Thursday, February 24, 2011

MY FATHER WAS A UNION MAN: Why public workers need our support

A. Terry Weathers, my father, was both a union man and a school-board member who negotiated with teachers.
     My father, the most unselfish person I’ve ever known, was a union man. He belonged to the Communication Workers of America. In the Joe McCarthy red-baiting era of the 1950s, my father was accused, in anonymous notes left on his desk where he worked at AT&T, of being a “commie” and a “pinko.” My mother was convinced that AT&T never promoted my father above a middling-level job because he was a union man.
     My father was also a school-board member in my hometown of Farmingdale, on Long Island, in New York. He co-founded the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association and later became president of the New York State School Boards Association. He fought for years to increase state aid to schools, so children in poor districts wouldn’t be disadvantaged. He never earned a dime for his school-board work, not one penny for the thousands of hours he gave to it. I still remember him spending long evenings after work with a hand-cranked adding machine on our dining room table, figuring out state school finances. I was one of the few high school students whose dinnertime conversation focused on such things as “weighted average daily attendance.”
     As a school-board member, my father had to negotiate with Farmingdale’s teacher’s union every year or two. Never once did he “cave in” to the teachers because he was a union man or because he wanted to curry favor with them so they would support him in the next school-board election. My father knew that in those negotiations he had to represent the interests, not just of the town’s children, but of its taxpayers, especially those who were retired and on fixed incomes. 
     But my father treated those teachers with respect. He loved teachers and would have been one himself if the Depression hadn’t cost him a four-year college education. My sister was a public-school teacher in Harlem. My brother and I were both teachers at state colleges. So of course my father respected teachers. He wanted the best ones to be rewarded for their work, and he knew that only decent salaries would attract the best ones. Good salaries and benefits meant good teachers, and good teachers meant the best education for our town's kids.

My sister Joyce taught in public schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, one of thousands of hard-working, underpaid, dedicated public-school teachers. When I was three and she was 12, she was my first teacher.
     In the mostly blue-collar town of Farmingdale when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the teachers were respected, and each year Farmingdale’s citizens voted to support a school budget that paid teachers adequately and gave them reasonable job security. The taxpayers did this even if it meant slightly higher property taxes (which are the primary source of New York schools’ financing). As a result of the willingness of the good citizens of Farmingdale to give a bit more from their wallets, I got to attend perhaps the greatest public schools in U.S. history.
     All this is by way of saying that today I am sickened by what the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Colorado are trying to do, abetted by the Republicans in the U.S. Congress. 

      The Republicans, having deregulated business at the behest of Wall Street and of the billionaire Koch brothers and their crowd, ruined our economy and left it bleeding by the side of the road in 2008. Thanks to President Obama’s stimulus package—a transfusion that virtually all economists say has saved the economy—the country is recovering nicely: generating jobs, increasing production, reenergizing people’s 401K plans and pensions. Wall Street managers are again making billions. The corporations are sitting on trillions (literally) in profits. Heck, the rich are even richer now; the thirteen biggest hedge-fund managers last year averaged more than a billion dollars in income, each—enough to hire hundreds of thousands of teachers, if the billionaires' income were taxed as actual income rather than at the 15% capital gains rate the Republicans have given them. (See this column by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich for the details.) 
      But saving the economy required spending government money, leaving us with deficits now.
      Let me repeat: The Republicans ruined the economy. The deficits now faced by states and the federal government are the Republicans’ fault.
      Are the Republicans willing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done? Are they willing to tax their rich Wall Street friends who have benefited from the stimulus that was needed to end the Great Recession? Are they willing to tax the Koch brothers and corporate moguls who are making billions off a revived economy? Of course not. In fact, the opposite. The Republicans want to blame somebody else and make innocent bystanders pay the price for their folly. They want to blame the unions.
Nobel economist Paul Krugman
     Let’s be honest: The Republicans want to use the deficits they forced upon us as an excuse to destroy one of their longtime targets: the unions. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman says, it’s not just public-employee unions they want to destroy, it’s ALL unions.
     If the unions are destroyed, life becomes much easier for the billionaire Kochs and other corporate accumulators, who will no longer have to pay workers a fair wage, who will no longer have to worry about worker-protection legislation, who will be able to fire any employees who look at them the wrong way, without grievance procedures to protect those employees. The Republicans, as Krugman says, want to return us to the Gilded Age, before unions, when workers were treated barely better than slaves. If you don’t believe me, look at the record: name one worker-protection, consumer-protection, environment-protection, or disability-protection law the Republican Party as a group has voted for in the last 30 years.
     Not to mention which, with the unions destroyed, the Democrats lose the only centralized source of campaign contributions big enough to balance the hundreds of millions of dollars the super-rich corporate aristocrats lavish upon Republican candidates.

     Let us return for a moment to the days before there were public-employee unions. I’ll use teachers as my example, but I could be talking about policemen, firemen, sanitation workers, or city hall clerks.
     Before there were teachers unions, your chance of getting hired, if you wanted to be a teacher, often depended on which school board member or city councilman or mayoral aide you knew. School teachers were the slaves of patronage: if you supported the right political party, you got hired; if not, not. Once you had a job, you were expected to support the party in power: work in its election offices, fill the crowds for its candidates’ speeches, even tell your students which candidates their parents should vote for; if you didn’t, you were fired. Without a union to protect you, you were at the mercy of your principal, who was at the mercy of the political bosses. If you were a woman and your principal or that mayoral aide made sexual advances to you, you had no union to protect you from his threat to fire you if you didn’t give in. Before there were teachers unions, you had no pension plan; when you retired, you were left with nothing; longtime teachers were often fired just so they could be replaced by cheaper young teachers (my father explained that this was called "the rotating bottom"—a classic corporate ploy to dampen wages).
     While you worked, if you were a teacher in the days before unions, you were paid a pittance, despite your good education. Without any tenure system, you couldn’t teach anything that violated the ideas of the most narrow-minded politician in power: if the politicians in  power insisted that unions were communist, you had to teach that; if the politicians in power insisted that evolution was wrong, you had to teach that; if you were a public-university professor and you published research that didn’t turn the way the politicians liked, you were fired. Before there were teachers unions, if you taught that integration was a legitimate alternative to segregation, and you lived in the wrong part of the country, you were fired. (Union support helped pump blood into the civil rights movement. Teachers unions were the strongest supporters of the Supreme Court decision to overturn separate-but-equal school laws. When Martin Luther King was killed, he was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers who wanted to unionize.) Before there were teachers unions, your students had no protection either: if the politicians decided to save money by firing teachers and increasing the size of classes, they simply did it, education be damned. Before there were teachers unions, if you got sick and couldn’t teach for a month, you were fired and replaced; if your medical bills were big enough, you went bankrupt, and your family went hungry, because you had no health plan. If you got pregnant and couldn’t teach, you lost your job. If you got pregnant and tried to continue teaching, you often got fired anyway, because school boards in some towns thought a pregnant woman was unsightly in the classroom.

Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Memphis in March, 1968 to support the sanitation workers who wanted to form a union. King was killed the next week in Memphis. Unions were among the biggest supporters of the civil rights movement.
     Let me return to my father. As a boy, he worked for a time in the coal fields of Kentucky, serving mine workers their lunch and supper. This was before the mine workers were unionized, so my father saw what a company town was. The miners, before there were unions, were forced to live in company housing, paying rent to the company; forced to shop in company-owned stores, paying with scrip, or “company money,” with which they were paid in place of U.S. dollars; and forced to pay the company doctor if they were sick. The companies, in other words, forced the workers to give all their earnings back to the company. If a worker even talked of higher wages, he was fired. If workers tried to unionize or asked to bargain collectively, they were, not rarely, beaten or killed. If you want to know what the Kentucky coal mines were like before unions, go to this web site . My father saw that world first-hand. It made him a union man forever.

Before there were unions, scrip—"company money"— (shown here as paper, above, and coin, below) was a way to force workers to return all their earnings to their employers. Unable to save real money, they became slaves to their jobs.

     That was the world before there were unions. For workers, it was a dark and ugly and corrupt world. For the greedy rich, it was almost heaven; all they had to contend with was each other. The Republicans want to return us to that world, make no mistake about it.
     So when I see the irresponsible and, to my mind, immoral way those Republican governors are treating public-school teachers and other public workers, I think of my father and the pre-union world he knew and hated. I also see how he handled the teachers union: with respect for them, respect for the collective-bargaining process, respect for the taxpayers he represented, and love for the children whose education was being shaped.
      I remember my father. That’s how I know, when I look at what we’re seeing from the Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere, that there is a better way. 

My first-grade class at Main Street School in Farmingdale, NY, 1953. Miss Sokolowski was a fine teacher, like nearly all public-school teachers I have ever known. That's me in the second row, second from left.
 (A column by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post adds some meaningful facts to this discussion.)


Thursday, February 17, 2011

THE EMPTY BOX and THE ACCIDENTAL VOICE: What the words of a nonbeliever can do

I wrote the original version of the following essay in 2002, as a column for the web site of The Memphis Flyer, an alternative weekly newspaper. Back then the web site probably had fewer than 1,000 readers. The response to the essay stunned me. After you read this, you can read what happened after it was first published.

