Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ari Shavit's My Promised Land

A Revealing Book About Israel

   Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist, wrote a book about his country, My Promised Land, that is anything but a conventional account of its history. The book was widely praised in reviews and was accorded several distinctions.1 Shavit covers a lot of ground, but does not at all give an account of the country’s political/governmental history.
   Refreshingly, Netanyahu, by way of example, is mentioned only late in the book and just once. Of other political figures only Israel’s founding father, Ben Gurion makes repeated appearances, with a few others brought up for particular actions they performed, rather than to give an account of their political roles. To be sure, Shavit firmly  supports the two-state solution; without spelling out details and express strong opposition to the creation of the settlements that began when Menachem Begin was prime minister and has continued ever since.2
   If I had to put a label on the main theme of the book I would say that it is about Israel’s accomplishments and broad practices, with the creation of an atomic bomb as an example of the first and an account of night-clubby practices of urban youngsters being one of the others. Much ground is covered, boosted by interesting reports of his interviews with leading actors. You’ll have to read the book to get details; nor is what you are now reading a review. I just mean to encourage you to pick up the book, but I do want to conclude with a comment.
   As I have suggested, My Promised Land is above all a celebration of what Israel has brought about in the less than seventy years of its existence. At a large variety of enterprises of brain and brawn Shavit convincingly shows that Israeli have built and excelled. As the book’s title intimates, Shavit attributes these multiple successes to Zionism and often asserts that proposition in so many words—that is, to the vision and drive that created Israel.
   Nothing is further from my mind than to deny this causal claim. I only want to add this  further thought: those Zionists have been and are so successful because they were and are Jews. (Gypsies, also a much persecuted ethnic group have not, to my knowledge, aspired to statehood.) While this is no place to tackle the theme of what makes a Jew a Jew—even if I had a new insight into that tricky and ancient topic—a recent book sheds some light on this theme. Take a look at Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century (Princeton University Press, 2004). My point, in short, is that Theodor Herzl had an audience whose history inclined them to listen to him. The vision of Zionism fell on soil that was prepared by a very long history. 

1 See, for example, http://www.arishavit.com/books/my-promised-land/

2For this and other sins, Shavit is identified with the Left and sharply criticized by some on the Right. See http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Into-the-fray-Ari-Shavit-at-AJC-The-logical-lacunae-of-the-Left-407183

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Queen Elizabeth II and Me

   Shortly Queen Elizabeth II of England will be celebrating her 90th birthday. She is almost exactly half a year older than I am. We will not be on the same continent when Britain’s longest serving monarch reaches that milestone. However, when both of us were twelve years old we were at the same place at the same time, separated by only a couple of hundred feet.
   You may be aware that in the spring of 1939, when the European war was brewing but not yet actual, Franklin Roosevelt invited King George VI to make a family visit to the United States, as a  way of encouraging the isolationist public to support Britain in the war that was expected to come. The accounts of that visit usually focus on the Royals touring Washington and especially on their visit to the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park—with its American fare (including hot dogs, if I remember correctly), far simpler than the meals in Buckingham Palace familiar to them.
   But the royal threesome also visited New York City, a sojourn that included a ride in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. To cheer them on, New York public school children converged on the park and waved greetings at the passing Royals; I cannot remember for sure whether the small American flag (with just 48 stars) in our house stems from that occasion, but I think so. I certainly recall standing lined up at the edge of the Central Park Drive and cheering the passing carriage.
   Not long after this, Britain was at war and young Elizabeth became an important member of  the Royals who devoted themselves to upholding the morale of the British public. And not long after that, with Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, my family and I became what were called Enemy Aliens, with special identification cards no less. As I somewhat vaguely recall, my parents found it a bit strange that we, who had ourselves been persecuted by that enemy, should be so labeled; but I don’t remember any resentment.
   The burdens of that classification were not onerous. [1] No short wave radio, leading us to have that unused capacity removed from a radio in a klutzy wooden box that we owned. [2] No cameras; no sweat, since no one in the family was much of a photographer. [3] Permission was required to travel more than so-and-so-many miles from home, permission that seemed to be easily granted when our family wanted to go up the Hudson to Bear Mountain on a Sunday outing. More significantly, our Enemy Alien status did not prevent us from becoming American citizens just five years after arriving in New York.

