Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was a major influence of my youth. In 1963 my older sister bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the early album that made him famous, and after getting used to his awful voice and amateurish instrumentation, I developed an interest in his lyrics that lasted well into adulthood. I think the first album of his that I bought was Highway 61 Revisited, which came out in 1965. I haven't listened to most of his albums, but from what I've heard, his best period was from 1963 to 1967, with the 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, arguably his best. By 1969 I was losing interest in his songs and I began to stop buying his albums. A few of the later ones, for instance Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Oh Mercy (1989), were supposed to be good, but I wasn't impressed. I attended one of his concerts in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1978 and the noise was so unpleasant that I left early.

The main thought that I have about Dylan is that he is an artistic opportunist. When he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway and the Vietnam War was about to escalate. With the folk music scene taking off, dozens of performers were seeking to articulate a people's response in the then-popular vernacular of folk music. Here there can be no question about Dylan's talent: he virtually obliterated the competition by saying everything ten times better than anyone else could, even when he occasionally meandered into the obscure. At the time I thought of him as an intellectual who could articulate what is wrong in society and become an effective spokesperson for sane policies, but that turned out to be a completely incorrect understanding of Dylan.

The problem with Bob Dylan for me is that he doesn't actually represent anything. I suppose he has some vague allegiance to the apparent messages of some of his songs, but in the greater scheme of things his primary motivation all along, right up to the present, has been to achieve commercial success. I became aware of this only gradually over a period of many years. When he blew off reporters, making fun of them, I used to think that he just didn't want to be pigeonholed by idiots, but I now think that that was part of a conscious strategy he had to control his image. The fact is that he has never come clean on anything as far as I know. His so-called memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004) clarifies little and remains almost as elusive as his comments to the press from the 1960's. There is ample evidence that he was not above using people and walking all over them when necessary.

I recently came across an excellent example of Dylan's disingenuousness. The film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000) is a documentary about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who was one of Dylan's mentors in the early 1960's. Elliott was already established as a folk performer when Dylan came to town and soon introduced him to his friend Woody Guthrie, who was then very ill. You would never know this from reading Chronicles, because Elliott isn't mentioned in the book. Even Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, is dumbfounded that Dylan has chosen to ignore Elliott. What it looks like to me is that as soon as Dylan found out that Woody Guthrie was supposed to be the patron saint of folk music, he rushed to pay homage and establish an apparent close bond with him, while cutting Elliott out of the picture as much as possible.

Although I am hardly a Dylanologist, I think I know enough about him to say that the last 45 years of his life have been less important artistically than the previous 7 or 8 years. The question, then, for me, is how well his best work holds up. For a popular artist it has held up exceptionally well. I doubt that any commercial American lyricist compares favorably during his lifetime. However, Dylan is now, after the scholarly work of Christopher Ricks, also considered to be a major poet. On hearing this I was at first skeptical. You don't need an English degree to notice that even in Dylan's best songs there is an irreducible convenience representing his sense of timeliness or market awareness - or just plain sloppiness. Yet, after sampling all of the major American poets, it is hard to argue that he doesn't belong in that class. Aside from his conspicuous lack of discipline, Dylan could easily have been a major poet instead of a pop star.

Dylan decided early on that he didn't want to be a poet. He was courted by poets such as Archibald MacLeish, but it seems that he always wanted to be a pop star, and this is also why he finally rejected folk music in favor of the electric guitar, even though he was an inferior player of every instrument he ever attempted to play. It is evident from his lyrics, interviews and writings that he was an anti-intellectual from the start, and, for better or for worse, we may have got all that he had to offer in the first place.

One of the problems of our quasi-democratic, capitalistic society, I think, is that there is less pressure on artists to perform at high levels than there was during earlier periods. The lowest common denominator, public demand, often determines the extent to which an artist succeeds. In previous times, aristocrats, who were usually better educated and more discerning, were the final arbiters of artistic merit. From the point of view of an aesthetic purist, I think we probably could have got more out of Bob Dylan if he had been squeezed a little.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Father

I have been hesitant to write about my father, because it's a sad story. He has been dead for forty years now, so I thought I ought to write this, if only for posterity. There is something to be learned from his life, as there is from nearly everyone's, if only you look closely enough.

His parents were born in the late Victorian period and met in the London area during the Edwardian period. His father was in the third generation of a family of tailors from Shipston-on-Stour, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The family had lived in the Midlands for several generations and the male lineage was said to have immigrated to England from France as Huguenots, probably in the early eighteenth century. His mother came from a line of furriers originating in Yorkshire. His father got a job at Liberty of London at age 14 and bicycled to work until World War I broke out. He then joined the army and fought in the trenches in France, where he was non-fatally wounded in the throat by a sniper while repairing sandbag emplacements. After the war he remained at Liberty's for the rest of his career, rising to the position of vice chairman of the board of directors. When first married their neighbors were the author Kingsley Amis's parents, and years later my parents showed the elderly Amises around Manhattan when they visited New York.

My grandfather did not become wealthy through his job, but was able to buy a house with a large garden in the up-and-coming suburban town of Purley, Surrey. Their first son was named Ivor; my father was named Richard and attended Whitgift, a private school. I don't know much about Ivor, because he was killed in North Africa during World War II by another British soldier who was cleaning his gun. My father was six feet tall and athletic, playing rugby and swimming. He is said to have been a bully, and he had no interest in academics other than geography. I suppose he was the English equivalent of a jock.

As soon as he turned 18 in 1941 he joined the army. After a time he was sent to Sandhurst, the same college attended by Winston Churchill and comparable to West Point, for officer training. He became a lieutenant in the King's Dragoon Guards and commanded British tanks. During the course of the war he served in Italy, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. He met my mother in Athens, where the British were stationed to ward off communists after the Germans had fled. They married in 1946 and moved to England in 1947, the year my older sister was born. His father got him a job at Liberty's, and we lived in Coulsdon and Purley. I was born in 1950 and my younger sister was born in 1954.

I don't know the circumstances, but apparently my father was fired from Liberty's. I believe he got another job from which he was also fired. Eventually he traveled to the U.S. and was hired by a textile company in Manhattan. The whole family moved to the U.S. in 1957, and most of our youths were spent in Pelham Manor, New York, just north of New York City. His work record didn't improve much in New York; he was fired at least twice, and finally looked at a career change some time in the early 1960's. Both he and my mother were skilled at making good first impressions, but my father didn't have much follow-through, and people spot this quickly in the business world. He took some vocational tests and was told that he had a high IQ and would make a great insurance salesman. Subsequently he worked as an unsuccessful life insurance agent.

The first few years in Pelham Manor were relatively pleasant. We were well adjusted, and life seemed stable. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, and we lived in a rented house near our elementary school. But by the time my father became an insurance agent he was already becoming a serious alcoholic. He started with beer, then moved to cheap wine, and in his later years was a heavy vodka drinker. A sales job was a mistake for him during this period of his life, because he was unaccountable for most of the day and could do whatever he liked. He was gregarious and liked to schmooze and drink. He wasn't picky and probably had a few low-life friends. My mother began working in the mid-1960's and thereafter became the main breadwinner of the family. As already discussed in my post about my mother, my father continued to decline and finally killed himself on the Ides of March in 1974.

When I was growing up, I was hardly aware of my father and was very close to my mother up until about age 12. From then onward my mother became far less important to me, and when I was a teenager my father was often antagonistic. He used various pretexts to bully me, and we didn't have much of a rapport. Often the household was chaotic, with my parents fighting over something or other. When intoxicated, my father became vicious and insulting, and, combined with my mother's expressive Mediterranean temperament, if they had a fight you could expect shouting, thrown objects, broken glass, spitting and occasionally a physical scuffle. This made us reluctant to bring friends home. However, one thing I had in common with my father was enjoyment of cards and games, and there were a few occasions when friends came over to play poker, with my father participating.

One of the reasons that we didn't get along well, besides basic male rivalry, was that our personalities were nearly opposite. I am quiet, introverted and thoughtful, and he was loud, extroverted and reckless. He was always looking to fault me about something, and finally he settled on the idea that I was a coward, which he confided to my mother, but not to me. He had observed that I was more cautious than he was, and later he seems to have concluded that this was a sign of cowardice when I filed as a conscientious objector for the draft in 1968. Because of his military background, a conscientious objector was a coward and there were no two ways about it. He forced me to withdraw my conscientious objector application, which he thought of as a disgrace to the family. In the end it made no difference, because the Vietnam War was winding down, my lottery number was 365, and I was never drafted.