It has to be said: Religion is a dangerous thing

           Religion is the root of much evil.
        It has to be said.
        Here is what I believe: There is no god, there is no messiah, there are no prophets plugged in to some divine will. There are no saints or holy men. If there is a heaven or a hell or any other kind of afterlife, we can’t know anything about it while we’re in this life, so it’s useless to speculate and foolish to believe. Faith is an empty box. To believe in Christ's divinity is to believe in a rabbit’s foot. To believe in the Buddha's enlightenment is to believe that pro wrestling is real. To believe in Mohammed's pipeline to a god is to believe that the groundhog can predict spring. To believe that the Ten Commandments came from some deity on a mountaintop is to believe that television psychics can talk to your dead grandmother. Allah, Jehovah and the Trinity are elves and Tinkerbells. They are no more than desperate hope given a name and anthropomorphic shape by the imaginations of frightened human beings.
        It has to be said.
        Religion is superstition. It is mankind crossing its fingers. Its sole functions are 1) to comfort and console those who cannot bear the suffering and death that are ultimately the lot of every human being, and 2) to offer meaning in a world where meaning can never be established. Religion, in other words, is a fortress of lies built to keep out the terrors of existence and nonexistence. For those in power, it is useful in still another way: Since time immemorial, the powerful have used religion to distract the oppressed, to encourage them to focus on the next world so that they will acquiesce to the injustices of this world. If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns.
        This is not saying anything new, but it has to be said again.
        On balance, religion has made the world a worse place. It has generated magnificent art and wonderful music and spectacular architecture, and millions of people have, over the centuries, done good and beautiful things in its name, but on balance it has not been good for the world. Those millions of good people would have done just as much good without it. Mother Teresa would have been saintly without the New Testament. Martin Luther King would have been a paragon of eloquent courage without having been baptized. Gandhi would have overturned an empire leaning only on his walking stick. Virtue would exist without Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, which, in their vanity and vaporishness, are no different from the Roman’s belief in household gods or the Druid’s belief in tree spirits. A magic act is a magic act, whatever robes we clothe it in. But because of religions like these, the world has experienced centuries and centuries of backwardness and unnecessary suffering. Throats have been slit in their name, hearts exploded, the best minds distracted or destroyed, sweet people tortured, millions of children sent horribly to oblivion.
        It has to be said.
        Today is a good day to say it. Perhaps the worst of religion’s dangerous superstitions is the notion of  the “holy” place. The idea that this patch of earth or that building or that city or nation is somehow sanctified by some god has left us with the bombs and guns and bodies of Kashmir and Belfast, of Baghdad and Jerusalem. “Next year in Jerusalem.” Oh, the lives such words have cost! Why not “Next year in Memphis” or “Next year in Singapore” or “Next year on the banks of the Platte”? What is land but land? What is a building but a building?
       There are wars enough when what is “holy” is not part of the picture. Communism and fascism and capitalism and totalitarianism in all its many guises would have had their wars even with all gods standing on the sidelines. There are land wars and economic wars and grudge wars and wars for no reason that anyone can understand at all. But religious wars are the most tragic, because they are built so deeply on a deluded sense of righteousness. Have nonbelievers started wars? Of course. They have started wars for land or politics or pure villainy. But I don’t know of a single nonbeliever who has killed simply to make others stop believing. (Stalin, you would say? Mao? No, they killed for power.) On the other hand, the world has thousands, millions, who will kill, and have killed, in order to make someone else believe as they believe.
         You won’t read this in The New York Times, but it has to be said: Religion does more harm than good. I wish our politicians in Washington would stop talking to, or about, their god. I wish the Near and Middle East would suddenly be flooded by a sea of atheism. I wish Northern Ireland and the Balkans would overnight experience mass religious amnesia. How much more at peace the world would be.
          A man truly awake does not need religion. He doesn’t need gods. He doesn’t need miracles. He doesn’t need holy lands here below or heavens up above. For him, life in this universe is itself holy, as is every patch of ground and every path he walks. Life itself is enough of a miracle. To believe in a god who made this life is to believe in a miracle even greater than this miracle. Who needs more than one unfathomable miracle? Existence is a fluke, a freak, a wonder, a dream, a bizarre uncanny thing. Our own consciousness of this existence is so incredible a phenomenon that I don’t understand why anyone feels the need to believe in anything else more “spiritual.” It’s all spiritual. It’s all true magic. Why add imagined magic to explain the magic that is right before us?
         Religion is dangerous. It needs to be said, and no one is saying it, except on the nonbelievers’ web sites and in their magazines, where they speak only to each other. Our politicians won’t say it. Our commentators won’t say it. The power of self-censorship in this God-fearing country is too strong, freedom of speech be damned. I can say it here only because this audience is so small, and I have little to risk. (Will fifty of you read this? Will 500? I have no business you can boycott. I have no office you can vote me out of. All I can lose is my job.)
         Nearly all my friends are believers. Nearly all of those I love are believers. Most of them are generous and kind, and their religion gives them hope and comfort and pleasant society. Last night, I went to a Passover seder at the home of Jewish friends. They are wonderful people. It was a lovely evening. My own widowed mother was sustained after my father’s death by the amazing kindness of the women in her church. Yes, I have seen many good works born in synagogues, mosques, and church pews. But the nonbelievers I know are just as kind, just as loving, just as hopeful, and they have given just as much comfort to those in need.
         And I too hope. I hope, for example, that I will see my dead parents and my dead brother and my dead friends in some next life, and that we will all be free from worry and pain forever. But it’s just hope, and it’s awake and open-eyed. It’s not faith, which is sleepy and blind. I don’t depend on my hope, and I wouldn’t base my living actions on it. It’s a hope that does not grow out of dogma, and I would never try to impose my hope on someone else. Pure hope never yet has led to war. The same cannot be said of dogma. If I were to found a religion, I would call it “The Church of the Hopeful Few.” Hope would be its only doctrine, and I think it would be a peaceful church.
         I know it does little good to tell believers that they should stop believing. I don’t really care if they believe, as long as they remain in their closets when they pray, and leave their gods there when they emerge. Their self-delusion saddens me a bit, but it is usually harmless. When it does harm is when it drives them against the self-delusion of those who believe otherwise. Then is the time of enmity and war.
         If our representatives in Washington must believe, then, let them believe. But let them remember that the White House is not a cathedral, and that the capitol building is a place of men, not gods.
So remarkable was the response to the essay above that a month later I was compelled to write the following:

How I learned that an unpopular opinion can speak for multitudes
     I recently declared in this space that I don’t believe in any god, messiah, prophet, or afterlife. I further declared that I believe religion does more harm than good, and that presidents, prime ministers, and judges who promote religious ideas are dangerous to the world at large. Religion, I asserted, maims, tortures, kills and demoralizes. Religion is the root of much evil, I wrote, and it should be kept out of government. 
     I had hoped that my Declaration of Disbelief would be read by the fundamentalists and evangelicals in Memphis and maybe elsewhere. I had hoped to push the preachers, smug as they are, up against a wall of questions and into the rare position of having to defend their beliefs against two-fisted skepticism. I had expected—let’s be honest, I had even hoped for—angry emails from the Bible-thumpers consigning me to hell for denying God.
     But that’s not what happened. The audience I had wanted to reach simply ignored me. I received only one email consigning me to hell and telling me I’d better start praying to Jesus today if I want to save my soul. Either the old-time religionists were cowed by the brilliance of my arguments or they never read what I wrote. I don’t think they were cowed.
     Instead of hate mail, though, I began receiving something else: hundreds upon hundreds of emails praising me for what I had written! I got emails not just from Memphis, but from almost every state in the union, not to mention Canada, Brazil, England and Scotland. Somehow my column had made its way through the Internet to sites with names like “Internet Infidels,” “Atheist Parents,” “The Secular Web” “The Heathen Handbook,” “Freedom from Religion” and “The Freethinkers Forum.” Thousands of nonbelievers were reading my little screed, drinking it in, they said, as if it were the purest spring water, and many of them felt compelled to write to me. Their emails contained the same message over and over: “Thank you for saying what needed to be said.” “You are so brave to write what you wrote.” “You have written what I have always believed and could never say.” “I’m sending your column to everyone I know.” “May I reprint your column for our local atheist group?” “I wish I could speak out as you have.” “When I told my [family/friends/coworkers] that I didn’t believe in God, I was [ostracized/cursed/ fired]. I admire your courage.” “I hope you don’t lose your job for writing what you wrote.” “I hope our support will serve as a small antidote to those heaps of ignorant derision you’ll get from the church-goers."
     This has been an experience both heartening and discouraging. I had failed to reach the knee-jerk believers I wanted to challenge, which was disappointing. But I had somehow succeeded in speaking for thousands of nonbelievers who are desperate for a public voice, which was rewarding. Yet in a way, that very success was also disheartening. Why didn’t those thousands of nonbelievers feel they had a voice of their own? What does it say about America today that, in a supposedly secular nation, there are millions of people who are afraid to say that they don’t believe in any god or in any life after death? What does it say that they can’t speak out lest their families and friends disown them?
     It says, I think, that the tyranny of the majority, as de Toqueville called it, is still a mighty restraint on free speech in this supposedly free society.
     I’ve learned some lessons from all this:
     I’ve learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you miss the audience you’re trying to reach. Sometimes all that matters is that you declare what you believe, as honestly and articulately as you can, because you might find another audience that needs to hear what you have to say.
     I’ve learned that when you speak frankly for yourself, you almost inevitably speak for thousands of others who need a voice.
     I’ve learned that even if you can’t change the world--just as I can’t unelect a governor who blurs the distinction between church and state--it is useful to express your opinion, if only to give a sense of community to the like-minded who think they’re alone.
     I’ve learned that if you would find alternative ideas, you would do best to look in alternative media, like the Internet and the weekly newspapers.
     I’ve learned that strangers will worry about you (“I hope you don’t lose your job”) and wish you well just because they like your words.
     I’ve learned that what’s compulsion for one person is courage for another. It took no bravery for me to write what I wrote; I’m driven to write what I believe, come what may. But I understand better now the strength it takes for others to express unpopular opinions when job, family, friendship, or simple social acceptance is on the line.
     And I’ve been reminded once more that such strength is the muscle of democracy.
     So whoever you are, whatever your opinions, I hope that you think hard, stake out your corner, then climb your platform in the bright light of full noon and shout your policies to anyone who stops to listen. So what if you’re greeted with catcalls and rotten fruit? If you believe that France was right and the U.S. was wrong about starting a war in Iraq, say so aloud, though the mass of jingoists call you traitor. If you believe that the rich should be made to share more with the poor, and not vice versa, let everybody know it, though bleeding-heart liberals may be out of fashion this year. And if you have no god, proclaim your godlessness to the world, though you fear the mob will damn you forever to hell.
     Speak out, speak out, speak out. With the world as it is, silence is a sin.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

