Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Convenient Untruth

All –isms are crazy. This is because each emphasizes self-supporting truths while ignoring or dismissing contrary ones. They therefore are systematic self-delusions.

This doesn't mean we can do without them. Craziness may be a condition of existence for human society. Besides, a concerted effort to do without them becomes an -ism too, to wit pragmatism which also emphasizes and ignores realities with abandon (in fact, formal pragmatists readily argue that truth is contextual and tentative). The world and society are just too complex to be considered at all times in all their detail; if we tried, we'd never get through our analysis of any situation in time actually to do anything about it. Our –isms provide us with simplified models of life that let us make rough-and-ready political and personal choices with reasonable speed. Still, some –isms are crazier than others.

What brings all this to mind is an autobiography I've been meaning to read for years and have finally started, Living My Life by the remarkable anarchist activist Emma Goldman. It is a fascinating book; early on, she describes her childhood and early sexual experiences in such a way that I was forced to ask, "What would Sigmund Freud have made of this?" It turns out she knew the man, so she probably knew the answer, and may have structured the book with it in mind.

As someone whose preferred –ism is of the classical liberal variety, I have sympathy for her distrust of government, for her zeal for human rights, and even for her ideal of free love. That we actually can do without government altogether, however, strikes me as particularly crazy. The idea seems especially so in the context of her egalitarian socialist economics. Anarchists of this ilk argue that government force defends property and inequality. Well, yes. In the absence of it, non-governmental force defends property and inequality. Above the level of small scale communes, socialism is achieved by heavy-handed statist force: the more socialist the economy, the heavier the hand. It is no wonder that, after early enthusiasm, Emma was disillusioned by the 1917 Russian Revolution and turned strongly anti-communist (though still not pro-capitalist). To me, discussions of a total end to the state merely bring visions of Mogadishu: neighborhoods run by gangs and warlords, effectively little governments. I prefer states shackled but there.

The book, no doubt contrary to Emma's intent, is a reminder that our simple models (and not just the politically ideological ones) distort reality, sometimes dangerously. It behooves us to notice occasionally that even the most odious –isms are based on some truths; if not they wouldn't survive at all. Even the most congenial ones conceal truths and tell lies. A reality check now and then doesn't hurt – actually, it may hurt, but it is worth it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Day That Doesn't Exist

Once upon a time there was a federal holiday called Washington’s Birthday and, in some states, a state holiday called Lincoln’s Birthday. I could see the point of both. I also could see the points made by some that they were very close together and that they were one holiday too many. So, combining them into a single federal Presidents’ Day made a certain amount of sense.

Although one never would know it from all the Presidents Day sales at malls and auto dealerships, the combination never officially happened. The bill to create Presidents Day died in a Congressional committee in 1968. It is still Washington’s Birthday, though we do move it around a little now to make long weekends. We owe the widespread notion that there is a generic Presidents Day to the advertising companies hired by those mall owners and car dealers.

There is nothing wrong with unofficial holidays per se. The fact that something didn’t come from Congress often is a solid argument in its favor – and the Presidents’ Day bill died in Congress for all the wrong reasons (that meddlesome Lincoln fellow still had enemies, mostly in the old Confederacy). However, in this case, I think Congress accidentally made the right choice. Do I really want to celebrate all the presidents? Franklin Pierce? James Buchanan? Rutherford B. Hayes who shamelessly stole an election by means of an even more shameless deal to end Reconstruction? I don’t think so.

It probably is too late to give the day back to George alone. If I have to toast some other White House resident, though, I think it will be Chester Arthur even though he wasn’t one of the greats. A beneficiary of party bosses and the spoils system and regarded as a political hack when chosen for Vice President in a backroom deal, he became President when James Garfield was assassinated. Against all expectations, he attacked corruption and cronyism (about which, after all, he had first hand experience) and instituted serious civil service reform. Chester rose above himself. I wish for nothing more from any president.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Trash and Treasure

While a ten yard dumpster sits in my driveway because of some repairs, I am taking advantage of it to dispense with clutter as well. The question is how to define clutter. Some choices are simple: a torn up carpet goes in the dumpster, a commendation letter to my dad (WW2 Merchant Marine) signed by Harry Truman stays. Some are not.

I am not really a pack rat by nature. However, after more than five decades of life, and as the sole surviving member of my immediate family living in my family home, my garage, basement, attic and closets inevitably have filled with my own and inherited items, nearly all of uncertain value, even the sentimental kind. What to do with the perfectly good (old but not antique) tables and chairs which I remember from my childhood but for which there is simply no room in the present living space? What to do with the childhood toys of my sister (d.1995)? We're not talking about a vintage Barbie here or something else with any value for a collector, nor are there complete sets of anything suitable for re-gifting to some other young girl. Yet the remaining hodge-podge is still hard to throw away. What of boxes of photographs of people I barely know? What of ribbons from long forgotten horse shows and vinyl albums from long forgotten bands?

I've seen garages more overstuffed than mine. I have an easier task than some because my mom was not a pack rat either. In fact, her advice to me always was, "When in doubt, throw it out." She felt that people tend to drown in their own accumulated clutter and that it was better to keep life (and moving, should that be necessary) simple. Sometimes her decisions were, in retrospect, ruthless, as with the disposal of my first edition Marvel comics back before they were worth more than the cover price. Other times they were simply surprising. For example, she kept her 1947 wedding dress until my dad died in 2000; though she had made no comment about it, it was not in the drawer where she always had kept it when the time came to deal with her effects. Still, even she couldn't stop the slow material build-up which is now mine to re-assess belatedly.

