Tuesday, January 24, 2012


January 24, 2012:

What happened to Occupy Wall Street? Winter weather, presumably. Or maybe the movement was as evanescent as its message was vague. I wrote a piece about it that ran in the January issue of Town & Country in which I explained why it struck me as useless and ill-thought-out--actually not thought out at all--and I'm still processing the reactions I got from my friends. My friends are liberal, and they disagreed with me. Even though the movement accomplished nothing concrete, they said, it did raise consciousness about the income gap, which has been growing steadily for more than thirty years. Well, OK. But the income gap has not only been growing for thirty years, it has been reported on during most of that time, if you cared to look. Economists call it the Great Divergence, and the best piece I've read on the subject ran in Slate as a series about a year ago, or maybe a year and a half. It was written by Timothy Noah and he explained pretty thoroughly the congregation of factors that has caused it. He also made it clear that the phenomenon--as is true of most social phenomena once you get into them--has complicated causes, many of them global in scale, and only one of which is the greed of what he calls the Stinking Rich, and that you cannot hope to solve the huge economic problems the country faces simply by lopping off their heads, guillotine-style.

In any case the Great Divergence is a huge problem, it affects our future as a nation quite deeply, and it deserves better than a half-assed living-in-tents movement that wanted mostly, it seemed to me, to feel good about itself, to see itself as a true democracy in which everyone had a voice, a la the ancient Greek city states, in which citizens met en masse to make critical decisions. That system produced Athens, whose citizens met en masse and sent Thucydides into exile for not making it to Sicily in time to support the Athenian army there, even though bad weather made it impossible to him to get there in time, and met again to condemn Socrates to death for asking inconvenient questions. They want, in other words, to come off as virtuous. What crap. Come on, people. Do you really think sitting around on park benches discussing whether or not they should even have an agenda is going to accomplish anything? No message ever emerged from these wannabe rebels. Put them up against the blacks who put their lives, their lives, on the line in Selma in 1965, or the citoyens who stormed the Bastille in 1789 or the citizens of what was not yet the United States who starved and died in the snows of Valley Forge to form, de novo, of all things, the first modern republic. Or, most recently, an object lesson in what a real movement looks like, the Islamic citizens who fighting for their lives in Syria right now to depose the Assads from their dictatorship. Put them up against these people and they look simply pathetic.

This country is on the road to becoming second-rate, if not third; it has already lost its place as a leader in all kinds of measures, not just in income equality but in medical care and, most importantly of all, in education. In economic opportunity we have flat-lined. The percentage of our children who live in poverty is a national disgrace. Millions of kids have no chance at all of ever improving their lives, the number of people in prison is a nightmare. And we think Occupy Wall Street is a movement. No it's not. It has no program, no agenda, no legs, no discernible leaders. Indeed, it abjures leaders. Get real.

By which I mean, if you want to change things there are established means to do it. Those means are political, and politics is unavoidably dirty, complicated, Machiavellian. It entails working with people you don't like and don't agree with to come to some kind of flawed compromise that gives each side something and takes something away from each side. It requires you to meet and greet, to think long and hard about complicated issues, and to harbor, somewhere in the back of your mind, a dedication to the common good. So run for office if you really want to change things. Or serve on a local government committee, find out for yourself what it's like to be under attack from people who mistake your motives, what it's like to have people in the community call you at all hours wanting something or complaining about something, all of which you will endure as a public service and for which you will be paid nothing at all.

Do that and I'll begin to take you and your opinions seriously. Or present me with a set of ideas, a program, you're willing to die for. I'll take that seriously, too.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


January 14, 2012:

In the London Review of Books for 15 December I came across a review of a new book by the English historian Norman Davies, who specializes in large volumes (this one is over 800 pages) covering big swaths of history. It's called Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. And I just finished writing a piece for Military History about Yugoslavia in World War II. Then there's the Historical Atlas of the Celtic World, another random pluck from my library, which is full of maps of countries you never heard of: the Kingdom of Brittany, the Duchy of Brittany, Galatia, Pannonia, and on and on. So I keep running into countries that no longer exist. Yugoslavia is only the latest example. Created in 1921 by the great powers at the Paris peace talks after World War I, Yugoslavia was a forced merger of Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, with Montenegro thrown in for good luck. The first assassination came a year later, the second in 1928, and during World War II the country barely contained a civil war that raged at the same time, between Serbs and Croats, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Nazis and Communists. It's an open question which killed the most people, whether it was the Croatian Nazis, who massacred Eastern Orthodox Serbs in huge numbers, or the German Nazis, who killed ten civilians every time a German soldier was ambushed, or the Partisans, led by Marshal Tito. Whichever it was, more than a million people died. What the great powers ignored--this is what great powers do, ignore realities--was the history of the Balkans, where the various religious and national groups have always hated each other. The Balkans have seen dozens of kingdoms, republics, and mini-empires vanish.

Mini-empires, like the Serbian empire, and major empires, like the Ottoman, the British, the French empire under Napoleon. They all come, they all go. What makes us think the United States is immune? We are a military power, but so was the Roman Empire, the overwhelming military power in ancient times, with huge effective fighting forces; but its army could not save it. Corruption, greed, the lust for power--they are human universals, appearing everywhere we appear. Men of large fortunes crop up, as Montesquieu said, they soon begin to think they may be happy and glorious by oppressing their fellow citizens, that they may raise themselves to grandeur on the ruins of their country. Last night at dinner an old friend of ours said that within a generation we may see a revolution in the United States. If we do, the nation may break up. It will be, perhaps, like India and Pakistan in 1947, a vast migration, hundreds of thousands of people killed, as Muslims fled to the latter and Hindus to the former. Examples of nations breaking up are legion. Where will our populations flee? Quiet migrations go on all the time here. Half the people I know are in exile from the Midwest, including my wife.

We are not an exception in the long history of the world, we are no better than other countries, we harbor the same weaknesses, the same unthinking arrogance, the same kinds of hatreds. Our educational levels are sinking well below the standards set in a good part of the rest of the world; the level of our income inequality, which is a reliable predictor of unrest, is much higher than in Europe and even some Third World countries. Half the polity seems to think that science, which has given this same polity an amazing lifestyle, is "merely theory," and it has become impossible to tell the public the truth about anything. Meanwhile we continue to entertain ourselves to death.

This is a note my readers have heard from me before. But I cannot help it. I am an old man, and it is very painful to watch my country deteriorate before my eyes. I read somewhere recently that the chief environmental scientist at NASA thinks the Keystone pipeline that has been proposed to run from Canada through Nebraska to refineries in Texas would be the tipping point. If we start refining the dirty crude that comes from tar sands, we can say adios to the planet. But name an oil executive that has the interests of the planet, rather than those of his corporation, at heart. Is there one? Are there actual patriots out there? Is civic virtue completely dead? Congressional corruption has become, not a crime committed only by a few, but a necessity for all; they cannot escape it; they have to raise campaign money, very large sums of it, and that by itself is enough to destroy the country.

The republic is dead, long live the oligarchy. Jefferson thought we should have a revolution every generation, and he has a point. The United States may have had its day. It needs to be rethought, from the bottom up. The fire next time, said James Baldwin. Think about what we have come to: a corporate raider is one of the leading candidates to run the country. Who can take pride in such a situation? And there's no Teddy Roosevelt to come riding in on his horse and save us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


January 11, 2012:

"A republic, Madame, if you can keep it."

That was Benjamin Franklin's famous reply when, after the Constitutional Convention came to an end in Philadelphia, a woman asked him what kind of government they had fashioned. A republic, if we can keep it, and I am beginning to think we cannot. At the time the chief authority on republics was the French philosophe the Baron de Montesquieu, who had made an extensive study of the forms of government from antiquity on; he wrote in The Spirit of the Laws that "It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country."