AS YOU LIKE IT: A lesson in love from Mrs. Wembley

"Love abhors a zipper," said Mrs. Wembley.
     “Valentine’s Day,” said Mrs. Wembley, stroking Camille with one hand and finishing off the Times crossword, in ink, with the other. “Right. Only holiday to celebrate a bodily organ, refined sugar, thorny plants, primitive weapons, and a pathological state of mind. Love abhors a zipper, Worfle.”
     “Primitive weapons? Zippers?” I asked, trying to get comfortable on her all-convex, sun-yellow plastic sofa, designed with a protractor and crayons by disciples of the Memphis School of design.
      “Bows. Arrows. Cupid. That sort of thing,” she said from the other end of the sofa, clarifying weapons but adding nothing about zippers. Much of what Mrs. Wembley says dwells forever in the realm of the unexplained. She threw her pen and the Times on the coffee table, which was a bigger-than-life, laminated plastic replica of a standing slice of watermelon. A rose (the “thorny plant” referred to above) stuck out at an oblique angle from one of the apertures of a plastic vase on the coffee table. Everything in Mrs. Wembley’s house is hard, geometrical, and avant garde except for Camille, her soft, flatulent, eclectic dog, who has been pretending to die for going on eight years and is spoiled senseless. “I like plastic” is how Mrs. Wembley explains her taste in furnishings. “I like Camille” is how she explains her taste in dogs. I had brought her the rose for Valentine’s Day.
"Love runs in a two-tap sink."
     Mrs. Wembley lives down the street from me, and I often go to her for advice, particularly on matters of the heart (the “bodily organ” referred to above). She has been married twice, but claims to have spent the last fifty years happily single. “Right. I tested the waters. Too hot once. Too cold once. Love runs in a two-tap sink,” she explained, adding delphically, “Love starts at the end, Worfle, and reads backwards till it’s done.”
     Most of our neighbors claim Mrs. Wembley is dotty, but I don’t think so. It was Mrs. Wembley, after all, who notified me many years ago that the Successful Single had given up hard soap for liquid soap, and toothpaste tubes for push-button toothpaste cans, and who alerted me to the switch back before it happened. On my few dates during my Single Life, her advice was borne out in the bathrooms of Modern Women. It was Mrs. Wembley also who advised me in my Single Years that it is permissible for a man to take his contact lens equipment with him on a date, just in case. “Better to be presumptuous and prepared than polite and stupid,” she said. “Love isn’t blind, Worfle. It’s nearsighted, though.”
     I don’t know how Mrs. Wembley knows about these things, but she does. She is wiry and tan, with short white hair and a clipped accent. She spends a lot of time in her garden. Women like that often know about things.

St. Valentine
     Anyway, I was in Mrs. Wembley’s living room, and we were discussing Valentine’s Day and love (the “pathological condition” referred to above).
     “Right. Birds,” she was saying.
     “Birds?” I asked.
     “February 14—the day the birds mate. That’s what Chaucer thought. Also the day before Lupercalia. L-u-p-e-r-c-a-l-i-a. Roman festival. Wolf destroyer and all that. Boys drew lots to see which girl they’d get. Medieval church said whoa— made the boys draw saints’ names, instead. ‘To expect a woman and draw a saint is ever a disappointment to mortal man!’ wrote the wag. Right. Then a Saint’s Day for Valentine, whoever he was. Beaten to death with clubs and beheaded. Right. Perfect saint for love.”
     I was, as usual, having trouble keeping up, and I was still uncomfortable on the sofa, on which I kept slipping toward the sides. Large Camille, lying between us, whined insincerely and rolled over on her back to be scratched. I accommodated her. She showed her gratitude by silently expressing her flatulence and falling asleep. Mrs. Wembley picked up some knitting. She is rarely still.
     “Listen, Worfle,” she said, “never love if you can like.”
     “Excuse me?” I said.
     Mrs. Wembley shot me an impatient look over the needles. “Love never forgives,” she continued. “Like forgives anything—pimples, tics, ugly laughs, even whiskers in the sink. Same things that drive Love to fury. Love won’t survive the toilet seat, Worfle. Love doesn’t give coupons. And listen, Worfle, Love is permanent-pressed: once wrinkled, always wrinkled.”
     Fat Camille, dreaming now, legs twitching, was chasing a rabbit in a field, imagination her only exercise. Her head was in Mrs. Wembley’s lap. Again, I was having trouble following Mrs. Wembley’s train of thought, and as usual I was convinced the fault was mine. She was looking sideways at me, still knitting. I kept quiet and let her go on.
     “Right,” she continued, looking back at her knitting. “Like’s the better thing. If Quixote had only liked Dulcinea. If Romeo had only liked Juliet. No one is ever like-sick. No one is ever like-lorn. Like’s labor’s never lost. Better to ask, ‘How do I like thee? Let me count the ways.’ Right. Longer list. Like conquers all.” I grinned. Mrs. Wembley never grins. Instead, needles flying, she dipped a ladle deeper into her boiling pot of aphorisms.

