Friday, December 29, 2006

My Holiday Viewing and Reading

Either the seasons are permuting and now we’re in the midst of Indian Summer, the thermometer in my car, admittedly not the most reliable but I believe accurate in this case, registered a balmy 53 degrees yesterday afternoon three days after Christmas, or Global Warming has proceeded at such a rapid pace that we’ve got to abandon the seasons altogether and wait out the pending apocalypse. Partly because my leg has been acting up and partly because I’m just a couch potato at heart, I’ve not really taken advantage of the friendly weather outside and instead have spent a good deal of the vacation so far watching Charlie Rose and some selective movies I’ve TiVo’d and reading both some junk as diversion and some other pieces I feel obligated to digest to round out my education.

One of the Charlie Rose segments was an hour with Clint Eastwood. who is not quite 25 years my senior, still going strong and according to many of the critics producing his best work at this mature age, an inspiration to all of us, especially someone like me who is keenly aware that certain of my own mental functions are working less well now. Though he was talking only about his own reasons for success, Clint offered up several good suggestions that we might all profit from --- he’s stayed in the business this long because the film projects he works on are diverse, not all of one ilk, each requiring a new approach and learning for him to find his way through to solution that works for him. He also said there is a tendency to over think creative activity – too much analysis can be paralyzing – and that to trust the feeling in your gut (or in your heart) that originally moved you to consider the project and then to grab the brass ring when it presents itself. I think he’s right in all of that, though I over analyze out the wazoo.

And one film I watched was The Crucible, a 1996 remake of the Arthur Miller stage play, which was originally written both as an allegory of the McCarthy period and as a self-contained story about the Salem Witch Trials. The cast is excellent – Daniel Day-Lewis as the accused, John Proctor; Winona Ryder, as the harlot turned possessed who is the villain in the piece motivated by a lust for John Proctor and hence desirous of getting Proctor’s wife out of the picture; and Paul Scofield as the judge, with all the airs of someone seemingly above reproach, yet ultimately with uncanny ability to miss the truth in human behavior in favor of the supernatural explanation. I was somewhat surprised to see there were many mixed reviews of this film online but perhaps it was not appropriate for the time that is was made; I thought it was wonderful and truly fitting for the period we live in now – if people want to believe something else than what is actually going on they can certainly do that and they can convince others to do likewise, a very important lesson to learn.

On Christmas day I received one of the gifts I asked my wife to get, knowing that she was going to the bookstore to get holiday reading for the kids. With the theme that reading can be mind candy; my older son has been reading the most recent Artemis Fowl after just seeing Eragon and playing the I’m-no-sure-what Xbox-360 Castle game, so there seems to be an insatiable craving for fantasy/adventure/science fiction whether in video game, movie, or book format; I figure that if the kids can do that why can’t the parents, so I asked my wife to get me the latest Thomas Harris book, Hannibal Rising. I’ve got some good fiction for me waiting to be read – my friend Gail Hawisher was nice enough to give me a copy of Middlesex when she visited me at home while I was convalescing, and I’ve got a variety of serious non-fiction reads to work through – none of those, however, are in the mind candy category. I’ve read all the previous Thomas Harris novels; airplane reading, if you will, the type that makes you want to take the plane trip. Some of my readers might find this fascination with Hannibal Lecter evidence of yet another character flaw in Lanny and they may very well be right. Yet I’m unabashed about my fandom. It is the combination of the absolute monstrous behavior, something totally outside my realm of experience, with the high intelligence and imagination in situ that make these books so compelling for me.

This latest is an origins book, an explanation of how the Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs (and before that, Red Dragon) came to exist; his bearing a consequence of birth, he was born to nobility, his intelligence a genetic gift from his father and shared by his uncle, manifest not just in his ability for mathematics but also in his power to render hand drawn sketches of immense detail and great accuracy, but it is his monstrous behavior that is, of course, what we’re interested in learning about. What was the source of that?

Naturally, I don’t want to give away the plot. It’s a good melodrama and if you have even a wee taste for the macabre, a good read. So I will only give an answer in generalities. Hannibal Lecter as monster is an unintended consequence of horrific circumstances caused by Nazi thugs who were trying to survive the grim winter before the Russian invasion on the Eastern Front. These Nazis did terrible things to Hannibal’s family and friends, some of an extreme personal nature. And the experience demonized him, numbing him to more sensible realities (though not numbing his intelligence) while allowing another self to emerge, a self capable of horrendous acts – brutal murder and cannibalism. I’ll move away from this book for now but I want to emphasize this point of utterly horrible experience, particularly by the young, creating a numbing of normal emotion and behavior and leaving in its stead room for a quite aberrant alternative. Think of Hannibal Lecture as a metaphor for Columbine, for Jonestown, or for the Charles Manson Family.