This brings me to how his background made him a misfit as an adult. He was not closely supervised when he was growing up and liked to raise hell. He would take a large kite called an Atalanta to the beach and use it to hoist a pail of water into the air and then dump the water on sunbathers. As a teenager he sneaked his girlfriend, Muriel, into his bedroom while his parents were at home. Going from this to war and marriage to a foreign bride within five years was not likely to produce a stable adulthood. I'm not sure whether he would fit the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he certainly had symptoms. He was usually nervous, chewing his nails constantly, grinding his teeth and chain-smoking Viceroys, and he had ulcers. He didn't sleep well and would wake up in the middle of the night and read an entire detective novel. But it is also significant how poorly prepared he was to be an adult. Unlike most middle-class parents today, his parents ridiculed formal educations, because they thought they had done perfectly well without them. He thought the same way as an adult. Even though his lack of a college education probably contributed to his failure in the business world, he still didn't think that it was necessary for his children to attend college, and it would have been fine with him if we had all just got jobs after high school. His main piece of advice to me was "You can do whatever you like, but don't get caught."

From my vantage point it is difficult to determine which factors had the most negative impact on my father's life. The factors that I'm aware of include a poorly supervised childhood, traumatic war experiences, unsustainable early successes, narcissistic tendencies, an inappropriate bride and a difficult transition to civilian life. The most obvious problem, which is easily seen today in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the transition to civilian life. My thought here is that war conditions are completely incompatible with conventional peacetime life. For many soldiers, war becomes the norm, and activities such as having a career and raising a family lose all intrinsic meaning to them. I don't think my father took business seriously, and I can't honestly say that he was wrong. On an instinctive level, war is far closer to the norm in human history than showing up at an office every day and helping a corporation increase its profits. It is probably the case that those who go into war without being fully prepared to exit into civilian life are at risk for becoming social misfits when they do leave the military. My father mistakenly thought that he would get lifetime credit for his war exploits but soon found out that no one cared about them. To make matters worse, Americans saw themselves as the victors of World War II rather than the British (though the Russians were probably more responsible than any other nation).

The choice of my mother as his bride also seems to have been a big mistake. He oversold himself at the time, and in effect my mother married down. Her family was better educated, more culturally sophisticated and significantly wealthier than his. Moreover, she had little to offer in a practical way. She was only 21 when they married, had not been to college and had no experience in business or anything else. She had led a completely sheltered childhood. Yet her expectation was that she would live in a wealthy, respected household and spend her days raising children and entertaining guests. The marriage was a disaster waiting to happen, and after my father died my mother quickly latched onto the kind of person that she should have sought to begin with, a wealthy businessman who had the means to take care of her. If my father had instead married a savvy Englishwoman who steered him in the right direction, he would have had a much better chance of adjusting to civilian life in England and may have been better able to navigate the British business environment, as some of his friends were able to do. As it was, my parents often seemed to inhabit a fantasy world, and although I myself am given to imaginative thinking, my early family experience always draws me back to extreme realism.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Ascent of Frivolous Scholarship as an Element of American Decline

You will have noted from some of my previous posts that I am not enamored with a lot of what goes on within the academic world these days. I have problems with M.F.A. programs, for example, and found the recent political correctness exhibited by students at Smith College absurd. Furthermore, in hindsight, some of my undergraduate teachers seem to have been out of touch with reality according to the way I currently think. It doesn't help that I am now reading Thinks..., a novel by David Lodge, who is probably one of the best satirists of academia. And I live in a college town where I can pass for a professor and am occasionally amused to watch unacquainted academics mistakenly size me up to determine my rank within their strata. Then yesterday, on top of it all, I read an interview with Elizabeth Povinelli, who is the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

The jargon used and the style of argumentation seemed so ridiculous to me that I don't see how any educated person could take Povinelli seriously. Yet she has a top faculty position at a leading university. What is even more alarming is that this state of affairs has existed for many years. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal satirized postmodern cultural studies by publishing a hoax article, discussed here, which was accepted uncritically by the editors of the academic publication Social Text. Sokal intentionally spiced his article with statements that would obviously be questionable to scientists and mathematicians, but because the editors agreed with its conclusions, they didn't bother to have it checked by a qualified scientist.

As a non-academic, I don't have much contact with this cultural schism. However, since I've been reading more science-oriented writing lately, Povinelli's interview was jarring to me. The difference in language usage, terminology, concepts and worldview from that encountered in ordinary public discourse or even in the specialized philosophical discourse that I'm used to is striking. Particularly when you consider that this was an interview format, one would expect a higher degree of intelligibility than, for example, in a technical research paper. As written, I doubt it would meet the editorial standards of The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, The Wilson Quarterly, etc.

Although I'm not in a position to say much about this phenomenon and am not particularly interested in looking into it further, I do see a disturbing pattern of balkanization in academia. The traditional academic disciplines of English, history, philosophy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics covered different areas and often used different languages and methods, but they were not in conflict while I was in college. The difference now seems to be a politicization of academia rather than the emergence of new, defensible concepts. I get the impression that much of this is an offshoot of the feminism of the 1970's combined with French theory emanating from thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. Most of it sounds like utter nonsense to me.

The "two cultures" problem seems to crop up regularly in universities. It caused economist Larry Summers to be fired as president of Harvard in 2006, and no doubt adds pressures throughout the academic world. I am not usually sympathetic with people like Summers, who tend to be aggressive, insensitive careerist bullies, but in his case he had science and reason on his side. My concern is not that science ought to have more respect and funding than the humanities, but that the high castes within some of the humanities are populated with people who are just plain intellectually bankrupt. They are presiding over what should be meaningful branches of knowledge and turning them into fantasy boutique inventions that serve their own purposes. This kind of frivolity and bad judgment in major public and private institutions is probably symptomatic of the excesses in countries that are in decline, and it has parallels in the ongoing dysfunction of the federal government. Furthermore, academics like Povinelli are culpable for the dissemination of confused and false information that is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help to those students who take them seriously.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence

There is currently a bustle in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, philosophy and science fiction regarding the possibility of creating intelligent machines. As mentioned earlier, I believe that they will become a reality sooner or later. Predictably, the philosophers are muddying the water by trying to throw in obsolete concepts of consciousness and mind. I have no interest in examining their arguments closely, but I do have thoughts on the subject that clarify the issues somewhat, to me anyway.

Ever since Descartes there has been the so-called mind-body problem, which, inexplicably to me, arouses great concern among philosophers. In philosophy, the trick is to describe the nature of something that seems to exist independently of the physical world yet interacts with it. My approach is to say that "mind" is simply a linguistic representation of what we also call a conscious human brain. "Consciousness" itself is just a word that designates our subjective sense of awareness of our own existence within an environment. Some philosophers believe that there are inherent obstacles to creating artificial intelligence that is conscious. Machines have been made that can win at chess and Jeopardy, but they don't have minds and are not conscious according to our definitions. Typically these philosophers say that we don't know enough about how the human brain works to simulate it with computers. Although they may not be completely wrong, I think they make fundamental mistakes about the nature of consciousness and intelligence.

To my way of thinking, many creatures with brains are technically conscious. While most of their biological processes occur automatically according to their genetic and environmental histories, they have a sense of self, if only for the purpose of self-preservation. It seems to me that humans aren't that different from most mammals as far as consciousness is concerned. In terms of gross biological behavior, we're similar to mice: we seek food and shelter, mate, raise offspring, look for new sources of food and shelter when necessary, etc. We more closely resemble successful predators that engage in social behavior, such as wolves. The top predators generally have the ability to assess situations, do rudimentary planning, change plans when necessary and function within a social milieu. I don't think that there is much meaning to be attached to the word "consciousness" beyond a fairly narrow biological context that we share with other animals.

When you come right down to it, the things that differentiate us from other sophisticated mammals are a larger, more specialized brain, bipedal locomotion, hands capable of skillfully manipulating objects, complex language and a predisposition to eusociality. We pride ourselves in our reasoning ability, appreciation of the arts, etc., but these are really just consequences of the other characteristics mentioned. I think that human anthropocentric arrogance causes us to overvalue our status within the natural world, and now there are those among us who want to extend that logic to machines, which, somehow or other, are supposed to be incapable of matching our abilities.

The higher functions of our brains are hard to duplicate in machines, because they came into existence over billions of years of evolution, and our genes have so much junk in them, i.e. inactive DNA, that it is difficult to see how they end up producing thoughts. Additionally, as organisms, how we take in information from our environment is different from how machines typically accumulate information. Perhaps the largest challenge is the fact that, as inanimate objects, computers do not contain a protocol that makes their continued survival a priority, whereas most of our behavior is directly or indirectly related to our instincts to survive as individuals and as a species. However, I think it may prove to be a mistake to try to make machines that think like humans. Two problems with that are A. We don't know exactly how we think, and B. Computers may be able to think better using a model other than humans.

From a psychological and marketing standpoint, intelligent machines similar to us may seem advantageous: we inherently prefer human-like interface to robotic interface. But presuming that we can build super-intelligent computers, that appearance could be created through the use of sub-routines that simulate human behavior. To have a truly human super-intelligent computer could actually be extremely dangerous. The last thing that we could ever want is an entity that is more intelligent than we are and interested in its continued existence and reproduction. This is the kind of scenario often depicted in science fiction movies, and it could potentially occur if we made the wrong design decisions. It may prove to be easier and less dangerous to make super-intelligent machines that are based exclusively on theoretical considerations that ignore the characteristics of organisms like us.

