Thursday, July 12, 2018

Alpha Males and the Women Who Love Them

It’s been a while since I was an alpha male. I used to pound my chest and lay waste to my enemies. It was all so easy in those days. I was a merger lawyer, consigliere to the barbarians at the gate. Turn your back on the wrong guy, show a little weakness, and that was it for you. Badabing badaboom.

But now I think I’ve become a beta male. Can I survive? Not in my old world, I’ll tell you that. They’d be escorting me over to a nice iceberg, offering me a gold watch to count off my remaining time. They only cared what I could do for them. Truthfully, I liked it that way. I was running and gunning, happy to match wits and guile with anyone.

The thing I didn’t realize at the time, when I was sure all my success was because of me, was that even then I had a huge safety net, carefully stitched by white male privilege, waiting to catch me if I flew too close to the sun. I was a partner in a big law firm. If I flamed out as a Jedi Master of big deals, I could always come down from the high wire and work closer to the ground.

I see all that now. I didn’t see it then. All I saw were the spoils of conquest.

That’s an anecdotal way of saying I understand Donald Trump. I’d like to think I was never as unprincipled as he is, but I was in some bare-knuckle fights. Perhaps the only difference between me and The Donald is that only the terms of an acquisition agreement depended on me, not the state of the union. I don’t know if I would have abandoned long-cherished societal norms to gain an edge for myself, but I like to think not.

That same anecdote also illustrates why it might not be such a good idea to entrust modern democracy to alpha males. We’re good at war and hogging mates, but peace-making and promoting a fulfilling communal life for all is not really our thing.

Now, as we watch The Donald in the full rage of dominance tantrums, the question we have to ask ourselves is what do we need from our president. Do we need someone who will go to the mattresses every time, who will not be dominated, who will annihilate his enemies and even his former friends to stay on top? Or do we need a nice nerdy beta person? Someone whose first instinct isn’t to come out shooting but to sit down an write an app that might solve whatever the problem is.

Has the world changed enough for it to be safe for the betas to rule?

There is no question that from the dawn of time the men who ruled were almost all alpha males. The countries they led took what they wanted: minerals, countries, slaves. It was a cushy gig for those with the right DNA and a good broadsword.

But now, there’s an app for that. No alpha male ever had more knowledge at his command than Google gives each and every one of us. No peasant ever had a better chance of getting needed help than homeless people in our cities whose needs are monitored digitally by social workers determined to give the dignity of food, healthcare and shelter to even the most unfortunate among us.

That isn’t the way it was for most of the millennia of evolution that gave us the ethos that Trump has embraced: survival of the fittest, cut the weak from the herd, don’t waste resources on non-contributors.

Is it still the law of the jungle out there? Are we just an unfair trade deal away from being taken over by the guys in the next cave? Or has the world changed, even if our Darwinian programming has not caught up?

American voters will have to grapple with that question in the upcoming midterms. Those contests will, as conservative commentator Alex Castellanos somewhat sarcastically put it, pit beta males and the women who want to be them against alpha males and the women who love them.

It’s shaping up to be a fight to the death.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Cult of What's Happening Now

Dear friends and family,

I’m running away to join a cult. Actually, I’m not going anywhere, but I am seriously joining a cult. Or maybe forming one. It will be for people who are already in it but don’t know they are. People like me who are desperate for a home.

I once heard of a church called “The Church of Jesus Christ of What’s Happening Now.” I can’t remember if it was an actual new-age church in the 1970s or a comedy sketch with that guy who played Johnnie Cochran on Saturday Night Live. Whatever. It’s a cool name, hip and current. So that’s what I’m going to name my cult. Minus the Jesus Christ part.

My cult is not a church. That’s why no Jesus. I have nothing against Jesus; although I might have a few disagreements with some who currently invoke his name for policies and practices I’m sure he would have found…well, un-Christian. My cult is more like a monastery. Not such austere living conditions, but withdrawn from the heresy of the everyday world. There will be contemplation in my cult. No self-flagellation, though. No hair shirts.

Also no Kool-Aid. That Jim Jones thing was definitely not a cult I would form.