It's too bad only scholars read Montesquieu any more. He was clear eyed on the problems of government and he understood the principal problem facing a republic: the power of private wealth. There were no corporations when he wrote, only individuals, and the wealthy ones tended to be aristocrats with huge tracts of land whose income derived from what the French call rente, not from industry. We have no titled aristocrats and wealth no longer comes from land, but the amount of private wealth, private interests, on the loose in this country and its propensity to aggrandize itself at the expense of ordinary citizens has multiplied enormously since the 18th century. Corporations are not persons, despite the Supreme Court, but persons run them, and we deceive ourselves if we think they have the interests of the country at heart. They are, for the most part, multinational. They serve their own interests. To do that, they buy political power in Washington, and it works well for them. They get what they want, which is the freedom to do what they want--with the resources that theoretically belong to the republic; with the environment we all share; and with our money. I remember Engine Charlie Wilson's statement back in the 1950s that "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Engine Charlie was the head of General Motors before he became Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, and his remark proved prophetic; General Motors was one of those private interests that was "too big to fail" and got bailed out in 2008. Like the banks, which were also "too big to fail." They were, indeed, too big to fail. "Persons" all, they had become far more important to the way things are than the ordinary persons who lost their homes and their jobs in the Great Recession that is still going on.

I sometimes wonder when, approximately, the United States stopped being a republic in Montesquieu's classic sense. Charles Sellers dated what he called the "market revolution" from the 1830s, and personal fortunes in the modern sense, market fortunes, the beginnings of industrial fortunes, did begin to appear then. Robert Caro, in the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, has a section on the history of the Senate that dates the beginning of its decline as a deliberative body to about the same time, and the term "self-made man" made its appearance, via Henry Clay, in I believe 1828. A classic republic is very hard to keep. It requires not only a certain moderation in size, but a moderation in its citizens' ambitions--a spirit of equality, that is--and a level of vigilance that only an educated public can sustain. We are not, obviously, an educated public, and the level of education is dropping rapidly in comparison to other modernized countries. This is only a sign of the low status we assign to intellectual achievement, and our indifference to it. Far too many of us think the goal of life is to make the most money and have the most toys. The so-called American Dream, which used to be about creating equal opportunities, a level playing field, in the context of a republican form of government that did its best to guarantee fairness in the game of life, is drifting over the horizon. We no longer have the kind of leaders we can be proud of. The current Republican contenders for the Presidency are pathetic; even Republicans are uneasy with them and the front-runner comes out of corporate life and has a history of destroying businesses and jobs for the sake of profit.

Maybe it's time to bury the corpse. My like-minded friends and I sometimes joke about moving abroad, to another country, if 2012 puts someone like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich into the oval office. But we also joke about cutting the ties that bind, letting the part of the country that wants to regulate not industry but people's lives, that wants to put religion where it never was, in the U. S. Constitution, that has no tolerance for gays, for Moslems, for difference of any kind, that hates government and blames it for all the self-inflicted ills they suffer from, that thinks the theory of evolution is an abomination and the Bible the only book you ever need--let that part of the nation, I say, have its own country to do with what they will. I suggest they get Texas and the South. Let them secede. The very next Republican primary is in South Carolina, which was the first to secede from the Union in 1861; maybe secession should be on the agenda in the debates. The republic is dead and gone, and money killed it, just as Montesquieu said it would. What we have now is something different, something shameful. The Founders would have called it unAmerican. They would have been right to do so.

Monday, January 2, 2012


January 2, 2012:

This one is, you'll have to admit, close to spectacular. My wife and I were visiting my daughter and her family, who live in Shrub Oak, New York, where my first wife and I spent our last years together in a large beautiful house on Main Street that was built around 1810 and had accumulated twelve or thirteen rooms, depending on how you counted them (one was really an anteroom), over the years; and we stopped at the deli two doors down from this old house of mine and then went through the graveyard behind it to look at the back yard, and we saw the owner in the yard looking for his dog. Lorraine, my wife, being bolder than I, went over to him, introduced herself, and told him I had lived there many years before, and he invited us in for a tour. The vegetable garden in the back where I had grown corn, string beans, innumerable tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, zucchini, peas, strawberries, melons, was gone. That was sad. Also gone was the flower garden I had put in. But the house had been fixed up. Heat in the kitchen when I lived there came from a radiator set in the middle of the floor; we put the kitchen table over it. He had changed that. There had been renovations inside, but no architectural changes. The house looked great, better than when I owned it. He took us upstairs, even to the third floor, where my first wife and I had put heat in; previously it had been unheated. The bookshelves I had had built into the back parlor downstairs were still there. Altogether it looked just grand, and I missed it. It was a great house, big enough for my library, handsome, with the slate mansard roof, the giant old trees--I missed it.

