Saturday, February 26, 2011


February 26, 2011:

Do you ever wonder what the incessant din of spin, half-truths, and outright lies is doing to us? This din is everywhere, not just on cable but on Fox News (the most blatant example in our time), in countless magazine and newspaper pieces, in political speeches and news conferences, in advertisements for just about everything (ads specialize in it), in blogs of every imaginable kind, on countless web sites selling one idea or another, and even in interpersonal relationships, all of us trying to present our best faces to those who know us.

Most of my friends are pretty smart and most of us discount the bulk of what we see and hear. I cannot remember ever buying anything but a book because I saw it advertised. But the unending slaughter of the truth does affect us. For one thing it's depressing and disheartening; for another it makes us cynical. Is there anyone at all we can take seriously? Certainly not the religious types, after we have seen time and time again people who claim the moral high ground based on their faith and their devotion to service fail not only to live up to their ideals but then to lie about their behavior, or try to cover it up. My wife, who was raised Catholic, accuses me of being anti-Catholic, but it's not that simple. It's hard not to have some respect for an institution that has lasted for two millenia and done a fair amount of good in its charitable work. At the same time, how can one not detest the behavior of child-molesting priests, of whom there seem to be a myriad? And then what is one to think about the behavior of the Church in covering up this crime, a crime, may I add, against the most vulnerable among us, a crime that has devastating lifelong effects on its victims? It's sickening. And the whole business of the Church--any church--trying to take abortion rights away from women, or interfere in political life in any way, which their tax exempt status forbids them to do, burns me up. Keep your religious beliefs to yourself, whatever they are, whoever you are. Don't try to impose them on the rest of us.

Our culture assaults us on all levels, all the time, and it is thick with mendacity. It's one thing in politics; we have come to expect it there, and it's not clear that an honest politics is possible, given the self-contradictions built into public opinion and public demands. But one hopes for something better out of the best of the press, and we don't get it. I learned this years ago when I was writing my first book, which was about the mental health system, and paid close attention to the NYTimes's reporting on the subject, and watched them slant their reporting according to their interests. Mental patients have always gotten a raw deal, and nobody really cares. And it's not just the press; it's memoirs purporting to be true that are in fact lies, it's the numerous attempts to clean up history so it smells better, it's apologists for the South ignoring slavery, it's the unwillingness to face scientific facts. It's the din, the relentless nature of the lying, the fact that nobody ever runs an ad that says something like, "The truth is, Gelusil works better than Tums but it costs more, so the choice is up to you." Nobody ever gives a speech in Congress that says, "Yes, we're Republicans, and we do cater to the rich, for the following reasons."

It makes us cynical and we back off from our own politics, from our culture. Or if we're stupid or innocent we believe what we hear, and that's probably worse. I raised my kids to be ironic and skeptical, and in many ways they lost their innocence pretty quickly. But isn't that enormously sad, to have to do that in order to protect them? What is there to believe in? Is there a major American institution we can trust? Can we believe in America itself, which takes us into war and becomes responsible for the deaths of many many thousands on the basis of outright, deliberate lies? And the powerful people who do this, do they go to jail once exposed? Did Richard Nixon go to jail? Will Donald Rumsfeld?

Not a chance.

My advice to my countrymen? Be skeptical, learn irony. Educate yourselves about how the world actually works. Read Machiavelli; he's enlightening. And then own up inside yourselves to your own delusions, your own hypocrisy, so that you know hypocrisy when you see it. On a personal level, face to face, practise kindness and compassion. You're going to need it yourself some day. But most of all, educate yourself. Lionel Trilling once wrote an essay called "The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent." Exactly. Otherwise you become a dupe, part of the problem, easily fooled by the din, the ads, the lies, all designed to make you blind to your own interests and dead to nuance, complexity, and the genuine nobility and beauty that sometimes appears in human life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


February 22, 2011:

Yesterday the NYTimes carried a piece about the decline of marginalia in the age of the ebook, and I read it with more than usual interest because I am an inveterate writer of notes in the margins of my own books, unless the books have value, in which case I take notes in a notebook to keep from lowering that value. I do it, however, with mixed feelings. Because books last and human beings don't, I think of owning books as a kind of stewardship; they're doing to survive me, I keep them in pretty good condition, so what am I doing ruining them for the next owner, and possibly reader, by scribbling my thoughts, however brilliant, in the margins? But then I think, well I own the damned things, so why shouldn't I scribble in the margins? If I were to become a famous writer, besides, those notes might actually add to the value. Then I look at the notes I've written in books and see that virtually none of them are brilliant and most are trivial; so I go back and forth on the subject, but usually wind up lazy, and writing in the margins.