Can you join my cult? you ask. Sure. Everyone is invited. It’s up to you. You have to decide if it’s for you. No pressure. No promise of salvation. As I said, no Kool-Aid. It’s very un-cult-like in that way. 

I don’t want to control you. I don’t want anything from you except the peace of mind of knowing that you are with me. Even if I don’t know who you are. Even if we never speak. Also, no dues or offering plate, did I say that? We have no cathedrals to build, no monuments. (Although I do like Rodin sculptures, so if enough of you want to get together to buy me, say, Jean D’Aire, one of the Burghers of Calais, as thanks for forming our cult, that would be totally fine.)

Now, down to brass tacks. You might want to join my cult if you hate what Trump supporters are doing to America. I say Trump supporters, and not Trump, because they are the ones who elected him. They are the ones who encourage his increasingly outrageous and un-American behavior. They are responsible for the mess we are in. They definitely would not be welcome in my cult. Which, I’m sure is not going to break their hearts. They already have their own.

I don’t want Trump supporters in my cult because I don’t want to hang with them. They make me mad, which is bad for my peace of mind. And I’m not going to change their opinions. I know this because I‘ve talked to a bunch of them and I don’t get anywhere. Maybe I’m just not very persuasive. Maybe the things I believe in are wrong. Fantastical even. I don’t feel I need to apologize for that: mine wouldn’t be the first cult to believe in fantastical things.

The point is, I believe in them. They are pretty much the polar opposite of what that other cult espouses. I believe in equal rights for all, including minorities and women. I believe in health care and decent education for all. I believe in income subsidies for the poor. I believe in free trade and sensible immigration laws. Basically, I believe in humanity. 

This brings me to the first amendment to the by-laws of my new cult: You can’t be in it unless you vote. So I guess we won’t be totally like a monastery. More like an activist convent. Like that one Whoopi Goldberg snuck into in “Sister Act.”

Those other guys? I’m not sure what they believe in. I know what they say. I can read. What they say sounds like some eighteenth-century fantasy of a bunch of free white men doing whatever the hell they please with no government interference. And no back talk from the little woman and, you know, those other people who were brought over to work the fields and then got all uppity. 

To them I say, “Have you tried the Kool-Aid?”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

America, Love it or Leave it.

I’m reading a book about the rise of Nazi Germany, and it’s making me mad. I’m sad about what Hitler and his henchmen did to Jews and gypsies and anyone who opposed them, but I’m mad that it’s happening again. Right here in the good old U.S. of A.

Vienna is rioting, Hitler said. I have to go in to restore order. The Austrians implore me.

Muslims in New Jersey celebrated as the World Trade towers collapsed, Trump said, as part of his justification for his Muslim immigration ban. We need to get those people out of here, that was his message.

Hitler burned books and imprisoned anyone who wrote the truth about what he was doing. Trump has done a pretty good job of turning many of us against the liberal media, those purveyors of FAKE NEWS. Or, as the rest of us know it: the truth.

Hitler only wanted Poland, he told the appeasers. Trump has lied about his intentions on so many fronts, it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s one that’s going to hurt a lot of people: he promised to keep healthcare protections for pre-existing conditions; now his justice department is saying they are unconstitutional.

When I was growing up in the South, it seemed like a particularly patriotic area. Big signs along the highways proclaimed our love of our country and our culture: “Impeach Earl Warren” (the author of the Supreme Court’s school-desegregation decision, a clearly un-American point of view in the south in 1954). “America, Love it or Leave it” nicely summed up a widely held sentiment.

So, I did.

Or at least I left the part of the country that I thought was still uniquely in the thrall of Jim Crow’s inability to accept the outcome of the Civil War.

I went to L.A. It was not long after the Watts Riots. Ronald Reagan was the governor. I should have realized that racism and xenophobia weren’t confined to the South, but I was young and naive and idealistic. 

Now I know. 

I never thought Trump would be elected. I thought we were better than that. So did Jon Stewart. We were both wrong.

Jon Stewart said he quit The Daily Show because he was tired of being so angry. He said watching Fox News to get material for his show was like being a “turd miner.” He said he hoped he didn’t get “turd-lung disease.”

I wish he’d hung in there. Maybe he could have kept us sane and grounded enough to not fall under Trump’s charismatic spell. I doubt it, though. Only people who already agreed with him watched his show. That and those who wanted sound bites to mock him.