I think my mom's philosophy was, on balance, the correct one. There are mementos which I want to keep on hand, but sentiment doesn't really reside in objects, especially unused or barely used ones. The dumpster will be full and there will be furniture at the curb for passersby to pick through before pick-up day this week. Throwing out when in doubt is a memento of sorts too.

Now if I only can fend off the friends with overflowing garages and eyes on my emerging free space.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

So Very High School

Every now and then I am inspired to see if I still have skills I sweated to acquire in high school (never mind college). I’ll break out the old Latin or Chemistry text and take a quiz at the back of some random chapter. The results usually are disappointing, even though I was nerdy enough to have been voted Best Student in the school yearbook. Voters rarely can be trusted, of course: I was neither valedictorian nor salutatorian. However, I was a pretty good student all the same.

After an unsettling result on a quiz, I then try to rebuild at least a modicum of competence in whatever subject I have chosen to embarrass myself. I’ve had to relearn Latin verb forms an exasperating number of times over the years, and (except for the simplest ones) would have to do so once more were I to work up the temerity to open that particular textbook again. This past week I plucked Second Year Algebra off the shelf; I lacked the courage to try trig or calc. Any reader who earns a living in a math intense field will chuckle to know I was baffled even by basic quadratic equations -- and what is f(x) anyway? Swallowing my pride, I re-opened the book to Chapter One and began to read.

Clearly I haven’t had much general use for this old information or I would not have become so rusty. My itch to revisit it is certainly idiosyncratic, and it is not something I suggest anyone else need do. If anything, it raises the question students ask in every classroom in every generation: “Why should I learn this when I’m never going to use it?”

They should. There is a reason, though it is not easy to explain in simple earning-a-living terms. It is true that most people are served well enough by basic skills in arithmetic and grammar, plus whatever specialized career training they might have after high school. Yet, there is more to life than a weekly paycheck and a weekend barbeque. There is something to trying to be a well-rounded person with some understanding of how the world works and how we got to be where we are. I never have met someone on whom a liberal arts education was a waste, even if he or she thought so. (I should point out that not everyone with a diploma or a degree has an education and not everyone without one of these pieces of paper lacks one; ultimately, we are self-taught or not at all.) Even if one never again scans a poem or calculates a tangent, it is important to know these things can be done, and that they require no special magic.

One does not want to be a contestant on the Howard Stern radio show, answering (not made up examples) that Paul Revere rode in World War One and that Columbus sailed on the Mayfair. We serve ourselves and our fellows better with a world view broader, richer, and more integrated than that of an australopithecine chipping flint.

In one of his grumpier moods, science fiction author Robert Heinlein once suggested that voting booths should be rigged not to accept the votes of anyone who can’t answer three simple questions: one of math, one of civics, and one of grammar. He further suggested that the booths of those who failed the test should ring and light up as a further discouragement to them coming back. I understand the likely harm of doing this for real, but it is hard not to sympathize the sentiment behind the proposal.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Posies for Pia

Remember Pia Zadora? Maybe a little? Not at all? After some experience as a child actor (see Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – no, on second thought, don’t), she met, at age 17, a Wealthy (the capital “W” is not a typo) businessman more than 30 years her senior. They married in 1977, divorcing amicably in 1993. While married, the undeniably cute Pia did ads for Dubonnet; her husband was a big stockholder in the producer of the aperitif. He also helped generate roles for her in several movies, starting with Butterfly (1982), which not even the presence of Stacy Keach and Orson Welles could salvage. The critics were beyond unkind. She was the first person to win two RAZZIE awards in a row for worst actress, though in truth she wasn’t as bad as all that. Her movies were bad but she wasn’t.

The popular response was far less rude. Her pop albums sold well in the 80s, she opened for Sinatra in Las Vegas, and she even won a Golden Globe. She posed for Penthouse, and that issue sold out. By the end of the decade even the critics mellowed. The reviews of her stage performances in the 90s were good. She retired comfortably a dozen years ago and recently sold her Beverly Hills home reportedly for more than $17,000,000.

Why is she so largely forgotten? She was no megastar to be sure, but she wasn’t obscure either. Other entertainers from the era with lesser careers are remembered better. I think it is because she skillfully exploited the opportunities provided by her marriage (her complete openness about this seems part of what irked the critics) and lived a responsible life. There were no drunken appearances on the Tonight Show, no break-ins of ex-boyfriends’ apartments, no sex tapes, no shots fired, no cocaine busts, no paternity suits, and no forgotten underwear in front of paparazzi. How boring.

It will be two years next week that Anna Nicole Smith died, and the tabloids already are full of retrospectives on her life and death. A true post-modern celebrity, she was famously famous for being famous. She dropped out of high school, stripped at a Houston club called Gigi’s, posed for Playboy, married a Wealthy businessman over 60 years her senior, and briefly hosted a bad reality show. She is not the first pole dancer to marry a large bank account, yet somehow she became a focus of national attention even though she didn’t even pretend to be talented in the usual sense.
Orson and Pia

Don’t get me wrong, I respect and like ecdysiasts. I also respect the year of happiness Anna gave to an 89 year old man. I don’t condescend because she didn’t cultivate other professional skills. She didn’t need to. No one likes to see a personable and harmless person die young. Yet, there is something off-putting about the reports of how much pain there was in the life of someone with beauty, health, wealth, love, and fame. (The loss of her son a few months before she died was a real tragedy, but that explains nothing about the years prior.) Under the circumstances, overdosing was more exasperating to this observer than sad.
Miss Smith left too early, and this is truly unfortunate. Yet, here is to Pia who did it better – and is still doing it better.

Fake-Out (1982) - Opening Number