Sunday, February 19, 2012


February 19, 2012:

I read this morning in the Times that Rick Santorum thinks we should do away with public education.

Words fail me.

So yes, privatize everything. Turn the entire country into a business. And if you can't afford the tuition at the new private schools that will emerge from this scheme? Well, tough luck. Too bad. Who said life was fair?

In the real world everything is connected. You know the image: a butterfly stirs a patch of air in Africa, the resulting hurricane reaches Florida a month later. A street vendor torches himself in protest, out of despair, in Tunisia; the Arab world explodes. Poor Chinese peasants with different attitudes toward work and different needs from our own take jobs at wages no American would suffer, and whole industries here collapse. Everything has consequences. Take hope away from the poor long enough, continue to multiply poverty and despair here, in our own country, and it will have consequences. They will be dire. Burn enough fossil fuels, disbelieve in global warming, and consequences are certain to follow. Really horrendous consequences, for the entire world.

I come from a Republican family but the Republican party of my youth did not spurn science, despise the poor, or appeal so blatantly to the worst impulses of the population. I am enough of a realist to know that the poor will always be with us, that human beings are not perfectible, that most people will not pay much attention to the complexities of public issues, and that politics is rife with corruption. I know people don't learn from history. That most of us lead lives of quiet desperation and all that. And I know that not everyone is educable and it is very difficult to devise an educational system that works well enough to raise the possibility of living a better life across the board, at all income levels, in all socioeconomic strata.

But here's the thing--YOU HAVE TO TRY. Not trying, giving up on the whole affair, abandoning the poor to their fate, not seeing that you with your luck, your job, your advanced degrees, your sophisticated tastes HAVE AN OBLIGATION regardless of the probability of whatever programs you devise succeeding is to sink not just their chances, but yours, too, and your children's chances. Because everything is connected. We are a nation, not a mere random conglomeration of individuals, and the nation has a soul and you can destroy that soul, chop it into regions and sects and factions, fill it with hatred and intolerance, and it will be no more. The world is fragile, nations are fragile, things can and will fall apart and if you deny this, if you turn your back on others, vote for destroying the education system, for ignoring scientific facts and attacking the science that discovered them (which Rick Santorum is doing right now, on TV, as I write), you speed the process of decline. A nation is, in Benedict Anderson's phrase, an "imagined community," a creature of faith more than anything else. I don't mean religious faith, either, but faith in each other, in our good intentions, our willingness to help, our understanding that we're all in this together. Because everything is connected. Rich and poor, we live in the same cities and pass each other in the street, we function in the same economy, and the health of the whole depends on the health of each.

You have to try, even if you know that your successes will be small, and that much will be wasted in the process. And that's why I am a Democrat, because the party does try, inept as the attempts often are. Trying is an absolute necessity. It is a sign that the nation's soul is compassionate and tolerant of differences, that whatever the outcome at least we have not become totally greedy, totally indifferent to the fate of others, particularly the people on the bottom who have forgotten what hope is. Al Gore, John Kerry--you could see that they were not good campaigners, that they didn't know how to pull the political triggers that get people elected; but it was clear at the same time that they cared for more than those of their own class, that the fate of the earth was important to them, that they had that fundamental sense of compassion and tolerance that marks men as good.

Wealth does not trickle down, as Republicans want us to believe, but greed does. Greed gone rampant will infect us all and lead to the war of all against all that will eventually consign the United States to oblivion, should we let it happen. There is a reason Occupy Wall Street and its followers have focused, insofar as they have focused on anything, on the 1 percent; it's because the superrich represent just that, greed gone rampant, out of control; they symbolize the logic of turning a nation into a business. It trickles down, scrambling the power system in California, as Enron did just a decade or so ago, out of sheer greed; it trickles into home financing and makes millions homeless, out of sheer reckless greed; it gets into the language, redefining words like freedom and liberty, making them all about business.

I will stick then with the politicial party that created Social Security and Medicare, that fought for the civil rights laws of the 1960s, that instituted the Federal regulation of business greed, and that still shows signs of caring, even if in small ways, for the poor. Programs often don't work, but they make an effort; they are signs that we care for our poor, our crippled, our helpless. History will judge us by what we tried to do, by the help we tried to give, even if we failed. If we do not care, if we do not try, we will not have a history. The great democratic experiment will have gone to its doom, and the entire world could well be the worse for our having existed.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


February 4, 2012:

What is next? Seedless apples?

I don't know. I was in New York Thursday having lunch with a friend and had something under an hour to kill afterwards before my bus left, so I dropped into the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Ave. at 18th Street, their flagship store, to look at their books in American history. It was intimidating. Each bookcase in that section was about seven and a half feet tall and there were maybe fifteen of them, probably a thousand titles all told. At least 800, anyway. I looked at them and I thought, do I really want to add another one? Then I had another thought: damn, I only have about forty-five minutes to look at them. And where else can I find anything like this abundance? What are we going to do when all the bookstores disappear?

Publishing is in the midst of this huge transition and nobody knows how it's going to turn out. Will physical books disappear, replaced by ebooks? I just can't believe that. Of course I'm an old guy so it figures I wouldn't be able to believe that, especially looking around the house, the bookcases, the 6-7,000 books in the house. I'm thinning them out now, carton by carton, in the hopes of exposing the floor space in the two rooms I use as offices; and I don't mind getting rid of them, up to a point. But they represent, no, more than that, they embody my own intellectual history, the progress of my interests, my passions over the years, and while I know, being old, that I'll never read most of them, I can't get rid of them all. Not by any means. They mean too much to me. Even if I haven't read them yet I know where they fit in my own private map of the world.

And I'm reluctant to get rid of them too because I don't know what I'm going to do next. The project I have been aiming my life toward for so many years is exceedingly difficult and hard to pin down, it's in American history, so I have to keep most of my books on that subject, and there are a great many. At the same time I despair of this project, it's really difficult, it's hard to sell to a publisher, any publisher, I've discovered, and I have other projects that would be much easier, for which in fact I've already written material (years ago), and for which I also have a great many books. So I can't get rid of those, either. I am getting rid of the Arctic books. I've done the Arctic. I'm sick of ice; I'll never write another adventure book (unless someone begs me to, and for serious money); that phase of my life is over. I hope. But nothing is fixed in a writer's life. He begins again just about every day. When he's writing he has to read over in the morning what he did the day before, then figure out what to say next, how to say it, and where it will fit in the overall design, which itself changes with each sentence, each thought. And for me, well, I never think I know enough. Other people always know more. Thus this library of mine. I use it to mine the material, to know more. It's a never ending process. But it does actually end, and I'm old, and the end game is upon me, and I'm not sure what to do next. Or whether I can even do anythiing that will sell, because publishing is in such big trouble, publishers are scared, and you never know where or when you're going to find somebody to take a chance on you and your big ideas.

I think I'm going to be experimenting with the ebook market soon; I have a bunch of essays, starting with the ethics columns I wrote for Esquire, to which I'll add some of the other pieces with moral themes I've written over the years, and I'll make a book out of them. Maybe go over to the dark side and publish it with Amazon. But I don't know. I love real books, books you can hold in your hand, flip the pages of, write in the margins of. I don't feel I'm reading a book unless I can write in the margins. Books are wonderful physical objects, and the greatest invention for storing knowledge mankind has ever conceived. Browsing through bookstores has been one of the most satisfying pleasures of my life.

Well, I suppose I'm going to write another one, no matter what. It's what I was born to do; I have no choice. Add one more title to those shelves, if there are still shelves stocked with books when I'm done. Wish me luck. Wish us all luck, because without books, it's the dark ages all over again.