Wednesday, March 29, 2017



     March 29, 2017:
          Blame everybody, anybody else for the huge mistakes you make
          Lie, lie, lie, and lie some more. You know it won't cost you anything because your followers, who are desperate, uneducated, ignorant, don't know enough not to believe you.
          Make promises you know you can't keep.
          Act on instinct. Indulge your own paranoid fantasies.
          Don't take advice from people who know subjects way better than you do.
          Advance pollution, people won't notice for a while.
          Follow the lead of Calvin Coolidge, author of that famous remark, "The business of America is business."
          In line with that, deregulate everything.
          Don't just ignore history. Make sure you don't know it, either.
          Don't trouble yourself with the complexities of situations. Let ideology be your guide.
          Never think about your responsibilities. Think only about your power.
          Belittle science. It's just a bunch of pointyheads with "theories."
          Divide the country into ethnic groups, religious groups, ideological groups, racial groups. Demonize all groups you don't happen to belong to.
          Persuade yourself that it's all about you. Everything is about  you. Call yourself a winner, on all occasions, no matter what the evidence.

          Does that about sum it up? Lorraine and I, and most of our friends, wake up to new horrors in the New York Times every day and breakfast gets more and more depressing. Each new Congressman who makes news turns out to be dumber than the last, less well-informed, more deeply locked into right-wing fantasy life. If you write history or even just know it, you can't help but think of the long-term damage being done every day. Today was the day to roll back all the efforts Obama instituted to control climate change. Climate change? Will they finally believe in it when the Atlantic Ocean starts climbing up lower Broadway into mid-Manhattan? When the Seychelles disappear entirely? When all the reefs have finally died? Inconvenient truths indeed. Greenland is melting faster and faster every year. When all its ice is gone, sea level in all the world's oceans will be twenty-two feet higher. When Lt. Edward Parry stood on the shores of Melville Island in 1820 and stared out over the Arctic Ocean he saw ten solid feet of ice everywhere he looked, and it was August. In some places the ice stood forty feet thick. That's a four story building. Now? Sea ice in the Arctic gets thinner and thinner every winter--it's now down to about three feet--and summers are largely free of it. This is not a theory. This is evidence, and there's endless amounts of evidence. ExxonMobil has been studying the effects of man-made climate change for many years now, which has not stopped them from steadfastly fighting against programs to do anything about it. One of many examples of the fundamental dishonesty of the business system, which has always been about profits above all, no matter what the human cost.

          So what will future historians make of people like Paul Ryan, or Pence Climate-Change-Is-Only-a-Theory, or Trump the Unlearned, or all the other enablers for whom truth itself is, well, inconvenient? These people are profoundly irresponsible, and history will call them that, and future historians will spend a lot of time analyzing what on earth went wrong with America. Because America is unlikely still to exist. Backward looking, anti-intellectual, living too long off its reputation, which is now in steep decline, banking on the kind of military power that is becoming increasingly useless in its many wars, failing to educate its children, its citizens, riven with internal contradictions--all this is now expressed in its leadership, which aimed for the bottom, for a "Southern strategy" and a hate-the-immigrant strategy, or anything else, no matter how divisive, that would bring them to power. Where they now reside, clueless, inept, mistaken, and totally out of touch with reality. As Trump himself might way in one of his inane tweets, "So sad."

Sunday, February 12, 2017


February 12, 2017: TRUTH

          "We hold these truths to be self-evident...."

          To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, isn't it pretty to think so.

          This morning on George Stephanopolus's show, I heard some government spokesman yelling about voter fraud, and how prevalent it is, and how millions of voters last November voted twice or more, with busloads of Massachusetts voters being driven to New Hampshire to cast votes, obviously for Hilary Clinton. When asked to provide evidence he replied, with the same loud determination, that he knew it was true, everybody knew it was true. George wasn't buying it. Neither did I. But you can bet many of the people who voted for Trump will. Because, you know, the media lies, the media is corrupt, facts are not facts, there are alternative facts. And those of us who are educated, who understand basic things like the necessity of evidence to prove a case, in law and in life, sigh in despair. Because there is no evidence for these claims at all. This never happened.

          The actual truth in this case? What is actually happening and has been happening for years now is that people on the right have been taking over state legislatures and gerrymandering election districts to ensure that they are way more likely to win political control over both state and Federal legislatures, and in the process attack voting rights to make it as difficult as possible for minorities to vote. It's a clever strategy, well-organized in its execution, and it has worked. With the connivance of the Supreme Court decision that it was no longer necessary for the Federal Gov't to oversee voting procedures in the South, which has spent the 150 years since the Civil War making sure blacks never got to vote. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...."

          And what is this about? White power. This country belongs to white people, and by God they're going to keep it that way. Voter fraud? This is the actual voter fraud. All the rest is demagoguery. Fake news. In short, lies.

