Walking Away, Heads Bowed

Tony-CunninghamBy all accounts, American Special Forces troops have worked well with the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), forging deep bonds of trust, respect, and loyalty in their fight against ISIS over the last four years in northern Syria.  Turkey’s military foray into Syria against Kurdish Y.P.G. forces, who together with their Arab allies comprise the S.D.F., presented the Trump administration with a hard moment of truth in recent days.  Would America abandon the Kurds?  Yes, and nobody knows the grave import of this decision better than the American Special Forces left feeling ashamed for abandoning their brothers-in-arms under orders.  Then again, the Kurds know it just as well, for they will pay the price in blood of what they can only experience as betrayal.

By nature, war and diplomacy are chaotic and complex.  Allies desperately need to believe that they always have each other’s backs, but sober-minded realists understand that circumstances can force difficult choices on leaders, sometimes leaving them with little choice but to let down friends.  I’ve never been to war, and I’ve never brokered deals between warring nations and factions, but I fully understand the idea of not being able to attend adequately to people you care about.  All it takes in everyday life is one of those all-too-human situations where you cannot be all things to all people.  Thus, someone needs you badly, but so does someone else, and there just isn’t enough of you to go around to give both people what they need.  Or perhaps you must take sides between people who mean something to you, thereby alienating somebody you care about in the process.  In such cases, decent people cannot escape the dispiriting sense that they have let loved ones down, even if they couldn’t help it.  Surely the American soldiers who have fought alongside their Kurdish counterparts suffer badly for abandoning them, just as the Kurds suffer so badly for being abandoned.  Soldiers who ordinarily refuse to leave their wounded comrades behind as a point of honor can only feel thoroughly dishonored by what is happening in northern Syria.

War can foist excruciating choices on leaders.  Abraham Lincoln felt the acute burden of sending brother against brother in the Civil War.  One has only to look at photos of Lincoln to see how those years aged him.  The men and boys dying at places like Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Antietam, and The Wilderness were not just numbers to Lincoln, pieces in some game of war with the wayward Confederate states.  They were flesh-and-blood Americans—on both sides—and he experienced the immense responsibility of having the ultimate say in prosecuting the war.  I dare say that the American Special Forces standing aside and leaving Syria likewise feel an immense weight of involuntary complicity in the undeserved fate of the Kurds.  Never mind that the choice didn’t belong to them since their job is to follow orders, not give them.  From their point of view, they are turned their backs on the very men they fought beside.  How could they possibly avoid feeling like they have betrayed their friends?

My guess is that all this means less than nothing to someone like Trump and his minions.  Dishonorable people can do dishonorable things shamelessly.  Should his actions come back to haunt him politically—a virtual inevitability as Assad, Putin, and Iran profit from America’s withdrawal in the region—Trump will feel the sting of criticism.  When military figures, statesmen, politicians, the press, and the public revile his rash moves on Syria, he will fume.  But the basic thought that he played a pivotal part in American forces letting the Kurds down will carry no weight at all with him because at heart, Trump is a shameless man, and such men can do shameful things and sleep soundly at night.  Hopefully, his days of falsely honoring himself will soon be at an end.  In the meantime, may the Kurds endure a fate they do not deserve.

Three-Minute Masterpieces

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I always enjoy April 29. Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, and I try to celebrate by listening to his music and reflecting on his legacy. Back in 1989 I got to see Joe Pass and his trio celebrate Duke’s birthday. I was in San Diego for a conference and the great historian Morton Rothstein, with whom I shared a love of jazz, asked if I’d like to join him for the concert. Of course!

April 29 this year found me thinking about Duke Ellington, Jimmie Blanton, Alexander Gerschenkron, and three-minute masterpieces.  You probably know the first name but not the second or third, so allow me to elaborate…

Jimmie Blanton joined Ellington’s orchestra in 1939.  According to Terry Teachout in Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, “Blanton left St. Louis with [Ellington] on November 3, and Ellington started featuring him at once… Less than three years later, he was dead (p. 202).”

jimmie blanton

Jimmie Blanton

In January 1940, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined the band and the result was the ensemble many consider the high point of the Ellington orchestras: the so-called Blanton-Webster Band of 1940 to 1942.

The first Blanton-Webster recording took place on March 6, 1940.  Two classic pieces came from that session: “Jack the Bear” and “Ko-Ko.”  According to Teachout,

Jack the Bear was a previously unrecorded Ellington instrumental that Billy Strayhorn had rewritten to feature Jimmie Blanton.  As if to proclaim to the world that all bets were off, Blanton launched “Jack the Bear” by stepping out in front of the band and tossing off a lighter-than-air eight-bar solo.  Because his style long ago became the lingua franca of jazz bass playing, the impact that this solo had on those who first heard it seven decades ago is no longer possible for contemporary listeners to fully appreciate (p. 207-208).

As for “Ko-Ko,”

From the curt trombone riff that sets the piece in motion to the spiraling bitonal crescendo that brings it to a charging close, “Ko-Ko” is the greatest of Ellington’s three-minute masterpieces, an exercise in motivic development as taut as Reminiscing in Tempo is shapeless (p. 208).

Soon the three-minute masterpieces were pouring out of Ellington:

“Jack the Bear” and Ko-Ko… ushered in a flood tide of new work that continued without crest for week after week. Nine days later came “Concerto for Cootie… In May the band cut “Bojangles,” “Cotton Tail,” “Dusk,” “Never No Lament,” and “A Portrait of Bert Williams,” followed by “Harlem Air-Shaft,” “All Too Soon,” “Rumpus in Richmond,” and Sepia Panorama” in July, “In A Mellowtone” in September, and “Across the Track Blues and “Warm Valley” in October (p. 209).

Teachout nicely sums up this period: Duke Ellington

The records [Ellington and the orchestra] cut in 1940 were setting a new standard, not just for him but for jazz in general, and today the recordings of what has come to be known as the “Blanton-Webster band” are generally thought to mark the summit of his compositional achievement.  Long before his death, that view was enough of a commonplace for Ellington to find it oppressive. “I find I have all these other lifetimes to compete with,” he said.

Ellington spent most of his life convinced that he needed to compose “serious” music (rhapsodies, concertos, operas) to be accepted as a great composer.  Three-minute masterpieces wouldn’t do the trick.

Alexander Gerschenkron felt the same way Ellington did.  Despite his Harvard professorship, despite writing one of the great articles in economics and economic history (“Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective”), despite adding the “Gerschenkron effect” to the literature, and despite writing an insightful book on democracy in Germany before World War I, he thought of himself as a failure.

Gerschenkron

Alexander Gerschenkron

Nicholas Dawidoff, Gernschenkron’s grandson, wrote a wonderful biography and put the matter well:

Editors from national magazines frequently tried to assign Shura [the name by which Dawidoff knew his grandfather] essays and articles and he waved them all away. Among the many publications he turned down were Esquire, the New Republic, and the New York Times Magazine. When Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, asked Shura to do some work for him, Shura astounded Brown by telling him, with some annoyance, that he had no time for an “extra-curricular” activity.

