The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA

It was two weeks before the end of my junior year of high school when the bomb dropped.  There I was, looking forward to my third summer working for E. F. Hutton in their backroom on Broad Street when my English teacher informed our class that he was giving us a summer project which we needed to complete by the first day of our senior year.

Each of us had a week to select an American author who would become the subject of a paper (at least fifty pages long – double spaced).  We would be required to read at least five works by that author as well as a biography of our subject.  I immediately thought of Nathaniel West who suffered an untimely death in an automobile accident and had only written four books, one of which, Miss Lonelyhearts I had already read.  But I hadn’t really enjoyed that experience and was uncertain that I wanted to subject myself to further literary abuse by that author.

After a great deal of mental mulling I settled on Harry Sinclair Lewis – a far more prolific author and an individual with whose works I was familiar only by name – specifically Main Street and Elmer Gantry.  Somewhere I had heard that he was also the subject of some controversy which only piqued my curiosity about what he had to say.  I remembered reading a review of a biography of Lewis that had been written by Mark Schorer a few years earlier – still the definitive work on his life.

My English teacher approved my choice and after school I headed down to my local bookstore to see which of  Lewis’ works were available in paperback.  As good luck would have it, on the close out table was a copy of the Schorer biography.  Three dollars for a nearly thousand page hardback.  As my Jewish classmates would say, “Such a deal.”  I grabbed a copy together with paperback editions of Main Street and Babbitt and asked the owner to hold them for me until the next day when I would return to pay for them, which she gladly agreed to do.  Conducting business with merchants was so much more civilized and pleasant back in the ’60’s.

As there were three days of school remaining, our final exams in the rear view mirror and nothing much to do other than plan on attending the commencement program, I dove into the Schorer biography to gain a few days on the project even before we were on summer vacation.  I decided that having a bit of history on the author might help me appreciate his work more.  I finished the book early the next week – and if there was one quote I took away from it, it was that Lewis had earned the sobriquet, “The most hated man in America.”  As I began reading his novels, I quickly understand why.

Lewis’ writing was succinct, compelling and fatally cynical.  He described life in small American towns and the people who inhabited them.  To him, they were little more than plastic figures engaged in mundane activities in the pursuit of mediocrity.  Having himself come from just such an environment in Sauk Centre, MN it was hard not to feel that Lewis was implying that he had risen from that bourgeois existence and had achieved a higher plane of understanding, a greater appreciation of aesthetics and, of course, a moral superiority.

When he died suddenly of heart failure in Rome in 1951 the literary world took note of his passing.  After all, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1925 novel, Arrowsmith, an honor that he refused to accept.  One literary critic headlined his column on Lewis’ demise with the acerbic introduction, “Sinclair Lewis Dead – At Last.”

For sixty-five years there have been few who have challenged Lewis’ title of “The most hated man in America.”  But one might argue that there is finally a new contender for the title, that being one Donald J. Trump, the soon to be 45th President of the United States.

Remarkably, President-Elect Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America Great Again” is in direct contrast to Lewis’ view that America, or at least it’s people, have never been great at all, a view heartily endorsed by the many cacophonous, caterwauling Trump critics. These same naysayers also assume a Lewis-like sense of moral superiority perhaps stemming from their profound adherence to atheism, a religion to which Lewis subscribed.  It is they and they alone who have an understanding of true righteousness, appropriate behavior and the correct manner of thinking, speaking and acting.

I wish I were here sixty-five years from now to see whether Trump’s optimistic view of what America can achieve will prevail.  Or whether those who view themselves as victimized members of the mindless mob will have their way.  But perhaps it will not take that long to see which side has the upper hand.

Irrespective of the facts, the word is that Trump’s opponents are already assembling to hold a regalia in which they will transfer the title from Lewis to our next president.  As I don’t have anything sufficiently festive to wear, should I receive an invitation to attend, I guess I will be forced to decline that honor.

THE NEXT ITERATION OF THE “PROGRESSIVE” MANUAL?

A Modest Proposal

For Preventing the Children of Poor People
in Ireland, from Being a Burden on Their Parents
or Country, and for Making Them
Beneficial to the Public

By Jonathan Swift

(Edited to conform to modern American English spelling)


It is a melancholy Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabin-Doors, crowded with Beggars of the female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in Strolling, to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants, who, as they grow up either turn Thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native Country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbados.