Well, I’m with Jon now. I’m angry. And, like him, I’m tired of being angry, but (no offense intended to Jon, who did yeoman’s work for 15 years) I’m determined not to quit. We’ve all seen what happened when the good people of Germany stopped resisting. That’s all it takes for the cancer of hatred to spread. 

We are our body-politic’s immune system. We are weakened now, but we are not wiped out. We need to fight. We need to attack. If we don’t, our way of life will die. Just as it did in Nazi Germany. Just as it did in Fascist Italy and Spain. Just as it does whenever good people look the other way until it is too late.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Time to Go From the Land of Mow and Blow

As if from a dream, I’ve just awakened to the fact that gardeners have captured my neighborhood. They are an occupying force of pickup trucks, mowers and leaf blowers. Don’t get me wrong, I like gardeners. Most in our area are friendly and conscientious, and they make the yards look beautiful. Lately, though, those beautiful yards are starting to look like plots in a peaceful cemetery.

Time to go. Not to escape the leaf blowers, but to run from my own mortality.

We moved to the suburbs for the kids. Safe streets for biking, good schools, lots of soccer fields, even a children’s theatre where they could be the stars of the show. Our neighborhood was great for them. They thrived. They left.

It turns out I can only stand so much pastoral tranquility. The kids kept the place hopping, but now all the silent beauty is a little depressing. I need some buzz.

There are plenty of places I visit that are buzzy. But mainly they’re far from friends and parents. I’m over thinking I can jet off to some exotic place and do my own thing and when I come back everything will be the same. So I have to find some nearby buzz. San Francisco, I think.

I don’t want to trade sidewalks bordered with flowers for ones blooming with the tents of homeless men and women, but that seems to be the trade I have to make. 

The problem with great cities is the same thing that gives them energy: a diverse population swarming in a frenzy of activity, all kinds of activity, solid and sordid, beautiful and vile, inspiring and disheartening. I love the inspiring parts, not so much the disheartening ones.

I think it’s more than the obvious ugliness, the trash and heroine needles, that bothers me. It’s the lost lives that force themselves on me, into me. I can’t just see them and ignore them. I have to try to understand why. I have to try to solve it. Ask my children: I can’t resist trying to solve everyone’s problems.

Big city solutions aren’t simple, of course. People do what they do, and in our society, by and large, we let them, as long as what they’re doing isn’t hurting anyone. 

This is where homelessness gets so tough. People have a right to be homeless. This means, by implication, that they have a right to sleep on a park bench, under a freeway overpass, perhaps in a sidewalk tent outside a local shop or restaurant.

California is home to one-fourth of the nation’s homeless. There are many more now than in the past. It’s apparent that we don’t know how to handle them. Are they our neighbors, who, were we in a small country town, we would try to help back on their feet, maybe even put up in a spare bedroom? Or are they dangerous people—mentally ill, addicted—whom we are afraid of and would like to see go somewhere else, anywhere else?

We try, I think. We build shelters and roll out busses outfitted with showers. But the numbers keep getting worse. The anecdotes keep getting worse. On both sides.

My kids have been gone for years now. My feeling of personal identification with the potted plants that surround me has been growing for years: “Get out of there before the soil takes you.” 

So why have I put it off? The city is expensive, sure, but I think if I’m honest with myself I’ve drug my feet because I don’t know if I have it in me to take on its problems. If I live there, I won’t be able to look away from the homeless. Not their blight, not their tormented lives, not the hopelessness of it all. I know I’ll have to try to help, if only in small ways. That’s what neighbors do for one another. I hope I’m up to it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

So, What Do We Do Now?

I had dinner with an old friend last night. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so first we caught up on what we’d been doing and how our families were. I had been in France for three months and he asked me what I’d learned. I said it seemed to me that the French eat better, look healthier and dress more stylishly than we do. They seem happy with the lifestyle their socialism enables.

That got us started. 

I’m liberal, he’s conservative (to use the prevalent labels). We agree on some things, but we deeply disagree on many others. On this night, however, we never got around to what we agreed on. We sparred like old boxers, circling, jabbing, opening small cuts.