What did Gerschenkron think he should have been doing?

Therein lay the rub that vexed Shura’s professional life. The Big Book – “Za Beeg Buke,” as it came out in the Gerschenkron elocution – was Shura’s El Dorado, his holy grail, the pot of coins at the end of the scholarly rainbow. He goaded his students to complete “a large literary work,” making them feel that they were nothing until they did. Meanwhile, he never published one himself.

Why do so many people feel like Ellington and Gerschenkron? It’s so terribly destructive to a person’s psyche, not to mention it ignores how important is short, clear work.  (See Deirdre McCloskey’s interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education for a different point of view. McCloskey was a Gerschenkron student.)

I used to think that way. I thought that to be a true scholar I needed to write academic journal articles, work on deep statistical estimates, and go to conferences. I realized, over the past ten years, that this is a path for a scholar to take but not the path.  It’s important that dense, technical tomes that only specialists can understand be written. But not all of us must do this!

It’s just as important that some of us take what we know in the academy and connect it to what is going on in the world. This role goes by several names: public intellectual is one, thought leader is another. I like the way Nick Hayes once put the matter to me: “Be a journalist among professors and a professor among journalists.”

In other words, we need to write three-minute masterpieces.  Let’s get to it.

The Power of the Purse

          jim-read  The political debate about Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has been going on since before the 2016 presidential election. My theme here is how fundamentally the situation changed with Trump’s February 15 Declaration of Emergency, where he declared illegal border crossings to be a national emergency, and asserted the right to spend more than 8 billion dollars on the wall that Congress had specifically refused to authorize for that purpose.

The actual costs of building a wall across the entire length of the U.S. – Mexico border are much higher than 8 billion dollars. Some estimates run as high as 70 billion dollars.

Whatever one thinks of a border wall, there is no question that Congress has the unquestioned authority to spend money on that purpose if it so chooses. Instead, Congress has repeatedly chosen not to do so. This has been the case not only recently, with the Democrats winning a majority in the U.S. House in the 2018 elections. From 2017-2018, even when there were Republican majorities in both U.S. House and U.S. Senate, Congress voted funds for border security, but never for Trump’s proposed wall.

So what changed on February 15, 2019 was that President Trump asserted that he had the power, by declaring an emergency, to spend funds that Congress had not appropriated for that purpose, indeed that Congress had specifically refused. Trump issued his emergency declaration at the very moment in time that Congress was voting on a budget that did not include funds for the wall. The message was clear: he was exercising what he claimed was his independent power, as president, to spend public funds, regardless of whether they have been authorized by Congress, when he considers it necessary.

So this is no longer just about a wall. It is about presidential power. If Trump’s act of spending public funds, on his own authority, that Congress has specifically refused to authorize goes unchallenged, then any president, of any party, can do the same to push through any item of their political agenda. So I want to say this again: the issue here is not whether or not one favors a border wall. The issue is what restraints on the power of the president, if any, will remain if this act goes unchallenged.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the point at issue here. Article I, section 9 says that “No money should be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” Article I, section 8 makes clear that Congress – and Congress alone – has power to tax and spend. No such power is granted to the executive branch or to the judiciary. This is not some obscure detail of the Constitution. It is absolutely central to the power, indeed to the very existence of Congress as an institution of government. Without what is called “the power of the purse,” Congress’s other powers would be null.

The power of the purse is the oldest and most important check against executive tyranny in the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. It dates from medieval England, at least as far back as the Magna Carta in 1215. During the many centuries when English magna-carta-1215-salisbury-cathedral.jpgkings claimed to be divinely appointed by God to rule the kingdom, kings still had to ask parliament to grant the money. Some kings, such as Charles I, did claim the right to spend funds regardless of parliament. This was one of the causes of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Indeed, King Charles I so to speak “lost his head” over the issue. Protecting parliament’s power of the purse was once again a central issue in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when parliament, acting in the name of the English people, bloodlessly pushed out James II, who had claimed absolutist powers over the purse (and in many other domains as well) and replaced him with William III, who acknowledged that his power was limited by parliament. These events formed the background for John Locke’s classic work of political philosophy, Second Treatise of Civil Government, which made an extended case for government by consent – including the people’s consent, through their representatives, to taxes and public expenditures.

The American Revolutionaries took up and radicalized this idea in setting up a fully republican form of government. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whatever else “consent of the governed” meant to the American revolutionaries, it included the right of the people, through their elected representatives, to consent to all taxes and public expenditures.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 disagreed with one another on a wide range of matters. But on this point there was no disagreement whatsoever: Congress alone could tax and spend. The President had no power to do so, except by signing bills passed by Congress. Article I of the Constitution begins: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Notice that all legislative powers are vested in Congress. If a president had his own pool of funds, and could spend it on whatever he chose, that would be exercising legislative power, contrary to the Constitution’s exclusive grant of those powers to Congress.

James Madison, arguably the most influential framer of the U.S. Constitution, in defending and explaining the proposed Constitution wrote in the Federalist Papers, Number 58 (1788) that: “This power of the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon, with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

There is no question, then, that constitutionally, only Congress can appropriate money. And it does not appropriate that money in one lump sum, but for specified purposes. A president cannot constitutionally transfer funds from the Medicare budget to the military budget, for example. Or from the U.S. military budget to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget, which is what Donald Trump is doing.

The big, new question that we have faced since February 15 then is: do illegal border crossings (which have been steadily dropping in numbers since their peak in 1972) constitute a public emergency great enough to justify suspending the regular workings of the U.S. Constitution? I would argue that they do not – indeed, they do not come close to the level of emergency that would justify such as step.

For purposes of historical perspective, I want to describe an unquestioned emergency in U.S. history: the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. When the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Congress was not in session, and was not scheduled to meet for a long time. Indeed, early in the war, it would have been difficult and dangerous for Congress to meet at all. Washington, D.C. bordered on Virginia, the largest of the slave states, and some major battles were fought very close to the nation’s capital. Moreover, for several months before and after Abraham Lincoln took office as president, it was not clear who the members of Congress were, since several slave states had already seceded from the union, and more followed immediately after the war began.

This was an undisputed emergency – whether the United States would continue to exist as a nation. Under the circumstances, Lincoln exercised a number of powers in the early months of the war that ordinarily would have required congressional pre-approval. He suspended the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus, i.e., the right of a person, under ordinary circumstances, not to be detained for more than 24 hours without being charged with a specific crime. The Constitution itself indicates that there are circumstances when suspension may be justified. Article I, section 9 of theus-constitution Constitution holds that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The phrase indicates with some specificity the conditions under which it may appropriate to suspend it: “rebellion” and “invasion.” The slave state secession and the seizure and firing on federal forts would clearly qualify as a massive act of rebellion. However, because this clause occurs in Article I, which covers the legislative branch of government, it implies that whether and when to suspect habeus corpus is a matter subject to congressional authority. Lincoln himself agreed that it was ordinarily a congressional power, but argued that under the circumstances of the early months of the war, when Congress was not in a position to meet, the president was justified in exercising it temporarily. Lincoln called Congress into special session on July 4, 1861, described what he had done, and asked Congress retroactively to approve his action – which Congress did.

