Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The poet William Carlos Williams once wrote: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” Last week we heard some glorious poetry from our eloquent commander-and-frontier-poet-in-chief on the occasion of his second inaugural that turned Williams’ assertion on its head.

Maya Angel-who? Poet Laureate? This President don’t need no stinking laureate! Words like “liberty” and “freedom” trip from his tongue and take flight like so many F/A-18C Hornets. His inaugural oration was pure poetry. Informally titled “An Odd Time For Doubt,” after a stirring phrase found in it, the speech was notable for its condemnation of pretentious tyrants. And who could disagree? Everyone hates an uppity, ostentatious tyrant. A little humility goes a long way where tyrants are concerned. “We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny,” Mr. Bush added. Eight years is the maximum.

Addressing his cohorts abroad, “the leaders of governments with long habits of control,” Mr. Bush offered sage advice: “To serve your people, you must learn to trust them.” Having them sign loyalty oaths is the most efficient way to facilitate this process. He offered other helpful hints to friends and allies in the march to freedom: “Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies,” he reminded them. Everybody knows freedom and democracy are a lot easier without all that nit-picking debate and dissent.

The most moving part of the speech for me was the Bush version of Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you”: “Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.” But don’t worry, you don’t have to choose between the two. In fact they go hand-in-hand. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw recently on an expensive sports car: “Don’t let the car fool you,” it read, “my real reward is in Heaven.” “Have thy cake, and eateth it, too.” That’s the new “Golden Rule,” with an emphasis on the gold.

Not only are his words pure poetry, Mr. Bush himself is a work of art. While he played the Christ of “Ecce Homo” to perfection in his first term and throughout his re-election campaign (with Senator Kerry as the supremely decadent Pontius Pilate), what we behold in his second term is nothing short of Nietzsche’s Superman. This administration’s Will to Power is awesome to behold. Their rhetoric is equally awesome. It is no longer so difficult to get the news from poems. And men (and women and children) are dying everyday for precisely what is found there.

If the poet Yeats were alive today I would have had him at the inaugural. He could have read his poem “Second Coming”. It fit the occasion to a tee: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/…The best lack all convictions, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Are there biological differences between men and women?

Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? I mean, to the layman, it’s obvious enough. But the suggestion that biological differences may exist, made at an academic conference last week by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, has once again caused a firestorm of controversy in the hallowed halls of academia.

As I understand it, Summers was basically asking why, now that women have all the academic advantages once enjoyed more or less exclusively by men, women don’t seem to be using them to the fullest? Now, a cynical observer might see a taunt in this: OK, ladies, we called your bluff. Over nearly half a century we’ve made a concerted effort to empower girls in grades K-12 (often at the expense of their threateningly rambunctious male classmates, who could not properly respond to this empowering new dynamic). The men’s clubs have been eliminated. Universities now extend the same opportunities to female scholars as to their male counterparts. Enrollment of women has nearly doubled in the past quarter century. The number of women in college now exceeds the number of men. This has not been an easy transition, but here we are at last on a level playing field. So, all things being equal, why aren’t there more women in math and engineering? That’s what Summers was asking. And he proposed a number of possible answers, one of which was: maybe it’s biological.

We are understandably wary of the idea that gender differences might extend beyond the genital, to include intellectual abilities, or even inclinations. But to argue a vast conspiracy barring girls from following an acquired interest in Euclidian geometry doesn’t sound right, either. Has evolution had a hand in this? I think it’s an interesting question.

But if Summers’ critics have their way, we’ll never know. His comments have sparked a classic academic feud, in classic academic style, not so much about neurobiology and gender difference, but about the indelicacy of the comments themselves, and his impropriety in uttering them. One angry academic warned that because of them, women would avoid applying to Harvard, which is nonsense with knobs on. Another offered a more ominous threat, worthy of Medea: Summers should watch himself, as half of the student body is female.

Summers’ comments may have been indelicate—he admits he meant to provoke—but since when did we become so effete and easily offended? The tradition of free, informed and open debate that has made this country a magnet for iconoclasts and innovators is threatened daily by ideologues on the right and left offended by a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred mano-a-mano on the issues of the day. New science and technology are revealing all sorts of wonderfully unsavory things about us all the time. It’s not always the way we’d have it, but it’s the way it is.

Ideology, in full armor, hides behind its shield of propriety, while the Truth stands naked, like a big, ugly ape. Laughing.

Monday, January 17, 2005

In the aftermath of the tsunami, along with the inevitable telethons and benefit concerts featuring the usual roster of attention-starved pop divas and over-earnest rock stars, comes Job’s old theological lament: “how could a merciful God let this happen?” This “why?” is the oldest rhetorical question there is. Prompted by catastrophe, it serves to express our anger at the death of innocents and our sadness at our inability to stop it.