   “Looking back in retrospect,” as Mr. Redundant would have it, “how benign!” It is hard to resist those Old Fogey remarks, “Those were the good old days” and “things ain’t what they used to be.” That’s not news, of course; nor is the fact that there has been much progress since then. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Distinctive Function of the University

Back to Basics, A Sermon Delivered in 2009

            These are tough times and institutions of higher education are not exempted from these tribulations.  According to a New York Times article of January 27 [2009], their endowments were down 23% in five months.  There’s a lot that colleges and universities can’t do as a result of this loss in income.  And if you further consider the reduction of state support for public institutions and of donations from faithful but strapped alumni, the squeeze is on.
            What to do?  We hear about faculty salary and faculty hiring freezes.  Keeping salaries stet for a year may well be justified in a period of minimal inflation, but I want to return to the subject of freezing faculty hiring, especially since this freeze is best referred to as not hiring teachers.  In any case, these measures will certainly save money.
            Let me next refer you to an earlier Times article (January 16 [2009]) reporting that the percentage of the budgets for instruction at post-secondary institutions has substantially decreased in the past decade, while during the same period there was a notable increase in the money spent for administration.
            Finally, let me draw your attention to the fuss created by the decision announced by Brandeis University to shut down their Rose Museum of Art.  Three pieces in the Times were devoted to censure that move, one of them an editorial.  Nobody, in what I have read has come to the defense of Brandeis.
            Well, I propose to do so, even though, ever since high school, I have been a regular visitor to art museums and galleries wherever I have lived or traveled.  In more recent years, I also became a collector of art, in a modest way—namely when I could afford it.  Why then defend the closing of a museum?  Because my career as professor and academic administrator trumps my love of art. 
            Crucial for me are the central missions of colleges and universities: to provide higher education to their students and, especially for universities, to foster and engage in the research and scholarship that pushes out the frontiers of knowledge.  If colleges and universities don’t play those games, no other institutions in our society will do so, except perhaps feebly, inadequately.
            If I am right, a lot follows.  The splendid collection of the Rose Museum is an ornament, but does little to educate Brandeis students.  They would be better served by a gallery that brings in traveling exhibits that actually support particular pedagogical programs.  That adornment, as one of the Times articles makes clear, serves a wider community, but one that contributes little or nothing to educating the university’s students.  Charity begins at home.  Brandeis has prior obligations to its central missions and if this economic downturn makes it difficult for them to carry them out and sells its art collection to support those primary goals, so be it.  To be sure, any contractual agreements with donors of works of art must be honored, but the reasonable if not sacrosanct  rule that museums should sell such works only to buy other works of art does not seem to me to apply to a museum wholly owned and operated by a university. 
            In my view, colleges and universities squander far too many of their resources to entertain the public at the expense of educating their students—like no other country on the globe.  Here’s a number for you: the 10 best-paid university football coaches are paid a total of $38 million a year.  That of the University of Pittsburgh’s (where I served as provost a long while ago) ranks 49th, getting  a “mere” $1.2 million.  And it has often been shown—to a deaf audience—that it is a myth football programs bring in money, except for a tiny few.  This would be clearer, even to the hard of hearing, if the universities’ bookkeeping were more transparent (a euphemism for “honest”).  But typically,  the cost of recruiting athletes is charged to Admissions, their hefty scholarships to Financial Aid; maintaining facilities (stadium, basketball arena and all) is charged to Buildings and Grounds, and so on.  In this rough period, it’s time to eschew self-deception--not the easiest task—and get back to basics.
            And that holds in spades for the relationship between expenditures for administration and teaching.  I have my own example corresponding to the statistics of that Times article.  The staff of the office I left as dean at Northwestern 22 years ago has tripled or quadrupled in the intervening time.  Some of those additions I would have welcomed, such as more student advisors.  But most of those additions are what I would call academic show bizz, contributing little or nothing to the institutions central missions.
            When I came to the University of Pittsburgh from Northwestern, I found Pitt to be the most bureaucratic institution I had ever worked in.  To get anything done required three signatures that were slow to come by (a statement that is literally false, but a good symbol of what I found).  Defensive administering I call it; covering your rear end is a less polite formulation.                          Such practices are wasteful because they require more administrators (who have offices and get salaries plus benefits) and because time is money—a cliché because true.  I’ve been away from Pitt for quite a while, but from what I hear things have not changed all that much.  The job of administrators is to be facilitators of an institution’s primary goals and not to wash each other’s backs.  These troubled times should be an opportunity for getting back to basics.
            That leads me, finally, to those hiring freezes.  However, if “freezing” means leaving things the way they are, it is the wrong moniker.  I am prepared to bet my bottom dollar (and I am getting closer to that bottom) that almost 100% of the faculty that will now not be hired everywhichwhere were intended to be replacements for retiring or departing faculty.  There’s precious little expanding now in the world of higher education.  That makes that icy metaphor a euphemism!  So please substitute for it “reduction of teachers.” And that’s the wrong way to go.
            When I wrote up, fairly recently, my experiences in the world of education, I dedicated the book neither to a friend nor a relative, but to “all those academic administrators who work every day to foster the primary goals of the academy: teaching its students and contributing to the world’s knowledge.”  These are the kind of educational leaders needed today.  Perhaps it takes a jolt like our current economic woes to clarify the mind.  If so, it would be a silver lining of significance.
March 3, 2009