I want to next talk about a couple of the pieces from David Brooks’ Sidney Awards list (this link requires Times Select). I appreciate his doing this; while not every piece on the list is to my liking the batting average for quality is high and the diversity of topics covered make it quite compelling to read, even if as Brooks says this is the Age of Anxiety. Let me start with this piece by Karen Kornbluth, policy director for Senator Barack Obama, from democracyjournal.org, Families Valued. The piece gives an intelligent and correct (as far as it goes) analysis of how there is an inherent tension between promoting the marketplace and promoting the family and that our current system of social insurance, what we used to call a safety net, much of which dates back to the New Deal or to expansion under the Great Society, simply doesn’t recognize the reality of modern day families, with either two wage earners who together don’t have enough time to tend to the kids needs or with only a single parent who is overwhelmed trying to make ends meet and look after the children too. The piece then goes into great length as to how there are inequities and disincentives for precisely the people the system should be designed to help, and on this I think the piece shot a bull’s-eye.

But the article frames the argument as righting a ship that has gone off course rather than as one of making tradeoffs and I believe as a consequence the article makes it seem like there should be no debate about the issues – they are all common sense and we should be of one mind on them, shouldn’t we?

Here’s the problem. The piece doesn’t address at all how much social insurance there should be and in particular to address questions like, shouldn’t FMLA be expanded to allowed paid leave, the wages while on leave paid by the social insurance scheme, not the employer, and shouldn’t we be generous about the duration for which those benefits can be collected? But, if we expand benefits in this way, how do we pay for them, purely self-financed via higher payroll taxes or more than a bit of the old Robin Hood approach so that more moderate income folks can really reap the benefits? That question is not being asked, but it should be.

Here’s a piece by Paul Krugman from summer 2005 (again, this requires Times Select) well worth reading in my view that compares the French situation to the American situation on this score and that does frame the issue as a tradeoff – the French have more vacation time and work fewer hours in the week than do the Americans, both of these promote the family, but the French also have lower GDP per capita as a consequence – and further Krugman recognizes that to implement a particular way of resolving this tradeoff it is necessary for a government to implement a regulatory regime that supports the specific outcome.

Ask yourself this question. Who stands to lose if the reforms Kornbluth proposes were to come into being? The answer is straightforward. Under the reform there will be somewhat less income inequality and a somewhat smaller pie overall. (This answer assumes the overall reform is deficit neutral. An alternative that I would hope a responsible Congress would ignore is to deficit finance the reform, i.e., pass the funding burden onto our grandchildren and their children.) So it’s the Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s of the world who will lose. Now one could make an argument that these super rich should take this one for the team for the benefit of the rest of us in society and, actually, I think it’s not a bad argument to make. But I didn’t hear it from Kornbluth. And if anyone has seen Gates on TV recently talking about his new role with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it might not be transparent to him that he should willingly be taxed more to have funds disposed of via a government run social insurance network, rather than to be able to give to his own foundation where he can dispose of the funds as he sees fit. That, it seems to me, is what is at issue here and if one really wants to make the case for such reform, certainly doing so is timely and I believe a lot of traditional Democrat and Independent voters would go for it, then getting out in front of the issue would seem to me the right approach. But there’s work to be done before getting to that point. If the High Rollers are dead against it, then it will lose.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about Gerald Ford, which means talking about The Pardon. The obituary stresses the point that the country needed a healing, battered both by the Watergate fiasco and the aftermath of Vietnam and the only way to achieve that healing was via the pardon. But consider the Carter presidency and ask these questions: (1) Who knew about Carter before he ran for president? (2) Was Carter elected because of something he stood for or because the population as a whole was mad with Ford and the Republicans more broadly? (Sound familiar?) (3) What do we remember the Carter presidency for? (4) Would the Reagan Era have dawned if Ford had been elected in 1976?

My answers to those questions: (1) not too many people outside the South and particularly Carter’s state of Georgia and further, in the primaries there were a slew of other candidates (remember Mo Udall?) none of whom galvanized the electorate, (2) Carter’s election was definitely due to a backlash vote, (3) Stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis (not the Camp David accords), (4) I don’t know, it’s a head scratcher. I think Carter was a decent guy, caught in a perilous time, and at least for (3) Stagflation would have happened under Ford too. My real point here is that if you are going to contemplate a major ripple in history – the alternative of not granting the pardon – then do so by considering the full path that would ensue rather than focus just on the immediate aftermath.