Lincoln also made several military expenditures immediately after the outbreak of the war that had not been specifically authorized in the peacetime military budget. Here too Lincoln acknowledged that this was a power belonging to Congress, and asked the body to retroactively authorize the expenditures he had made, which Congress did.

It is not my purpose here to justify every one of Lincoln’s exercises of emergency power during the Civil War. I believe some were justified, and some went too far. But there was no question that the emergency was a real one. Lincoln also made clear that he respected the authority of Congress, and acted to restore the regular balance of constitutional power as soon as it was practically possible.

In both cases, his exercise of emergency powers differed significantly from that of Donald Trump. No one has made a serious case that illegal border crossings constitute an emergency great enough to suspend the ordinary operations of the Constitution. It is simply something that President Trump wanted to do. He was irritated that Congress did not fund it. (Nor did Mexico choose to pay for the wall, as Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign.) Declaring an emergency was simply a way of getting hold of money that Congress had repeatedly declined to appropriate.

We cannot know at this point whether or how the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on Trump’s emergency power declaration. Historically, the judiciary has been reluctant to get involved in disputes involving what it calls “political questions” – i.e., disputes between branches of government. In effect, the Court’s “political question” doctrine says to Congress: “Stand up for your own power.” And it is true that the framers of the Constitution did assume that office holders in each branch of the federal government would stand up for and protect the powers that the Constitution has granted them.

In the case at hand, however, there are two fundamental problems with the Supreme Court telling the Congress, in effect, to stand up for their own power. First: any argument of this kind presumes that Congress does continue exclusively to hold the power of the purse. If presidents can declare an emergency, and spend potentially unlimited funds anytime Congress chooses not to vote the funds a president wants, then Congress is deprived of the only foundation from which they can possibly stand up for their own power. The president would then hold the lion’s share of legislative as well as executive power, and Congress would be overnight reduced to the level of a not-very-well-behaved debating society.

The second reason why the U.S. Supreme Court cannot in good conscience dodge its responsibility to defend the powers of Congress, is that the Court itself – unintentionally but nevertheless monumentally – undermined the capacity of Congress to stand up for its own power in the case of a presidential emergency declaration. To understand this peculiar part of the story, we need look at the National Emergency Act of 1976, the piece of legislation President Trump relies on as legal justification for his defiance of Congress.

The National Emergency Act was ironically an attempt by Congress to check potential presidential abuse of emergency power declarations, while at the same time recognizing that emergency declarations are sometimes appropriate. In an attempt to fulfill both of these contrary objectives, Congress designed the National Emergency Act to function as a so-called “legislative veto,” whereby Congress authorizes the president to take discretionary action, but at the same time reserves the right to say “No” if it believes the president has used that discretion wrongly. Thus under the National Emergency Act as originally passed by Congress, if Congress judged that a president was wrongly using emergency powers, it could negate those powers – “veto” them, so to speak. The National Emergency Act required that the president report at regular intervals to Congress about what emergency powers have been exercised and why, so that Congress could decide whether to continue to authorize, or to terminate, the presidentially-declared emergency.

In short, under the National Emergency Act as designed and passed by Congress, the act of an out-of-control president declaring a bogus emergency could be overturned by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. This act of disapproval was framed as a congressional resolution, not as a new and separate act of legislation, so that it was not subject to presidential veto. Congress stands up for its own powers: constitutional crisis resolved. And in fact, that is what Congress did in the case of Trump’s emergency power declaration. By a wide margin that included a significant number of Republicans as well as nearly every Democrat, both the House and the Senate voted to terminate president Trump’s state of emergency and to nullify his inappropriate appropriation of unappropriated funds.

But this is where the Supreme Court enters the story, and not exactly as the hero of the drama. In a 1983 court decision, INS v. Chadha (which had nothing to do with border walls), the Court ruled that the so-called legislative veto, whereby Congress provisionally authorizes the president to do something but then reserves the right to reverse it after the fact, was unconstitutional. Congress, the court held, could not exercise executive power, which it arguably did in presuming to “veto” the actions of a president in administering a law. The court’s ruling in effect transformed legislative veto mechanisms, which required only a simple majority of both houses and were not subject to presidential veto, into regular pieces of legislation, which are subject to presidential veto, which in turn requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to overturn it – a nearly impossible bar under our current state of partisanship.

At this point a wise Congress would have thoroughly revised, or if necessary repealed, every single law it passed that relied on a legislative veto mechanism, because in many such cases – and certainly in the case of the National Emergency Act – Congress would not have granted the president so much power in the first place if they did not believe it could be revoked when necessary. But we have not had an especially wise Congress for a long time. One can very well argue that a wise Congress would not have passed the National Emergency Act in the first place.

The upshot of the story, as anyone knows who has been following current events, is that President Trump vetoed Congress’s majority vote to end Trump’s emergency declaration and his claim to spend funds not authorized by Congress. The effort to overturn Trump’s veto failed to get the required two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.

There is much blame to go around here. One can blame the Supreme Court for unwittingly expanding presidential power in the Chadha ruling. One can blame Congress for passing an unwise law in 1976, and not fixing it after 1983. One can blame Donald Trump for putting the Constitution through a shredding machine without a second thought.

But ultimately the U.S. Constitution belongs to us, the People of the United States. Even if Congress wanted to hand over its constitutional power of the purse to the president, it cannot legitimately do so, because the Constitution belongs to us, not to Congress or the president. Nor can we rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve fundamental constitutional questions like this one. Courts act very slowly, and often rule on narrow, technical grounds – as they are likely to do in this instance, if they take up the case at all.

To me, as a citizen of the United States, the fundamental constitutional question is this: if a president can spend 8 billion dollars, not only that Congress has not specifically authorized, but that Congress has specifically declined to authorize, then why not 80 billion? 800 billion? What possible checks are there on the power of a president to do anything he or she wants, once that president is given a blank check on the power of the purse?

When I was in college studying political philosophy, I read many philosophers who warned about the danger of a people “losing their love of liberty” and willingly subjecting themselves, whether out of fear or greed or some other motive, to the chains of a despot. I remember being puzzled about this notion of a people losing its love of liberty. Why would people do that? I wondered. I had great difficulty forming any mental picture of what a people renouncing its own freedom looked like.

Today I have a much clearer picture, both of what this means and how it is possible. I just hope it doesn’t happen here.