All this comes home to me because I'm currently rereading one of Henry James's best novels, The Ambassadors, I think for the third time, and there are my marginalia from the first time I read it, in college, more than fifty years ago, and it's like saying hello to somebody I recognize but don't entirely remember, and passing him in the street, smiling at him, all the while thinking to myself, "Who was that man?" Mostly, in this case, my marginalia are embarrassingly dumb, and I'm just as glad to have passed this fellow by.

But last night, reading in bed, one sentence I had written really struck me. "He shan't marry her now," it says, and as it happens he, being Lambert Strether, our hero, didn't marry her, didn't marry anybody, and came out of this novel with his honor intact, himself enlightened, but losing everything he thought he wanted, including the safety net of his job. But it wasn't my predictive power that struck me. It was the word "shan't." It was the first time I had seen this word in many years. And what struck me was that when I wrote it, in the late 1950s, it was much more common. Then I started thinking about how much else had changed since the 1950s, which was half a century closer to the world Henry James evokes so well in this novel, and how foreign the life that Lambert Strether and the other characters in the book took for granted must seem to readers today. Granted, the book is set in Paris, and that's foreign enough all by itself; but it's much more than that. The moral standards, the ways in which men and women related to each other, the levels of social sophistication, of refinement, of manners, have utterly changed. I wrote a piece in grad school, by which time I had become much more knowing, about the way James used manners in his novels, and cited as an example the occasion in Portrait of a Lady when our heroine, whose name I forget at the moment, walked into a room where her husband and the woman who had been his lover were together talking and he was sitting down while she was standing; and she knew from that fact alone all that was necessary: that they had been, possibly still were, intimate; because no man would allow a woman to stand while he sat unless they knew each other very very well.

But of course old novels are bound to be saturated with social milieus that have been lost. It's not as if this is a revelation. But when you land in your 70s you sometimes feel as if you've outlived your time, that you're stuck with old habits, old styles. I learned my manners many years ago and still have trouble not picking up the bill when I'm eating out with a female friend; I still hold doors open for people, but women especially, and my impulse is to stand up when a woman I don't know enters a room. In James's time manners were so well developed that you could read a great deal into the details; a gesture, a way of shaking someone's hand, a silence could tell you everything. The density of social life in his time is one of the great fascinations of his fiction, one of its rewards, and social life in this country in this our own time seems vastly diminished in comparison. So much has been lost. So much has been vulgarized. And no one can use the word "shan't" any more without seeming affected.

Maybe that loss has something to do with the current popularity of Jane Austen's work. We feel the loss. I think it is partly a loss of moral standards. Manners are based on morals: on mutual respect; on compassion and kindness; on thoughtfulness. Austen is a satirist and never tires of demonstrating among her characters the failure of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect. Certainly we feel the loss in our politics, which are vicious and anything but kind; and compassion seems to have disappeared entirely.

As for marginalia, I suspect that soon enough programmers will figure out how to produce ebooks that allow marginalia to appear. Can we then predict the death of the physical book? I don't think so. I've written before about the pleasures of owning books and holding them in your hands, and whatever else is in decline, pleasure doesn't seem to be. I'll no doubt go on writing in the margins of my books and damn the consequences. My kids will wind up with most of them, and maybe they'll get a kick out of the old man's responses. I suppose it's a kind of bad manners to write in books, but nobody's perfect. Even Henry James, although, in The Ambassadors, he wrote a perfect book.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


February 16, 2010:

Maureen Dowd has a column in today's NYTimes in which she comments on a series of plays produced by the Pentagon and entitled "The Great Game." The plays are about the history of Afghanistan and I find it a hopeful sign that the Pentagon thinks the history of Afghanistan is an important thing to understand, although it comes a bit late, nine years late, to be exact. In an ideal world--i.e., an intelligent world--the Pentagon would have known something about the history of Afghanistan well before it went in, flags flying, guns blazing, to drive out the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden, neither of which they managed to do. But at least they're beginning to recognize that that might have helped. They're slow learners, to be sure, but at least they can now see how useful it would have been to know things like, oh, the language, and the tribal nature of Afghan society, and that even more useful thing, Afghan history.

That name, in fact, is encouraging all by itself. "The Great Game" is what the British called their long-standing, more or less bloodless contest with Russia in central Asia in the nineteenth century. The British had conquered India and India was a prize everybody wanted, but the Russians were the closest, they were expanding their own empire through central Asia toward the Himalayan passes, and Great Britain invaded Afghanistan in order to forestall the Russians acquiring influence and land in the area. The best book on the subject is Peter Hopkirk's book of the same name (The Great Game); it's long, but an easy read, and very enlightening. As we should all know, the British failed miserably to subdue the Afghans and in 1842, after promising to let them go unharmed, Afghan tribesmen descended on the last British column to leave Afghanistan at one of those Himalayan passes and killed them to the last man, woman, and child. Well, no--I think there was one survivor. We always need one, who, like Ishmael, bobbing on his coffin in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, can live to tell us the story of the search for the great white whale, and the unfortunate destruction of the Pequod, ship and crew alike, by that selfsame whale. In any case, referring to the Great Game is a good sign; it means that the Pentagon has, or has acquired, people who know the nineteenth century history and therefore something about Afghan society and its stunning otherness. Know, that is, that it operates by rules totally unlike our own.

It was the same thing in Iraq. It is always the fools who rush in, where just a little knowledge would have been enough to have added a note of caution. I remember writing about this in the pages of the Sag Harbor Express, our little local newspaper where for a while I had a column, in 2003, before the U. S. went into that country, flags flying, guns blazing, and trying to remind my few readers (I thought of them as the happy few) that it wasn't that simple. I knew something about Iraq: not the language, I'm afraid, but the culture. And how did I know? Years before I had read T. E. Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had subsequently seen David Lean's great movie based on the book, Lawrence of Arabia. And Lawrence did speak the language, he knew the names of and the relationships between the various Arab tribes, he had read the Koran and could quote swatches of it from memory, he understood the differences between the Shia and the Sunnis, and he knew how to speak to tribal leaders and what motivated them and how they lived and thought. And here were the Americans, diving 80 years later into this complex situation, thinking they would be greeted by Iraqis carrying flowers.

Now that's not much: one book, one movie, not very impressive for an I-told-you-so moment like this one. But it was clear that the Americans hadn't even bothered to know that much. Like so many empires before them, the American empire was ham-fisted and ignorant, and seemed to think ignorance was a virtue. Empires are arrogant by nature; they are built on arrogance, but a certain amount of arrogance can be helpful. The problem is that ignorance is the twin brother of arrogance, and the two together become delusional. And no one seems to learn. Currently we have the Tea Party, just as arrogant, just as unknowing, charging into Washington thinking they can eliminate a culture, defenestrate a huge, often wasteful, but still essential bureaucracy, and simplify the enormous complexity of the way Washington works with a bunch of mottoes. The Federal Government is in fact a lot like Afghanistan, and it will destroy you if you don't educate yourself about how it works and why.

