Saturday, July 26, 2008


Speaking of bears....

Why are bears thought of as kindly, but dumb, friends to humans? Is it because they walk upright, and have slightly human-looking hands and faces? Further, why do we consider most of our fellow primates to be slightly silly, like human children?

I think the key might be in the way we anthropomorphize them. You can't judge a cat's appearance by human standards, as the absurd costuming of the musical "Cats" made all too clear. (The only quasi-theatrical attempt at blending human and feline standards of appearance that ever worked was the Cat character on "Red Dwarf." He was also, of course, not meant to be taken seriously.) Try looking at your cat's face, or your dog's, or your iguana's. If you try to picture them as human faces, they range from mildly misshapen to frightening.

A chimp, on the other hand, bears a strong physical resemblance to a confused or ridiculous human. As a result, we see them in relation to ourselves, while a cat's completely non-human demeanor comes across as mysterious and wise. The fact is, your cat is not as "smart" as the average primate, bear or even pig. Dogs, while smarter than cats, rely on pack instincts to make decisions that would be no challenge to an orangutan.

This all may be philosophical. On the practical side, wolves and coyotes are not your pet german shepherd; that cuddly-seeming bear is a fierce and crafty omnivore who will eat you if he's hungry; and we learn every day how little separates us from the other primates. Treat them all with the respect and fear that they deserve.

Every couple of years we hear a story about a child or small animal falling into the polar bear enclosure and being eaten. Should we really be blaming that on the bears?

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Monday, July 21, 2008


The "McSame" label just doesn't cut it.

This year's presidential election will not be decided by negative campaigning. For the first time in years, Americans have a choice of two positives. If McCain wins, it will be because people trust him and want the kind of governance he stands for. If Obama wins, it will be because people trust him and want the kind of governance he stands for.

The McCain campaign and the Republicans in general have plenty of material -- much of it spurious -- to aim against Obama. I hope they realize that this year that isn't the path to victory. (As an Obama supporter I'm not hoping too hard.)

The Democrats, even in the Obama campaign, seem to be relying on an even more dangerous mantra: "A vote for McCain is a vote for a third Bush term." Really? They really can't see the difference between McCain and Bush? No matter how energetically McCain panders to the so-called Republican base, he will never resemble George W. Bush.

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait is on to the problem. He writes,

" ....even though Democrats are extremely enthusiastic about Barack Obama, that life-and-death quality is absent. I think the reason is that a lot of liberals kind of like John McCain. I know I do.

Eight years ago, I was a hard-core liberal McCainiac. Here was a Republican saying things no other Republican would say and fighting, Teddy Roosevelt-style, to wrest his party from the hands of the plutocrats who controlled it. And, in the years immediately following that run, McCain established himself as perhaps the country's foremost progressive champion. He was an opponent, on moral and fiscal grounds, of tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich. He was also a fierce opponent of the extreme elements of the religious right. He was a proponent of global-warming legislation, the Law of the Sea Treaty, a moderate immigration bill, expanded public financing of elections, a tobacco tax, and many other liberal reforms....

....Where Bush is peevish, entitled, and insecure, McCain's charming, ironic, and self-deprecating. Bush's path to public life was trading on his father's name to run a series of business ventures into the ground before being handed a baseball team. McCain's was an episode of awe-inspiring perseverance...."

We should celebrate the fact that each party seems to have chosen its most original thinker, and best listener, as its candidate for president. Whichever way this election goes -- and I'm confident that Obama is our next president -- Bush will be history.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008


I subscribe to the New Yorker.

I received my copy of the July 21, 2008, New Yorker the day after the outrage broke. I had seen the cover cartoon on several websites, sometimes accompanied by a brief synopsis of the article in question. It didn't make sense to comment until I had seen the magazine. It still might not make sense, but that has never stopped me before....

As usual, the New Yorker's political coverage was the weakest part of the magazine. The Obama profile looked to be a basic rehash of stories familiar to any Chicagoan or regular reader of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. I say "looked to be" because I fell asleep before I finished reading the article.

The July 21 issue did have some good pieces. My standard is that if information or quotations from a book or article spring to mind repeatedly when I am supposed to be doing other things -- and not purely because of ridiculousness of subject or egregious grammatical errors -- then the item in question was worth reading. I've waited a couple of days to see what passes the test.