I can't say how or when these machines will actually be designed and built, but I want to emphasize that whether or not they are conscious may be irrelevant. They will be taking in information and processing it, two things that we do, but will not necessarily need to be self-aware, i.e. conscious. Perhaps they will have what we call creativity, which in their case may mean that they will be able to find new ways of analyzing phenomena and novel solutions to problems that are of interest to us. They could be designed to communicate with us in a normal manner, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, while being completely nonhuman inside. If consciousness is associated with a drive to self-preservation, it would be better if they weren't.

My thought regarding intelligence is that we overrate ours considerably. This is only because we have not confronted intelligence greater than our own. Research on human behavior consistently shows that we frequently make poor assessments of situations and bad decisions. Men as a group tend to be unrealistically overconfident in many scenarios. There probably are evolutionary reasons for many of our characteristics that will not apply to super-intelligent machines, and that will be one of their strengths.

The sense I get is that when we encounter super-intelligence the world will be changed forever. Our chronic case of anthropocentrism will be cured when we have machines that can do nearly everything better than we can. Thus, from a long-term policy standpoint, I think our governments and universities are rather shortsighted. For example, although in the near future there may be some advantages to be gleaned from providing better educations to more people, it is possible that nearly all jobs will eventually become automated. In the short term, better education might help increase equality globally, but I don't think it will make much difference longer-term. It may turn out that prevention of the abuse of future technology and management of the transition to a technologically advanced post-capitalist society are far more important than any issues currently under consideration on a global level.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Poetry Moratorium

I seem to have reached an impasse in my current foray into poetry. During this round I've been looking at American poems, reading The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. My last stab was in 1996, when I read A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz. The Milosz anthology is of extremely high quality and has a much broader selection in terms of geography and time, though it is much shorter. I recommend Milosz if, like me, you want to wet your toes a little.

The problem that I encounter is that I don't like most poems. As the poet William Matthews (1942-1997) somewhat cynically put it, there are four main themes in published poems:

1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We're not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.

The poems that I've been reading aren't quite this formulaic, but I find that even when I like a poet initially, his or her poems become tiresome quickly. Of the four categories listed, I prefer the first, but it is hard to write a poem in that theme that isn't trite or reminiscent of other poems. My favorite poems tend to invoke something of the mystery of life, and this, unfortunately, seems to be almost absent from American poetry. Another thing that I like in poems, not mentioned by Matthews, is acute perception, and I find that very, very few writers of any sort have it. Poets are far more likely to write about how they feel about something or other than notice anything of interest outside of themselves. Then if they do notice something, they tend to transform it into a poetic gimmick rather than a real insight.

As in the case of literary fiction, academia tends to monopolize and ruin poetry. In 1995 I read Soul Says, by Helen Vendler, the Harvard professor. The book is academic hagiography advocating Jorie Graham, a poet whom I can't stand to read and who now is also a professor at Harvard. Moreover, I was a little surprised to see that some recognized poets themselves disparage academia. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan said "I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It's been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs], I have often said." The poet Tom Clark (born 1941) was unimpressed by contemporary academic poets when he graduated from college, and he later rejected an opportunity to become "a university poet...thus irrevocably exiting, with a headstrong lack of foresight surely to be regretted, the moving staircase of academic poetry-careering." I sympathize with independent-minded poets and their poems appeal to me more than those written by others.

The impression I get from reading poems and about poets is that most of them just like writing poems and have made lifelong habits of it. It would come as no surprise to me if unread poetry troves of quality equal to the best published poems were to be found suddenly, just as in the case of Vivian Maier's photographs. Emily Dickinson herself had very few poems published during her lifetime, and although as she recedes into the distant past her context is becoming increasingly obscure, she still stands out as one of America's best poets.

I will continue to read poems, but at a slower pace. This means that the Poem of the Day may hardly ever be posted again, because I find the pickings so slim. I suppose that if I wanted to find more poems that I like, I would have to write them myself.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Art as Historical Record

We recently watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which is about a French-American woman whose photographs were discovered after her death. She spent the latter part of her life working as a nanny on the North Shore of Chicago and had a photography hobby that was not well known to anyone besides herself. Upon her death, her possessions were sold at auction and thousands of her negatives were found. When experts saw prints of the photographs it became apparent that she had quite a talent, and there have now been exhibitions of her work all over the world. It is a shame that she did not achieve recognition during her lifetime, because she could have used the money. However, her personality quirks may have had a significant influence on the course of her life, which remains somewhat of a mystery. Vivian Maier was what you would call a street photographer and had a knack for spotting and framing pictures and sometimes getting the subjects to pose optimally. From the selection I've seen, I thinks she ranks about the same as many famous photographers. I am bringing this up because it ties in with an ongoing interest of mine, which is the determination of what counts as art.

Most of what I consider to be art is inextricably linked to specific historical contexts. In some ways, the best cave art seems just as good to me as any art that has ever been produced. Art often seems simply to be a representation of the physical and cultural artifacts of a particular era. Carefully painted portraits aren't necessarily much different from carefully executed photographic portraits. The Impressionists depicted daily life in France in a manner similar to the Japanese depiction of life during the Ukiyo-e period, though the materials used and styles differed. I think in many cases the subject matter of a particular form of art may change very little over time, though the materials, methods and styles may vary considerably. With the passage of time, older works of art gain an exotic aura, because they highlight people and circumstances that no longer exist and are of nostalgic value, sometimes evoking an idealized past. There are also the decorative arts, which sometimes overlap with fine art, but to me they are of lesser importance.

In literature, historical context is important. Many of the great novels of the nineteenth century have value added to them simply on the basis of their depiction of a bygone era that is of special sentimental or other interest. Moreover, particularly in the case of Western Europe, there was a cultural heyday in France and England that lasted up until World War I. Having followed the progression from Victor Hugo to Balzac to Flaubert to Proust, the latter bringing us into the modern era, I have the impression that there was a peak in French and English literature at about the time of Flaubert. This may be because French culture also seemed to have reached some sort of apex then. Yes, Proust exhibits a new style, but he still seems conceptually and culturally derivative. As I wade through In Search of Lost Time, I can't escape the notion that he has too much time to kill, doesn't get to the point soon enough, and is frequently uninsightful about his social milieu and himself. Yet he is distant enough in time to merit the stamp of approval from most contemporary academics. I find that although his writing style can be captivating at times, at other times his prose resemble a rambling, self-indulgent memoir. Even so, Proust is more interesting to read than most American writers. Perhaps because American culture has never been impressive to me, it is hard for me to warm up to its literature. American life is so prosaic and philistine that it doesn't arouse much reaction among aesthetes. To be sure, there is a lot going on here, and pockets of interest can be found, but you have to look hard and there is a lot of trial and error. The lack of history makes nearly everything new, and to an undiscerning public, that's fine, even when the discerning think otherwise. As Denise Levertov wrote in a late poem:

Dear 19th century! Give me refuge
in your unconscious sanctuary for a while....

Getting back to Vivian Maier's work, some of it takes on significance purely from its documentation of life in New York and Chicago in the 1950's and 1960's. It is possible that if she were still alive and photographing people in Chicago, those would be very good photographs too, but the passage of time certainly makes a difference.

Monday, December 8, 2014

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

—Gwendolyn Brooks

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Intellectual Blunders

Although in some ways I may have been suited to an academic career, there were factors that worked against it that have become clearer to me over time. The most obvious was that my study habits weren't particularly good until I was about halfway through college. Slightly less obvious at the time was my innate skepticism of the merits of prevailing views in subjects that are not intrinsically precise. For example, if an idea came up in a philosophy class that I thought was either too vague to be of much use or just plain wrong, but we had to examine it because so-and-so said it was important, my natural tendency was to look at philosophers sociologically. Eventually I began to see the philosophy department sociologically, with many prevailing ideas, whether good or bad, in place simply because they suited the faculty members collectively in ways that had nothing to do with their merit. Most of the subjects in a liberal arts program are not exact, and the same pattern could be observed in them.

The deeper I delved into philosophy, the more unsatisfactory it seemed. Philosophy in the U.S. has centered on the analytic tradition that took shape early in the twentieth century specifically at Trinity College, Cambridge, where G.E. Moore explored the foundations of ethics, Bertrand Russell explored the foundations of mathematics, and Ludwig Wittgenstein continued Russell's work in mathematical logic. The goal was to escape idealism and metaphysics, which had been popular up until that time, and place philosophy on more rigorous footing like that of the sciences. Ironically, little of the work from that period has any relevance today. Moore's book, Principia Ethica, is now seen more as a model for philosophical writing style than as a valuable exposition on ethics. Russell's Principia Mathematica is only narrowly relevant in formal logic and has been ignored by mathematicians since the work of Kurt Gödel. Wittgenstein repudiated most of his early work when he set off on ordinary language philosophy later in his career. Nevertheless, the analytic style is still in vogue as far as I know. My view is that philosophy lost its way at about that time. As the sciences became more specialized and more exact, the need for scientists to be natural philosophers, as they used to be called, declined, and the role of stand-alone philosophy has remained unclear. But that hasn't stopped academic philosophers from trying to carve out a niche for themselves and engage in turf wars with other disciplines. I'm not sure how this will be resolved, but I don't regret leaving the field. Today, many scientists hold philosophers in low regard, and I can see why. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that most of what goes on in philosophy departments these days is a waste of time.