Now let me switch gears again and move entirely out of my own comfort zone (political economy) and instead talk about this piece by Caitlan Flanagan, also a Sidney Award winner, from the Atlantic entitled Are You There God? It’s Me Monica. This too is a fascinating read, about the oral-sex craze in younger adolescents, entirely gender biased (girls on boys) and a seeming fantasy that might be reality. How does one know whether it is or isn’t? It’s not the sort of thing that direct observation helps to inform. I feel reasonably comfortable in asserting that my kids are not involved, but how I really know that?

Flanagan raises some interesting questions. Representing the view of a parent, what type of cultural environment do we want for our kids as they learn about their own emerging sexuality? And does that view match or conflict with our prior views about sexuality for ourselves? The conflict between the two is brought out and certain recent trends, for example the mainstreaming of the porn star Jenna Jameson and the explicit nature of the of the sex ed info on the Planned Parenthood Web site (particularly as it speaks to the oral sex issue) are taken to task. I’m with Flanagan in thinking this is a very good question to ask, though I don’t necessarily agree with her on the conclusions.

Flanagan spends much of the piece considering the issue from the (female) kid’s view, about how to satisfy a healthy and inevitable adolescent curiosity about sex with information that is true, useful, and not moralistic. There is so much of the other sort of information and Flanagan seems to say that part of the current problem may stem from a lack of good models through which the kids learn a more fulfilling approach, where sex become part of a bigger picture of tenderness with a caring partner. Yet Flanagan also advances another possibility – the kids, though from good middle class families as judged by outer appearances, have nonetheless been numbed via a dysfunctional family life that doesn’t satisfy any of their needs and hence are placed in a position to be victimized by the oral sex trend, engaging in acts that have little or no personal meaning for themselves. This is in essence the Hannibal Lecter origin story en masse and while the story certainly works in the Thomas Harris fictional world, I’ve been scratching my head about whether it is believable in the world in which we live.

A couple of nights ago, I saw The Pianist. My wife and I had seen it several years ago at the theater. This time around I watched it by myself on one of the HD movie channels. It is a haunting story based on a real life experience of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Szpilman, brilliantly played by Adrien Brody, who won the Academy Award for this role. Szpilman experiences all sorts of horrors, the senseless murders and beatings of Jews at hands of the Nazis, the mass deportation of the vast majority of the Jewish population to the death camps, including the rest of Spilman’s family with whom he had lived. He stayed alive via the help of others, who appreciated the brilliance of his music, and through his own wits and instinct to stay in the shadows just out of harms way. He did not fight back and try to overcome. He just tried to endure.

A significant aspect of the film is the haunting look of Szpilman’s face – a gaunt look, doleful eyes that simultaneously convey sensitivity and emphasize the assault he must have felt at each indignity caused by the Nazis, and an aquiline nose that signifies his Jewishness and that his artistry and sensitivity are interwoven with that. I focused on the eyes through much of the picture. And I could not help but think that though Szpilman experienced horror after horror, the essence of his personality remained intact.

I thought about people I knew who had gone through something similar. As a child I met on several occasions a childhood friend of my mother’s, Lilly Kramer, who had tattooed numbers on her arm, she was in a concentration camp but somehow managed to get out. Lilly had a harsh personality; she was a smoker and I remember coming home from a visit with her at her Manhattan apartment where I was crying, though I don’t remember why. Some of her ways must have been the result of her experience under the Nazis, though I’m not really in a position to know what type of change that experience caused.

And because I was so taken with the face of Szpilman, I thought of somebody I once knew who had his sort of eyes, Ellen Taus a student of mine in economic statistics when I was a TA at Northwestern. She endured as well, in this case through a poor performance on the first midterm of the course, not exactly the type of horror I’ve been writing about above, but trying for her at the time nonetheless. (It is amazing to me what type of memories emerge from a stream of consciousness association like that and also that some 29 years later I was quickly able to find mention of Ellen on the Internet.) She seems to have done quite well for herself since.

Although completely unscientific in its basis, I want to advance a tentative hypothesis to try to tie these strands of thought together. Some of us have it in us to fight adversity, to overcome it via force of will. Others (and I’m much more in this category than in the first one) are more prone to capitulate than to counterattack. Fighting back likely increases the odds in terms of Darwinian survival. But fighting back increases the risks of surviving yet with broken spirit and leaving the individual vulnerable for something else demonic to fill the void. Capitulation makes it more likely to lose the battle. But capitulation aids in keeping the former self intact and particularly in preserving sensitivity to the world in which we live.

It’s some tradeoff. I don’t know if it’s right, but if it even remotely approximates the truth it might offer some clues for us in terms of what we should truly value.

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