I like to spar. It can be fun. And my friend is smart, so he often tells me things I didn’t know and should. It’s educational. But last night wasn’t educational. And it wasn’t fun. Not like it used to be.

Why was that? I wondered. Was it me? After all, who am I if not for my deep and abiding sense of moral superiority?

I despise Donald Trump. Let’s just get that out of the way. I think that, with his fake facts, his authoritarian tendencies, his attacks on the media—you name it—he poses a serious threat to our democracy. This is not the time for debating games. We have something like a national state of emergency on our hands.

My friend doesn’t see it that way. He takes a long and cynical view of politics, politicians and government. To my friend, Trump is no worse than Nixon. And what about Clinton getting blow jobs in the oval office and generally being a sexual predator in the days before #metoo? 

I don’t like the argument that all politicians do bad things, that they are all venal and self-serving. Maybe. But where does that leave us? Should we accept bad behavior just because it becomes the norm? 

And not all bad behavior is the same. For me, Trump is particularly dangerous, even by Nixon standards. Something has to be done. I support resistance. I support sanctuary cities and states. My friend thinks we would have better immigration enforcement and, as a result, sounder policy if the mayor of Oakland didn’t broadcast warnings of ICE raids.

So where does that leave us? Should we stop talking politics? Or just stop talking altogether? I’m frustrated, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Maybe my friend and I are a test case. What can be done about these two men who are so sure of themselves and whose views seem irreconcilable? Maybe if we could answer that question as to the two of us, others could as well. Maybe even some of those who are supposed to serving us in Congress.

So this is what I plan to propose to my friend: no more abstract debates, no more generalized pillorying of partisan positions or groups. Let’s talk about specific societal problems and see if we can agree on specific solutions. If we could get that far, the next step would be to try to find ways we could contribute to those solutions. 

We could even do it together. We could be a regular odd couple, like David Boies and Ted Olson, legal and ideological rivals who came together to convince the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage.

That could be productive and satisfying. More fun even than standing over one another with rhetorical sword in hand watching the other try to squirm out of one of our brilliant arguments.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mother Sun

I missed my mother’s last Mother’s Day. That was ten years ago. I still feel badly about that, but not just that. She had just gone off to live near my brother. He was looking after her, visiting her often in a nursing home. When she lived near me, as she did for almost all of her last fifteen years, I helped her move along life’s inevitable path, from living happily alone to having someone come in a few days a week to wondering why when they came into her little room in the nursing home the caregivers talked among themselves as if she were not there.

I did my best, that’s what I tell myself. I left the daily care to others, but I kept her affairs ship-shape and went to doctor’s appointments with her and made sure she was getting good care and visited her often and brought her over for Sunday brunches and walked and then wheeled her though the park or drove her around in my little convertible with the top down. I drove a little too fast, just so she could remember what it was like. She wore a straw hat and a long scarf that fluttered in the wind like the tail of a kite.

I shopped for her and left supplies in her kitchen and bathroom, but I didn’t take on much of her personal care. No baths. No helping hand getting to the toilet. I thought she would prefer the privacy of a caregiver. Or maybe I just knew I would.

When I think of her now, I think sometimes of those moments of lost intimacy and wonder if it would have made her happier if I had bathed her the way she bathed me when I was a child. I wonder if she wanted the touch of my hand on her shoulders, the warm water from the washcloth in my own hand. 

There is one thing I didn't do that I’m sure now I should have: sing to her.

She sang to me when I was a child. She had a lovely voice. She sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” Other songs too, but those are the two I remember best. Once, late in her life I asked her to sing Bye Bye Blackbird the way she used to sing it to me, and I recorded it. I listen to it now and then when I want to remember her gentle sweetness.

I sang to my first girlfriends as we drove down a million country roads. I sang to Meg at our wedding, spontaneously, joyfully, perhaps drunkenly. I sang to my children almost every night. I don’t know why I didn’t sing to my mother. Maybe, even when I was trying to be the adult and take care of her, I was still the child, the one to be sung to.

A song I sang to my youngest sons at bedtime would have been perfect for her as she lay in those last beds. I could have run my fingers over her forearm as she closed her eyes and listened. I could have touched her cheek as she drifted off to sleep. I could have switched off the light and slipped out of her room, knowing that she felt the warmth of that song as I did, knowing that she knew it was the way I felt about her.