I think it is agreed by all Parties, that this prodigious number of Children, in the Arms, or on the Backs, or at the heels of their Mothers, and frequently of their Fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the Kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the common-wealth would deserve so well of the public, as to have his Statue set up for a preserver of the Nation.

But my Intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the Children of professed beggars, it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of Infants at a certain Age, who are born of Parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our Charity in the Streets.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many Years, upon this important Subject, and maturely weighed the several Schemes of other Projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true a Child, just dropped from it’s Dam, may be supported by her Milk, for a Solar year with little other Nourishment, at most not above the Value of two Shillings, which the Mother may certainly get, or the Value in Scraps, by her lawful Occupation of begging, and it is exactly at one year Old that I propose to provide for them, in such a manner, as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives, they shall, on the Contrary, contribute to the Feeding and partly to the Clothing of many Thousands.

There is likewise another great Advantage in my Scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary Abortions, and that horrid practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children, alas! too frequent among us, Sacrificing the poor innocent Babes, I doubt, more to avoid the Expense, than the Shame, which would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman breast.

The number of Souls in this Kingdom being usually reckoned one Million and a half, Of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand Couple whose Wives are breeders, from which number I Subtract thirty Thousand Couples, who are able to maintain their own Children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the Kingdom, but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand Breeders. I again Subtract fifty Thousand for those Women who miscarry, or whose Children die by accident, or disease within the Year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand Children of poor Parents annually born: The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present Situation of Affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed, for we can neither employ them in Handicraft, or Agriculture; we neither build Houses, (I mean in the Country) nor cultivate Land: they can very seldom pick up a Livelihood by Stealing until they arrive at six years Old, except where they are of towardly parts, although, I confess they learn the Rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as Probationers, as I have been informed by a principal Gentleman in the County of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two Instances under the Age of six, even in a part of the Kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that Art.

I am assured by our Merchants, that a Boy or Girl, before twelve years Old, is no saleable Commodity, and even when they come to this Age, they will not yield above three Pounds, or three Pounds and half a Crown at most on the Exchange, which cannot turn to Account either to the Parents or the Kingdom, the Charge of Nutriments and Rags having been at least four times that Value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricassee, or Ragouts.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth part to be Males, which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine, and my reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages, therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year Old be offered in Sale to the persons of Quality, and Fortune, through the Kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them Suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them Plump, and Fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish, and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in Winter.

I have reckoned upon a Medium, that a Child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar Year if tolerably nursed increase to 28 Pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.

Infant’s flesh will be in Season throughout the Year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave Author an eminent French physician, that Fish being a prolific Diet, there are more Children born in Roman Catholic Countries about nine Months after Lent, than at any other Season, therefore reckoning a Year after Lent, the Markets will be more glutted than usual, because the Number of Popish Infants, is at least three to one in this Kingdom, and therefore it will have one other Collateral advantage by lessening the Number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the Charge of nursing a Beggars Child (in which list I reckon all Cottagers, Laborers, and four fifths of the Farmers) to be about two Shillings per Annum, Rags included; and I believe no Gentleman would repine to give Ten Shillings for the Carcass of a good fat Child, which, as I have said will make four Dishes of excellent Nutritive Meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own Family to Dine with him. Thus the Squire will learn to be a good Landlord, and grow popular among his Tenants, the Mother will have Eight Shillings neat profit, and be fit for Work till she produce another Child.

Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the Times require) may flay the Carcass; the Skin of which, Artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen.

As to our City of Dublin, Shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and Butchers we may be assured will not be wanting, although I rather recommend buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs.