My skepticism about academic philosophy has alerted me to conditions and people in other academic fields when noticeable mistakes are made and perpetuated by leaders in the field. An interesting one that I came across is the case of Louis Agassiz. He was one of the leading scientists of the nineteenth century and taught at Harvard. He did important work in biology and was the first to propose and find evidence for an ice age in geological history. In addition, he was one of the first popular science writers and became well known throughout the world. So far so good, but beyond these contributions he totally rejected Darwinism and the theory of evolution and was himself a creationist. He was also a proponent of polygenism, the theory that each race has a separate origin, which led to the subsequent accusation that he was a racist. In short, by the time of his death in 1873 he was completely out of step with modern science and a relic of the past. Some of his questionable writings are still in vogue and circulated by creationists in support of their views.

I am currently in the process of reading How Not to Be Wrong, by the mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. The book provides informal explanations of how math works in a variety of contexts that come up in your life and contains numerous humorous anecdotes to make his points. One that I found particularly interesting was about the psychologist B.F. Skinner. Apparently in college Skinner wanted to be a novelist, wrote sonnets and took no psychology courses. After college he attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and gave Robert Frost several of his short stories to read. Frost wrote back "All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice....I take it that everybody has the prejudice and spends some time feeling for it to speak and write from. But most people end as they begin by acting out the prejudices of other people." Actually, this sounds like pretty good advice to me. Skinner then moved into his parents' attic and attempted to write, but he made little headway and finally gave up. He later wrote "A violent reaction against all things literary was setting in....I had failed as a writer because I had nothing important to say, but I could not accept that explanation. It was literature which must be at fault....Literature must be demolished."

When Skinner later became a psychology professor, he devised an experiment to show that Shakespeare had no particular skill at alliteration in his sonnets, a process which he thought could be produced randomly. He wrote "Proof that there is a process responsible for alliterative patterning can only be obtained through a statistical analysis of initial consonants in a reasonably large sample." He sought to show that the first letter of one word of a sonnet has no effect on other words in the same line. Using 100 sonnets as data, he concluded that "In spite of the seeming richness of alliteration in the sonnets, there is no significant evidence of a process of alliteration in the behavior of the poet to which any serious attention should be given. So far as this aspect of poetry is concerned, Shakespeare might as well have drawn words out of a hat." Of course, Ellenberg, the mathematician, goes on to demolish Skinner's argument: "A statistical study that's not refined enough to detect a phenomenon of the expected size is called underpowered—the equivalent of looking at planets with binoculars." The detail was there, but the data was insufficient to show it. Apparently Skinner had an axe to grind with Shakespeare, and that had clouded his thinking.

Skinner, like the philosophers mentioned, was attempting to increase exactitude in his field. He later became known as a radical behaviorist. I sympathize with his desire to make the field more scientific, because earlier pioneers such as Freud and Jung were not really scientists. While they did have insights into human nature, it is hard to see how anyone ever took concepts such as the id, the ego, the superego, the collective unconscious or archetypes very seriously. Long ago I read several of Jung's books, and I now see him as a crank/mystic, not as a scientist at all. Skinner goes overboard in the opposite direction, and is of little or no use on some of the more subtle aspects of human existence. Even so, I agree with his emphasis on studying behavior and his association of all mental activity with the brain rather than with a soul or some other unknowable force. Apparently he has been stereotyped somewhat by his critics, but a lot of his work has held up and can still be seen in fields such as behavioral economics and in the use of positive and negative reinforcements in various therapies and child rearing.

There are, no doubt, many bad ideas still floating around in academia—more than I could ever know. Fortunately I have never had to deal with Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan. When I was in college there were no such things as women's studies or gender studies. There was no Ph.D. in disaster ethics. Even so, I see no reason to eliminate most "soft" subjects from academic curricula. There will always be a place for the study of the arts and other fuzzy humanistic subjects. One caveat is that problems emerge when the humanities attempt to reinvent themselves as sciences. Unfortunately, in a capitalistic society there is more money to be made through the sciences, and the humanities are likely to decline in importance as fields of study under the current status quo.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The night is darkening round me

The night is darkening round me
The wild winds coldly blow
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot cannot go

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow
And the storm is fast descending
And yet I cannot go

Clouds beyond clouds above me
Wastes beyond wastes below
But nothing drear can move me
I will not cannot go

 —Emily Brontë

Friday, November 28, 2014

Denise Levertov

I've finished reading Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life, by Dana Greene, and will make some comments. The book is well-researched and reasonably (not exceptionally) well-written, but it is not essential to understanding Levertov's poems, which are generally self-explanatory, like most good art. However, given that Levertov was such a talented artist, I wanted to find out more about her history as a matter of personal interest.

Levertov's unusual family background clearly had lasting influence on her development as a poet. Her mother, Beatrice, was a Welsh orphan raised by a Congregational minister and trained as a teacher. She was adventurous and eventually found a position at a Scottish Mission school for girls in Constantinople. Her father, Feivel, was a Russian Jew whose studies convinced him that Jesus Christ was the Jewish messiah and who was subsequently disowned by his family, whose members thought him mad. He changed his name to Paul and met Beatrice in Constantinople when she attended one of his lectures. They married in London in 1911 and he later became an ordained priest in the Church of England, working as Director of the East London Fund for Jews and pastor of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch.

Denise was born in Ilford, Essex in 1923 and grew up there with her parents and her sister, Olga, who was nine years older. Her father led a scholarly life, and he favored Olga over Denise. The girls had no formal schooling, but were generally well-read in the arts from an early age. Denise liked poetry and was inspired by Rilke's Letters about Cézanne. She briefly studied ballet and painting. Olga was a talented pianist and enjoyed the theater. She became passionate about politics and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to support the anti-Fascists. While there, Olga fell in love with a married Englishman who already had several children. Soon they were living together and Olga produced four children, which they could not afford. Eventually three of them were sent to orphanages. Olga's character seems to have unraveled, and thereafter the family had little contact with her other than when she sought to borrow money. Apparently she spent almost a year in jail for embezzlement.

During World War II, Denise joined the Civil Nursing Reserve and lived in London, writing poetry in her spare time, and was good enough to have a small book of poems published in 1946 when she was only 23. She also had several boyfriends during this period and became pregnant. The father would not marry her, and she apparently had an abortion on the Continent in 1947. She began corresponding with American poet Kenneth Rexroth, who wished to include some of her poems in an anthology to be called The New British Poets, which was eventually published in 1949. Later in 1947, living temporarily in Geneva with her English friend, Bet, she met Mitchell Goodman, an American from Brooklyn who had graduated from Harvard and was planning to become a labor economist. Goodman was smitten with her, and they married in Ilford on December 2 of that year. In late 1948 they moved to Greenwich Village.

In New York, Mitch Goodman dropped his plans to become a labor economist, and, while living a bohemian life, they initially made a living from assorted jobs and his occasional journalism. On June 11, 1949, their only child, Nikolai, was born. Denise's fortunes gradually improved. Rexroth's anthology provided her with name recognition and brought her into contact with James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, who took her on and subsequently published most of her work for the remainder of her career. Furthermore, Mitch introduced her to his Harvard friend, the poet Robert Creeley, who soon became one of her advocates.

It took Denise several years to become accustomed to American poetry and language. At first she followed William Carlos Williams, with whom she corresponded, and they eventually met. Later she developed a strong relationship with Robert Duncan, whom she referred to as "master." By the 1970's she was well established as an American poet, with a busy schedule and temporary or permanent academic positions and readings across the country.

Her personal life was not as sanguine. Mitch turned out to be ineffectual and lazy, and she became the primary breadwinner of the family. For reasons not precisely described by Greene, Denise found her sex life with Mitch unsatisfactory from the beginning, and over the course of her life she sporadically met with a former lover from her London days, even while they were both married to others. Her devotion to her work contributed to neglectfulness as a parent, and as a result her relationship with Nikolai was contentious for the rest of her life.

During the Vietnam War she and Mitch became antiwar activists. Mitch organized an event in which war protesters returned their draft cards to the Justice Department. Subsequently, he, along with Noam Chomsky, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and Dwight Macdonald became known as the Boston Five during their trial in 1968. Denise wrote antiwar poetry, which drew criticism from other poets, Robert Duncan in particular, damaging her relationship with him. This may have temporarily tarnished her reputation as a poet, but she soon recovered.