An April 2016 addendum. I published a piece--in Inside Higher Ed-- that condoned Brandeis's resolution to convert some of the belongings of the Rose Museum into cash to beef up funds to be devoted to education with the reasoning indicated above. I was throughly bawled out by the head of a university museum: no exceptions! Regarding the comments here about universities, things have only gotten worse since 2009. See my remarks in this blog on the "Dubious Future of the American University," December 15, 2015 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pizzas and Bagels

What Do Pizzas and Bagels Have in Common?
   I’m not looking for the obvious answer that pizzas and bagels both consist of a bread-like dough, though that fact surely has something to do with the answer I have in mind. Let me begin with the ways I first encountered those two foods.
   First bagels, in New York City where I then lived with my parents. They were in early middle age when they arrived in that city as Jewish refugees and probably had never encountered a bagel before coming to the States. And in our new home, bagels were monogamously married to lox as the partner and cream cheese as the mediator. I’m pretty sure (no one talked about it) that lox was the attraction, since my father who had frequently traveled to Holland while in his German business, had become very fond of  such fishy dishes. For reasons I did not research, lox and bagels became a feature of some New York Jewish restaurants, attracting my parents now and then with me tagging along—now and then.
   As far as I can recall, I first encountered pizza in Italy during my sojourn there (on bicycle) in early 1951. If I recall correctly, pizza was then the very occasional pasta course in a proper meal, at least in the South of the country. To my knowledge there were then no establishments just serving pizzas—or only a few. I liked pizza from the first I tasted one. (I’ve been told that there are bread persons and potato persons. I’m of the former species.)
   After returning to New York, I found that there was a splendid pizza place in Greenwich Village, called “Frank’s” as I remember it, no doubt owned by a Franco. It was a big deal to go Pizza eating at Frank’s; it happened, but not often.
   Now, dear reader of 2016, can you remember—did you even know—that there was a time when bagels and pizza were special dishes?
   Well, no more. What those two types of food have in common is that they managed to escape from their narrowly local origins to become well-nigh if not altogether ubiquitous. And like so many changes, these are both a good thing and a not so good a thing. In these explosions, so to speak, bagels have fared better than pizzas. The reason is obvious: bagels are constituted of a single mass calling for some special moves in preparation; but it’s get it right or it isn’t a bagel. Pizzas come in a large variety, especially in the many different kinds of “toppings.” Not only do they differ from one pizza-maker to another, but they can readily take on the flavors of their broader culinary environment. Pizzas I have eaten in Mexico have been influenced (I would like to say: infected) by the spicy flavors of their home. The crusts, too, vary greatly from each other. Those who are created in a pizza oven resemble each other closely. But that’s not their only origin, with all kinds of frozen concoctions pretending to be the real thing. Popularity exacts its price.
   Bagels, even though they have escaped from their homeland, vary much less from one to another. They basically look the same: a torus four inches in diameter, composed of shiny light-brown dough. Still, resemblance to the real thing can on occasion be deceiving. One specimen might be great, while another just doesn’t make it as a genuine bagel.
   Both of these species of food, as I have said, are fairly unusual in that they escaped from their provincial origins, to be found on many spots of the globe. My favorite, rather lugubrious piece of evidence of the bagel’s ubiquity is that every New York emergency room attendant knows the source of a patient’s injury when he shows up on Sunday morning with a cut across the inside of his palm. Warning: take care when you slice a bagel!
  PS  When I asked friend Patrik about other examples of food that has spread beyond its provincial origins. He immediately came back with French fried potatoes. They were invented, he told me, in the early nineteen hundreds in Belgium, where he was born. I did not follow up on these remarks; but if he is right, that dish is at least as successful in escaping from its birthplace, if not more so, as either of the examples in the above comments.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Thoughts about Death

