I was in Hawaii all right—everyone worked to give us that good time. But it wasn’t all all like my first encounter, molti anni fa, with that special island. 
   In recruiting participants for the program of our meeting I was lucky to get Richard Rorty to give a paper—not because my invitation was so persuasive, but because Dick was a devoted bird watcher who had never engaged in that activity in Hawaii. I also asked my good friend and colleague Jordan Churchill to chair an important session, a move that turned out to be a mistake. The commentator of that session—I cannot come up with his name—went talking on and on, going way past his alloted time. I was sitting frustrated in the back while Jordan failed to excerise his authority to call a halt to an endless ramble. To stay more or less on schedule, the next session had to be cut short.
   Two things were noteworthy during that Hawaii stay that had nothing to do with the philosophy meeting, one negative, one positive. At the same time that we had that philosophy meeting in Honolulu, the Democratic convention took place in Chicago, the wildest in modern times. However, there was as yet no direct radio connection between the US mainland and Hawaii, so that our knowledge of those Chicato shenanegans was late and very partial, with the five-hour time difference of no help at all. So, in effect, we missed an important chunk of US history.

   The cheerful item was wholly private. As a pilot in the war, Jordan, a friend for nearly twenty years, had passed through Hawaii, where he met Ruita, whom he subsequently married. Ruita was born in Honolulu of a French father and a Hawaiian mother. Her father had passed away by 1968, but on this trip I got to know her mother. It was the first ime that I eencountered someone for whom wearing a muumuu was utterly authentic.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Lapse from an American Political Tradition

   Much as been said and written about the current cadre of Tea Party Republicans in the House. While they are usually referred to as conservatives, that is surely wrong. What do they have in common with Edmund Burke or his American descendants such as Russell Kirk or even William Buckley? What historical practices, traditions do they want to conserve by defending them against the liberal onslaughts of progressives? Call them right-wing radicals instead, though mostly not in the European fascist or proto-fascist sense. At any rate, they are not in the tradition of American politics, a fact that may not have been remarked on and that I now want to take note of.
   What is a common ingredient, since the earliest days of the  American republic, among those who have made the effort to become members of the Senate or the House? I would call it a kernel of pragmatism at the center of their political beliefs. Another way of raising this question is to ask why do people make the considerable effort to run for office in either house? Success brings a notable status to the office holder.  Whatever they had been before a successful run, they now are members of a small and exclusive club and for some at least there are income and benefit motives.
   I fear that for some—I hope not for many—those may be the sole reasons for becoming a member of Congress. The majority, however, get into this act to accomplish something. In the first place, for their own constituents, though the motives there are surely mixed, since acting in behalf of those who have elected you is a necessary condition for being reelected.  But historically, the vast majority of office holders aims to make a dent on broader issues: increase the scope of the federal overnment or shrink it, reduce the taxes of the wealthy or provide greater benefits for the poor. These are just samples of an indefinite number of goals that office holders will work to achieve, of course by no means always successfully.
   But there is no kernel of pragmatism when you vote for the umpteenth time to repeal Obamacare or to defund Planned Parenthood, knowing with absolute certainty that what is voted for will not happen. These are the most prominent recent examples of “actions” by members of the Tea Party. “Actions” in quotation marks, because what is “done” changes nothing in the external world. Instead, these moves are statements that constitute glimpses of an underlying ideology: a naive faith in the virtues of self-reliance for some, a thinly-veiled racism for others. I have suggested that this mode of political behavior—actions that are not even intended to make a dent on the world—is not in the American tradition, but resembles, rather, the practice of some of the European parties of yore, for whom declaring what the principles were for which they stood was the immediate goal, while actually changing the world was to happen in the future, more likely than not beyond the lives of the present speakers.   
   I’m not a fan of what one might regard as giving primacy to rhetoric over the attempt to effect actual changes. I should however be grateful that those who have adopted that European mode of politics are not on my side, so that I can applaud their failure to enact the goals implied by their ideologies.