A very worthy Person, a true Lover of his Country, and whose Virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my Scheme. He said, that many Gentlemen of this Kingdom, having of late destroyed their Deer, he conceived that the want of Venison might be well supplied by the Bodies of young Lads and Maidens, not exceeding fourteen Years of Age, nor under twelve; so great a Number of both Sexes in every County being now ready to Starve, for want of Work and Service: And these to be disposed of by their Parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest Relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a Patriot, I cannot be altogether in his Sentiments, for as to the Males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent Experience, that their flesh was generally Tough and Lean, like that of our School-boys, by continual exercise, and their Taste disagreeable, and to Fatten them would not answer the Charge. Then as to the Females, it would, I think, with humble Submission, be a loss to the Public, because they soon would become Breeders themselves: And besides it is not improbable that some scrupulous People might be apt to Censure such a Practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any Project, how well so ever intended.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Sallmanaazor, a Native of the Island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty Years ago, and in Conversation told my friend, that in his Country when any young Person happened to be put to Death, the Executioner sold the Carcass to Persons of Quality, as a prime Dainty, and that, in his Time, the Body of a plump Girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to Poison the Emperor, was sold to his Imperial Majesty’s prime Minister of State, and other great Mandarins of the Court, in Joints from the Gibbet, at four hundred Crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young Girls in this Town, who, without one single Groat to their Fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a Chair, and appear at a Play-House, and Assemblies in Foreign fineries, which they never will Pay for; the Kingdom would not be the worse.

Some Persons of a desponding Spirit are in great concern about that vast Number of poor People, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what Course may be taken, to ease the Nation of so grievous an Encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every Day dying, and rotting, by cold, and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the younger Laborers they are now in almost as hopeful a Condition. They cannot get Work, and consequently pine away from want of Nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common Labor, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the Country and themselves are happily delivered from the Evils to come.

I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the Proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.

For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the Number of Papists, with whom we are Yearly over-run, being the principal Breeders of the Nation, as well as our most dangerous Enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their Advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their Country, than stay at home, and pay Tithes against their Conscience, to an idolatrous Episcopal Curate.

Secondly, the poorer Tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by Law may be made liable to Distress, and help to pay their Landlord’s Rent, their Corn and Cattle being already seized, and Money a thing unknown.

Thirdly, Whereas the Maintenance of an hundred thousand Children, from two Years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than Ten Shillings a piece per Annum, the Nation’s Stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per Annum, besides the profit of a new Dish, introduced to the Tables of all Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who have any refinement in Taste, and the Money will circulate among our selves, the Goods being entirely of our own Growth and Manufacture.

Fourthly, The constant Breeders, besides the gain of Eight Shillings Sterling per Annum, by the Sale of their Children, will be rid of the Charge of maintaining them after the first Year.

Fifthly, this food would likewise bring great Custom to Taverns, where the Vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection, and consequently have their Houses frequented by all the fine Gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good Eating, and a skillful Cook, who understands how to oblige his Guests will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

Sixthly, This would be a great Inducement to Marriage, which all wise Nations have either encouraged by Rewards, or enforced by Laws and Penalties. It would increase the care and tenderness of Mothers towards their Children, when they were sure of a Settlement for Life, to the poor Babes, provided in some sort by the Public to their Annual profit instead of Expense, we should soon see an honest Emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest Child to the Market, Men would become as fond of their Wives, during the Time of their Pregnancy, as they are now of their Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to Farrow, nor offer to Beat or Kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a Miscarriage.

Many other advantages might be enumerated: For Instance, the addition of some thousand Carcasses in our exportation of Barreled Beef. The Propagation of Swine’s Flesh, and Improvement in the Art of making good Bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of Pigs, too frequent at our Tables, which are no way comparable in Taste, or Magnificence to a well grown, fat Yearling Child, which Roasted whole will make a considerable Figure at a Lord Mayor’s Feast, or any other Public Entertainment. But this, and many others I omit being studious of Brevity.

Supposing that one thousand Families in this City, would be constant Customers for Infants’ Flesh, besides others who might have it at Merry-meetings, particularly at Weddings and Christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off Annually about twenty thousand Carcasses, and the rest of the Kingdom (where probably they will be Sold somewhat Cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.