Death in My Life

   By coincidence, my reading during the last few days has been about issues relating to death. It started with a review of Katie Roiphe’s book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, followed almost immediately by my conjuring the book into my Kindle and starting to read it. The next day, among the forwarded mail that reached me was an issue of Columbia Magazine with an interesting article, “Making Light of Death,” about “ . . . the search for a cleaner, smarter alternative to burial . . . .” Those readings prompted me to think about death and dying. But since for me, thinking requires writing—always for myself and sometimes also for others—I start with my own limited experience.
   Only once was I myself close to death. Although I well remember the occasion, I was not aware at the time of the precariousness of my condition. It was flu season and I had not felt well during the morning I taught my classes at San Francisco State. So I decided to rest up at home and come back for my scheduled evening class. When I walked toward my car, parked on Junipero Serra, a bit uphill from the campus, I fainted. I was next aware of lying on a bed in the hall of Kaiser Hospital, waiting for a room. Blank some more. I then recall a number of people hovering over me and a doctor saying that her mentor recommended forcing ice into the stomach of someone with a bleeding stomach wall.  When it was all over, my stomach wall was fixed by means of major surgery and I had received a total of nine pints of blood—a lot of blood!
   I recovered and, until now, never came that close to dying, at least not as far as I know.  So let me now turn to my experiences of deaths of people close to me.
   Although I am 89 years old, I have never actually witnessed any person’s dying.  Consider five plausible candidates. My father passed away in the hospital in New York City while I was living in Pittsburgh. In his eighties, he was brought there after a fall that broke a hip, but then passed away as a result of a stroke or a heart attack. My mother, with my support, did not authorize an autopsy. 
   Some years later, my mother, now living on her own, with my son Mark, then also living in New York, looking in on her, was hospitalized into an institution that specialized in ailments she didn’t have. Rather than trying to correct that goof, I hauled her out and flew her to Pittsburgh. It was a small plane flying at about 3000 feet above the terrain. While I sat next to the pilot enjoying the view my mother, alas, could not get a look at, lying on her cot.
   An operation was a necessity (I spare you the details); it was successful. Accordingly, Fannia and I scouted out possible places for her recuperation. But as it turned out, she passed away a few days after the surgery, early in the morning before I arrived on my visit to the hospital.
   My father and I were always on good terms but never really close. His interests focused on his business, with my brother much more interested in that and related issues than I was. On the other hand, I was close to my mother, to the point of daily phone calls to her at the end of my Northwestern office hours during the years after my father had died.
   The third occasion was devastating. Fannia, my wife of nearly forty-two years, had survived a so-called routine heart valve operation. However, after leaving intensive care, she passed away from post-operative bleeding. I remember vividly what I took to be her smile at me when, in the middle of the night, she was on her way to undergo measures of resuscitation. They turned out to be futile. Fannia never regained consciousness.
   The fourth instance was that of Carl Hovde, my close friend since January 1945, when both of us took the Columbia College placement exams for freshmen to be. Now, decades later,                            Carl’s smoking caught up with him. I visited him, living with his second wife in Connecticut. It was gratifying to have a most civilized conversation; he was not in pain. A few days later, Carl was felled by that lung cancer. While Carl Hovde and I were a well-known duo in College—no sexual implications and, as far as I know, no such suspicions. We always stayed in touch. He married a Bryn Mawr friend of Fannia’s—and, curiously, we both became deans, with Carl’s Columbia deanship meriting him a New York Times obituary.
   My brother, Hans Martin (H. Martin after we arrived in the US), was two years younger than I and passed away about ten months ago. We had been on frequent telephonic speaking terms for the many years we had lived in different cities, occasionally visiting. But about a decade ago he took uncompromising offense at what I had written about him in my autobiography and never spoke to me again. He did not tell me just what of those passages got him into that state, while I, rereading the passages about him numerous times, could never find anything that merited such wrath. So we were of course not in touch before he died. Since I found out about his death by accident—no family member had informed me—I had no details. He died of  “heart problems,” his daughter Sue informed me when I inquired by email.
   Of these deaths, Fannia’s is the only one that seriously affected me. We had lived through her endocarditis together, an illness that had her hospitalized, seemingly forever. We had briefly tried a stint at home, but we did not have confidence in our ability to do all  the (for us) complicated things that needed to be done to keep her going, so it was quickly back to the hospital. From that long siege, Fannia was liberated in time for us to go to Bellagio where I had received a residency at the Rockefeller establishment. We had a good time in Bellagio and, afterwards on a trip to Vienna and Budapest. But almost immediately after getting back home to Pittsburgh, Fannia needed to be hospitalized and, at the age of sixty-five, subjected to that heart valve operation.
   While I don’t brood about death, I do read the Times’s obits daily, skipping sports heroes about whom I know nothing. But I read them to find out about their lives, often extensively accounted for, and mostly take only casual note of the causes of their deaths.
   I don’t brood about death and, indeed,  for most of my life, I didn’t even think about it. But now, while I certainly don't brood,  I do think about it: if not at 89, when? And my thoughts are very different from those of the Roiphe examples I have read so far. Perhaps because I have led a thoroughly bourgeois—read “conventional”—life, I see its end as a natural disappearance when not coerced by untimely illness or mishap.
   To be sure, I bear unmistakable physical signs of mortality, most notably in the form of a substantial loss of body mass and various forms of cumbersomeness mostly caused by faltering knees. The most noticeable mental sign—that is, the most noticeable by me who is hardly a neutral observer—is its effect on my memory, especially of the short-term variety. Needless to say, everything I do now I do more slowly than during a younger past, in part beset by medical issues, at this point not life-threatening ones.
   Those will come. But however you get there, the fact is that the major premise of the standard Aristotelian syllogism holds: All men are mortal. Hence, since I am a man . . . .
   It is interesting that there are people able to ignore that fact. In the Roiphe book Susan Sontag is depicted as pining not to die while knowing well what is inevitable.
   The Columbia article about “the search for a cleaner, smarter alternative to burial” sketches out the difficulties and costs of somehow disposing of the remains of those who have passed away with no realistic (that is broadly acceptable) solution in sight. It is a suppressed premise of many an account of dying and death that there should be a world in which there is birth and life but no death. That thought remains unexpressed, because, surely, the idea of life as we know it without death to end it is literally unthinkable.
  I conclude with a comment about me. I’ve led a most satisfactory life—and a long one—so when the inevitable happens, I urge those who still await their own end should understand that what matters is not that I died, which everyone does, but that I had good life, not by any means so common. That calls for celebration, if it calls for anything. Certainly not for mourning.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Donald Trump and the Future of American Politics