Not knowing history is one of the many ways, in short, of being stupid. The levels of stupidity in the world never cease to amaze. According to Reuters, one third of all Russians believe the sun revolves around the earth. According to a Pew Foundation poll, half of all Republican voters believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (I owe these facts to my very knowing son.) It's funny, yes, but then it's not, because ignorance has consequences, large ones, and the stupider we get the worse they're going to be. I have no solutions to this. I don't see the United States suddenly getting smart in the near future, although Barack Obama is a hell of a lot smarter than George Bush. The fact is, it all just makes me sad. I am an aged man and I would like to die happy, and I cannot do so when my country is in such steep decline. I fear for my children and my grandchildren. Sometimes I think they should learn French or Spanish and get the hell out of here before it's too late. Maybe they should learn Swedish and get themselves to the ancestral home in Jonskoping. Global warming can only benefit Sweden.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


February 8, 2011:

In today's NY Times I was pleased to see a piece on p. A16 about the end of Congressional earmarks. I knew this would come back to bite them. Last fall on a cold Sunday Lorraine and I were in Montauk, having just had lunch out at a local restaurant, and we parked in a parking lot overlooking the entrance to Lake Montauk, no longer a lake in fact but an inner harbor used by commercial fishermen, a yacht club, and five or six boatyards. To the commercial fishermen it's an essential place; nowhere else in that area could they find such a beautifully safe docking area. But the entrance periodically silts up. So who dredges it? The Federal government. And I said to Lorraine, what happens if earmarks get killed? What if we get a Tea Party Congressman out here committed to ending earmarks, and suddenly his constituents discover that he's the guy responsible for making it impossible to get this entrance dredged; he's the guy who's destroying the Montauk fishing industry, and forcing boatyards to close, etc. etc.? According to the Times, this is now happening across the country. Congress ended earmarks, and now the people who voted for these ideologues are finding out that some of those earmarks that are no longer acceptable were for them; they were some of their favorite projects, in fact, that were going to provide jobs and fix roads and fund research and all the other things that require more money than is available locally to make them happen. That idiot John McCain has made earmarks his favorite target, thinking maybe that would get him elected next time, and has gone most recently after research projects involving honeybees, apparently unaware that honeybee colonies are suffering, and have been suffering for years, long term colony collapse. In other words, bees are dying off, bees are essential to the pollination of food crops, particularly fruit trees, as well as flowers, and food supplies will be in serious trouble if bees disappear. So a million or two of Federal money devoted to figuring out what's going on and how to fix it is very much money well spent.

It goes without saying that not all earmarks make sense. Under ex-Senator Ted Stevens Alaska, the crybaby of the Western world, got fat on bad projects, the famous "bridge to nowhere" being just one of them, all the while complaining endlessly, mindlessly about Federal involvement in Alaskan affairs. But Stevens is gone, and throwing out earmarks because some of the projects seem wasteful doesn't solve the problem. Nothing actually solves the problem; the problem is one of those things you have to live with in order to make use of it when it's not wasteful, when it's absolutely necessary. It's politics, it's all local, as Tip O'Neill said, and the process of scratching somebody else's back when they've scratched yours is just part of the game.

The real problem is ideology: the purist, or Puritan, mentality that sees the world from one perspective only, recognizes no virtue in the other side, and can't compromise on its so-called principles. Spare me your angst, liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative demagoguery is just ridiculous. Listen to Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity for five minutes, which is about all it takes, and you don't know whether to laugh or throw up. Conservative economics is merely a screen for maintaining the status quo and keeping the rich, their own kind, rich; it has been taken apart again and again by the facts, but it lives on nevertheless. The liberals have fewer demagogues but they can be blind to the reasoning behind various conservative positions, which are based, fundamentally, in a much darker conception of human nature than theirs, and therefore blind to the serious flaws of American democracy, which, if it is to survive, is in desperate need of a better educated populace, which probably isn't going to happen.

In the name of balancing the budget, then--to which one can only say, get real--we no longer have earmarks, and communities all over the country are going to suffer, losing useful research projects and essential infrastructure repair and all manner of other things that need doing. Good work, guys. You've made your silly point. Now could you please wake up from your neat little dreams and start actually governing the country?