I can think of no one Objection, that will possibly be raised against this Proposal, unless it should be urged, that the Number of People will be thereby much lessened in the Kingdom. This I freely own, and it was indeed one Principal design in offering it to the World. I desire the Reader will observe, that I Calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of IRELAND, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our Absentees at five Shillings a pound: Of using neither Clothes, nor household Furniture, except what is of our own Growth and Manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the Materials and Instruments that promote Foreign Luxury: Of curing the Expensiveness of Pride, Vanity, Idleness, and Gaming in our Women: Of introducing a Vein of Parsimony, Prudence and Temperance: Of learning to Love our Country, wherein we differ even from LAPLANDERS, and the Inhabitants of TOPINAMBOO: Of quitting our Animosities, and Factions, nor Act any longer like the Jews, who were Murdering one another at the very moment their City was taken: Of being a little Cautious not to Sell our Country and Consciences for nothing: Of teaching Landlords to have at least one degree of Mercy towards their Tenants. Lastly of putting a Spirit of Honesty, Industry and Skill into our Shop-keepers, who, if a Resolution could now be taken to Buy only our Native Goods, would immediately unite to Cheat and Exact upon us in the Price, the Measure, and the Goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair Proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no Man talk to me of these and the like Expedients, till he hath at least a Glimpse of Hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into Practice.

But as to my self, having been wearied out for many Years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of Success, I fortunately fell upon this Proposal, which as it is wholly new, so it hath something Solid and Real, of no Expense and little Trouble, full in our own Power, and whereby we can incur no Danger in disobliging England. For this kind of Commodity will not bear Exportation, the Flesh being of too tender a Consistence, to admit a long continuance in Salt, although perhaps I could name a Country, which would be glad to Eat up our whole Nation without it.

After all I am not so violently bent upon my own Opinion, as to reject any Offer, proposed by wise Men, which shall be found equally Innocent, Cheap, Easy and Effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in Contradiction to my Scheme, and offering a better, I desire the Author, or Authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find Food and Raiment for a hundred thousand useless Mouths and Backs. And Secondly, there being a round Million of Creatures in humane Figure, throughout this Kingdom, whose whole Subsistence put into a common Stock, would leave them in Debt two Millions of Pounds Sterling adding those, who are Beggars by Profession, to the Bulk of Farmers, Cottagers and Laborers with their Wives and Children, who are Beggars in Effect; I desire those Politicians, who dislike my Overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an Answer, that they will first ask the Parents of these Mortals, whether they would not at this Day think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a year Old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual Scene of Misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of Landlords, the Impossibility of paying Rent without Money or Trade, the want of common Sustenance, with neither House nor Clothes to cover them from Inclemencies of Weather, and the most inevitable Prospect of entailing the like, or greater Miseries upon their Breed for ever.

I Profess in the sincerity of my Heart that I have not the least personal Interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary Work having no other Motive than the public Good of my Country, by advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich. I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.


WHAT’S IN A NAME?

If you don’t know who Dana Busbiber is, by the time you finish reading this post you will.  She happens to be an inner city public school English literature teacher in Sacramento, CA who believes that we should no longer educate our children by teaching Shakespeare because he is “a long dead British guy.”  Ms. Busbiber goes on to say that the only reason that “Shakespeare is great is because ‘some white people’ declared him to be.”  That’s an interesting thesis which unfortunately fails to reflect the fact that themes such as young love as set forth in “Romeo and Juliet” and honor and betrayal as written about in “King Lear” and “Hamlet” are as meaningful and important as they were four hundred years ago when the Bard first penned those plays.

A brief example of the “relevance” of Shakespeare comes from his play of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.  The play is, of course, the inspiration for the 1957 musical, “West Side Story,” written by Arthur Laurents with musical score by Leonard Bernstein.  Without that “long dead British guy,” would these artists have ever thought to create a story about the Jets and the Sharks and would we have those liltingly beautiful songs, “Maria” and “Tonight?”  Quite possibly not.  And, for that matter, would I have the title of this post, lifted unflinchingly from that same play?

Now that we’ve dispensed with the Busbiber bimbo, let’s turn our attention to the real subject and the title of this post, what is in a name?  Apparently, quite a lot.

Whether it is Judaism, Hinduism or a number of other religious traditions, having the power to “name” things is to give the person possessed of that power control over the thing so named.  In Genesis, God gave man the power to name the animals, and that power conferred the ability to have dominion over them.  And mankind has been busy naming things ever since – including our offspring.  Sometimes with unintended but fairly predictable dire consequences.