At the end of the tour I thanked him, and we exchanged business cards. And we both gasped a little. My name is Anthony Brandt. His last name was Abrandt.

I've had many coincidences in my life, but this was more striking than most; this had enough of an impact that when the house came up for sale a year or so later it occurred to me that it was some kind of message, that I should sell my house in Sag Harbor, buy back the house in Shrub Oak, and change my life. Once again. Not that that was possible. Lorraine would have had none of it, all our friends are here in the Hamptons, they're close friends, people we regard as family--it was just unthinkable. But I did love that house. It had a two-story barn, attached sheds, lots of land, it was closer to the city than Sag Harbor, and there was so much space. It was tempting. It was impossible. I was locked into my life. I wasn't free.

So what did it mean, this strange cosmic cross-reference, this reminder? That's the thing about coincidence, it seems always to be full of meaning, but what the meaning is tends to remain obscure. Or it may be that we simply read meaningfulness into it, that there's really no meaning to it at all. Where you stand on this issue, in fact, says much about who you are. Do you think the universe has a meaning, that life has a direction, that in the end all will be explained? or are you a rationalist, do you see life as just one thing after another, without a story to it or any kind of purpose?

I haven't totally made up my mind on this issue. Right now I'm reading Carl Jung on the subject; Jung thought synchronicities, which is what he called coincidences, highly meaningful and used them in his therapeutic work. He was plugged into various spiritual disciplines and they tend to take these kinds of events quite seriously. Read Jung and his followers, and there are a great many, and you find what amounts to real faith in the meaningfulness of coincidences. Read a mathematician, on the other hand, and you find explanations full of statistical probabilities that tend to dismiss any chance of them being meaningful. They have a point. Among the infinity of events that make up human existence, it only stands to reason that at some point you will run into somebody with your name, or a name very close to yours, in a situation that is important to you. How many degrees of separation are there among any two persons in the world? Only six. And I read recently that the figure is actually lower than that, more like 4.7. The most amazing coincidence, one of these mathematicians said, would be if there were no coincidences.

So that's where I am right now, walking a wire between these two positions, and that's what I'm going to do this winter, walk the wire, investigate, write about coincidences. Call it a long essay. My memoir about my family and my childhood, which I finished this past September, exhausted me. I spent the fall trying to decide what to do next, how to survive in these economic circumstances, which are hard on writers. It's a way of taking a break, not writing a long book. I'll keep the readers of this blog up to date on my progress. I've neglected the blog. I'm not going to do that any more. In the meantime, here's another coincidence.

Lorraine and I were in Venezuela in 1981, working, if that's the word, as quality control inspectors for a hotel chain, and one of the hotels was in Ciudad Guayana, on the Orinoco. We noticed on a map that El Dorado was about 140 miles to our south and we decided that it would be a shame to be that close to El Dorado and not go see it. It was only a little village, but still, the name--and it was right where Sir Walter Raleigh had thought he would find the "real" El Dorado, i.e. the legendary city of gold so many explorers sought for so long. We rented a pickup truck and headed south, down the road, the only road south, into light jungle and abandoned farms, and we got to El Dorado and took a room at the only accommodations there were, a rough (to say the least) motel of sorts with units made of concrete and thatched roofs. That evening we went out to the gazebo next to the river that ran through El Dorado and encountered a BBC film crew, staying there on their way to the tepuis further south where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his fantasy The Lost World, where dinosaurs still roamed. We spent the evening with them talking, and at one point Lorraine mentioned that she knew somebody in London, a photographer named David Redfern.

"Oh, really," said the crew's producer. "I used to date his secretary."