 

 

Tony Cunningham on “Vengeance”

prof-photoMany people were taken aback by Liam Neeson’s recent confession that forty years ago, he sought out some “black bastard” to pay dearly for the rape of a dear friend. He related the story during an interview about his new revenge flick, Cold Pursuit, a reboot of a Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance (2014), where Stellan Skarsgard played a grieving father who systematically avenges his son’s murder.  Neeson plays the avenger role in Cold Pursuit, and it’s hardly a stretch since many of his film characters have made people pay, and audiences have loved watching him employ his “very particular set of skills.”

Let me put aside two elements of the confession for my purposes. Ignore the fact that just any unlucky black man would have sufficed as Neeson’s target. Likewise, ignore the fact that forty years on, he felt comfortable referring to his target during the interview as a “black bastard.” Both these things raise important questions. Why should an innocent man ever suffice for payback? And in telling the story now, why was it important to identify the assailant’s race, much less add the “bastard” part? However, let’s imagine that Neeson told a different story, one where he went looking for another white man, and not just any fellow, but the man who did the terrible deed he sought to avenge.

Generally, civilized people do not look kindly on revenge. They tend to see vengeance as a primitive urge that has no place in modern society. For one thing, revenge can sometimes inspire never-ending cycles of violence. Examples like the famous Hatfields and McCoys, where two families carried on a feud to make each other pay for almost thirty years in Kentucky and West Virginia, spring to mind with revenge. If you get me back, and then my people get you back, your people may feel the need to get my people back. And so it may go, on and on. When people take things into their own hands, the result can be utter chaos, with who did what to whom eventually being lost to us. All we’re left with may be damaged bodies and souls.

Even when there is no grave danger of payback getting out of hand or running afoul of who truly deserves punishment, many people decry revenge in favor of justice, and they may take pains to distinguish the two conceptually, not just in the practical terms of who deals out the requisite punishment. On one telling, justice is principled, while revenge is always personal. Think for a moment about statues of Lady Justice, the kind you see around law courts. She wears a blindfold, and she holds scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The scales represent the moral order, with injustices throwing the scales out of balance and crying for proper restoration by way of reasoned consideration of the evidence. The blindfold represents impartiality in the cause of restoring that sacred order. And the sword reminds us that the State reserves the power to judge and mete out punishment. On this telling, whenever one person wrongs another, the interest of justice is always fundamentally impersonal in the sense that society seeks to heal the rift in the moral universe—what matters is that things be put back right. The principle’s the thing. Should you wrong or harm me or those I love, justice makes no principled distinction between one victim and another. Good citizens should care about the wrong done to any citizen. Like Lady Justice, we should be blind to who is wronged since in the eyes of the law, we all matter, and we are all essentially the same.

Vengeance doesn’t feel this way, though it shares a key sensibility with justice. Both justice and vengeance concern people getting what’s coming to them. But whereas justice fixes on an impersonal principle, vengeance is deeply personal. In one of the oldest stories of vengeance in Western literature, Achilles kills Hector in single combat outside the walls of Troy after the Trojan prince slays Patroclus. In the moments before Achilles has his vengeance, Hector asks for a pact to allow the vanquished the requisite burial rites, but Achilles wants none of it.

“There are no binding oaths between men and lions—

wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds—

they are all bent on hating each other to the death.

So with you and me. No love between us.  No truce

till one or the other falls…”

And then as he is dying, Hector asks again, offering an impressive ransom if Achilles will allow his Trojan people to bury him. Achilles spits on the appeal.

Beg no more, you fawning dog—begging me by my parents!

Would to go my rage, my fury would drive me now

to hack your flesh away and eat you raw—

such agonies you have caused me!  Ransom?

no man alive could keep the dog-packs off you,

not if they haul in ten, twenty times that ransom.” 

Clearly, Achilles has no interest in restoring some balance to the moral universe. He is not acting as any impartial man of high principle. At that moment, he is a raging beast and he hates Hector with every fiber of his being. After slaying him, Achilles lashes theBetter Angels corpse to the back of his chariot and drags it in front of horrified onlookers around the walls of the city. In his profound rage and grief, Achilles drags the body around Patroclus’ tomb for days. Each morning, Achilles awakes to see Hector’s body magically restored by the gods. His attempts to defile Hector’s body bring him no peace, and not simply because the gods protect the body.

And then the gods allow Priam, king of Troy, to steal his way into the Greek camp to beg for his son’s body. When Achilles sees him, he momentarily mistakes him for his own father, and the thought of Peleus soon to grieve for Achilles moves him and sets in motion a remarkable scene as Priam appeals to him as a father.  Achilles returns the body and gives Priam his word of honor that he shall have the required days for the proper funeral rites. The war will not begin again until the Trojans have duly honored Hector. And with this solemn promise, Achilles regains his humanity, leaving behind his all-consuming anger and hate to see his enemies as human beings, a grieving father and a dead son.

We should be very glad for Achilles’ return. When he wades through Trojan blood to kill Hector, he does not come to kill a flesh-and-blood human being like himself. He cannot see the world through Hector’s eyes or imagine the tears that his people will soon shed for him. Achilles is a raging beast come only to make Hector pay dearly. We shudder at the thought of such a fearsome creature, one who will stop at nothing to kill his adversary. This is as personal as it gets. Understandably, dispassionate justice looks like a saving grace next to Achilles’ rage.

In Ransom, David Malouf’s creative retelling of Priam coming to ransom his son, he creates a beautiful scene where Achilles sits with the body of Hector, cleaned and made ready for Priam to take home shortly.

He regards Hector’s body now, and the clean-limbed perfection of it, the splendor of the warrior who has won an honorable death, is no longer an affront.

The affection of the gods for a man whose end it was part of his own accomplished life to accomplish he can now take as an honour intended also to himself.  And that, he sees, is how it might have been from the start, and this the first, not the twelfth night.

What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.

He sits quietly in the contemplation of this.

As glad as we should be that Achilles finds his way back from the darkness of vengeance, we should also take care to understand that his darkness is the underside of love. His rage and wrath are driven by his profound love for Patroclus. Love is like that. Achilles’ anger isn’t pretty to witness, a sight no more bearable than witnessing the abyss of grief. And justice does well to spare us from doing the vengeful things for love that might just alter us permanently, unleashing forces from which we might never return if we were to indulge them. You might say that justice can mercifully spare us from ourselves because when we feel powerful urges to return bad for bad to those who wrong us and those we love, we experience the urges of loves that give our lives meaning and value. In denying or vilifying such urges, we deny elements of our humanity.

I understand Achilles all too well. At heart, the cry for vengeance is no more primitive than love itself. Life has mercifully spared me anything like Achilles’ fate, but I can imagine having loved ones taken from me or badly hurt, and if I do, I can’t imagine not feeling a deep need to give people what’s coming to them, just as I can’t imagine not mourning the loss or injury. Fortunate souls who have never suffered such things may find it tempting and comforting to imagine themselves above the urges of an Achilles or Liam Neeson as I have imagined him, but in that case, I would simply invite them to exercise their imagination a bit more.