One of my classmates at the University of Chicago had the first name, Nimbus.  A nimbus is a luminescent halo or gray rain cloud and we all thought that Nimbus’ name was a good source for a chuckle.  Until we learned that he had a brother by the name of Zippo.  Apparently their father had served in the U. S. Army during WWII and attributed his survival to the unfailing ability  of his lighter to light, allowing him to escape through a pitch black corridor of a burned out building and avoid a platoon of Nazi troops.  But on the scale of 1 – 100, by today’s standards, Nimbus and Zippo barely register.

Twenty-five years ago, I had gone to my bank to cash a check to replenish our small petty cash fund.  Because this was a “business” transaction, I had to wait in the far shorter line for business customers than the regular long line to which the hoi poloi were consigned.  This was a good thing.  Furthermore, wanting to cater to its business customers, the bank regularly assigned its best tellers to the business line to provide those customers with a better experience.  As I waited my turn I happened to notice that the window was being manned by a new teller whom I had not seen before.  I glanced at his nameplate which rested to the side of his window and restrained a deep-seated laugh as I read his name, “Epluribusunum.”

Normally, whether it is a bank teller or a wait person, I try to pay attention to their name tag and use their name in addressing them as a way of acknowledging them as an individual.  That just seems to me a matter of common courtesy.  But I knew that before I got out the last syllable of Epluribusunum I would be laughing and that would be rude, so I conducted my business with this very efficient young man and just wished him a good day as I left his window and the bank.  While I was in line I was trying to think what an appropriate nickname for him might be, which further added to my sense of laughter.  But then I still have difficulty understanding how we turn Charlie into Chuck or Elizabeth into Betty.

You don’t need to be an Einstein to know that when a person is named “’Nshaquetha” or “Latonyethia” or “Epluribusunum” there is greater than a 99.9% probability that she or he is darkly complected.  And while I applaud their mothers’ originality in coming up with these monikers, I really do believe that these uniquely individual names serve as a hindrance to many of these children in their growing up and in their adult lives.  There is a reason that in many countries, including France, Germany, Japan, China, New Zealand and Iceland, among others, names must be selected from an approved list or a name which is not on that list must be submitted for approval before the child can be called by that name.  The United States has few if any such restrictions.

While most of the western world uses a system of naming using surnames as an identifier, the Icelandic people use a rather different system which was common throughout Scandinavia and is again being reintroduced in several of those countries.  It seeks to provide family connection by using a patronymic and in some cases a matronymic system.  That is to say, there are no surnames but a child is identified as his or her father’s son or daughter (or mother’s) by adding either “son” or “dóttir” to their father’s (or mother’s) first name.  Thus, if Jón and Birgit had a boy whom they named Eifur, he might be called either Eifur Jónsson or Eifur Birgitsson.  In the case of a girl named Helga she would be either Helga Jonsdóttir or Helga Birgitsdóttir.

There is a charming simplicity both to having specific names which we may confer on our children and to the Icelandic system of providing relationship attribution through the use of one (or in some cases both) the parents’ names to the newborn.  But as I think about it, with the growing number of unwed mothers and hard to find fathers in the United States, it probably wouldn’t work here.

To those of you have earned it, “Have a Happy Father’s Day.”  And to those of you who contributed in that effort, enjoy Dad’s day as well.

THIS UNCERTAIN WORLD

There are times that I lean back in my chair and think to myself, “Self.  Maybe the left is right.  (I really like that sentence for its internal absurdity).  Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world and a fabulous life if we all could have whatever we wanted without having to work for it; if we could know in advance what the next wonderful thing in store for us was; if we had no anxiety, no worries, no care; if we didn’t have to be concerned about our future because it would be clear to us what that would be?”

What would be the practical effect of actually knowing the future – even an assured future where everyone’s material wants were met?  I think the answer is – boredom – and the introduction of more anxiety.

Although it seems paradoxical as we all strive to eliminate uncertainty from our lives, it is uncertainty which makes life both interesting and challenging.  If we truly knew the future there would be no reason to watch a sporting event – or for that matter play it.  Imagine how inspired an infielder on the Yankees would feel if he knew that his team was going to lose to the White Sox that day by a score of 7 – 3.

The casinos would close their doors in short order.  Since 22 was the next number to come up on the roulette wheel, that’s where all bets would be.  And if we knew that a five was the next card that would be dealt, the astute blackjack player would take a hit on his 16, despite the fact that the dealer was showing a bust card.  Horse races would be a thing of the past and we’d have to find a different way to spend our Saturday and Sunday afternoons as football would hold no appeal.