          The lies, the amateur foreign policy mistakes, the outright stupidity of the current administration come so fast and are so dangerous that I find myself reeling, reluctant to read the news it is so disheartening. I find it hard to work. Hard to pay attention. And "alternative facts"--as if there really were such things. Facts are facts. The truth is the truth. Yet the right denies it; worst of all, it denies the biggest and most frightening truth of our time, that the ice caps are melting, storms are becoming more frequent and more violent because of the amount of moisture in the air, glaciers are retreating all over the world, in Antarctica the Larsen Ice Shelf is breaking up, Greenland is melting far faster than anyone anticipated, and folks, we are in deep shit. Not just America. The whole world. Yet alone in the civilized world the American right denies that global warming is speeding up and is busy now deregulating the fossil fuel burners. Because global warming is only a "theory."

          When in fact, in fact, in fact, it is supported by mountains of scientific evidence, 97% of the world's climate scientists accept it, and every year the world's average temperature breaks the record set the previous year. This is the true Armageddon. The true Apocalypse. Close to 50% of the world's population lives on seacoasts. Here in the Hamptons, everyone wants a water view--preferably as close to the water as possible.

          It is truth itself that I mourn for. A President denies photographic evidence, as plain as day, that shows incontrovertibly that his inauguration crowd was way smaller than President Obama's. He says that when he began to speak it stopped raining, when in fact it started. Alas. We mourn. The search for truth is one of the sacred tasks of humankind. It is enshrined in the legal system, it is what scientists live for, it is the project of all our lives, to find the truth. Even if it is hard to face. It often is. What human beings are doing to our planet, the only one we have, is definitely a hard truth. But when the official leader of our country tells us that global warming is a Chinese plot, then we know. We are in deep shit. Our only option is to resist, to organize, to make every possible effort to take our country back from the brink of chaos and ignorance.


Sunday, January 1, 2017


January 1, 2017; MANAGING THE PAST

          A new year, and we're supposed to look forward, but it's hard to do when you are constantly wrestling with your past. I'll be leaving a whole lot of words behind me, essays, books, feature articles, book reviews, hundreds of those, two whole books still looking for publishers (one a memoir, talk about wrestling with the past), and now a book of poems, self-published because I never wanted a career as a poet, and I'll be giving a reading at the end of January, and it will be out of the past. Words words words. Occasionally I read some of the things I've written and pronounce them good, or not so good, and I think, does this make a whole? Is there a definitive person behind them? Was this a good way to lead a life?

          Well I can't stop. I look at the 5,000 books in my personal library, I reread old notebooks, I remember all the ideas I've had that could have been books or magazine pieces, and the same itch is there, the need to know, to tell stories about the present or the past,  or to voice opinions about politics, about human beings, about experience and its consequences. I once ran down Mt. Rainier. Served as a quality control inspector for a hotel chain in South America. Scuba dove to 85 feet in Belize. Kayaked in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Interviewed adults who had been sexually abused, by their own parents, as children. Stood for a day beside a concierge in a fancy hotel and watched him work. Spent eleven days in a mental hospital. Had lunch with Robert Lehman in his private dining room. The list is long. A full life, one would say, a rich life, but not atypical for a free-lance writer.

          What's it all about, Alfie? In a way, it's a stupid question. Nobody really knows what it's all about. To a degree it was all choices I made, from another angle it had little to do with choice. So many things just happen to a person, they appear as roadblocks or disasters you could not have foreseen, could not have prevented. Or wonderful strokes of luck. You don't get what you want, you get what you need. You try to sort it out, decide what you're responsible for, what you're not. Either way, guilt is built into the equation.

          I walk around the house sometimes scanning the bookshelves and wondering what's inside all those books. I'll pick one off a shelf, take it to bed with me to read after the TV gets shut off, read it over a period of a week or two, sometimes longer. I still want to know, I'm curious about all kinds of things. Maybe forty years ago I wrote a piece for the old Psychology Today, now vanished, called "Selves," about the slipperiness of that concept, the difficulty of pinning down what's going on inside our hearts and minds and what that means about who we are. The longest piece that magazine ever ran. But here's the thing--I still have some of the books I read for that piece. I may need them again someday.

          You wind up with doubt, or, if your heart is particularly flexible, with what Keats called "negative capability," which is the  ability to hold two opposed concepts in your mind at the same time without feeling the need to decide between them. You keep your options open. You accept the fact that mostly you don't know whether you're doing the wrong thing or the right with your life, and what the consequences will be. You tell yourself, you tell other people, you always wanted to live in the real world. But you can't promise that you reached that point, because the real world is a very complicated and unpredictable place, and you may be wrong. So your life could be like the lives of some scholars, who spend their lives chasing a subject, a dream, an insight down a blind alley. A waste.

          That takes courage. You hope you have it when you need it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

REALITY POLICE: November 29, 2016

REALITY POLICE: November 29, 2016

          The story continued....

          This is basically a story from the annals of writing, and for all those who think being a writer is a really cool way to live. I had told my editor that I would do what I did, spend some time in a mental hospital as a patient and report on the experience in the book that was to come out of my investigation, and he thought that meant I would do it more than once, in different parts of the country. But once was enough. I did indeed go to different areas of the country to visit mental hospitals, talk to psychiatrists about the systems they ran, check out what was at the time the take people out of mental hospitals and put them into community mental health centers, and otherwise do the thorough job that needed to be done on a subject that was then, and remains, almost universally ignored. I even went to Esalen, in California, new age mecca, to speak with a psychologist there about new ideas in mental health care. That was interesting; you walked onto the grounds and scattered around were people doing yoga in the nude. But at bottom it was what I should have expected--at a remove from the gritty intractable reality of the lives of the mad. I drove across country in an old Ford Econoline van with the engine mounted between the van's two front seats. I slept in the back. Research on the cheap. America on the cheap. A story for another time.