"Love is plaid," said Mrs. Wembley.
     “All love is puppy love, Worfle,” she said. “Love never runs out of detergent. Love runs on direct current. Love won’t watch reruns, Worfle, and Love can’t read a watch. Love carries in its pocket a slip of paper with a smeared number on it, and Love listens to Beethoven’s Sixth. Love is not a shopping mall, Worfle. Love is plaid, not pink, no matter what they say. Love doesn’t own a cell phone and can never write its signature the same way twice. Love cannot make correct change to save its life. Love is a many-splintered thing, Worfle, and Love means always having to say you’re sorry.”
     Finally, she stopped and caught her breath, the paroxysm over. I had understood almost none of it. “And I?” she asked suddenly, dropping her hands and looking off into the distance. “I suppose I’ve loved not well but too wisely.” At this she sighed, a rare act for her. Camille, sensing she was being upstaged, awoke, licked the hand that feeds her, coughed softly, and whined. Mrs. Wembley petted her affectionately, and with an absent mind. Camille gazed at her mistress adoringly, upside down. I took a handful of candy hearts from a plastic tray and let myself out.

(The original version of this story originally appeared in the February 1985 issue of Memphis magazine and others.)

Friday, February 11, 2011


     I am not a patriot. I was born in the United States and have never lived anywhere else, but I don’t “love” the United States. I don’t hate it, either. It’s just a country—the one I happen to live in. I wish it well, but no more well than any other country. I wish my fellow U.S. citizens well, too, but no more well than I wish the people of China, Uganda, and Ecuador. I don’t care a fig which country wins the most Olympic medals or the final hockey game. I want infant mortality to drop everywhere.
     I actively dislike public shows of patriotism. When they play the national anthem at baseball games, I arrange, if I can, to be under the stands. There I don’t have to stand still or take off my hat or put my hand over my heart or look at the flag. That is, I don’t have to act the hypocrite. If I am stuck in the stands when they play the national anthem, I will stand quietly, but only to avoid offending strangers and provoking a confrontation with people who just came to see a ball game. If other people care that much about the national anthem, I have no wish to debate them about it before the first pitch. Their standing means something to them; mine means nothing to me. I won’t sing the national anthem under any circumstances—not because I can’t or because it’s a silly song, with hilariously out-of-touch lyrics, but because national anthems are symbols of repetitive blind nationalism. Blind nationalism offends me. Asking me to participate in repetitive acts of blind nationalism insults me.
     When I was in the tenth grade, my school paper did a poll of students regarding the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in homeroom, which act we were all required to perform. I still remember my exact words when asked about the morning pledge: “Mandatory patriotism is meaningless.” The quote appeared under my picture in the school paper. I was proud of that, and I still believe what I said. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I said the pledge every morning in homeroom, anyway, cowardly little hypocrite that I was, but it meant nothing to me. In fact, today I would go further in my school-paper quote: “Patriotism itself feeds on ignorance and narrowmindedness,” I would say. “It is dangerous and misbegotten.” There are schoolchildren today who refuse to say the pledge. I admire them. They’re braver than I was. The Pledge of Allegiance is a loyalty oath, plain and simple. Loyalty oaths are the tools of despots and should be rejected at every turn.
     Patriotism is a goose-stepping sort of attitude. It wears a brown shirt, whatever flag it comes wrapped in. 

Patriotism is a goose-step, brown-shirt sort of attitude.

     Occasionally I’m asked to speak to civic groups like the Rotary. Most such groups begin their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, a patriotic song (sometimes the insipid “God Bless America,” which, given that I’m an atheist, discomforts me twice over), and a prayer (ditto). I will stand at such meetings because I am a guest. I will not speak the pledge or sing the patriotic song. I will not say, “Amen.”
     Sometimes, hearing me express these attitudes, someone will ask me what country I would like to live in instead of the United States—what country, they want to know, do I think is “better”? Well, I like the Netherlands for its sense of humor and its bicycles. I like England for its pubs and understatement. I like Russia for its love of literature and chess. I like China for its shyness. I like Australia for not being shy. I like New Zealand for its landscape and sheep. I like France for its art and food. I like the weather in southern Spain. I like the politics of Sweden and Denmark. I like the way Finland treats its teachers and its old people. I’m sure I would like many things about countries in Africa and South America, but I’ve never been to either one.
      The question of what country I “like better” than the U.S. misses the point. I would feel no more loyalty toward any other country I lived in, no matter how much I “liked” it. It’s patriotism itself I find inane. There would be no flagpole in front of my house in Amsterdam, either.
     Most of the time my lack of patriotic feeling is irrelevant to the issues of the day. The abortion and stem cell debates, for example, are rarely argued in patriotic terms; not even the most extreme right-winger, so far as I have heard, has ever said, “It’s unpatriotic to have an abortion” or “a true patriot would never work with fetal stem cells.” Often, however, patriotic sentiment is relevant to the public debate. I find myself shaking my head, for example, when politicians talk about “saving American jobs.” I would like everyone, not just U.S. citizens, to have a soul-satisfying job that pays decently. I don’t care if a good job goes to India or Thailand or South Korea, as long as someone gets a good job—the more the better, throughout the world.
     I find it equally inane when people present political positions as either “American” or “un-American.” (Forgive us, Canadians, for using “American” so carelessly.) Restricting gun possession is “un-American”? That argument—to the extent that it is an argument at all—means nothing to me. Is it “un-American” to tax the rich at a higher rate than the middle class? Is the regulation of banks “un-American”? When people make such claims, I imagine they expect me, not to address the issue, but simply to stand up and salute.
     Speaking of saluting, I must, of course, acknowledge the innumerable acts of bravery committed by U.S. soldiers in the name of “patriotism.” Millions have died “for the flag.” Americans are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq today to “protect America.” Many have died fighting terrorists in the name of “homeland security.” (The word "homeland” for me, however, has unfortunate echoes of Nazi Germany.) Thousands of men and women have enlisted to fight wars because “Uncle Sam Needs You.” The courage of Americans on the battlefield has been extraordinary and admirable.
     But did U.S. soldiers in World War II fight the Nazis and the Japanese just for the United States? Are they fighting terrorists to protect just one country—their own? Of course not. It serves a certain motivational purpose to tell soldiers that they are “fighting for their country,” I suppose, but I’d prefer it if they were told that they are fighting to protect people everywhere from tyrants and terrorists.