Sunday, February 6, 2011


February 6, 2011:

I was channel surfing the other night and ran across a show about the soul, and scientific interest in studying it, that turned out to be mostly about a twelve-year-old American boy who remembered, at the age of two, or maybe three, being shot down in a plane over an Okinawan bay near the end of World War II and being trapped, and dying, in his cockpit. The University of Virginia has a center that rounds up accounts like this from all over the world and has thousands of them; it was founded by a psychologist whose name was Ian Stevenson, who persisted, in the face of large scale scorn and indifference among his peers, to pursue this during his entire career. That particular example came from this center; most of Stevenson's examples, however, were from the Middle and Far East, where reincarnation is an accepted idea. What usually happens in such cases is that those who remember their past lives forget them by the age of five, a fact that most people would consider made them unreliable witnesses, although the memories can be extraordinarily specific, as this boy's was. But five is the cut-off point. After that it all fades away.

I've always been curious about the idea of reincarnation. I know that if I had grown up recalling my life as a participant in the Russian revolution, as my psychic friend Leor once told me I had been, I would be likely to believe in the idea; no, more, I would be certain of it. But what then? Would it explain anything about my current life? And if we live out life after life but have no memories of any of them, and only rare exceptions have any such memory, how can it help me now? I mean me, Anthony Brandt, son of Axel Hjalmar Brandt and Grace Scott, brother of the late Charles Henry Brandt, father of Kate and Evan, husband of Lorraine Dusky. Me in all my particularity, shaped by my upbringing, my genes, my height, my bodily gifts and woes, my education, my reading, my loves and losses. What of the Russian who was supposedly reborn in me? I can find no trace of him unless perhaps it's a fondness for vodka (although when I was younger I only drank Scotch). I don't know a word of Russian except nyet, which everybody knows. The Buddhists say there is no self and my daughter tells me that when they are asked what it is that reincarnates, they laugh and say, "bad habits." The self, however, the me, dies, evaporates, is as if it had never been. Thus their effort in this life to detach themselves from it.

I am what I suppose you could call not-quite-a-Buddhist. I grew up in the Methodist Church but it didn't take. My parents never went to church except on Easter and didn't, I think, believe a word of it and my mother used to say that hell was not a place you went to after you died, it was life on earth. So much for Christianity. I was taken recently, reading about Dante, by something St. Augustine had written, that souls do not suffer in the fires of hell (it may have been purgatory, although I think purgatory was invented well after Augustine's time) because they're hot--souls do not feel physical pain--but because they are trapped in fire, they take the shape of fire, are fire, and can never be free of it. It's a wonderful image, very seductive, but it won't do. It's that "never," and its implications. "Never" renders it meaningless to human consciousness; "never" blots everything out.

Anyway the point I'm getting to is that if something survives, a soul, say, well, that soul is quite clearly not me. Not the person, or personality, that so preoccupies my time now, in my 70s, staring at mortality and wondering what language the dead speak. Am I fond of myself? Do I like myself? Is the "who" that "I" am worth preserving? I do like myself, but I don't think it matters a hoot whether the me that is me survives. All that will survive of me, my wise daughter reminds me, is my words, maybe a million of them by now, preserved in the dozens of magazines I've written for and the few books. Keep writing this blog, Dad, she tells me.

But I will be sorry to leave this world. "Death is the mother of beauty," writes Wallace Stevens in "Sunday Morning," a poem that is rich with the love of the world; and when I look at the birds, the trees, the harbor, and in the spring the tiny insects that hover over the flowers of our Arctic thyme, I realize how attached to it I still am. The hawk that preens its wings on the back of one of the benches on our deck is a handsome fellow indeed. When my brother was told he had a year to live he slowly backed off from things, from people; but my old friend Carter Jones, who died in a plane crash and told me a week before that he no longer dreamed about the future, that his nighttime dreams were dark, abyssal, well, Carter was somebody who savored the ice cream he would eat like no other man I've ever known. He tasted it like nobody else. He lived richly. Maybe that's not me who loves the birds and the wild storms and the ocean, but the soul currently occupying this me. I don't know. I try to maintain a Socratic ignorance. And now Lorraine wants to go out to Sunday brunch, and I have to finish this post. "Is there no change of death in paradise? / Does ripe fruit never fall?" The words are from "Sunday Morning," and they ask an immortal question. Are we forever, or just for now? We don't know. We mustn't know, because death is the mother of beauty.