          And on the way I stopped in Kansas for a few days, camping in a state park near Topeka populated mostly by mosquitoes. I have nothing good to say about Kansas. There Topeka State Hospital had set up a series of interviews for me, among them one with a Dr. Rinsley, who ran their children's unit. He was a queer bird, fixated on his theory about childhood schizophrenia; he had, in fact, diagnosed every child who entered his unit as being schizophrenic,regardless of their symptoms, and it was his opinion that his  job was to take each child apart and rebuild him or her in a healthier manner. To put it another way, he was playing God with every child on his unit. At one point during the interview, I remember, he looked at me and said, you've looked into the abyss, haven't you. Well what do you say to that? Deny it, and you seem shallow. Affirm it, and you'd have to explain. In fact, as I said in the first part of the story, I was quite sane, and always had been. As it says over the entrance to the oracle's cave at Delphi, know thyself. And I did.

          Anyway, I went on, finished the research, wrote the book, it was published, the publisher did its job and got me on various TV shows, I testified before a Senate subcommittee chaired by Birch Bayh about drugs in institutions, the nightly news showed a clip, I thought I would make some money from this book. I was a hero to mental patients for exposing the evils and insufficiencies of a system designed, like most institutions, not to serve its clients, but itself. But I neglected to foresee the obvious--that mental patients can't afford, for the most part, to buy books. As for the reading public generally, the whole subject is a downer. They don't want to know about it. The publisher printed 7,000 copies, sold 3,500. Lesson No. 1. When it went into bookstores as a remainder, at $0.49 a copy, I was too broke to buy more than one.

          Lesson No. 2. A year later a stranger knocked on the door of my apartment in Ossining, New York, asked me if I was Anthony Brandt, and when I said yes handed me a piece of paper. Dr. Rinsley was suing me and my publisher for invasion of privacy, libel, and other things, asking $3,750,000 in damages. How about that. At the time I was going through a rancorous divorce from my first wife, living on credit cards, still driving that old van around, my father had recently died, my mother was settling into the early stages of Alzheimer's. I remember taking one of those stress tests that showed up in magazines once in a while in those days and scoring at a level where you were supposed to have heart attacks and breakdowns and a host of other ills, but as I said, I'm sane, none of those things happened. What happened instead was that my publishers asked me into their offices and told me that I should get my own lawyer, and they would get theirs. They were abandoning me. As it turned out, they hired a local lawyer in Topeka who had never tried a libel case. Through a friend, I hired the libel lawyer for the Kansas City Star. He carried the case, not the publisher's lawyer.

          I had indeed written about Dr. Rinsley. Shortly before I finished the book, I got a call from Kansas that I had to come back. A child had died on Rinsley's unit, thanks to what appeared to be a misdiagnosis that was particularly egregious. She was a little girl, eleven years old, and skin and bones at the time. She died tied down to a crib, alone, being tube fed, choking to death on her food. When she was very young she was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy, one symptom of which was tongue thrust, where the tongue pushes food out of the mouth involuntarily instead of swallowing it. She never really got better, even on medication, and at some point doctors at a state hospital decided she was being uncooperative, and they took custody away from the parents, who were fundamentalist Christians, and who said they were going to take her home and pray for her. After that she wound up on Rinsley's unit. I went back to Kansas, talked to the parents, talked to some other people (including a Holocaust survivor out of Bergen Belsen) about Rinsley and his theories, and added this story to the book. Rinsley had decided in this case that the little girl could swallow her food but was defiant and refused to swallow her food. At the time of her death her parents were allowed to see her only half an hour a week, in a supervised visit. It was a particularly striking example of unregulated psychiatric power to play with people's lives. And I was definitely outspoken about it. "How many more children must die before men like Rinsley are stopped?" Rhetorically, I've always had a tendency to go over the top.

          It took nearly eight years to resolve this case, with something the courts laughably call summary judgement. That means that it never went to trial. After depositions, document searches and all the other stuff that goes on, it was clear that I had made only one small mistake of fact in the body of the book, which I had corrected in a footnote, and that everything else was factually true. My lawyer moved for summary judgment and won--that took maybe two years--and Rinsley appealed. The case then went to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Another five or six years. In the end the three-man court ruled unanimously that Rinsley had no case. He was both a public official and a public figure and had to prove actual malice, all the facts were true except for the one, and that had been corrected. He just didn't like being criticized. I still have a copy of the judgment.

          And me? I'm still sane, but the whole episode came close to wrecking my career, such as it was. When it was over I owed my lawyer $45,000. It soured me on writing books for a long time, and I turned to magazines to make a living. I can't really complain. I had a great success in magazines, and I still write for them in a small way, made smaller all the time as magazines disappear. But when you talk about the romance of writing, don't talk to me.