Should I be patriotic because we have giant sequoias and other countries don't?

     The very word “patriotism” offends me. It is sexist, for one thing, deriving as it does from Greek and Latin roots meaning “father.” “The Fatherland” is a term long used by tyrants to suggest that nations somehow have a right to exert a kind of parental control over their citizens, presumably because they also “protect” their citizens like a parent (even when they suppress more than they protect). With alternative sexism, the term “Motherland” is equally used and abused, meant to suggest, I suppose, that we should love this country which has taken us to its “bosom” and “nurtured” us. I have no idea where the bosom of the U.S. is (though we do have the Grand Tetons—look up the meaning in French), and I can’t imagine being “nurtured” by any country. My country taxes my income, and that’s fine with me if it is the best way to help the poor and the sick, but that hardly counts as nurturing. My country has a military to protect me, but so does nearly every other country in the world. It has lots of good things, the U.S., but very few I can think of that are unique—unless I should be patriotic because we have the world’s only Giant Sequoias and Bristlecone Pines. (Of course, many “patriotic” companies are doing their best to rid us of such things by befouling the air and defiling the land.)
      I think I know what you’re about to say, and my answer is this: No, this country doesn’t “give” me my freedoms; it is simply one of the many good countries that don’t take too many of one's freedoms away.
      Sometimes I’m accused of being a “one-worlder.” But that term usually means someone who wants a single world government. I don’t want that. I rather like the variety of governments the world now has. I certainly don’t like the totalitarian governments, and I hope they change, but I don’t want everyone to be governed in the same way, either. In government, like food, variety is a good thing. There are many ways to cook up a reasonably good government.
      In the end, my loyalty is to people, not abstract concepts like “country.” What is this “country” I’m supposed to be loyal to, anyway? Is it the federal government? Those flag-wrapped patriots the Tea Partiers would certainly say no to that. Is it the land itself—the mountains and the prairies that “patriots” like to sing about? Well, every country has its interesting landscapes, so it can’t be that. Is it the Constitution and the laws of the land? Our Constitution is pretty good as constitutions go, and our laws are about as good as those in other democracies, but I don’t think soldiers have died because of some strong feeling for legal philosophy.
     I wouldn’t even know how to feel patriotic if I wanted to. “God Bless America”? Whose god? What America?
     Salute the flag? I might as well salute the fog. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

THE GINGER ALE RULES: One man's approach to parenting

Ginger ale is pretty sensational stuff.
I was asked to write this essay by Healthy Kids magazine, which published it in their August/September 2000 issue. They were looking for an essay by a father who had helped raised a son. I dedicate it to all parents who manage to turn off the parent tape when raising their kids—sons or daughters.

     It was on a warm summer evening in 1978 that my son taught me how to be a parent. Alex was four years old at the time, and he was sitting on my living room sofa with a glass of ginger ale. His legs stuck straight out, and the glass, which was about two-thirds full, rested on his lap. It had a straw in it. Straws are a kind of magic for children: you do something at this end, and something else happens at that end. In this case, Alex was blowing at his end, and the ginger ale was bubbling and gurgling at the other.
     It was at that moment that I discovered what kind of parent I wanted to be. My first impulse was to replay the parent tape that most of us grew up listening to: "Drink your ginger ale," I almost said. "Don't play with it." But I didn't say that. I didn't say anything. I just watched my son blow into his ginger ale through a straw. And it was quite beautiful—my perfectly sun-brown son, the straw, the glass, and the bubbles in the pale-gold liquid.
     I realized then that there are many ways to enjoy ginger ale and that as a parent it was my job not to deprive my son of any of them. Sure, you could simply drink ginger ale to quench your thirst. But you could also stick your finger in it to see how sticky it is, or suck it up and down in a straw. You could look at it in front of a light (it's really pretty sensational stuff), or listen to it fizz. Or you could just hold the cold glass against your face on a hot night. There must be at least 200 ways to enjoy ginger ale, I thought. Drinking it may be the least of them.

Straws are a kind of magic for children

     So that's the kind of parent I decided to be—the kind who let his son play with his ginger ale. As a divorced single father, I found this decision easy. First, there was no other grown-up around to second-guess me. And second, my sofa was well into stained middle age, so the risks were minimal.
     But of course there were risks to this approach. For example, what if, blowing into his ginger ale, Alex had begun spilling it all over himself and the floor? I wouldn't have allowed that. So I came to formulate "The Ginger Ale Rules of Parenting":
     1) Don't let your child hurt himself. ("Alex, don't pour the ginger ale in your ear.")
     2) Don't let your child hurt anybody else. ("Don't throw that can of ginger ale at the neighbor's kid.")
     3) Don't let your child make life harder for other people. ("Don't force Dad to mop up your spilled ginger ale.")
     4) Encourage your child to try absolutely everything else—and to fully embrace life. ("Go ahead, Alex. Play with your ginger ale.")
     Fortunately, my ex-wife had a similar philosophy, but she did hold the reins on my son a bit tighter than I did. (For one thing, her sofa was nicer.) I took care of Alex on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from the time he was an infant, so he grew up adjusting almost daily to our slightly different levels of control.
     At first this worried my ex and me, but it never seemed to bother Alex. He chafed some under his mother's tighter hand, but he never rebelled to the point of defiance. And on bigger-than-ginger-ale issues (should he be allowed to give up his guitar lessons? should he have his own car?), his mother and I consulted and presented a unified front.
     Sometimes I wonder whether a different kind of kid—a docile daughter, for example, instead of a super-charged son—would have led me to this same philosophy. But speculation aside, I pretty much stuck to "The Ginger Ale Rules"—especially the fourth rule—from the time Alex was little. I held fast to them even when:
  • at age five, Alex dug a hole in the yard, filled it with water, took off his clothes, and took a mud bath in front of the neighbors
  • at age 16, he took off with his renegade uncle and sailed from New Guinea to Australia in a boat with no navigation
  • at age 24, he quit his job to pursue an MBA and a law degree simultaneously, while possessed of no personal income
     And even last year, when, now a grown man, he bought a mastiff puppy, who today weighs 180 pounds. He's huge, the puppy, and Alex hugs him the way he hugged me when he was little. Alex named the dog Gatsby, after the larger-than-life character who gave fabulous parties and tried until he died to grasp everything life offered. Gatsby sits on the sofa like a person and adores Alex. Gatsby is clumsy, slobbery, and utterly impractical. He makes me think I've been a good parent. He's the color of ginger ale.