There would be no stock market and no market for stocks.  Knowing the unfortunate end that it would meet, we would never have built the Challenger and we would have saved the lives of the seven astronauts who were on board.  We would not have spent months of air time discussing the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 as, knowing its fate, the Malaysian government would not have allowed it to fly and no passenger would have boarded it.

In such a world of certainty there would be no room for a Shakespeare or an Ibsen or a Hitchcock.  Drama and suspense can not exist unless there is the possibility of alternate endings.  The comedy clubs would close because we would all know the punch line.  In such a world would Michelangelo have begun the long process of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Mozart composed his tremendous volume of work knowing that despite his genius he would never escape a state of perpetual poverty and be buried in a pauper’s grave?

Of course there is one other and perhaps the most frightening aspect of living in a world certain.  Each of us would know the exact time and means by which death would show up at our doorstep and come for us.  It would be as though we, like the “replicants” that were brought into being in “Blade Runner,” had an internal clock built into us by our maker, a clock that was sealed at the factory and which was constantly winding down, bringing us ever more closely to the moment we took our final breath.

What would people who lived in such an environment do with their time and their lives?  I suspect that it would be very little.  This would be a world in which ennui would have been raised to its ultimate expression.  There would be little incentive to succeed and no repercussions for failure.  This would be a world in which people saw little reason for hope and no reason for change.  It would be a world in which we had given over our lives and activities to fate – and accepted that “what would be would be.”

And if one day, we learned that a massive meteor was headed directly toward us and would impact the Earth three years later, would we be able to marshal the fortitude to try to defend ourselves from this potentially life-destroying event?  Or would we sit back and thank our lucky stars that finally something out of our control had come to put an end to our insufferable misery?

KEATS AND THE TAX MAN

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk …”

Beginning of First Stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”

– John Keats

Senior year in high school and the public speaking contest was two days away.  My English teacher encouraged me to participate and I agreed.  The only problem was that I hadn’t selected a piece for recitation.  In my (limp) defense, during the three weeks prior to the actual competition I had considered a number of pieces but had, for various reasons, rejected all of them.  And now the deadline was looming and my only defense for my lack of preparation was that I had been working on the third movement of the Mendelssohn First Piano concerto.

I browsed through the books in the family library and happened to pull out a volume of John Keats’ works.  I came across “Ode to a Nightingale” and was fascinated by the beauty of his imagery in the poem.  I decided, “This is it.  This is the piece for which I was looking.”  So I set about memorizing it.

As it turned out, I lost the competition, coming in second.  My rendition of Keats was defeated by a soliloquy from “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”  I chalked this up to the fact that Eugene O’Neill was in vogue – although I must admit that the chap who delivered this oration was nothing short of captivating.  Only for a fleeting moment did the thought that if I had spent a bit more time in preparation, I might have carried the day for John Keats.  Responsibility – what a burden.

This poem came to mind yesterday.  I opened my mail and saw that I had received a letter from the California Franchise Tax Board.  They are apparently the people who collect California Income Tax as I learned when I perused the letter.  In it they claimed that I had an unpaid balance due them in the amount of $891.00, plus penalties and interest all of which totaled $961.65.  All of this was for the tax year 2013.  I thought that was rather strange since I have never lived in California, haven’t visited the state for about thirty years and certainly had no earned income which derived from any employment in that state.  Rather than procrastinate as I had with my public speaking project (I am trainable), I decided to have a cup of coffee and take the bull (or if you prefer the bully) by the horns – and call the toll free number listed on the form letter.

The opening line of this notice began as follows:

“Our records show you owe a balance.  We previously billed you for the balance, which remains unpaid.”   Since I had received no such previous notification, I presumed this was merely step one in the “intimidation” process that most tax agencies normally consider the way to conduct business.  This was confirmed as I read the notice’s second paragraph.

If we do not receive your balance payment in full within 30 days from the notice date, we may take collection action against you, such as file and record a Notice of State Tax Lien against your property and garnish a portion of your wages.”  Warmer words were never penned by poet laureate or bulbous bureaucrat.