          I found out later, by the way, that my publisher had never given the book a libel reading. It was a muckraking book, it needed a libel reading, I assumed it would get one. But my editor had decided on his own, without telling me, that he didn't want to limit his authors' abilities to express their views. Maybe I'll forgive him in hell. As for Dr. Rinsley, he's already there. And yes, Dr., I have looked into the abyss. That little girl weighted 29 lbs. when she died on your watch.



Monday, November 28, 2016



          People always look at me a little strangely when I mention that I spent eleven days in the state mental hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. I hasten to explain to them that I was doing research for a book I wrote on the mental health system, that I wasn't a real patient but had faked my way in with the help of a friend, and had barely escaped the locked ward where they keep the violent people but had been sent instead to a ward where they let you out in the morning and left the door open all day. I used to walk over to the store on the grounds in the morning, buy a Times, and do the crossword puzzle on a bench just to get out of the ward. Which turned out, naturally, to be full of unbalanced people.

          Adventures in writing. Anything for a story. This came to mind today when I was thinking about my career, all the things I've covered for magazines and the places I've been, and the loony bin was a highlight of sorts, possibly the most dangerous story I did, since they might well have tried to keep me there against my will if I had in their presence actually done something crazy. I was careful not to. Except for not having a job since I was 35 and living by my wits, I'm quite sane.

          But I think about that place once in a while. The people. They were a motley bunch, all of them on drugs of one sort or another, mostly thorazine, which I also took--you had to, they gave it to you, you put it in your mouth and swallowed it, and then they looked in your mouth to make sure you had--that were supposed to keep you passive and quiet, and indeed they were not violent in any way. One I remember, a young man who complained that his parents had committed him because he'd taken his stuff out to the garage to lay it out on the floor and arrange it. He was manic depressive, had a portable cassette player he took everywhere with a bunch of tapes, and he would jam a tape in, play it for thirty seconds, then jam another one in and drive the entire ward crazy with the noise. He was restless. He also had his own room, where he brought women in off the female wards at night, paying the attendants off for the privilege. Plus he had access to other drugs, the illegal kind. A resourceful young man, in a manic phase.

          Others gave little impression of being insane, but only pathetic. Unable to handle everyday life; they were taken every day to a nearby IBM plant where they put cardboard boxes together, in a program designed to make them useful to society, and thereby to themselves. I remember at lunchtime, which was served on a cafeteria basis, one man would go up to the table and take ten or eleven pieces of bread, and nothing else. Another was catatonic, did not speak, walked around in a trance. I saw him one day drop a turd from under his hospital gown, reach down to the floor, pick it up, and try to put it into his mouth. The whole ward groaned at that, and the attendant rushed over and prevented him from completing this grossness. Yes, there were people there who were quite seriously mad.

          I learned a lot in those eleven days. For one, madness is not literary. You do not find characters out of Dostoevsky, say, or Baudelaire, passionate to the point of unreason, in mental hospitals. It is also for the most part not violent. The culture characterizes the insane as killers, but they actually commit less violence, statistically, than the general population. Mostly it is their ineptness that impresses you. They have not mastered the simple art of living. Something going on in their heads prevents them for focusing on the ordinary.

          After a week it started to get to me. The ward had a large TV set and it went 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that the place was always full of noise. I don't do noise well. The food, not surprisingly, was execrable. They put me in a therapy group and that was a joke. And being surrounded all day and all night by people who were seriously troubled was difficult. We slept in dormitories at night, on beds that had rubber sheets under the cotton ones. My first night I was given a shot of Thorazine, which made me thirsty, but when I tried to get to the water fountain I could barely walk, had to hold onto the wall to get anywhere. I had it all planned, knew the law, and went through the formalities of leaving, which entailed writing a letter announcing my intention of leaving. They had three days to commit me against my will, but didn't bother. My wife drove out and picked me up--I had checked in with a story about our separation, and hearing her voice over the radio when it was turned off--and drove me home. I lay down in the back seat and cried, not for myself but for all those people who couldn't leave so easily. It was so sad. I'll never forget the really bad cases, patients with tardive dyskinesia, which is a permanent side-effect of taking drugs like Thorazine. It affects the brain in such a way that their tongues, their faces, their limbs move uncontrollably, their tongues in and out of their mouths, their faces in constant distortion, their limbs jerkily, in every direction. Thorazine tames the hallucinations, but it also destroys the life.