My son Alex at about age four.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAN WE STILL SAVE OURSELVES?: Technology's race to prevent a New Dark Age

     Dr. Gaia Demitrius, a neuropathologist and geriatric specialist who also happens to have a Ph.D. in physics, knows more about dementia than anyone else in the world. In her research, she is pursuing cures and preventive measures for dementia that involve genetic engineering and someday, perhaps, nanotechnology. She believes that, with the help of powerful computer algorithms, she and her team will soon find the fundamental genetic causes of dementia, and that prevention and cure will not be far behind.
      Dr. Demitrius hopes this happens very soon. Both her mother and her father developed dementia in their sixties. Dr. Demitrius is 52. She is the world’s best hope for a cure. For her, the race is on: Will she find a cure before dementia plunges the doctor herself into darkness?

     Okay, actually, I invented Dr. Demitrius. Sorry if you got all excited. As the more observant among you will have noticed, her name is rather ham-handedly symbolic: “Gaia” as in “Earth” and “Demitrius” as in “lover of the earth.” I created Dr. Demitrius as a symbol of what’s happening on our planet today.
     Dr. Demitrius’s situation—will she cure the disease before she gets it?—is pretty closely analogous to the plight of Planet Earth.
     I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s alarming book Eaarth recently. His premise is this: We’ve let global warming get so far out of hand that it’s too late to stop it or reverse it, even if we built a million windmills and made everybody drive an electric car tomorrow. The planet is now forever changed (hence its new name: Eaarth), and it’s now up to us to adapt to the change. His book offers a prescription for how we must adapt. Basically: think smaller.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist

     The world McKibben foresees will have melting glaciers, thawing Siberian permafrost, bigger hurricanes, more flooding, shrinking beaches, retreating rain forests, expanding deserts, more terrifying diseases, larger forest fires, and more acidic oceans, where fish and coral will die en masse. Oil will run out. Farms will be less productive. People will drown, starve, and thirst to death. There will be wars over water and grain. Actually, this is not the world he foresees. It’s the world he sees already. Not a pretty picture.
      McKibben means to be an alarmist, and his tone is a bit off-puttingly condescending. But his book is full of facts and footnotes and is pretty persuasive.
Melting permafrost will release methane, making global warming worse
      In McKibben’s view, Dr. Demitrius already has dementia, and it’s too late to stop it. Now she needs to figure out how to live with it. There will be no cure.
      But there is, of course, another view:  the view of the technophiles. These are folks who believe that whatever problems humanity faces will be solved by science and technology, and that we are being childish to so preoccupy ourselves with as trivial a concern as global warming. You’ll find among this group people like the “extropians” and “transhumanists”—interesting thinkers who believe, among other things, that humankind will “transcend” its natural limitations through technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. They are not only unafraid of science and technology; they relish it. They foresee children with genetically enhanced IQ’s and genetic embellishments that allow them, for example, to fly with their own wings. They foresee computers with spectacular intelligence and true consciousness, which are millions of times smarter than humans and can create computers a hundred times smarter than themselves, within months. They foresee nanobots that patrol our bloodstreams, killing cancer cells, and nanomachines that turn dirt into sweet potatoes, instantly. They foresee an end to death.
Winged humans? Fine with the transhumanists.
     The technophiles think the Terminator movies have it all wrong. Science and technology, they say, will not threaten us, it will save us. Indeed, it will raise us to astonishing realms of joy and enlightenment. It will take us beyond the stars. All this might even happen in the next thirty years.
     The technophiles think Dr. Demitrius, with the help of computers and genetic engineering and nanotechnology, will not only cure dementia before she gets it but soon find herself and all humankind the immortal envy of the universe.
     I find the technophiles also persuasive.
     Interestingly, the last book of McKibben’s that I read was called Enough. In it he lays out his views of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. You can guess his position: he doesn’t trust them. They’re too promising, he says. In fact, he really believes they will give us everything, including immortality, and so he wants us to put an end to all research in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He thinks they’ve gone far enough (hence, his book’s title). These technologies are, he says, a threat to the very idea of what it means to be human and to have meaning as a human being. He doesn’t like the idea of anyone living forever.
     The extropians say, Nonsense. They say if our grandchildren are half-machine, a million times smarter than us, can breathe under water, and never die—well, great!

Half human, half machine: the look of our grandchildren?
     I find this discourse fascinating, and I will state my position on these matters now: I believe we are in the position of Dr. Demitrius. If we don’t cure the disease before we get it, we will plunge into darkness and it will be too late. But it’s just as likely we will use technology to save ourselves before that happens.
     In other words, if science and technology don’t save us soon, one hundred years from now we may find ourselves well into a New Dark Age of war, famine, disease, and ignorance, hiding behind walls in the futuristic version of feudal villages. This is what McKibben warns us about. On the other hand, perhaps the technophiles are right, and we are about to enter a world of scientific advancement so extraordinary that it deserves the name of “singularity”: a point in time beyond which the world will be so different, so technologically advanced, and advancing so exponentially faster, that even the best science-fiction writers can’t imagine it.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and AI expert
Max More, Extropian

   Some technophiles like Ray Kurzweil and Max More seem to point to the year 2030 as a time when machines might achieve superhuman intelligence, and maybe even consciousness, and when genetic engineering will be able to utterly transform what a human being is, and nanotechnology will enable us to manipulate the very makings of matter to create whatever we want, now. 