The last lines of that song, “The Rose,” are,

“When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.”

I was that seed. She was the sun.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Going Home

I’ve been in Europe for two months now. In two weeks and two days, I’m going home. I’m not looking forward to it.

There are good friends at home I’ve missed. (Hi, dear ones; you know who you are; see you soon). And even though we talk and text often, I feel a little disconnected from my children; you know, like I couldn’t rush out on the playground and save them from a bully, even though they are all adults now.

And my roses. I’ll be happy to see them blooming. Mother’s Day roses, Meg and I call them, because they always bloom then. They, like Meg, bring unearned beauty to my life.

Okay, I haven’t watched tv this entire trip, so I need to catch up on a few shows, especially Game of Thrones.

The rest of it…meh.

Europe is always like a tonic for me. I see the world as a bigger place. I see Europe’s triumphs and troubles, and I see its history, which is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because—well, just look around at the art and culture—and depressing because even these noble souls are not that much better at learning from the tragic mistakes of their past than those of us in our very young nation.

I can see Europe from afar. Objectively, I think. Coming here is like a study in civilization. Old walled cities, old cathedrals, modern high-speed trains, street-corner food markets, labor strikes, and yes, migrant crises.

But I can’t see America objectively. I am blinded by my hopes; and lately, we have been dashing them. There’s no other way to put it.

After the civil-rights movement, I thought we would continue to be less prejudiced and offer more opportunity to all. It coincided with post-WW II economic prosperity, and I assumed that if Jim Crow was dead, everyone, black and white, would be able to take part in the American Dream. For me, that dream wasn’t of a welfare state, it was of upward mobility achieved through hard work.

Now, years later, I’m having to face the fact that Martin Luther King did not kill old Jim Crow, he only wounded him. The legacies of slavery and segregation run far deeper than I realized. Blacks do not have equal opportunity with whites. There is still a lot of work to do to achieve that. Not only for blacks, but for Hispanics and our other growing minorities as well.

But instead of building on the work of MLK, we seem to have entered a backlash phase of tearing it down. There are many signs of this, but new restrictive voter ID laws are the most blatant and strike at the most essential freedom of democracy: the right to vote.

Not long after the civil-rights movement, we almost passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which said women had to be treated as equals. Not only did we fall short of codifying what should be a bedrock principle of how we live together, but we have been backsliding ever since. Abortion rights have never been on shakier ground, not since Roe was decided. Planned Parenthood is broadly under attack, even though it helps prevent many many more abortions than it performs. We just elected a president who has no respect for women. Not just those who want abortions, all of them. “Grab them by the pussy,” he says.

That’s the part I’ve been trying to understand. How did he get elected? There have always been men like Trump. I’ve known dozens. I’ve gotten up and left many a lunch table to avoid having to listen to their racist and misogynist jokes. I see now that I should have done more than excuse myself; I should have called them out. But at those tables everyone was laughing. I thought it was just them, a small minority of fat cats. I see now I was wrong.

I suppose I’ve answered my own question. Trump got elected because a lot of people agree with his darkest urges, his racism and misogyny. Sure, some of them may have felt left behind economically and hoped he would bring back their coal mines and steel mills. But that wasn’t the driving force behind his support. It was fear that the world is changing, that the old order of white male supremacy is crumbling. The very thing that gave me hope when I was a young man—a broadening of opportunity for minorities—struck fear into the hearts of enough voters to put Trump over the top. They weren’t the only reason he won—there were plenty who just wanted tax cuts for the rich and an end to Obamacare—but they were the deciding factor.

I live in California, which is putting up a spirited defense to the worst of Trump’s policies on climate change, the environment, healthcare and immigration. But California can’t do it alone. And Trump is doing all he can to undermine my state’s efforts to continue to protect our habitat and our vulnerable residents.

Being on another continent gives me emotional distance and historical perspective. But they are just a palliative, like morphine for a cancer patient. They are not a cure. And now I must wade back into the melee. I want to fight for what I feel is right, but it is discouraging to have to start at the bottom again on issues I thought were well and finally decided. It’s like a game of chutes and ladders, when you hit one of those places that sends you back to the beginning.