          I'm told, by the way, by people whose experience of the mental health system is way more recent than mine--the book, Reality Police, came out forty years ago--and have read the book that very little has changed. The mental health system still relies almost exclusively on drugs to control the behavior of the people it serves, and psychiatrists are really no closer to understanding what mental illness is or where it originates. For some people, life is tragic every day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016



          Trump won, against all expectations, and those who thought he was as bad a candidate as the country has ever seen are upset and baffled. The American people ignored the criminality, the narcississm, the sexism, the racism, the frauds, the abuses, indeed embraced it all, as if it were nothing to them, as apparently it was. In favor of what? Climate change? Coziness with Russia? Reckless foreign policy? Who can understand this?
          Those at the bottom, apparently. Not the desperate poor at the very bottom who gave up hoping for anything better a long time ago. Not the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the refugees, blacks, Moslems, the chronically ill, the old, and all the other people stuck in the glue of killing defeat. I'm speaking of the adult whites who have lost not just jobs but futures to globalization, automation, and all the other economic forces that beset us, who are watching their lives drift away on the unfavorable tide of history. These are the people, apparently, who turned to Trump to save them, with his border wall and his promise to deport all illegal immigrants, all eleven million of them, and to keep Moslems out of the country, and to bring back American jobs. And in the processs of making those promises he ignored all the Constitutional protections that individuals enjoy in the United States and all the institutional traditions that have proven as well to protect the orderly processes of government, plus he ignored the impossibility of bringing back what has been lost. There was never any mention of how he was going to do these things, never a program, a plan, a strategy.  Jobs have in fact been lost to macro-economic forces that nobody has the power to stop. Some of the Constititional protections he said he would destroy, others he simply acted as if he would ignore--in short laying an authoritarian hand over government as if it belonged to him. But it has never belonged to any President, however strong. There are fundamental checks and balances built in, and traditional ways of working in government as well, that are designed to keep situations, and governments, under control. It remains to be seen whether this system will continue to work.
          But given the man's record, I'm quite nervous. Not only does he have no actual policy positions, no programs, only bankruptcies and bad behavior behind him, nobody knows what will happen next. His closest advisors are fools and buffoons like Gingrich and Giuliani. His own wife is an illegal immigrant. And this is the "people's choice."
          So if this is what the people preferred, it's time to look at the people. Hillary Clinton called them, half of them anyway, a "basket of deplorables." It's a general rule that people get the governments they deserve. The Founders understood this; when Franklin was asked when he walked out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 what kind of government they were making, he famously replied, "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."
          If you can keep it.
          And Jefferson saw the import of that, he understood that to be a citizen at all required a level of attention and knowledge on the part of  the individual that went well beyond the ordinary, that people needed to be informed, and understand how government worked and to an extent how the world itself worked, in order to be responsible citizens. That citizenship came with responsibilities. That a citizen needed to be involved not only in his professional life, his working life, but in the life of the community and the country, that his opinions had to be as versed in the complexities of issues, in the pros and cons of different courses of action, as time would allow. Jefferson was superbly informed himself; he went out of his way to educate his own family, he founded a University to educate his state, Virgihnia.
          That's the ideal, that's what makes a republic work, makes it viable. An informed citizenry. But we have failed, miserably, to make this happen. Our public educational systems no longer require courses in civics that explain the mechanics of government, how laws are passed and the like. Newspapers, even the best, continue to shrink and shrink and lose readership. Other sources of news have lost their sense of public responsibility, of public mission; and news increasingly passes over into entertainment. One consequence is that the whole public realm weakens, a sense of unity, of being part of one people, dissipates, and what divides us does so more and more strongly, more permanently, and we no longer feel like we have one purpose, one identity. As citizens of a particular place and a particular country.
          When that goes, we get what we got yesterday. A demagogue for a President.
          Republics, to put it another way, are hard work. To keep them going takes a cerrtain amount of wisdom, and that in turn takes an education, it takes knowledge, and not just in school. It takes keeping up with events and their meamings, it means reading about events and their meanings, not just in the papers but in news magazines and even books. It means developing your curiosity. It means in the end getting involved. Especially at the local level, where it's possible to be unusually effective.
          For starters, we would have to go back to teaching civics. To teaching history, political history, diplomatic history, all the old-fashioned kinds of history, which educated people like Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and most of the modern Presidents as well. This is what Lincoln read, picking up his education when he could. Now srtudents take something called Social Studies, an umbrella term for intellectual volleyball; toss it, teach the classics. When the country was being created it was reading Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot--the Enlightenment philosophers, and their thoughts thread through the Constitution. It was Voltaire who said, "If you believe absurdities, you will commit atrocities." Right now our own citizens believe the most amazing absurdities, because they don't have the knowledge or even just the information to know better. Thus Donald Trump. He is no better just because he's been elected President. He's only more dangerous.
          The idea should be not to dumb down, but to smarten up. The whole culture has to bend its efforts to make this happen, or we are permanently lost.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


September 1, 2016: ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

          I've always liked Tip O'Neill's famous dictum--all politics is local--because of the paradox inherent in it. Who doesn't like paradox? No, all politics is clearly not local. World wars are not local, vast global struggles for power and influence are not local, statewide Senate races are not local, and so on. And yet something like the opposite prevails as well. The global so often emerges from the particular, the struggle for power is pretty much the same no matter what level it takes place at, global is local on a grand scale--and so on once more. I remember Graham Robb writing in his wonderful book THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE about a village on one side of a river in rural France that had been at odds for generations with a village on the other side of the river, and how they would periodically gather, each on its own side of the river, and shout oaths and imprecations at each other. In different languages. The universal use of French in France, it turns out, is a recent phenomenon, imposed by French kings in the 17th century. Or there was the rebellion in the Vendee at the time of the French revolution, where this relatively remote province conducted a revolution against the Revolution, based on its loyalty to the Catholic Church and its hatred of government officials imposed from above conscripting local men for the national army. Thousands of people died in this conflict. People were tied to rafts and the rafts were then deliberately sunk. The local definitely went global in that case.