I sighed as I dialed the number.  It was not a question of how difficult it would be to speak to a live person but how many hurdles I would have to leap to do so.  It appears that whoever designed the California FTB’s automated answering system holds an advanced degree in telephonic obfuscation.  There was no option given to dial “0” for operator or anyone resembling anything human.  “Perhaps they, like their federal counterparts at the FCC are too absorbed looking at pornography to deal with the tax paying public,” I thought.

Having found that selecting option “1” for individual taxpayers and that led me to a circular recitation of the five options available to me, I decided to try option “2” which is reserved for tax preparers and professionals.  Interspersed with my time on hold, a total of twenty two minutes, were various veiled threats about what this agency could do in terms of seizure of property if the deadbeat on the phone didn’t pay up.  As I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t know if this same threat was repeated in that language.  For all I know they were telling the Hispanic caller a great recipe for a taco salad – or how to sign up for California’s various generous welfare programs.

Finally, I was connected to a soft spoken man with an Indian sub-continent accent, making our exchange all the more challenging.  He identified himself by name, Mear and I off-handedly asked if I were speaking with him in Sacramento.  He assured me that, rather than New Delhi was where he was located.  I was going to speak the one phrase of Hindi that I know, “Opka bagicha bahooth sundar hai,” but I couldn’t find a way to work telling him that “You have a lovely garden” into the conversation.

I explained that this notice, contrary to its statement that it was  a follow up was my first such notice.  I further explained that since I had never derived any income from or in the state of California, this notice was obviously intended for someone else.  Mear immediately and without hesitation said, “You are obviously the victim of ‘identity theft.’”  (They have a form to resolve this sort of problem – so I suspect, particularly in light of yesterday’s announcement that Russia has been able to hack into nearly two billion user names and passwords – that this happens all the time.)

In addition to completing FTB 3552 (Identity Theft Form), Mear explained that I needed to make out a police report, make a copy of my Social Security card as well as copy my Driver’s License or other state issued ID.  When I had all that information gathered, I was to call back and they would give me the FAX number to which that all should be sent.

It naturally occurred to me that once upon a time, Social Security cards were issued with the inscription, “Not for Identification Purposes.”  Apparently they are adequate for identity fraud and may be used for that purpose.  And with all the brouhaha about Voter Identification, you can’t even speak with a tax collection agency until you have verified that you are who you claim you are by presenting a valid form of government issued picture identification, but in many states can vote.

Being a curious person I wondered why someone would file a phony tax return using someone else’s social, name and address if the return showed that there was a liability due.  I asked Mear how much income I had purportedly reported on this return – and I expressed my confusion about why someone would file such a return if they were not receiving a refund.  Of course, dutifully protecting my sensitive financial information, Mear said he could not give me any information until after they had received my fax.  In fact, he wouldn’t even give me the fax number until I had assembled the required documents.  I have to call back in order to get that number – but now at least I know how to beat their system.

My guess is that someone in California probably used this information to get some kind of government benefit during year 2013.  That is, of course, just a guess, but I can think of no other reasonable alternative.  Hopefully when I get all the required documents together later today and after the California FTB has had an appropriate amount of time to shuffle those around, I will get an answer – although I think the likelihood of this is about fifty/fifty.

In the meantime, I can console myself with a recitation of Keats’, “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The good news is that in my fervent effort to memorize that poem for the public speaking contest, I still remember all eight stanzas.

“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”

Keats and the tax man.  Given a choice, I’ll stick with the poet.

BANNED IN BOSTON

Several generations of Americans have grown up with the idea that the city of Boston, Massachusetts is one of the anchors of “liberalism” in America.  That statement may well be true today, but it was not always so.

During the early part of the 20th century, there was probably no place as conservative as Boston.  And Bostonians, by virtue of their close identification with the early Puritan settlers who had founded the colony, held themselves to be the arbiters of morality for our young country.

If a play or a book, a movie, a painting or a song carried with it the designation, “Banned In Boston,” it meant that it had failed the standards of decency which the Bostonian morality mavens had established and could neither be sold or performed or in the case of art be displayed within the city nor could it be included in the Boston Public Library’s collection.  The practice was commonplace until 1965 when William S. Burroughs challenged and won his case to allow his book, “The Naked Lunch” to be distributed in the city.