By temperament, Denise was tenacious and willing to make sacrifices for the development of her poetic vision, even when others bore the brunt of it. In addition, it is possible that her lack of a formal education induced some stresses. She was bad at arithmetic, never learned to drive and couldn't change a typewriter ribbon or a light bulb, according to Greene. She resisted new technology and wrote all of her poems by hand. Her inflexibility and impatience caused a certain amount of interpersonal conflict throughout her life and career. She resigned from a regular faculty position at Tufts, which was then her primary source of income, because she was uncomfortable with the department's "oligarchic structure." Late in life, Greene notes, "She wrote of her proclivity to selfishness, cowardice, impatience, complacency, sloth, and harsh judgment of others and admitted a sense of pride and feeling of intellectual superiority." She also acknowledged that she was homophobic, which is important when you consider that her closest mentor, Robert Duncan, was gay.

On December 2, 1975, she and Mitch divorced amicably. Mitch later remarried, and Denise continued to provide Mitch and his spouse financial support even when they had their own child. She also continued to support Nikolai financially into his forties, though they were rarely on good terms. In 1990 she moved from Massachusetts to Seattle, where she bought a house that offered a view of Mount Rainier on clear days. Reminiscent of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted repeatedly by Cézanne, Mount Rainier became a source of inspiration for several poems.  Her stature continued to grow, and she was always in demand for readings and teaching jobs. In 1993, experiencing ill health, she retired from a twelve-year position at Stanford.

During her later years Denise went through an unexpected spiritual odyssey, experimenting with several different churches and religions. Finally she became a practicing member of the Catholic Church. It is not entirely clear to me why she did this, and there is evidence that she herself wasn't clear on it. She had issues with the Church, the most significant being her lack of interest in Jesus Christ. What was of primary importance to her was faith in God. She was still reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and materials from the local Vedanta Society just weeks before her death from lymphoma on December 20, 1997 at the age of 74.

There are two things that attract me to Levertov. I have always been interested in the wonder of existence, and this is typically expressed through religion or mysticism, which I find ridiculous at a personal level. It is more acceptable to me when approached through science, where it has been a driving force behind the work of people like Einstein, or, more accessibly, through the appreciation of nature and poetry. My current interest in astronomy is a reflection of this. However, Levertov is a rarity among poets, and I know of no others like her. I have recently been reading selections from all of the major American poets, and Levertov is the only one who consistently stands out to me. Frankly, when I read Walt Whitman, Robert Creeley, Charles Simic or Billy Collins, I think that their poems are so basic and obvious that they could only be of interest to an imbecile. If I were them I would not publish. In comparison, Levertov seems to be the only poet to pursue anything of interest at a high level of artistry. Although she doesn't always succeed, she has no real competition.

The other aspect of Levertov that interests me is the trajectory of her career. Many of the circumstances of her early life seem unpropitious, and it is quite easy to imagine her never becoming a poet. If she had married one of her English boyfriends, she may not have come to the U.S., where she developed her poetic style. She may instead have become an unknown British housewife who occasionally wrote poems. Perhaps she would have found a way to express her poetic vision in different circumstances, or perhaps she would not.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eye Mask

In this dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
I need
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.

 —Denise Levertov

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Although the tone of this blog tends to be serious, I have a sense of humor and also enjoy good comedy. The problem is that I rarely find comedic films or plays funny at all, and I've never followed stand-up comedy. There is written comedy, and I used to like reading David Sedaris, but I eventually tired of him. Most of the comedy I've come across has been in film or TV. I liked Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a romantic comedy, but think that comedy in that format is too restricted to be of much interest. I have never thought much of Monty Python, and generally dislike British humor. An exception is A Fish Called Wanda, which is probably my favorite comedy, but it wouldn't have been the same without Americans Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. Another comedy I liked was Animal House. Fargo was funny, and perhaps the best Coen brothers film, though technically it is a "dark comedy crime thriller." There is also the category of black comedies, which aren't necessarily funny if you think about them, and my favorite there is Dr. Strangelove.

I used to watch Saturday Night Live regularly in the 1970's. It declined significantly in quality from 1980 to 1984, when producer Lorne Michaels was gone, and I stopped watching it then. It picked up again in 1985 when Michaels returned. Shows were inconsistent but often good up until about 1990. I watched it erratically up until about 2000 and have hardly seen it since. I've tried a few times and have always found it abysmally unfunny. However, over the years they've had quite a lot of talent on the show. I'd say my favorites have been Bill Murray, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman.

In 2010, former Saturday Night Live member Fred Armisen teamed up with Carrie Brownstein for the filming of the first season of Portlandia. It follows a format similar to that of Saturday Night Live, and Lorne Michaels is one of the producers, but it isn't shot in front of a live audience and is filmed around Portland, Oregon. Armisen and Brownstein play a variety of characters in short skits that are sometimes broken up and shown as parts of a single episode. Generally speaking, it is a satire of trendy people who theoretically live in Portland. Portland does have its appeals. It was on my shortlist for retirement locations but in the end lost to rural New England college towns for a number of reasons. In any case, Armisen and Brownstein are incredibly creative by TV standards.

One thing that usually seems missing in American media is social satire. I think it is more common in other countries. Some of the best satire is produced under oppressive regimes, such as the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. For whatever reason, there is a deeply embedded blandness to American culture, and, especially when combined with another powerful force, political correctness, people here find it difficult to voice criticism or otherwise question the choices and behaviors of those around them, no matter how absurd. Portlandia offers empathetic satire, and it is always humorous while still doing a good job at bringing out the oddness, irresponsibility and stupidity of the lifestyle choices that trendy people often make, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

Although it started with a low budget, after four seasons it has drawn a lot of attention and is now popular with Hollywood insiders. The budget for the fourth year seems much larger, and there are increasing cameos by celebrities. I find the best segments to be among the funniest I've ever seen. I'm not sure whether these links will always work, because the posts may not be legal, but my favorite segment is Art Project, from the third season. I've started season four and found the Social Bankruptcy segment quite amusing; note that it contains a reference to Lorrie Moore. Another thing that distinguishes their better work is an almost philosophical look at modern life. As with any TV production there are duds, but generally I am pleased with the quality up until this year.

Update, November 29, 2014. I've now seen all of season four, and overall it is quite bad. I'm not sure why it has changed for the worse, but it certainly isn't funny. The best episodes tend to be at the beginning of each season.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Free Speech I

I recently became aware of a controversy that arose following a panel discussion organized by Smith College, titled "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts," which took place on September 22, 2014 in New York City. This panel was formed as a response to protests at Smith that caused Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to cancel her engagement as 2014 commencement speaker. One of the panelists, Wendy Kaminer, who is a free speech advocate, used the words "nigger" and "cunt" during the course of the discussion. These words were examined by Kaminer in the context of their use in public discourse. As Kaminer explained at the time:

I just, I think there is a very important difference between calling somebody a name and uttering the name in the context of talking about how it's used. And I think it's incredibly important to recognize that difference, because, you know, there are other words and other concepts that are going to make somebody feel threatened and somebody feel disrespected, and somebody feel psychologically unsafe. And if people can't learn to deal with those feelings they really can't function effectively in a free society.

Kaminer's position seems rather innocuous and obvious, yet her use of those words still deeply dismayed some Smith students. According to the interpretation of Jordan Houston, a student at Smith:

What unfolded...left many Smithies feeling outraged, hurt, offended, and betrayed. Assuming the role as a moderator between four Smith panelists, among them being lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer '71, President McCartney sat in on what turned from a civil discourse on the idea of "free speech" vs. "hate speech" into an explicit act of racial violence.

Houston's view is an example of the destructive power of political correctness that has taken hold on many college campuses. Fortunately, Kaminer has found many defenders. Overall it would appear that the backlash at Smith by those who labeled Kaminer a racist is seen to reflect badly on Smith College.

As noted in an earlier post, I have grown skeptical of the desirability of the college environment. The juxtaposition of unworldly, ideologically rigid professors with naive undergraduates sometimes leads to ridiculous outcomes. I get the sense that some of these students are more empowered than they ought to be for what little they know. It seems that political correctness has blinded them to the meaning and value of free speech. One would think that a college campus is the last place one would find closed-mindedness and dogma prevalent. In a way, students like Houston are behaving in a manner that confirms their status as members of an elite class that is so far above all others that it can create its own reality, even if that means misrepresenting the reality of those whom they purport to defend.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I died for Beauty—but was scarce

I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room—

He questioned softly "Why I failed"?
"For Beauty", I replied—
"And I—for Truth—Themself are One—
We Bretheren, are", He said—

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—
We talked between the Rooms—
Until the Moss had reached our lips—
And covered up—our names—

—Emily Dickinson

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Poet's Anecdote

As you may have noticed from my selection of poems, I'm a fan of Denise Levertov. I know a bit about her history but am still in the process exploring it and will write more in the future. For the time being I thought I ought to mention a quote that I recently came across, because it relates to some of my other posts.