There’s nothing to do but stay in the game, keep rolling the dice. But I do wish those trap doors weren’t there. And I do hope the people who put them there, those who voted for Trump and revanchist politicians like him, will find something more humane to do than cheering when someone tumbles down the chute to the bottom below them.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Monsters and Other Fairy Tales

Children believe in monsters. To reassure them we hold up the covers and shine a light to show them there is nothing under the bed. We tell them fairy tales about creatures who adore them: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. These are harmless fictions, we think, because we understand that soon enough our children will outgrow them and enter the real world of no magic, no illusions about what is real and what is not.

That passage into adulthood is bittersweet. One cannot live as a child, with a child’s fantasies; still, once lost, the innocence and credulity of that time are gone forever.

Or are they?

Sometimes when we grow up we find new fantasies to hang onto. We have a powerful, instinctive urge to believe in something magical, something that will bring us gifts not because of anything we have done, just because of who we are.

This is why we are credulous both as children and as adults. This is why when we grow up we bet on the lottery. Why we accept things people tell us that may seem fantastical but that we want to believe, things that hold out the promise of presents under the tree and coins under our pillows.

We know our children must grow up. We have all suffered through it ourselves. We think that an adult who still believes in Santa Claus is not playing with a full deck. But is he really that unusual? How many of us still cling to fairy tales? 

There is the one about how everything will be all right if we can just get the monsters out from under the bed, or at least keep them on the other side of the border.

And the one about how if we give our tax dollars to the rich man selling magic beans we will get a beanstalk that we can climb to a basket of golden eggs.

Don’t build your house of straw, the wolf will blow it down. Put a wall around it.

Hop up on the fox’s back and let him carry you across the stream. 

What could go wrong? After all, it’s only a fairy tale.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

America's Atlantic Wall

I’m hiking the coastal paths of Brittany, France, skirting granite cliffs that fall away a hundred meters into the sea. I pass the occasional lighthouse or medieval fort, but more often I come upon the bunkers of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. There are huge concrete troughs for big artillery guns, smaller bunkers for anti-aircraft and machine guns, and warrens of underground tunnels and caverns for the German soldiers who manned the guns. 

Many of these fortifications are overgrown now, but once you start noticing them, you see them everywhere, stretching in a line across the cliffs overlooking the English Channel. The big guns were brought in to destroy ships in the Channel, and the other fortifications were dug in to defend against an invasion to liberate the countries Germany occupied. Hitler called it his Atlantic Wall. It stretched from the northern tip of Norway and down the coast of France to Spain. A million Frenchmen were drafted for the work.

Hitler wasn’t the first to try to wall off Europe. Almost every European city of any importance had a wall around it. Those old walls are now tourist attractions. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was breached just two years after he built it. 

The lesson to me is obvious: walls don’t work. They may seem like a good strategy for dealing with hostile neighbors, or for securing ill-gotten gains, but they invite attack. They will be breached. It’s just a matter of time.

I can imagine a time when walls may have seemed like the only way to protect ourselves. I can certainly imagine an enemy so bloodthirsty that he can’t be reasoned with, an enemy who must be defeated if we are to live. Hitler was one of those. As was Japan in WW II. Today, there may be newcomers to that unsavory club: North Korea is an obvious candidate. Perhaps Iran. Perhaps Russia. Perhaps even China.

But Mexico? Central America? I don’t think we are in much danger of being taken over by our neighbors to the south. Yes, many of their people want to come here, for the economic opportunity or to escape the violence in their homelands, but they do not want to conquer us. For the most part, they just want a chance for a better life.

That is what America has always offered the world. We have been more welcoming at some times than others, but for the most part we have opened our arms to immigrants. Now, with the fear of “the other” that still lurks in our ancient base brain being inflamed by a nativist president, we are thinking about building a wall. Or, more accurately, he and his base are.

Most of us know what Europe has learned over and over in its centuries of civilization: walls don’t work.

Not physical walls, like the one Trump wants to build on our southern border. Not economic walls, like the protectionist tariffs he’s rolling out. Not cultural walls, like the ones he creates when he calls Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists.