          And now here I am, immersed in local politics. I have not run for office since I was asked to run for president of my high school class by various teachers, because they needed somebody to run against a boy they didn't approve of, who was majoring in shop. I lost big time. But I have been appointed, twice now in thirty years, to chair a regulatory board in Sag Harbor, and it's a hot seat right now: the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. Sag Harbor is a beautiful old village dating from Colonial days, it is full of historic houses in all kinds of architectural styles, and it relies on its appeal to the tourist industry, to retirees, and to second home owners for its economic health. And that appeal is so great that it has attracted way too many overly wealthy people. The average house size in Sag Harbor is about 1500 sq. ft. It's all very charming, and the wealthy people want to own a piece of it. But they're wealthy, wealthy people don't live in small houses, so they want to take these little houses and double or triple their size, thereby destroying the historical value of the house, and, if that happens often enough, ultimately the village. We have a fairly strict zoning code, and it's our job as a regulatory Board to enforce it. And nothing, it would seem, makes a hedge fund manager worth hundreds of millions of dollars angrier than being told he can't do, or get, what he wants.

          And the conflict inherent in this situation and makes this job so challenging has gone, if not global, then national. The New York Times has reported on it. Vanity Fair wrote a piece about it just recently in which I'm quoted and my picture appears. Wow. Famous for fifteen seconds. I've been in all the local papers. But what's interesting about it is the degree of local involvement. Letters to the editor. Phone calls from supporters. Stand firm. Hold fast. And we're trying. And I think, this is a classic case--public interest against private property; and the whole village is involved, so are people who live nearby but not in the village. This is democracy at work. And it's clean. Nobody has offered me a bribe, or any of the other four members of my Board. We do our very best to decide cases on their merits alone. This is democracy the way it's supposed to be, don't you think?

          But then shit happens. Some people, usually but not always the wealthy, ignore the code and overbuild anyway, willing to pay the paltry fines we're allowed to impose to get what they want. Repeatedly applicants appear before our Board, and no doubt other Boards, and lie to us. "I need an extra bedroom, or two or three, for my grandchildren," they tell us, when in fact they're developers hoping to maximize their profits. One man made that argument before a board at the same time his proposed large house (on a small lot) was listed for sale on a real estate web site. This becomes routine, and as a board member you come to the point where you really don't believe anyone who wants something from you. You turn cynical. 

          The parallel between the local and the national should be obvious. What other wealthy person presents his case to the public and lies, regularly, repeatedly, and demonstrably? Who else goes ahead and does what the law, the rules, disallow, and figures he can get away with it? Who else is indifferent to public policy, to public values; who only wants to game the system to his own ends?  These are rhetorical questions. We all know the answer. And I ask myself two related questions, here in my little upstairs office, crowded with books--can Sag Harbor survive this onslaught of wealth? And can the nation survive Donald Trump?

Monday, July 25, 2016


THE CHAOTIC NOW. Monday, July 25, 2016.

          Overhead, a thunderstorm. On the television, speeches and chaos at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Bernie supporters screaming at the speakers. The DNC chair resigning. Last week it was the Republicans, this week the Democrats. The center does not hold. Some rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. Constant killings on the news, unarmed black people being shot, policemen being shot in a blind retaliation, terrorism worldwide, suicide killers, the Russians meddling in a U. S. national election, fraud rampant, and bad feelings. A whole lot of bad feelings and mistrust. An astrologer friend tells me that the stars are in a position similar to the time of the French Revolution. And we know what that entailed. The Terror. Populism taken to its logical conclusion. And then Napoleon.

          History does not repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it rhymes.

          Here is what I believe. I do not believe in populism either on the left or the right. Populism attracts demagogues, it likes simple, and simple-minded solutions to complex problems, it likes to blame others, groups, establishments, blacks maybe or immigrants or whatever they fix on for intractable problems that have a long history of their own and cannot be solved, if they can be solved at all, with simple answers.

          I do not believe in organized religion. Before he died my brother told me he thought that religion was the cause of most of the world's problems. I could only agree. This is true all through history. Christianity made Galileo deny what he perfectly well knew, that the heavens are in motion. Christianity sacked Jerusalem in the First Crusade, sacked Rome in 1527, killing 10,000 people the first day; a crude version of conservatism calling itself Christian hates gays and lesbians and God knows who else. A group of Muslims of unknown size wants to live in the 7th century and beheads people who do not share their religion. These are monstrous things. Anyone of any sense knows that if there is a God he or she or it would not sanction this kind of insanity. Organized religion led to the sexual abuse of countless numbers of children in the Catholic Church. Is this not sick? Does it not disgust you? It disgusts me. I wrote a piece once on child sexual abuse, interviewed a few of its victims as adults. Their lives had been permanently ruined. Listening to them was like watching people bleed and not being able to stitch them up. This is Christianity?