For an outsider it is a little difficult to see how the publishing industry works. Like any industry, there is probably a lot of "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." You have to be chummy with the right people and do them favors. This applied to Denise Levertov as much as anyone else. One of her former students, Mark Pawlak, recounts this conversation he had with her in 1975:

I asked Denise why it is that I have never seen one of her books reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. "About ten years ago," she explained, "they used to regularly ask me to write reviews. I did it for a while but found such reviewing to be making catty remarks about other authors, and that became distasteful to me. I eventually made a pact with myself not to do so any longer and began to turn down the offers from the Times, until they realized what was up and they stopped asking me. I think the editors were offended that I would turn them down because they never once since have run a review of any of my books, which they always used to do.

This is interesting, because even though Levertov is not exactly a household name, she was then and still is recognized as a major poet and regularly appears in anthologies of twentieth century American poets. While it may be obvious to insiders, casual readers of the Times may never realize how biased it can be in the selection of books to review. As an observer of the NYRB, I get the sense that similar activities occur behind the scenes there too. The NYRB seems to seek something that resembles exclusive rights on celebrity writers and public intellectuals, and it then represents them like a record producer so that the author and the publication both glow in unison as icons of the literary elite. In the case of the NYRB, which deals with a much narrower range of writers and books than the Times, there seems to be a specific emphasis on increasing the prestige of the publication. From both the Times and the NYRB, and probably The New Yorker, the reader may get a false sense of the cutting edge. The underlying activities are ultimately those of smarmy businessmen plying their trades. Those who take it all in uncritically are not entirely different from rednecks in pickups who listen to Rush Limbaugh on their radios.

One of the things I like about Levertov's poems is their honesty. As an honest person myself, I have long recognized that there is a price to pay for it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Woman Meets an Old Lover

'He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves down Oak Hill Path
thirty years ago

appeared before me with anxious face, pale,
almost unrecognized, hesitant,

He whom I cannot remember hearing laugh out loud
but see in mind's eye smiling, self-approving,
wept on my shoulder.

He who seemed always,
to take and not give, who took me so long
to forget,

remembered everything that I had so long forgotten.'

 —Denise Levertov

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Immigrant Experience

I promised I would write something about Welcome to Americastan, by Jabeen Akhtar, and here it is. The novel is well written, perhaps in part because Akhtar is an experienced writer of environmental regulations, but I have to say that it was of little interest to me. The story is about a young Pakistani-American woman and her family who live on the East Coast. She and her siblings were raised in the U.S. and are essentially American, while their parents still follow many Pakistani customs and actively participate in the local community of Pakistani immigrants. The protagonist, Samira, was dumped by her boyfriend, who then proceeded to marry her best friend. There is a minor incident in which she is briefly accused of being a terrorist. However, the book is completely apolitical, and offers what seems to be a realistic depiction of a well-assimilated Pakistani family during the current post-9/11 period.

Akhtar's writing is precise, but it mostly skims the surface. The descriptions are detailed and accurate, but not really interesting. All of her characters are conventional - most are boringly so - and there is not much in the way of subtlety to be mined from the text. The novel almost reads like a screenplay for an American film, and I suspect that Akhtar would not oppose a film version. Unfortunately for her, her publisher, Penguin, seems to have determined that the book would not sell in the U.S., and my copy is labeled "For sale in India and Pakistan only." It was shipped from India in fragrant packaging that the mailman thought smelled funny. I would say that Akhtar has potential as a writer, but she seems to be driven more by economic motives than by artistic motives. As an aesthetic experience, Welcome to Americastan was a waste of time for me, though compulsive, indiscriminate readers may still enjoy it.

The book did activate some of my dormant thoughts about ethnicity. This seems to be a popular topic in the U.S. In the novel, Samira's ethnicity has mostly vanished, but, because of her name and physical appearance, it is occasionally forced upon her by others. She is well-educated and does not feel out of place in her milieu. Her parents are also well-adjusted, and are appreciative of the economic opportunities afforded here in conjunction with the possibility of retaining their cultural identity through the local Pakistani community. I sometimes get a kick out of thinking about this, because my family background is extremely ethnic, but in my case this is ancient history that has almost been forgotten.

My mother's mother's father, Bedros, was an Armenian who, at about age 16, fled his village in Armenia when he was warned of an impending massacre during the 1894-1896 period. All of the Christians who remained in the village were killed. He then moved to Athens, where the Greeks discriminated against Armenians, and later married a German woman who was living there. He did not identify with the local Armenians and changed his children's surnames by adding "is" to the end in order to make them sound Greek. My mother's father's father, Mardiros, was a successful Armenian businessman who lived in western Turkey. He saw the 1915 Ottoman massacres coming well in advance and sold his possessions and moved the family to Athens. My mother's parents essentially had an arranged marriage that was set up after consultation with an Armenian priest. Most of this Armenian family history was not in evidence in our lives because my mother grew up in Greece. She went to a German school, and her parents spoke French at home. To complicate matters, she married an English soldier when she was only 21 and lived in England for ten years before we all moved to the U.S. In the U.S. she identified herself as Greek, though she did not participate at all in any local Greek community, if there was one.

The other side of my family, my father's, has long provided me with amusing ways to think about ethnicity. When we arrived here in 1957, we were already in the middle class, hardly

...your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

In fact, our English accents and manners temporarily bestowed upon us a relatively high social status. We didn't feel excluded, though some of us retained a certain amount of skepticism towards Americans and American life. Later on, when I began to think about ethnicity here, I decided that English immigrants may actually face a disadvantage. English people apparently are supposed to become assimilated immediately. If, for example, they are churchgoers, there is the Episcopal Church. As far as I know, there are no communities of recent English immigrants. As it was, we felt a certain amount of alienation, but had no cultural resources on which to fall back. To this day, 57 years later, I don't really feel assimilated, though I don't feel English either. Most other English immigrants I've met also seem neither English nor American. Certainly you get no credit or special attention from other English immigrants for being English. It is barely acknowledged.

From my point of view, ethnic assimilation amounts to little more than ostensibly accepting the local propaganda when you move from one geographic region to another. That could be moving from Pakistan to the U.S. or from Massachusetts to Mississippi. There is a lot that I don't buy into in the U.S. and never will. On this subject I am indebted to Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind. When faced with ideological pressure, one may either take the "Pill of Murti-Bing" or resort to "Ketman." The former amounts to taking a drug to obscure any fears or disagreements one has with a new dominating system and then accepting it completely without criticism. The latter involves the maintaining of a conformist outer face while remaining fully independent and critical privately. Under "Ketman," one submits to external pressures with which one does not agree while retaining a sense of integrity by concealing divergent views from others. This results in a hypocritical disconnection between the outer and inner selves. An excellent discussion of these concepts can be found here. Milosz concentrates on how intellectuals reconcile their ideas with those of a totalitarian system that is imposed on them. While conditions are not quite as severe in the U.S., Western capitalism, particularly in the U.S., shows many similarities to totalitarianism. As a person who did not pursue an intellectual career, the compromises that I've had to make have been minimal. The same cannot be said of many of America's public intellectuals on whom I've commented previously. Needless to say, none of these issues show up in Akhtar's novel, which was never intended to be thought provoking.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Last Hill in a Vista

Come, let us tell the weeds in ditches
How we are poor, who once had riches,
And lie out in the sparse and sodden
Pastures that the cows have trodden,
The while an autumn night seals down
The comforts of the wooden town.

Come, let us counsel some cold stranger
How we sought safety, but loved danger.
So, with stiff walls about us, we
Chose this more fragile boundary:
Hills, where light poplars, the firm oak,
Loosen into a little smoke.

 —Louise Bogan

Friday, October 31, 2014

Descending Sequence

     'It was a fearful thing
     to come into a man's heart...'
                                     —William Carlos Williams, "Winter Sunset"

What I thought to be a river
turned out to be sky.
What I thought were shore, island,
rocks, river-mist,
turned out to be clouds, shadow,
shot-holes in sky's canvas.
Even the deepest shade
down near the horizon
turned out not to be earth,
the real horizon was lower still.
At the oblong world's
very base,
further darkness, a round-topped tree,
a telephone pole, the sharp
ridge of a roof, chimney, gable end:
silhouettes on a sky
differently white, not the illusory
river's whiteness—and all
very small under the huge
vista above. Small,
as if in fear.

—Denise Levertov

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eusociality, Morality and Political Systems

Over time, it seems that my view of human nature as it relates to religion, morality and political systems has diverged considerably from the ideas that most people hold these days. I have always believed in evolution, but when I read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, in the 1990's I began to become a radical Darwinian. This involved the recognition that we are here as the result of random events, meaning that life as we know it was far from inevitable. More recently, I have been influenced by Edward O. Wilson's application of eusociality to humans. I thought that I should say something more about these concepts, because they relate to many of the views that I have presented on this blog.