The world is still a hostile place. It would not be smart for us, or anyone, to be defenseless. But America, with by far the strongest military ever known to man, is certainly far from defenseless. We have nothing to fear from people clamoring to come here to escape poverty and strife. Indeed, we need immigrants to continue to prosper economically. We can afford to help them, and thereby help ourselves. And doing so is probably a lot cheaper than building a wall—a wall that’s not going to work over the long term, anyway.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Viva la France

Education and healthcare are free in France. The trains are fast, ubiquitous and punctual, and lovely. Baguettes fresh out of the oven cost a dollar. Good wine is inexpensive, and even more ubiquitous than trains. In Paris, every corner has a bookstore.

What’s wrong with that picture?

It’s a goddamned socialist country, that’s what’s wrong!

Well, true enough. France is socialist, at least compared to the United States. It’s not socialist in the old meaning of that term—a top-down planned economy—but those that are are autocracies that have, by and large, fallen prey to corruption at the top and poor quality of life at the bottom.

France, though, and a few other countries nearby, seem to have mastered a kind of socialism-light melded with democratic elections. Every time I come here, I begin to wonder if my lifelong allegiance to the fierce capitalism of my country is wrongheaded. The question is this: what are we each gaining as a result of our different approaches, and what is being given up? A useful addendum to the question is: by whom?

The United States is the innovation capital of the world. We owe that to the profit incentives of relatively unfettered capitalism. Social welfare is not really our thing. Carry your own weight, make your own way, that’s our heritage and our moral credo. Government aid to even the poorest among us is a fight to secure, and even taking that aid carries a social stigma. People look at you like you could do better if you tried harder. We judge ourselves that way. There is a lot of shame in our national psyche. 

France is not unimaginative or unprosperous, but it doesn’t have the productivity power of the United States. Some say it doesn’t even want that. Someone is always on strike here. It’s the trains now. (Still, I’m riding on a comfortable one as I write this, slipping in between strike days.)

I’m a fervent capitalist. I believe capitalism is the economic model that best harnesses human greed to the yoke of prosperity. I’m also a redistributionist. Not everyone is, or can be, successful in the arena of capitalistic combat, so out of humanity, we need to tend to the wounded warriors, or even those who never had a chance to strap on their armor and pick up a sword.

I think the French probably enjoy making money as much as we do, but perhaps they are less obsessed with money as the final objective of their endeavors. If true, why is that, do you suppose?

Perhaps it is because they have had longer to consider their options. They lived through the Dark Ages, through feudalism and monarchies, and now they have come out into a kind of sunshine of democratic socialism. Really, after millennia of struggle, where they are now must seem like utopia.

The United States, on the other hand, was founded by people who didn’t choose to throw off the yoke of servitude but who ran away from it. We came to our continent, took it away from those who were here before us, spread out so as to not get in each other’s way, and commenced laboring like so many beavers in a big pond. With that personal freedom, and all those natural resources, of course we began to think of ourselves as hearty and self-reliant. It didn’t hurt in nurturing that strict moral code that our rootstock was Puritan.

So we come to this moment in the early twenty-first century, America and France, with perhaps fundamentally different views of who we are and how we got here. We see ourselves as exceptional. The French may see themselves differently; I’m not sure what the right adjective would be: Enduring? Patient? There is certainly plenty of personal and national pride in France, but it seems more directed toward their triumphs over adversity and economic inequality. We in the United States have faced adversity from time to time, but our country has not been overrun by foreign invaders multiple times, or ruled by kings with guillotines.

It’s possible that coming from such different backgrounds, we just have different priorities. For a couple of hundred years, Americans tilled and smelted a rich life from scratch. We seem to be having trouble accepting that we have succeeded. Fear of the next famine or other calamity is deep in our DNA. And if you aren’t part of the group working toward prosperity, we don’t have much time for you.

The French, on the other hand, lived so long in scarcity, both of the basics of existence and personal freedom, that they seem committed to never going back there, individually or in the aggregate. They have structured their society to be a place where all enjoy basic benefits of food, health and education. They don’t seem to want to crawl over each other to get to the top of the income heap. They just want to make a good life for as many as possible.

And so I return to my first question: What’s wrong with that picture?