            A Quick Overview of Trumpism and its Results: Predictions and Speculations

   Donald Trump is running for president and, more likely than not, will be the candidate of the Republican party in the forthcoming presidential election on November 8 of this year. There is nothing about Donald Trump that is qualified to be president, starting with his rash, bull in the china shop temperament, but continuing on with his wacky ideas on most topic pertaining to the duties and activities of an American president—a pack of ideas that are wholly surrounded by a puddle of ignorance.
   The elders of the Republican party know all this, but started too late and feebly—for  several reasons, none of them worthy—to try to rid themselves of the prospect of Trump as their candidate. It is ironic, moreover, that the only Trump rival is a deeply disliked Texas senator with views that appeal only to the most reactionary members of his party. However, more than one Republican bigwig has held his nose and endorsed Ted Cruz.
   So far I’ve only recorded the facts, ma’m, as they are. Now for a couple of predictions. As I said at the outset, Trump will be the Republican party’s candidate on that fateful November 8. His opponent, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton. If those are the candidates—and even if augmented by a couple of additional would-be president running on a couple of “third” parties—Ms. Clinton will be the winner, so that the first African American president will be followed by the first woman president of the United States. That victory will be of the landslide variety, since the electorate at large will be after stability and doesn’t much resemble the much smaller segment that had yearned for something–anything?—different.
   If it turns out, via quite unexpected circumstances, that Bernard Sanders should be the candidate of the Democrats, I would nevertheless put my money on him, because I see a large proportion of American voters to be temperamentally conservative, whatever their ideology, who will vote for sanity and rationality, rather than wackiness.
   So, I have predicted that in January 2017 a president will be inaugurated who will belong to the Democratic party.
   What next? What I can now come up with is a mixture of speculation and wishful thinking.
   It is the Republican party that will have to reinvent itself. Right now, the traditional conservatives, whatever their numbers, are not ruling that roost. They are almost swamped by Tea Party conservatives (a misleading label) and by the likes of Mitch McConnell—in my view a despicable character—largely motivated by racist opposition to an African American president.

   I said, “reinvent,” but really not so. What they need to do is reconstitute as a more or less united party, a conservative force, in contrast to the liberal if not progressive Democrats. I hope that happens. It would be good for the country. But nous verrons, we will see.