According to Wilson, humans are eusocial animals because they have these features: division of labor, overlapping generations and cooperative care of the young, including ones that are not their own. Certainly it is a bit of a stretch to relate humans to social insects on this basis, but from my point of view this is simply an opening through which to look at basic human nature as it relates to genetic predispositions. There is growing evidence that the cooperation humans engage in is the central ingredient that allowed our distant ancestors to survive while all other Homo species became extinct. Human cooperation is linked to the development of language, large brains, and, ultimately, consciousness. It is also the basis for all modern societies and, by association, most modern religions.

Although humans have never behaved as mechanically as ants, it is a useful thought experiment to consider what human life would be like if we had no innate tendency to form cooperative groups. If you have a hard time visualizing this scenario, it's because it is almost unimaginable. Humans would never have developed language, agriculture, villages or technology. We would in all likelihood be extinct. Any humans who managed to survive would probably live in a manner similar to chimpanzees or other primates.

I think there is a great deal of naïveté even among educated people about why we are the way we are and how our institutions came into existence, and this has ongoing manifestations in religious, moral and political thought. In my interpretation, religions have historically supplied worldviews that unify groups and permit them to form hierarchies that provide organization and functionality to groups of varying sizes. In a very small group, a religious leader might provide explanations that calm the group and prevent its disintegration. Until recently, there was often no separation of church and state: a theocracy was a natural form of organization that often worked quite well. Because of advances in science and global population growth, we are currently in a transitional period that could play out in several different ways.

In ancient times, some populations could live in proximity to other tribes and scarcely know that they existed. Because of population growth and advances in transportation, that is impossible now. Most of the conflicts of modern history have to do with different cultures coming into contact with one another and competing for natural resources. The British and the French in particular swiftly set up exploitative colonial systems that reaped benefits for hundreds of years. More recently, the American colonies, which consisted primarily of British settlers, decided not to be exploited by Britain any longer, as they were able to manage their own affairs. The U.S., however, copied the British model and continued to exploit slaves, who were used for inexpensive labor, and Native Americans, who were removed from their ancestral lands in order to make space for settlers and allow unfettered access to natural resources.

Because many early settlers of the U.S. came to escape religious persecution, the U.S. became the first major country to support the separation of church and state. Initially this may have had to do with the desire of immigrants to escape religious persecution, but eventually, because of the influx of people from diverse cultures, toleration of differing religious views on American soil became a necessity. It may be difficult for younger people to understand it now, but John F. Kennedy was a controversial presidential candidate in 1960 simply because he was Catholic.

My personal view is that there is currently little point in belonging to any religion. It is no longer necessary in the West to use religion to express one's affiliation with a group. This is not to say that religion has no significance. The medieval universities were primarily Christian, and much of modern Western civilization, including the sciences, developed within that tradition. There will always be church teachings that have some relevance, but I don't believe that any church has real authority, and scientific knowledge, though not always complete or satisfying, is still in the process of replacing church dogma. I consider large religious organizations to be on the verge of obsolescence.

One of the historical purposes of religion has been to provide a basis for moral authority and law. However, most church dogma is becoming irrelevant today. Particularly in monotheistic religions, once you take God out of the equation, there is nothing left to back up church ideology. After the emergence of Protestantism, erosion of church authority began to accelerate with the Enlightenment. In most developed countries today, the church plays no role in governance, and faith is treated as a private matter. Yet the transition away from church teachings in government is ongoing, and the conceptual basis of morality and law is still shifting.

Some now think of morality as a form of rationality, like Kant's categorical imperative. To me this is nonsense. It is more appropriate to look at human behavior first to determine the origin of moral behavior. I believe that its primary source is an instinct for group preservation. While there are indeed contexts in which rational self-interest may explain apparent moral behavior, I do not believe moral behavior would generally exist as a phenomenon were it not for a deeply implanted genetic predisposition that is supported and encouraged within human cultures. Because we are large, complex organisms, morality can only be loosely codified in our genetic makeup, and the resulting inconsistencies in individual behavior tend to mislead some into thinking of moral behavior as a rational choice. The fact is that, because of our complexity, any individual is capable of acting both morally and immorally while being fully aware of what constitutes right and wrong. I believe that it is a mistake to look for a source of morality beyond the context of human evolution and natural selection.

Another aspect of human life that ought to be examined in light of our knowledge of evolutionary processes is systems of governance. Here again I believe that we are in a transitional period. Possibly one of the most deeply-rooted instincts is to have a single leader such as a chief, king, pope or president. Although the Founding Fathers rejected the notion of monarchy, which they correctly associated with unfairness and the abuse of power, gradual increases in presidential power in the U.S. are probably to some extent indicative of an innate predisposition among humans to have concentrated sources of political and spiritual authority within their groups. This is an area where I think some of the ideas of the Enlightenment need reexamination.

In a nutshell, I believe that the concepts of governance that arose during the Enlightenment are shortsighted and incorrect, because they predated Darwin and place an unrealistic emphasis on human rationality. To make matters worse, subsequent political thinkers such as Karl Marx did not make any effort to incorporate Darwinian ideas into their thoughts and dismissed altogether the relevance of biology in the construction of political theories. The capitalist democracy is now the default system for most developed countries, and this state of affairs is probably little more than an accident of history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many European groups that had undergone religious, political or economic repression were attracted to the U.S. because of the freedoms it offered, and because their circumstances improved dramatically here no one critically analyzed whether this was a sustainable model when seen from the vantage point of all of humanity. My view is that the U.S. started as a quick fix for social inequality in Europe and escaped scrutiny as a model only because the timeframe in which people judged its success was too short. Obviously it seemed perfect to those who were unemployed and starving when they found jobs, food and shelter after arriving. However, there is no evidence that the system set up in the U.S. is one that can last for a thousand years and be modeled throughout the world without ill effects.

The two main areas in which I think the American system has failed are environmental destruction and inequality. The success of the economy and the political system rests on pollution and the segmentation of society on the basis of wealth. As the largest polluter in the history of the world, the U.S. bears a proportionate share of the responsibility for anthropogenic global warming and the associated mass extinctions. And, as Thomas Piketty amply documents, wealth inequality is likely to increase if we remain on our current trajectory. The fact is that the Founding Fathers had no idea what the long-term consequences of pollution might be - they didn't even know that pollution could damage the planet - and their ideas about equality are unacceptable by modern standards. Slavery? No problem. Female votes? Forget it. From my point of view, these were not small errors in the plan that crept in through the cracks, but are symptomatic of a limited system that was created in an ad hoc manner and has already proven itself unfair and unsustainable.

I advocate an orderly transition to a post-capitalist society in which people live equally, fulfilling their eusocial instincts, but without the democratic system with which we are familiar. In my view, capitalism must end eventually, because any benefits that accrue from it are likely to be negated by its destructive effects. Once a certain technological level is reached - and we are probably very close - there will be very little need for further technological advancement, and it is conceivable that working for a living will become unnecessary. Currently the democratic process is intertwined with economics, and a large percentage of legislation, in the abstract, boils down to how wealth is to be distributed. If wealth were permanently equalized, most of what we now think of as democracy would serve no purpose. In the long run, I think that some sort of automated system containing equality algorithms may work best for mankind, with active democratic processes continuing mainly at the local level, where individual participation may remain relevant. Technologically, I don't think we're far from creating artificial intelligence that will be capable of thinking better than we can and that won't have private agendas like those that still infect politics. At the moment it is, if anything, unsettling to think that the people in the federal government in Washington, D.C. are determining our future. Any political system that isn't based on a deep understanding of human nature is destined to fail. Abuse of power is no less apparent in modern democracies than it was in the old European monarchies.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

—Dorothy Parker

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

 —Denise Levertov

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost in Translation

In the process of taking up poetry again, I have been rereading various poems in translation and am thinking about some of the problems associated with translation. Language has always troubled me. I was slow to talk, bad at learning other languages, and didn't read much until I went to college. Even now I am not usually talkative. In high school I preferred math and science because they were more precise than the other subjects. When I studied philosophy in college, my main interest was the clear expression of ideas in English.

It seems to me that ordinary prose can be translated from one language to another in a relatively straightforward way. There may be difficulties finding comparable terms, and some concepts may have more circulation in one language than another. The structures of the languages may differ, but it seems as if it would usually be fairly easy to translate the basic ideas in a sentence from one language to another. The translation of basic prose would not necessarily have to capture all of the subtleties, if any, in the original.

When greater precision in translation is required, as in fiction, essays or technical papers, difficulties begin to arise. Technical papers probably preempt many of the obstacles with the adoption of universal technical language that obviates the need for the translation of crucial content. Essays may include more subtleties than ordinary prose, but, assuming that both languages have traditions that include essay-writing, with attention to detail, translations can be made. Much larger problems must arise in the case of translating literary fiction. Here, the author may have used lyrical writing, unconventional word choices, slang, colloquialisms, obscure cultural references, unusual sentence structures, etc., that do not lend themselves readily to translation. I suspect that the results in translated fiction may tend to be somewhat unsatisfactory, since some aspects of the author's original intent may not survive in translation.