 

2018 Retrospect: Person of the Year

banner Feb 2019

2018 was quite a year. In the spirit of Time magazine, the members of the Avon Hills Salon are kicking off 2019 with a look back, at persons of significance for the year past.  Time’s Person of the Year is usually living (though not, at time of publication, this year’s Jamal Kashoggi). We have chosen a mix of persons, some living and some dead, who wrote, said, or did something that made us think, helped us live, stood out or stood up to power. We hope you’ll enjoy the variety.

*Noreen Herzfeld


nick-hayesA Good Year for Putin

Nick Hayes

Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

Person of the year for 2018?  Vladimir Putin, of course.

A year ago, The Atlantic kicked off the new year in its January/February 2018 issue with an in-depth article by Julia Joffee on “What Putin Really Wants.”  If The Atlantic had run a follow-up story looking back at 2018 from Putin’s perspective, the lead would probably read, “2018: The Year Putin Got What He Wanted.”  Let’s suggest a few items that would have been on Putin’s 2018 to-do list.

First of all, in Putin’s mind the personal is always political.   Putin had a grudge to settle with the Obama administration.   In 2016, the Panama Papers were leaked documenting and spreading the “dirt” on the illicit wealth of the Kremlin insiders and Putin hidden in off-shore banks.   Putin took it as a personal attack by the Obama administration and was determined to retaliate.

Secondly, he had wanted a new way to assert Russia’s influence in international politics.  He found it in the successful launch of a new weapon:  hacking.  The continuing controversy and discord over the Mueller investigation adds further evidence that Putin had been right to gamble that hacking American computers could throw confusion and discord into the U.S. election and tilt it in favor of the Kremlin’s choice.  According to Joffee, Putin had “. . . pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history, turning American democracy against itself.”  In the process, Putin acquired a bit of what the Russians call “blat,” or a bit of leverage with the American president. Google the media coverage of the joint press conferences by Putin and Trump last July in Helsinki.  Now, imagine that you are Putin watching the nervous and fawning American president.  What would you think?

Third, self-congratulations would be in order. You would think that your investment in cultivating Trump was paying off very nicely.  Putin’s international agenda did stall a bit in 2018.  The Kremlin intended to do to the eastern Ukraine what it had done to the Crimea. Moscow appears to have settled for a long-term stalemate. Although Trump offered little help for Putin’s agenda in Ukraine, the American president more than made up for that oversight in his policies toward Syria.  His announcement that he would pull out the U.S. forces in Syria left its future in the hands of Putin and his protégé Bashar-al Assad.

Fourth, legislative achievements have never been high on Putin’s to-do list.  This past fall, he did float a pension reform that would have raised the retirement age by five years. In the face of widespread popular protests, Putin blinked.  He reduced the proposed increase in retirement age for women, but not for men and has subsequently slow-walked the proposal. Putin did score a legislative victory on another issue dearer to the heart of his base.  This past January, Russia’s Justice Ministry acted on an earlier proposal from Putin to decriminalize bribery and corruption in certain “exceptional circumstances.”  Nether Putin nor the Justice Ministry has offered an explanation or a more precise definition of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances.”

Finally, what about Putin’s grudge against the Obama administration over the Panama Papers?  Putin’s payback came in the hacking and interference in the American election.


Tony-Cunningham

The Professional

Tony Cunningham

Person of the Year: Robert Mueller

I’m a philosopher by trade.  Good philosophers think carefully about things that matter, and by necessity, they doubt their own thoughts and answers.  The point of philosophical inquiry isn’t to arrive at tidy conclusions, but rather, to track the messy truth, and doubt is a philosopher’s best friend.  As I tell my students, thoughtful uncertainty beats thoughtless certainty every time.  If you are pursuing anything but the obvious, complexity and vagueness are inevitable.  The answers you seek may elude you forever, and progress is generally marked by inching toward a better, but imperfect rendering of the world, not the whole story laid bare, once and for all time.  Intellectual humility is a prerequisite for any philosopher.  You must become comfortable with not knowing; believing you have everything figured out gets in the way of truly figuring things out.

Donald Trump makes a mockery of philosophy.  He doesn’t read or study or deliberate at all, much less devotedly.  He insists that he knows more than thoughtful people who have read, studied, and deliberated.  As he sees it, his “gut” feelings track the answers to complex questions that should be entirely beyond him.  To call him a Sophist, the skilled orators that Socrates criticized for persuading people with slick appeals to emotion, rather than with reasoned argument, is unfair to the Sophists.  Trump vacillates, exaggerates, and lies shamelessly at every turn.  He is all will and no reason, the anti-philosopher in the flesh.

Robert Mueller, head of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in theMueller pic.jpeg 2016 election, is basically everything Trump isn’t, and as such, he is my “Person of the Year.”  Since we do not know the results of the inquiry, the selection may seem premature.  Perhaps they will not amount to anything beyond the indictments, verdicts, and guilty pleas obtained so far.  However, the conclusion is less important to my choice than the character of the man and his inquiry.  Mueller and his team have worked methodically, leaking nothing and saying little.  They have met Trump’s incessant whining about a “witch hunt” and “12 angry Democrats” with stony silence.  No matter what they might deliver, they have plugged away tirelessly, relying on reason and the evidence, not the gut feelings of ignorance.  The Mueller inquiry has been a breath of fresh air for America so far as reasoned inquiry goes.

Ultimately, the Mueller investigation reflects the man, someone entirely unlike Trump.  Like Trump, Robert Swan Mueller was born into wealth.  But whereas Trump escaped Vietnam with convenient bone spurs, Mueller volunteered.  Indeed, he had to persist to serve as a Marine.  Inspired by a Princeton classmate killed in the war, a knee injury rendered Mueller ineligible at first, but he healed enough by the following year to enroll in Officer Candidate School.  After his unit’s first major battle, his reputation was sealed with his soldiers—“The minute the shit hit the fan, he was there.  He performed remarkably.  After that night, there were a lot of guys who would’ve walked through walls for him.” Around the same time, Trump went to work for his father.  He later joked that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the New York dating scene was his “personal Vietnam.”  Robert Mueller never speaks about the war.