Over the years many works which we now consider to be classics fell under the “Ban.”  Among these were Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill; “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway; “God’s Little Acre” by Erskine Caldwell; “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers and one of Sinclair Lewis’ books, “Elmer Gantry.”

The basis for banning most of these works centered around one of two issues – either the vulgarity of the language employed  in creating the work or that the censors felt there was either too much implied or explicit mention of sex in it.  By far, the second was the greatest reason on which the “morality committees” made their decision.

But Lewis’ work was unique in that he hardly ever employed an expletive stronger than “Damn” in his writing – and then only infrequently.  And while it was true that he described sexual behavior and liaisons in his work, he did not do so in an evocative or lurid way.  It was the subject matter of the book, “Elmer Gantry” itself which riled the censors into taking action.

You see, the protagonist of “Elmer Gantry” was a degenerate, womanizing, alcoholic preacher man of the lowest moral standing – and it was Lewis’ characterization of a “man of the cloth” in such a way that offended the Boston censors.

In the America of 1927 when “Elmer Gantry” was published, most Americans identified themselves with some religious group or other.  Going to shul for our Jewish citizens or church for those of us who were Christians was a regular and normal part of our lives.

The clergy, priests, rabbis and ministers were looked up to as standard bearers of righteousness and morality.  Many Americans felt they could confidentially receive the same kind of loving advice from their spiritual pastor as they could from their best friend or their closest relative.  And the clerics in our society generally held themselves to the highest possible standards not only by preaching their virtue in their sermons but by living it as an example for all of us.

There should be no wonder that movies with religious themes such as “Going My Way” were extraordinarily popular.  The moviegoer could leave the theater and relate to Barry Fitzgerald’s and Bing Crosby’s portrayal of the pastor and the parish priest and say, “Why they seemed just like Pastor McGowan and Fr. Timothy.”

There are many of the clergy who have abrogated the high standards to which they have been called.  Our tabloids are filled with their names and their misdeeds.  But there are some who have received their message and lived it out – giving those of us who still remain in the flock a guiding light to lead us.

The next post will offer a brief summary of  the lives of members of both groups.

THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA

Because my high school English teacher had a philosophy that education was not confined to the school term, each year we were given a summer assignment which we were expected to complete and turn in on our return in the fall.

At the end of my junior year we were told to select an American author, read at least three novels or plays by him or her as well as a biography and write a term paper of no less than 25 pages in length.  When I was given this assignment I selected Sinclair Lewis as my author subject..

I will admit to a bit of deviousness on my part in this selection as I had already read two of his novels, “Main Street” and “Babbitt” and I had asked my parents for the extensive biography which Mark Schorer had written several years earlier as a birthday present.  But I would also have to say that I enjoyed Lewis’ acerbic style and his descriptions of life in America and I looked forward to reading several more of his works.

I threw myself head first into the project by reading “Dodsworth” and by the time that I had finished it my birthday had come around and the Lewis biography was beautifully gift wrapped and ready for my eager eyes.  I tore into it rapaciously.

When I finished the biography I read six more of Lewis’ novels including “It Can’t Happen Here” which was published in 1935 and was a parody of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.  The work was transposed to a sleeping America where the electorate allowed themselves to be seduced by a charismatic populist leader who bought their votes by offering them small sops, (the kitchen in every pot syndrome).

Ultimately, he consolidated his near unanimous support to assume dictatorial powers.  But some few, true stalwarts who saw the insidious nature of this new dictator resisted and so the Second American Revolution was born.  Perhaps you will see a corollary between this book written 78 years ago and today’s events.

Lewis was a fiercely partisan American.  While his books often pointed to the pettiness of small-minded middle American individuals, nevertheless he believed that our people and our country, with all their faults, was the modern Prometheus and the shining beacon lighting the way for the whole world.

But because he was not afraid to tell it like it was, he had no compunctions about insulting anyone whom he felt was tarnishing the American dream and all who were hypocritical in the morality they preached and the immorality they lived.  This caused Lewis to earn the moniker, “The most hated man in America.”

(And you thought this post was going to be about George Zimmerman, didn’t you)?

More on Lewis in the next post.

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