This brings me to poems, and I think that in many cases their translations must be complete disasters. When I read poems from other languages that have been translated into English, I often feel that they have a clunky, aesthetically grating quality and wonder what it would be like to experience them in the original. Similarly, I don't see how any of my favorite poems could survive translation into another language. Rhymes and rhythms may be impossible to duplicate. When a poet has fretted over each word, its position, the line breaks, the spacing and the punctuation within the poem, any change at all may instantly ruin the entire poem or at least divert its effect to something other than what the poet intended.

For this last reason I am inclined to read only poems that were originally composed in English. And in English it is tempting to read only those poems that are in close proximity in geography and time to the here and now. The farther away one gets, the more the uses of language diverge from the familiar, and correct interpretation becomes more problematic. Dictionaries are a recent invention, and even so they require periodic revisions if they are to maintain their accuracy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
                   My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                             I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

 —Denise Levertov

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes


As you may have noticed, I've started posting poems that I like. I have mixed feelings about poetry for several reasons. I was first introduced to it by an English teacher in high school who seems to have caused me to permanently revile nearly all English teachers, English majors and English departments. This teacher adopted annoying English affectations, though he was from Ohio. To make matters worse, my freshman roommate in college was an English major from Michigan who also adopted annoying English affectations. He once presented me with a poem that he had hand written on a piece of birch bark. By the end of my freshman year I was ready to become a serial killer of English majors.

There were other problems that I had with poetry. I often felt that there was no point to its ambiguity, and when it wasn't ambiguous it often struck me as uninteresting. Although my reading skills have improved since high school, I tend to react to poetry the same way that I used to. If a poem expresses an idea, it can usually be expressed more clearly in prose. If it expresses an observation, the same can be done in prose. I consider the concept of prose poetry an oxymoron. For me, poetry works best as an artistic formulation that combines language, perceptions, ideas and emotions in a way that can't be done well in prose, but sometimes can in fiction. There is some overlap between poetry and fiction, depending on the writing style of the author. This leaves a very narrow range for poetry, and in order to bother reading it at all I feel that it has to be of unusually high quality. The finer points of good poetry seem ineffable to me, and I doubt that they can be taught. In this regard I lump poetry in with fiction and dismiss the value of writing programs.

During my fiction-reading period that started in the late 1980's, I also delved into poetry somewhat. I read a couple of anthologies and found little to like. The first poet who struck me as good was Denise Levertov. However, after reading several volumes of her poems, I decided that I only liked a handful. I also liked Emily Dickinson's oddness and consider her a genuine poetic genius, if there is such a thing. But even in her case most of her poems are duds in my opinion. There was part of the poem "Come, Words, Away" by Laura Riding that intrigued me for some time, but I don't think her work holds up well. Years ago I read some Shelley and Rilke (it was recited at my wedding in 1974) and thought they were good, but I don't think they're as good as Levertov or Dickinson. After moving to Vermont I read most of Robert Frost's poems, a couple of which were familiar from high school, and though I liked two or three of them, I think he was essentially a linguistically awkward poet who could have said almost everything better in prose if he knew how to write.

This last comment on Frost ties in with a lot of what I think is wrong with contemporary poetry. The impetus behind writing poetry is the desire for self-expression. Especially now that formal structure is unnecessary in poems, every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Megan, Caitlin and Heather), regardless of their knowledge or skill, can write a poem and be praised for it. While it might be possible to pick out amateur poems from a collection that also included poems written by major contemporary poets, I think the standards are low, and the published poets may in many cases simply be lucky or have out-marketed their competition. Although I can't be counted among the cognoscenti of poetry, I often find what is expressed in the poems of leading poets to be of little or no significance or interest. They frequently pick pedestrian subjects and seem unperceptive to me. On rereading "Daddy," Sylvia Plath's most famous poem, though I acknowledge that she exhibits some skill there, the poem is essentially a childish rant that probably doesn't do her father justice at all. I'd rather not hear from angry brats.

My theory is that there is a certain amount of serendipity involved in creating a good poem. It may not be possible for many poets to write five good poems in a lifetime. In a way a poet is like an op-ed columnist who has to crank out something new each week, and there isn't enough happening in their total environment for this to work consistently. I think everything worked when Denise Levertov wrote "Living," but that that was not a common occurrence in her life. I won't go into detail describing what works in that poem, because it would feel like a desecration to me.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

—Denise Levertov

Friday, October 10, 2014

Economic Development in Vermont

One of the very few people who have responded to my poll requested that I write about a topic that often comes up in local discussion: the shortage of well-paying jobs in Vermont. It is difficult to find them here because the state has relatively little industry compared to the surrounding states. There is a large IBM plant in Essex Junction, but the primary state industry is tourism. Some counties are agricultural; Addison County, where I live, has significant dairy and beef farming, and apples and maple syrup are produced in several counties. Wood and mining industries still flourish, and in recent years craft breweries and whiskey distilleries have been growing, but none of these employ many workers. Most of the jobs are tourism-related and don't pay well.

There are historical reasons for the current state of economic affairs in Vermont. Few came early on compared to other states, as the remote, landlocked location was not optimal for industrialization. Many of the early settlers were farmers from nearby states; they soon found out that the soil and climate are not optimal for most crops and joined the migration to the Midwest. Not many industries thrived here, and the rate of population growth significantly lagged behind that of the surrounding states. The population here has multiplied 4.1 times since 1800, compared to 33.1 times for New York, 15.5 times for Massachusetts and 7.2 times for New Hampshire.  As the economy boomed along the coast, Vermont became a vacation retreat. In the 1960's, Vermont gained a counterculture image, and wealthy people from other states began to move here, shifting state politics from conservative to liberal. As in other parts of the country, liberals emphasize protection of the environment and quality-of-life issues, while conservatives emphasize economic growth and wealth creation. To be sure, few Vermont political conservatives resemble Tea Partiers, and they don't correspond closely to the contemporary Republicans in Washington, D.C. A liberal political environment makes it harder to attract new businesses here than to pro-business states.

As a retiree transplant, I oppose wholesale economic development in Vermont. First, speaking as an individual, I came here for the low population density, the pleasant physical environment and the like-mindedness of the people. Having seen firsthand what happened when economic development hit areas such as Indianapolis, Indiana and Schaumburg, Illinois, I would definitely move somewhere else if that were to happen here. I would vote against strong economic growth purely out of self-interest. As far as the status of the unemployed or underemployed is concerned, it has been a fact of life for centuries that people go to where there are jobs, not vice versa. The breadwinners in my family, including me, have done that for generations, so I don't think of it as a punishment to impose it on others. Those who insist on living in a place without jobs are behaving like narcissists if they think they have a right to both a good job and the living situation of their choice. That privilege has been a rarity for most of recorded history.

Second, on a more fundamental level, this topic touches on what I perceive to be serious flaws in our economic and political systems. Neither democracy nor capitalism deals with the consequences of economic development on a long-term basis. Because of economic growth and population increases, the U.S. is not the same country that it was in 1776. Economic growth has historically damaged the environment and contributed to overpopulation across the globe, and the warnings of Thomas Malthus have generally been ignored only because the human race has thus far managed to survive in spite of them. Few seem willing to admit that the country and the world might be better places if they more closely resembled Vermont than New Jersey. It is certainly no coincidence that many of the retirees here moved from that state.

Most of my childhood was spent in a suburb of New York City, and though I didn't understand it at the time, I felt that I was not getting enough exposure to the outdoors. After leaving for college, I developed a sense of relief at being able to live in uncongested places with woods and fields, which, it now seems to me, more closely approximate the kind of environment to which we are adapted. I think the same is true for most people, whether they realize it or not. This takes on significance when you consider that it is a fact that has been almost ignored since the country's inception. Most of the population now lives in or near cities.

Policymakers and economists chuckle to themselves whenever someone suggests that less economic growth would be beneficial. However, economic growth is usually accompanied by population growth. Currently, the world population is projected to reach about 9 billion by 2050, almost ten times the estimated world population of 1800. Ten thousand years ago, a blink of an eye in geological terms, it is estimated that our ancestors inhabited a world with a population of only 4 million. The fact that we have survived this growth does not imply that it is desirable. Rather it has contributed to an illusion of normalcy where none should exist.

I view the world as our deteriorating habitat, with diminishing pockets of habitability. Though I feel fortunate to be able to live in a desirable state within a major economic and military power, I see no reason to support American ideology, which I have never believed. Directly or indirectly, many of the world's woes are connected to conflicting groups that have been forced into contact with each other by overcrowding. Small groups can't wage wars with people whom they don't know exist, neither can they seriously deplete world resources or create global warming. When people aren't forced to live and work in cramped quarters, they can have environments in which they feel comfortable and never encounter conflicting ideologies.

Finally, I am not opposed to all economic development. Here in Middlebury a process is in place to create a small number of jobs that do not impinge upon the existing nature of the town, which still operates much as it did in 1800.