But some attempt to answer, usually with poor results. If, for instance, you take the ever-popular televangelist stance of Jerry Falwell, et al.: that catastrophes are God’s punishment for (fill in the blank with your favorite fornicating scapegoats), then all of the sudden God doesn’t seem so merciful, does he? In fact, he seems petty, vindictive, and in need of anger management classes. In other words, a great big bossy version of Reverend Falwell himself. God help us.

For those of us who would like to believe that God is not a total psycho, philosophers and real religious leaders the world-round have, unfortunately, little to offer in the way of encouragement. The consensus seems to be: if God is not dead, He’s got ADHD, narcolepsy, or bi-polar disorder.

This is the downside of our modern-day monotheism. In classical mythology warring gods caused natural disasters, an explanation that alleviated the need to justify the suffering of mortals who were merely their playthings. Struck by lightning? Zeus must have been having a bad-hair day. Hindus are delegators. They’ve got Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva dividing the tasks of creation, survival and destruction among them. Asking why Vishnu is always losing his head is like asking why a fish swims. Japan’s native Shinto religion has eight million gods. More than enough to make a little mischief.

In these alternate moral universes, there are claims and counterclaims, jealousies and intrigues, rages and sulks, as in life. But when there is only one player on the board it becomes a different game altogether. The God of Abraham has no one to blame but Himself, and believers have no one to blame but Him. Complicating matters considerably is the fact that the Abrahamic God did not simply wake up in the world one day, like Ptah of Egypt. He was not hatched from a giant egg like P'an Ku of China. His universe did not simply spring into being. According to His own meticulous records it was an act of will. Possibly premeditated. If it all sprang from one divine head, we are dealing with one divine head-case.

Some say God lets catastrophes happen because they bring out the best in the rest of us. Without killer tsunamis, we wouldn’t know just how selfless and giving we really are. We might get to thinking we’re actually the cold-hearted misers who turned a blind eye on, say, the five million children worldwide who starved to death last year, without every asking why.

After all, it’s the oldest rhetorical question in the book.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

I recently received an odd-shaped envelope in the mail with a fancy-looking invitation inside, a big, royal blue RSVP scrawled across the bottom of it in great, loopy letters. I had a Welsh lady friend once who got a similar-looking card from the Lord Chamberlain inviting her to a reception at Buckingham Palace. But mine promised nothing so glamorous as tea with the Queen. Mine was from the good people at the usually slightly less than glamorous ACLU, cordially inviting me to join them in their fight for justice. For a nominal fee, of course. Very classy.

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of left-wing junk mail (infinitely better than right-wing junk mail, but junk mail nonetheless), due, my guess is, to the fact that a friend got me a gift subscription to the New Yorker last Christmas. It’s not widely advertised, but a subscription to the magazine entitles you to full membership in The Liberal Elite. Suddenly you find yourself invited to dinner parties in Manhattan, hobnobbing with other Limousine Liberals, chatting over mini-muffalettas and bottles of Dom. Romanée Conti about the crisis in healthcare coverage and how, tragically (but business is business), it’s paying for your next get-away to Mauritius. Unfortunately, I have nothing to wear to these little soirées. And if you’re not in Fioravanti, the doorman won’t let you up.

Honestly, I always thought all the talk on the right about some Illuminati, Star Chamber-style Liberal Elite was hokum. Like the lurking Gay Agenda, it was fodder for paranoids and conspiracy freaks. But this fancy invitation from the ACLU’s got me wondering.

It’s not that I object to the mission of the ACLU, which for nearly a century has served a vital function responding to near-constant assaults on our Bill of Rights. What disturbs me is the way the ACLU and the left in general have set about wooing me, not with tough talk about the hard slog, but with champagne and canapés.

I mean, we’re talking social justice here, not some Cinderella Ball. And who needs an engraved invitation to jump on that bandwagon? All the sudden a bandwagon’s not good enough? The ACLU seems to think we need a chauffeured Bentley. Aren’t the obvious benefits of social justice inducement enough to contribute to the cause of freedom?

Well, apparently not. These days it’s all about the bling-bling. Politics is just another accessory: shall I wear the sapphire brooch or the ruby tierra tonight? The notion of national politics as fancy dress ball is great for our new class of American Aristocrats, on both left and right. But for those of us busy paying the tab and mopping up after them?

I crashed one of those chichi parties during the DNC. As security led me out I heard two well-dressed guests sniggering behind me.

One remarked to the other with a feigned yawn: “Did you hear? The class war is on again.”

The other laughed, adding: “And the enemy is us."