          Alexander Hamilton said that the real problem was democracy. The Founders feared mob rule, as well they should. Winston Churchill said that democracy was a terrible way to govern, but the other ways were worse. The founders created a republic, not a democracy. But we have devolved. Our legislatures nationwide are a sad joke, and Congress is criminally irresponsible, interested only in power, money, and certainly not in the national interest. So I do not believe all that much in democracy. But at the same time I must. There is no alternative. I also believe in our constitution, but it desperately needs to be rewritten. The second amendment has been twisted out of all meaning, and the mob is now armed, as if we were all living in Tombstone. It's a ridiculous situation, preserved and prolonged by a corrupt Congress.

          I believe that it will take centuries to undo America's original sin, which is slavery, and that extensive intermarriage among the races is the only way it will disappear. I only recently found out something of the extensive use of Native American slaves in the colonies, and the slave trade in that group of people. Really, is there no limit to the horrors people perpetrate on each other? As a writer of military history, I say the answer is no. There is no limit.

          I believe in history. I believe it should be compulsory reading for anyone entering politics. Why? Because it saddens you. It teaches you about the law of unintended consequences, and what happens when people in power do not think through all the reactions that a particular action--like invading Iraq--might create. It teaches humility, and caution. And thoughtfulness.

          Let me end it here. Paul Simon is about to sing Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a song that always makes me cry. I could easily cry. Cry for my country most of all. We are in the process of going mad, losing our reason, our restraint, chasing chimeras off the stage. My wife tells me the crowd has calmed down. Let us hope so.




Sunday, June 12, 2016



          When Jefferson left France in 1789 to return to the United States after his five years there as the American minister plenipotentiary, he sent ahead of him boxes of books to friends. One was a box containing six cubic feet of books to James Madison. These included the famous Encyclopedie, Diderot's compendium of current knowledge, one of the great projects of the European Enlightenment, along with various editions of the Greek and Roman classics, in their original languages, plus the works of Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and many other Enlightenment figures. Books were hard to obtain in America. In Paris and London they were plentiful.

          He sent books to his nephews as well. Jefferson had no white son, only daughters, and his ideas about their education were typical of their time--to wit, what was the point of educating women? He told his daughter Martha that she should become adept with the sewing needle, and otherwise master the social arts. For his nephews he developed a carefully thought out program of reading of the classics, studies in science, geography, and modern languages, and the law. The classics were to be read in their original languages. Other than that, he believed in walking. He himself used to walk six miles a day around Paris, no matter what the weather. "It's only water," he said of rain and snow.

          And then, years later, after his presidency came to an end, he founded the University of Virginia and did much to establish its curriculum, based on the same principles he wrote to his nephews about, the same books he sent to them and to Madison and James Monroe and other friends. He had in mind a classical education, and a preparation for political service in the government of the United States. For which a familiarity with Thucydides and Polybius and Cicero was as important as a familiarity with the U. S. Constitution.

          This was the sort of education that most of the founding fathers had. One exception was George Washington, and he felt the lack of it, but did what he could to catch up. When Jefferson sold his library to the government to help found the Library of Congress, and to pay a portion of his many debts, he owned more than 6,000 books. Washington had a few hundred. So this sort of education was not, strictly speaking, an absolute necessity to govern well. But it was a huge help. It gave the founders the mental equipment, and the common background, of an Enlightenment education in the theory and practice of government. To read Thucydides is to learn a great deal about what was essentially civil war, Athens vs. Sparta, from a writer who participated in it. To read Polybius is to discover how a small city in central Italy, Rome, could become the master of the whole Mediterranean. And Hume? Hume's words and thoughts can be found in the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu explained how republics worked, and we live in a republic. Only small ones survive, Montesquieu argued. The U. S. was small then. Now it is very large.

          A wiser time. And how do people prepare today for governing? Does anyone get this kind of education any more? I certainly didn't. In public school I remember a course in civics where the process of proposing and passing legislation was taught, but dully. And I was one of two juniors in high school who were sent to Boys State for a couple of weeks one summer, where we went through the process of running for office and electing mock legislators and a mock governor, who at the end gave a speech. It was run by the American Legion and I wonder whether it still exists. For personal reasons I was miserable the whole time and got nothing out of it. As far as the classics go, no course in them was available. Not until I got to college did I read anything of the Greeks, and then it was Greek tragedy and Greek philosophy. What I know of political life and government I know by educating myself, and by practicing it in the village where I live.

          We all know the consequences of the abandonment of political education in this country. People like Donald Trump, who flaunts his ignorance of issues, an avowed racist, bankrupt both morally and intellectually. People who serve in Congress, make laws, control committees, and have an approval rating, collectively, of 9%. People who serve in state governments, where corruption is an everyday occurrence. And the people themselves, who not only don't read the classics but don't even read newspapers any more, a people so generally ignorant that comparisons of the ability to do math or read or write consistently place us in the middle to low range with respect to other first world countries. How many people can name their state representative, their state senator? How many can name the three branches of the Federal government, and explain what they do? How many still believe that the sun orbits the earth? Or that the earth is four thousand years old? Or that global warming doesn't exist? America has become stupid.