Robert Mueller’s entire life has been about professionalism in the very best sense of the word.  The work—whether commanding a unit in Vietnam, directing the F.B.I., or heading the Russia investigation—has never been about him.  He has set the highest standards, demanding the best of himself and those who work with and for him.  In Trump’s world of vapid reality television, Mueller would be boring—all content and no show.  At a time when we are captive to a president who is all show and no content, Robert Mueller is a nothing less than a gift to the nation, a merciful reminder that reasoned inquiry and faithful service are not dead.  Thank goodness for Robert Mueller and his kind.


banner-of-staffDo the Work

Louis Johnston

People of the Year: Joan, John, Judy, Mona, and Pam

 Do the Work! That’s the title of a book to which I turn whenever I’m frustrated with a project. The cover shows a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh. He called it Man With a Hoe:

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, regarding this drawing and a group of similar sketches, “there are things that are worth doing one’s best for, either because they gain approval or because, just the opposite, they have their own raison d’être. Blessed is he who has found his work, says Carlyle, and that’s absolutely true.” He went on, “And as for me, when I say that I want to make figures from the people for the people, then it goes without saying that the course of events will influence me only indirectly, that is to the extent that my work is made harder or easier, but making the drawings themselves is my main preoccupation.”

Doing our best work makes possible two key principles of economics: Specialization and trade. Specialization involves finding a task at which a person, group of people, or even nation is relatively good at and then focusing on doing that job well. Trade comes into the picture when two people, groups of people, or nations exchange the goods and services they produce with one another.

Yet, I too often take for granted the people who do their work day in, day out, week after week, and make it possible for me to specialize and do my best work. I implicitly trust that they will be there. That’s the missing ingredient when economists and other discuss trade: that we must trust one another to do what they have agreed to do. If they do not, then the entire edifice crumbles.

My people of the year are the men and women who get up every day and do what needs to be done on our campuses. Clean our buildings. Make our food and clean up after us. Keep the lights on, the heat flowing, and the water running. Supervise our student workers, get the copy machine fixed when it inevitably breaks down, print out our exams.

Mona Gruber and Joan Volkers take care of the Main Building for all of us who work there. I’m constantly amazed how they can keep everything together in the middle of a building-wide renovation but they do it. They clean the bathrooms; mop, sweep, and vacuum the floors, empty the trash, and do dozens of other tasks that I don’t even know about. Thank you, Mona and Joan.

I eat lunch 3-4 times per week at Gorecki. I love the pizza, and Pam Marchand is there almost every day running the station, making pies, baking them, slicing them, and just as important she is chatting with both fellow workers and diners. I’ve overheard her helping out a rookie behind the counter or encouraging another worker when they’ve made a mistake. Thank you, Pam.

When I’m done with lunch, John Holland and the crew in the dish room wash all of the plates, glasses, silverware, and everything else we who have eaten lunch generate day after day after day. I look forward to seeing John and saying hello as he is usually finishing lunch when I come in. Students, staff, and faculty eat thousands of meals and yet we can always count on clean plates, clean glasses, and clean silverware. Thank you, John.

I’ve worked with Judy Shank since we were both over in Simons Hall at St John’s. I know that if I need something (a quiz printed, an errand run) she’ll not only do it but do it well. She’s now the Economics Department staff person but I still think of her as my guardian angel, always looking out for me. Thank you, Judy.

I’ve only mentioned five people but there are dozens more who do the work. I hope all of them know how much I appreciate what they do and how much all the work that all of the staff at our colleges do makes it possible for faculty like me to specialize in what (we hope) we do well. People like them, who show up every day and get the job done, should be awarded Person of the Year every year.


jim-read

It Can’t Happen Here?

Jim Read

Person of the Year: Sinclair Lewis

My selection for Person of the Year 2018 is the American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951). He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). His first great novel, Main Street, was modeled on his home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in western Stearns County.

Sinclair LewisBut it is not for these reasons that I have selected him for Person of the Year. It is for his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts a fascist takeover of the United States. In the novel a folksy demagogue, Buzz Windrip, skillfully exploits economic distress, racial and religious prejudice, and xenophobia to win the presidency, whose powers he quickly employs to declare a national emergency, put members of Congress under house arrest, violently suppress all opposition, and establish himself as dictator.

The title of the book comes from the claim made by several characters early in the novel, despite the warning signs, that a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States. “Nonsense! That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen!” But it does happen, with lightning swiftness. Most ordinary citizens make no attempt to stand up for the Constitution whose virtues they had been ritually praising. Soon many of the same characters who once claimed a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States now treat it as an accomplished fact about which nothing can be done.

The most interesting and unsettling part of the story is the secret of Buzz Windrip’s appeal to ordinary Americans, the “Forgotten Men” as he calls them. “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man…But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

His economic promises were ridiculous and full of contradictions but nevertheless appealed to people in financial distress. The wealth of the country would be redistributed so that everyone got $5000 off the bat, but property rights would be respected and everyone would come out ahead. “He had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low.” By cutting off all foreign trade and producing everything at home, “even coffee, cocoa, and rubber,” Americans would “keep all our dollars at home,” generating a large enough balance of trade to finance the $5000 promised to every family.

Of course once Buzz Windrip is in power, the $5000 doesn’t come. The results instead are enormous profits for a few large politically-connected corporations and enormously increased misery for nearly everyone else. But Windrip cleverly pins the blame on blacks, who are targeted for re-enslavement, and Jews, who are targeted for annihilation. This plot turn would seem obviously based on Hitler’s “Final Solution” – except that It Can’t Happen Here was published in 1935, long before most people had any idea what was to come.

The novel’s conclusion leaves unresolved the question of whether fascism could permanently defeat democracy in the United States. Buzz Windrip eventually falls victim to an internal coup, but fascist rule continues under new leadership. There is an underground resistance movement promising to restore democracy, but the novel promises only that the resistance will continue, not that it will succeed.

Is democracy threatened in the United States today? This is an intriguing question to pose in the wake of a long and still-unresolved political crisis engineered by a president who in effect said to Congress, “Do as I command, or I will shut this country down.” It is encouraging that at least some congressional leaders still take their constitutional responsibilities seriously. But what are the attitudes of the wider American public?

A special September 2018 issue of The Atlantic (published before the shutdown crisis) posed the question, Is Democracy Dying? Among the eye-opening details reported in the feature was that in an August 2017 survey, more than half of the Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 elections if President Trump claimed this was necessary to prevent the (supposed) threat of undocumented immigrants voting.

Political theorist Yascha Mounk in The People vs. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018) argues that both in the United States and in Europe, democracy is in process of “deconsolidating.” By “deconsolidation” Mounk does not mean that democracy will necessarily be overthrown (though he considers that a real possibility) but that in the U.S. and western Europe the once-overwhelming consensus across the political spectrum in favor of maintaining a democratic system has evaporated. It now has open opponents as well as advocates. Democracy has gone from being remarkable stable in the United States to increasingly unstable; it has ceased to be the only game in town.

Mounk reports some disturbing survey evidence, especially among younger voters. “In 1995, 34 percent of young Americans aged 18-24 felt that a political system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections was either good or very good. By 2011, 44 percent of young Americans felt the same way.” Similar upward trends are evident among Americans who say they favor military rule. From 1995 to 2011 the number of Americans who say they favor military rule increased from one in 16 to one in six. Among young, wealthy Americans the percentage who say they favor military rule had increased to 35 percent by 2011. (Mounk, pp. 108-112). These surveys were taken well before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate.