I loved Jill Lepore's story about E. B. White and how the librarian from the New York Public Library tried to have "Stuart Little" blacklisted. The short fiction was a little dull but excusably so since the theme seemed to be dullness. Elizabeth Kolbert's review of a book about grass lawns left me with some ideas about dealing with my own front yard. I agree with Hendrik Hertzberg about Obama's so-called flip flops, so his column pleased me. Neither of the poems and none of the cartoons stuck in my mind. David Denby's review made me want to see the children's film "WALL-E."

Like most periodicals it isn't something I read from cover to cover unless I feel ill and it is the only reading material at hand. I am always happy to see a New Yorker in my mailbox, so that must make me a satisfied reader.

The cover, titled "The Politics of Fear"? Even with all the hoopla, it was forgettable. Don't take my word for it, though. I've never been a fan of Barry Blitt's drawing style, or of caricatures in general.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Saving the world, for real.

I thought Hillary Clinton's campaign was over. I was gearing up for the fight to get enough Democrats into the executive and legislative branches so that she could coast through the confirmation process in her next assignment, justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. For that job, Clinton has it all; a sharp legal mind, an admirable work ethic and a record of service. And as an appointment for life, it will allow her to put aside the constant political posturing that elected office requires, and concentrate on real questions.

Now I read that Susie Tompkins Buell, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild and Jill Iscol are refusing to raise money for Obama's campaign unless he offers her the vice presidential slot. They have every right to use their money for whatever purpose they want, but I do wish the chattering classes would stop asking them for their opinions. Putting aside the question of where Clinton could be most effective for the longest time, I have to ask, is this democracy? Need I remind Democrats that the GOP's listening to the clubbish preferences of big financial backers eight years ago gave us President George W. Bush?

Each of these three moneyed socialites has some worthwhile causes to her credit. Iscol's money presumably comes from her marriage to the owner of Cellular One, but she had a long career in education and has been actively working for years to improve the prospects and opportunities of America's public schoolchildren. That effort has more recently extended worldwide.

Her son Zachary Iscol, an officer in the U.S. Marines, has been an advocate far at least one Iraqi family left in danger because of service to U.S. forces. The New York Sun noted:

"Of the 2 million Iraqis who have taken refuge from the war in neighboring countries, about 900 have received visas in the last year to come to America.

Khalid Abood received his largely through the efforts of a Marine Corps captain, Zachary Iscol, whom Mr. Abood served under in 2004. Mr. Abood's departure to Jordan prompted Captain Iscol to travel to Capitol Hill and tell legislators of the plight of his former interpreter...

...In addition to investigative work, [Abood's] new job will involve interpreting for Arabic-speaking crime victims and suspects. Mr. Abood first came to [Manhattan District Attorney Robert] Morgenthau's attention through Captain Iscol's father, a family friend...."

As for Lynn Forester, she is also known as Lady de Rothschild. This is from the Conde Nast Portfolio:

"When 67-year-old British banking scion Sir Evelyn Rothschild first set eyes on 44-year-old Lynn Forester at the 1998 Bilderburg conference—the matchmaker was none other than Henry Kissinger—she was already a woman of major means.

A corporate lawyer and telecommunications entrepreneur, the sparkly blond ex-wife of former New York politician Andrew Stein had made more than $100 million from the sale of cleverly acquired wireless broadband licenses. She was also sexy, charming, and dazzlingly well connected. Two years later, after the smitten Sir Evelyn divorced his second wife, Victoria Schott, the mother of his three children, Forester became the third Lady Rothschild. After marrying in November 2000 at a London synagogue, they honeymooned at the White House, guests of Lynn's good friends Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Today the New Jersey-born Lady de Rothschild—the flashiest hostess in London—is mates with Tony and Cherie Blair, among other topflight Britons. She's also mistress of the former John Singer Sargent home in Chelsea and of Ascott House, the 3,200-acre Rothschild family estate in Buckinghamshire, and the chief executive of E.L. Rothschild, the holding company that she owns with her third husband to manage investments in the Economist and various enterprises in India. Those include Fieldfresh, a startup that will grow and export Indian fruits and vegetables for markets in Europe and Asia, and a soon-to-be-announced retail venture aimed at the exploding Indian middle class."