    I’m going to try to make it to 2030. I’ll be 84 years old then. I hope that, before that time, the darkness will not have fallen upon me. Upon all of us.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NASTY, BRUTISH, SHORT: And just how did February get to be that way, anyhow?

Voila: February.
    Blame it on Numa Pompilius, the man who also gave us the Vestal Virgins.
    Once upon a time—no doubt a happier, less slushy, not nearly so flu-ridden time—there was no February. Back then, the western world's calendar comprised just ten harmless months—March through December—plus sixty or so anonymous days stuck on after December. No January and, luckier still, no February. It was an eminently sensible plan that relieved us of the year's most neurotic month.
    Then along came Numa, who couldn't leave well enough alone. Numa made two contributions to history: institutionalized virginity and February. Neither can be said to have improved the lot of mankind.

Numa Pompilius gave us February and Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins at work.
    Numa was the second king of Rome, taking power around 715 B.C.E.  As one of his first acts, he decided to legislate the whole Vestal Virgin scene. The Virgins were in charge of the fire in the temple of Vesta, the hearth goddess. Numa decreed that if a poor sweet Vestal Virgin failed to live up to the first part of her name by letting the public hearthfire go out, she got whipped; if she failed to live up to the second part of her name, she got her heart cut out, or something equally salubrious. In Washington, D.C., today there are politicians whose sense of public duty and private morality might have been learned at the knee of Numa.
    February was Numa's other great creation.
    An orderly fellow, Numa decided to turn those sixty or so orphaned days after December into Januarius and Februarius (from "februare," meaning "to purify," purification ceremonies marking the end of the Roman year). Januarius turned out okay, but Februarius was a mess from day one. In fact, it could be said that Numa was about as successful at February as his Vestals were at virginity.
    As the runt of the litter, February suffers from an identity crisis based on its ever-changing, if always short, size. Numa's February, for example was given as many as 29 days in some years, and as few as 23 in others—whatever was necessary to keep the annual calendar in sync with the sun. By Julius Caesar's time, the priests, who had control of the calendar, were manipulating February for their own purposes, extending it, for example, to lengthen the terms of their favorite politicians. (Do not let the House of Representatives hear about this.) So Caesar, a sharp politico in his own right, got a Greek mathematician named Sosigenes to invent a new, priest-proof calendar. This so-called Julian Calendar had 365 days, twelve months, and a still-bewildered February. Julius' February had 28 days, except for every four years, when, get this, it would have two February 24ths. The Romans called February 24th "the sixth of [or the sixth day before] the Kalends of March," the Kalends being the first of each month and the source, obviously, of our word "calendar." Years when February had two "sixths" were thus called "bissextile," an eye-catching term that calendar makers still use for what we call a "leap" year.

Pope Gregory XIII refined the leap year.

    Ah, the leap year! Ah, that extra day that since 45 B.C.E. has periodically popped out like a giant zit on the nose of a month that already had reasons to turn to a life of crime! Most people believe that the Julian scheme of things—365 days per year, except for 366 every four years—still obtains. Not so. Caesar's calendar assumed that each solar year was 365 days and 6 hours long. It is not. It is 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 45-plus seconds long. Among other things, the resultant temporal creep meant that by 1582 spring had made considerable headway toward beginning in, gasp, February! Pope Gregory XIII, then pontiff, saw the danger of that and took drastic steps: he canceled October 5-October 15, 1582 (you can do that when you get your orders from God and you're the 13th of Gregorys). Gregory then decreed that henceforth there would be a February 29th in every year divisible by 4 except for centennial years, which would have to be divisible by 400 to be leap years. That's right: Under the Gregorian Calendar, which is what we use still today, 1900 was not a leap year, and 2100 won't be, either. No wonder February, thus confused by a bissextile identity crisis, is a juvenile delinquent.
    About "leap" years: 
    1) The term is of uncertain origin. Some say the extra day in February originally was just lumped in with February 28th, so the last day was in a sense "leaped over." Others note that if Christmas, for example, is on a Sunday in one year, it will be on a Monday the next, except in leap years, when it will "leap" to Tuesday.
    2) Only two famous people have ever been born on February 29: composer Giacchino Antonio ("Barber of Seville") Rossini (1792) and Ann Lee (1736), the founder of the Shakers, a religious sect that preaches against marriage and sex.
    And finally, 3) The tradition of women proposing to men during leap year is the result of an agreement struck by St. Bridget with St. Patrick in fifth-century Ireland. Bridget's nuns, hardly virginal, wanted to propose to men at any time; Patrick counter-offered every seven years; they compromised on four. The Vestals would have loved Bridget, if not Ann Lee.

Ann Lee, born on February 29, 1736, has a face meant for February.

    All of which explains why February is the way it is. It is not the coldest month of the year, nor the windiest, nor the wettest, nor the snowiest. It is simply the meanest and the ugliest. January's cold has integrity; it is a clear, sincere, snow-and-ice cold. February is slush, sleet, and sneaky cold. By February, winter has worn out its welcome. Thomas Hobbes once described man's life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short." February is a lot like man's life.
    There are two months that don't deserve to live: August and February. August is the big, sweaty bully who employs brute force; February is the rotten shrimp of a kid who makes up in spite for what he lacks in size. Both deserve the chair, but you want to pull the switch on February yourself. February has an ice-chip on its shoulder and an icicle shiv in its boot. February spoils for a fight, and by the middle of February, you want to start fighting back. You want to insult February's mother. You want to kick February in the knee. You want to give a party and not invite February.
    And by February 28th, you want to call up Numa Pompilius and tell him: Look, of the two, as legacies go, we'd have preferred the virgins.

An icicle shiv: symbol of February.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine and elsewhere in 1986.)