So these are my reasons for selecting Sinclair Lewis as Person of the Year. I am not saying that the death of democracy will happen here, only that it can happen here. There are many things we as citizens can and should do to restore our democracy to health and reverse the trend toward authoritarian politics. But simply insisting that “it can’t happen here” won’t do the trick.


noreen-herzfeldWhere Have All the Niebuhr’s Gone?

Noreen Herzfeld

Person of the Year: Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr did not shy away from hard truths.  Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1928-1960), Niebuhr was for the mid-twentieth century something we very much lack today—a theologian and public intellectual who was a conscience for his time, and, oddly enough, for ours.

NiehbauerIn his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, he notes that human beings, standing “at the juncture of nature and spirit,” tend to overestimate themselves, falling into the dual trap of pride and an overreaching will-to-power.  While an individual may overcome this temptation, nations rarely do: “Sinful pride and idolatrous pretention are an inevitable concomitant of large political groups.”  Niebuhr described modern nationalism as a “daemonic” force that would be the inevitable ruin of nations that espoused it.  Of course, he was thinking of Hitler and Mussolini at the time.

But not entirely.  In 1937, Niebuhr wrote a prescient piece for the American Scholar Niehbuhr 2.pngentitled, “Pawns for Fascism—Our Lower Middle Class” in which he envisioned the forces that could bring down American democracy.  Niebuhr writes that should our civilization fail, “the chief contributory cause of its failure will lie in the demonic force latent in the lives of all the good little people, so touching in their personal rectitude and individual discipline, who serve us in the shops, who till our soil and who perform all functions in our social mechanism with the exception of industrial labor.”  He believes the lower middle class to be the most “politically inept” of all classes.  These voters embrace the social conservatism and individualism of the Right, yet fail to recognize that their position is not the same as that of the wealthy politicians whom they elect, not seeing “the gulf between property as social power and property as minimal social security.”

Niebuhr could be talking about our society today.  He describes what modern writers have dubbed “the precariat,” a failing middle class who “are least able to find themselves amidst the complexities of a technical civilization and the perplexities of . . . change.”   They are “ignorant of the cause of, and confused about the ways of escape from, [their] social difficulties.”  They seethe with “a profound resentment, which is the more bitter for its failure to articulate itself clearly,” and thus, are easy prey to “the economic creed of the demagogue”, “virulent racism”, and “patriotic passion.”  Niebuhr warns that, in an economic downturn, lower middle-class grievance will “undoubtedly express itself in fascistic or semi-fascistic terms…. It may well become the decisive factor in our political life.”

Niebuhr writes: “It is too early to prophesy, and much too early to write, the tragic social history of our era.”  That was eighty years ago.  Today we see much of what he foresaw.  Niebuhr does not prescribe a solution.  He saw the world as broken by human sinfulness and democracy as “a proximate solution to insoluble problems.”  He does, however, point out that “history is filled with many achievements and constructions which ‘have their day and cease to be.’”  In other words, no matter how complicated or broken our current situation seems, this too shall pass.

Reinhold Niebuhr remains popular today, quoted by political figures (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, James Comey) and pundits (David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich) alike.  He has been described as “one of the last two indisputable public intellectuals in the United States.”  Which raises the question, “Where are the Niebuhrs of today?”   Niebuhr rose to prominence in the 1930s after the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society and became the “go to” theologian during and after WWII for a media searching for understanding of our civilization’s turmoil.

There are plenty of smart and articulate theologians out there today.  Unfortunately, we do not hear them in the clamor of today’s media, which all too often take the easy way out, elevating evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell or Franklin Graham, who are willing to give their American audience the simplistic answers they want to hear, and to do so in a soundbite.  Yet, if we had the likes of Niebuhr today, would we listen?  Or has our attention been too fragmented by technology, and too jaded by a media that looks for the extremes that make for a good fight?

Nick Hayes on: Brezhnev’s Winter

This year my preoccupation with finishing a book, “Looking for Leningrad,” has consumed my energy and time for writing.  Thus, I have held back from posting on my usual topics and themes. To take your mind off the “banality” of politics in the Trump era I am sending out this short excerpt from my “Looking for Leningrad.” Take it as a seasonal story set in Moscow’s coldest winter on record.  I apologize in advance that the excerpt contains some Soviet jargon that would not be familiar to you.  MGU, for example, refers to Moscow State University.  Ostankino refers to the State Committee on Radio and Television.    Both figure prominently in “Looking for Leningrad” from its first to last chapter.

Here are a few reminiscences on Moscow in the winter 1978-1979 . . .

Statue of Brezhnev; photo by author

 

Winter came early that year.  A cold front arrived in Moscow in mid-October about the same time historians remember it had arrived in 1812 to welcome Napoleon to Moscow. The unexpectedly cold temperatures prompted me to lower the ear flaps on my Russian fur cap, a shlapa.  A nosey babushka on the street focused a disapproving eye on me.  “Young man,” she chided, “it’s too early for that.   If you pull down your ear flaps now, what will you do in December and January.” By mid-December, I conceded she had a point. I had committed my defense against winter too early.

Temperatures plummeted that December.  The weather reporting on Ostankino television became increasingly vague and incomplete. The tongue-tied weather reporting on state television untethered tongues on the street.  Rumors spoke of an unprecedented cold wave sweeping westward from Siberia to Moscow cold enough to make even Siberians shiver.  New Year’s Day confirmed the rumors.  The temperature reached minus-40, a record low for the city of Moscow and the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures converge.

My immediate impulse was to embrace the coming of a legendary Russian winter’s cold wave.  I would play a latter day Zhivago at Varykino in his Siberian drama.   Besides, I had already taken cover.   The AP correspondent, Bart Reppert had graciously invited my family to apartment sit at his place. He and his wife were leaving Moscow for a holiday vacation at cross country ski resort in Finland. The setting was perfect.   Reppert lived in one of the “German” or “foreigner’s suburbs” in Moscow where the Kremlin quarantined western diplomats, businessmen, and journalists. His apartment was in a complex on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the indekc svyazi or zip code of Moscow’s elite.

Indoor playtime had exhausted its ability to entertain my sons.   The Soviet toys made of a hard and easily breakable plastic had never captured their fancy.   The hand-carved wooden folk toys appealed only to their father’s fantasies about re-creating the things of traditional Russia.  The wooden bear on a small handheld paddle had moving arms that a child could flap up and down but never received the call to play and joined a few matryoshka dolls on a shelf where they formed a sad colony of unwanted Christmas toys. My sons, a toddler and a three-year-old, did not suffer boredom lightly. I could not convert them into accepting my idea of a perfect Russian day reading Chekhov or jotting fragments of wisdom in a notebook. In years to come, I imagined there would be Ph.D. students who would rescue my notebook from the archives and weave its fragments into dissertations or monographs.