The Point Reyes Light, a community newspaper on the California coast, included this in a 2006 profile of Buell:

"Susie Tomkins Buell perched on a chartreuse bouclé armchair in her Bolinas living room Monday afternoon, her legs comfortably tucked beneath her. She reflected on the role that has increasingly occupied her attention since leaving Esprit de Corps and setting up the Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation in 1996 — that of a philanthropist. Nowadays, she and her husband, Mark Buell, spend their time deciding to whom and when to give money to best advance their political agenda: saving the world.

The Buells want Democrats in office. They want global warming addressed and thwarted. Most of all, they want women in power...."

All three of these women mean well. Politics, though, is apparently not their strength. Iscol, of "How Dare You" fame, seems to have a psychological need to be heard -- and heard, and heard. Forester de Rothschild may be uncomfortable with a first lady like Michelle Obama, a woman with working class roots who has been known to make more money than her husband makes. Buell may feel that the world is better saved by another Republican in office than by a man who treats his wife and daughters with respect. All three just might feel that they have been insufficiently kowtowed to so far by the Obama campaign. When you are used to buying for your friends the outcomes you want with your social and financial connections, it might be hard to realize that you are no longer calling the shots.

It may not have dawned on Susie Tompkins Buell, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild and Jill Schaefer Iscol that America might not wish to have its leadership dictated by a trio of well-groomed elitists, or that what we like about Obama is that he feels like one of us, not one of them.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


Apparently the piece of paper does not make you smarter.

There is an interesting item in today's "Inside Higher Ed" about a retired professor misquoting someone in a column he wrote.

Edward Bernard Glick's column in The American Thinker, titled something like "How our Marxist faculties got that way" included the following remark, in quotation marks and attributed to the head of the psychology department at Duke: "No. We don’t hire Republicans because they are stupid and we are not. Why should we knowingly hire stupid professors?" Although the remark turned out to be apocryphal at best, it captures the way we all suspect that many educated people, especially toilers in the higher education trenches, think. The assumption is that (1) conservative Republicans are stupid, and (2) people with Ph.D.s are more intelligent and open minded than the population as a whole.

These statements only hold up to the most biased and cursory scrutiny. Many people with graduate degrees are highly intelligent, thoughtful people. Another group of them (smaller than the first, I hope) is composed of those who had the time, money and endurance to become extremely well-informed in one narrow area of expertise, or who were able to jump through the requisite set of higher education hoops, but whose natural inclination or habits of thought have become narrow as well. This second group tends to be over-impressed with their own accomplishments and thoroughly convinced that it makes them better than people with less formal education.

As for the assumption about conservative Republicans, it may seem hard to refute. Suffice it to say that George W. Bush, James Dobson and Lou Dobbs do not constitute the entire universe of Republican and conservative thought. Just as an example, most of us do not think that the problem with Richard Cheney or Karl Rove is their lack of cleverness, intelligence or cunning. I could digress further here on the absolute necessity for all social, economic and educational levels to employ their own critical thinking to truisms from both left and right, but you must catch my drift.

By the way, the real quote that Glick heard third or fourth-hand from a report on National Public Radio (a treasure trove of "progressive" attitudes) was this, from former chair of the Duke philosophy department Robert Brandon: “I don’t know the political affiliation of all of my colleagues in philosophy, nor do I care,” Brandon had told the [Duke] student paper. “Our last hire was in the history of modern philosophy. We hired an expert in Kant and Newton. Politics never came up in the interview.” Brandon had gone on to say “We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.”

Judge for yourself whether that means what Glick's misquote implied.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008


How do we administer the freedom we have?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson offers a useful commentary on the subject of free will in his "Ethics of the Fathers" column last week on the Jewish learning website. In it Goldson addresses the gap between God's omniscience and omnipotence, on one side, and humanity's ability to make choices, on the other. For example:

"...On the one hand, God has created
malachim - heavenly angels of pure spirituality that can do nothing other than perform His will; on the other hand, He has created animals, creatures that are purely physical and unable to follow any course of action other than their natural impulses. Only human beings possess a spiritual soul clothed in a physical body; only human beings possess the potential to transcend the physical and cling to the spiritual by an act of free will...."

"...[T]he Almighty knows when the ultimate redemption will come. But we do not. Neither do we know whether we are meant to struggle with poverty or with wealth, with conflict or with comfort, with success or with failure. Whatever our lot in life, it is the struggle that matters. We will be judged not for our successes or our failures, but according the effort we exert to choose wisely and rightly in accordance with the divine will..."

July 6, 2008

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