          In a republic, life is inescapably political. You have to educate people to politics, to understand it if not participate in it. Jefferson saw that clearly, and founded a university to accomplish it. He rejoiced when a Pennsylvania farmer invented a new and more efficient way to make wagon wheels, based upon a reading of Homer-- in the original Greek. It's a big and complicated country, with innumerable interest groups, many different factions, and it takes educated people to run it, indeed to do such an elemental thing as vote. But education is the first thing to get cut, the last thing most state legislatures respect.

          So we sink deeper into ignorance, deeper into dysfunction, deeper into paranoia. The coming election is, more than anything, a test of American intelligence. And it's an open question whether we'll pass.


Thursday, May 5, 2016



          I grew up in a Republican household, it was middle-class, my father commuted to New York City every morning and worked in railroad insurance, he had met my mother in the office when they were both young, and she was the boss's daughter and his secretary. She could type 120 words a minute. All these people were Republicans. We lived in a solidly Republican town, Westfield, N. J., an old suburb. My older brother, my only sibling, went to Cornell, took chemical engineering, worked for a couple of years at an oil refinery in Perth Amboy, then enrolled in law school nights and ultimately became Westfield's town attorney, holding the job for twenty-three years, a state record. He was Republican through and through. When my wife and I went to see him late in life you could not walk into the house without finding Fox News going on the TV. All hours of the day and evening.

          I was seven when FDR died. I had been hearing all my little life that Roosevelt was a "traitor to his class," so I grabbed a pot out of the kitchen, took a large spoon, and started walking around the outside of our house beating on the pot and crying, "Roosevelt is dead, Roosevelt is dead," and that lasted until my mother rushed outside and grabbed me and took me back inside. You get the picture.

          So--quite a long life I've had, long enough that I voted my first time around for JFK. I've voted Democrat ever since. Princeton did this to me, deepened my knowledge of history, explained issues to me, got me interested in politics and what the two parties stood for. One of my roommates one year was the son of a Democratis kingmaker in Hartford, Connecticut. He subscribed to the New York Times. There was political talk in our rooms, and I listened. And began to follow the news. And abandoned my family's politics, which wasn't very strong anyway. Their politics were a small element in their overall character. They were respectable, conventional people with a great sense of humor, loving to their children, determined to give us every opportunity. Solid. You could rely on them completely. Cornell, Princeton--they made large sacrifices to send us there. They were great parents, and what I came to think of as classic Republicans, business oriented, traditional, relatively tolerant, patriotic, family centered.

          What happened? How did a party into whose hands you could put the country without fearing for its life become the party of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump--people so inherently evil or so stupid and ignorant as to make the U. S. the laughing stock of the world, and/or a source of bafflement and panic internationally? Look back. Wendell Wilkie was a one-worlder along the lines of Woodrow Wilson. Dwight Eisenhower was boring but quietly effective, and wise. Thomas Dewey would have made a decent President. The only joke on the scene was Harold Stassen, and he never had a chance in any of the many elections he threw his hat into. No one took him seriously. The Republican Party was an educated party then, it was the party of business and always opposed regulation, but it was not irresponsible. Was it Nixon?

          Yes, no doubt that was part of it. He was a strange bird, quite intelligent, deeply paranoid, never sure how to behave with people. You can cite his famous "Southern strategy," liberating the racism inherent not only in the South but also lurking in shallow burials all over the American landscape, and thereby turning the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, racist. But it took a long time after that for the party to become completely mindless, to give it over to know-nothings like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to tolerate people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and let them become the party's voice. Nixon wasn't the whole story. Much more had to happen for the U. S. to become an outlier among the civilized, developed nations of the world.

          Shall we call it the failure of the Establishment? No doubt that's another element, but then we have to define exactly what the Establishment consists of, and that's not easy. I'm pretty sure that if I had chosen another line of work I could have become a member of the Establishment. My mother saw me becoming a college president. In a large and extremely diverse country like ours, I think an Establishment is pretty much a necessity. A kind of semi-permanent government, the top edge of a permanent bureaucracy, it develops a sophistication about government that is often cynical but seldom reckless. We can all think right away of the many mistakes made by establishments, but you don't do away with them because they make mistakes. Or because they're intertwined with business interests. Business interests are part of the foundation of America. Alexander Hamilton understood that, and, as a friend of mine says, we're all Hamiltonians now. We deplore business lobbies and their power, but there are environmental lobbies and artist lobbies and PBS lobbies as well and wealthy people are necessary to support them.

          I could go on and on citing reasons. They're no doubt endless; we could cite a perfect storm of reasons for the decline of the Republican Party. But they add up to a major tragedy. As a home for people like my parents, my brother, it has simply vanished. Now all in Republican World is illogic and rage, a profound stupidity, anti-educational, anti-science, anti-factual, hypocritical, overtly racist. It no longer has a moral compass, a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of responsibility, and these are things that an opposition requires to have a real place in the country's sense of itself. There is no longer any intelligence in it, or anything but a kind of inept calculation. We can no longer trust it. Once we could. And this is tragic. It is doing the country permanent damage.