Stalin had left Moscow with a unique heating system.  From a central heating plant, the system pumped hot water through a vast subterranean matrix of generators, boilers, massive pipes and relay stations that pumped steam heat into the city’s buildings. Inefficiency plagued the system. Occasionally, the pipelines showed themselves.  Like a whale coming up for air, the pipelines would rise from the ground for a short stretch and then dive back to their underground world.  Even in the coldest winter months you could easily track the routes of the pipelines.  Heat lost from the cause of heating Moscow warmed the ground above the pipeline and enabled grass to grow.  A meter or two wide, linear green zones marked the trail of the heating pipes throughout the city.

Stalin’s system dated from the 1930s and had avoided any major breakdowns until this winter.  As temperatures descended and stayed at record lows pipes burst and left large sections of Moscow without heat.   A chaotic internal migration within the city ensued as Muscovites fled frozen apartment complexes in search of a friend’s warm couch in an as yet unaffected district of the city.  Our temporary quarters on Kutuzovskii Prospekt held out. However, Reppert’s return from Finland forced us to take shelter elsewhere.  MGU and its environs had succumbed to the collapse of the heating system throughout its section of the city.  Finally, the U.S. Embassy’s resident Lutheran minister showed some pity and invited us to stay at his apartment in another of Moscow’s “foreigner’s suburbs.”

The celebration for that New Year’s Eve might have led you to believe that the new year, 1979 would be the year of Brezhnev.  Anticipation was building.  In the fall, Brezhnev published a three-volume set of memoirs.  Known as the Brezhnev Trilogy, the memoirs consisted of three volumes – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands.  The three books chronicle the life of Brezhnev from a humble childhood in Ukraine, to his alleged military leadership in “The Great Patriotic War,” and the Soviet development agriculture in Central Asia.

Of all the attempts at creating leader cults in Russian history, the promotion of Brezhnev stands out as the most ludicrous and cruel. By 1978, Russians knew that the Soviet leader showed signs of senility. His slurred speech struggled to deliver the simplest public pronouncements. On his best days, he still looked like an old guy with a hangover.

None of this dissuaded the Kremlin.  The press proclaimed Brezhnev a literary genius.  Within a week of the publication of his memoirs, he received the Soviet Union’s highest award for literature, the Lenin Prize.  On New Year’s Eve, the media could not contain itself.   Soviet Television devoted the entirety of its popular music and variety show, The Little Blue Light, to a homage to Leonid Ilych.  Celebrities from popular culture gushed with praise for the leader.  Representing Moscow’s American comrades, the American singer, Dean Reed, the “Red Elvis,” appeared in a TV message from East Berlin.   Brezhnev’s favorite actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov put in a cameo appearance and made a special announcement. There would be an adaptation of the trilogy for the stage, Tikhonov announced, and he would play the lead.  The hosts interviewed literary critics and professors who elucidated the finer points of Brezhnev’s masterpiece. The program built up to its highlight moments before midnight. Brezhnev appeared in a televised message giving his best wishes to the Soviet people for the year ahead.

Soviet TV did not have to worry about anything like the Nielson’s Ratings.  Just in case, Ostankino tried a trick to guarantee something of an audience.   Soviet TV preceded the broadcast of the Brezhnev special with the broadcast of what truly is a Soviet era masterpiece – the film by Eldar Ryazonnov, The Irony of Fate (1976).  Its popularity survived the Soviet Union and remains a classic of Russian cinema.

As it turned out, 1979 was not the year of Brezhnev. Soviet troops had launched their invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1978.  Rumors and leaks from within the Kremlin inner circle describe an inebriated Brezhnev at the time of the decision to invade Afghanistan.

An overstock of unsold copies of the Brezhnev Trilogy remained unsold and untouched in Moscow’s shops for another decade.  In 1988, the Soviet authorities rounded up all the remaining copies and turned the winner of the Lenin Prize – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands – into waste pulp. An irony of fate, the Russians would say.

Black Friday to Cyber Monday: On Climate Change, Computers, and Our Embodied Selves

noreen-herzfeldOn Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, the Trump administration issued a massive new report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by thirteen federal agencies.  The report clearly states that climate change is an intensifying danger, not just to the landscape of the US, as evinced by the recent Camp Fire in California, but also to our overall economy and infrastructure.  Donald Trump’s assessment of the report was blunt: “I don’t believe it.”

While Trump might be an outlier, I fear he is not.  My reasoning is connected to another post-Thanksgiving tradition, Cyber Monday.  Cyber Monday represents the trend away from physically shopping at “brick and mortar” stores toward shopping on-line.  With computer technology many activities that once took place in real space now take place in the bodiless world of cyberspace:  we communicate via messenger and text, we shop, bank and do research on the internet, we amuse ourselves with video games and streamed videos.  We project our minds across vast distances or into fictional realms and have experiences in those places that form us as persons.  In cyberspace we don’t need bodies; we conceive of ourselves as pure mind.  Silicon Valley types speculate that computers could bring us the ultimate “biohack”—to live without any “wetware” at all by uploading our minds to the computer.

Noreen article

Camp Fire burning in California.

Of course, this last option is still only a dream, despite predictions by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil that we will be able to upload our minds into computers by 2045.  Kurzweil writes:

“Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware.  When the hardware crashed, that was it.  For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated . . . As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file.  We will be software, not hardware . . . As software, our mortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of the computing circuitry . . . [as] we periodically port ourselves to the latest, evermore capable “personal” computer . . . Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”

Well, not quite yet.  We are embodied creatures.  In a recent interview with Christianity Today editor Douglas Estes, I make a case for our remaining embodied creatures, at least so long as we wish to remain human.  Yet, as Estes notes, while “movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction, Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.”

I doubt that we need fear such a future, for several reasons.  Here is a part of my response:

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One reason it’s not going to work is due to the complexity of the brain and the entire human being. There are projects to map the connectome of the brain. The idea is that if we can do the human genome, then why can’t we do the connectome? But the connectome of the brain is much more complex than the human genome. We have billions of neurons, and each of those neurons can possibly be connected to thousands of other neurons. Plus, these connections are plastic; they change. We kill neurons off, we grow new neurons, we reconnect, we end connections that are not being used, and we build new connections in other places. Plus, we’re now finding out that we’ve got an awful lot of neurons in our gut as well. There’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, and it’s not one way—brain to gut; gut to brain is connected as well.

You can find the entire interview, “Your Brain in Not a Computer,” at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/november-web-only/cybernetics.html

What I do fear is that our movement toward the on-line world, epitomized by the move from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, deadens us to our surroundings by making the natural world less salient to our everyday lives.  As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”  I hope the National Climate Assessment will help us all to recognize our embeddedness in both our body and the nature that surrounds us and awake to such a passion.  I fear, however, that, like our president, too few of us will look away from our screens to do so.