The Long Arm of Childhood

December 9, 2017

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I don’t know whether you share with me the trait whereby characteristics of your parents increasingly emerge from you unexpectedly and unbidden, but that’s certainly true with me, and I find it endlessly fascinating. This morning, an English acquaintance passed me in a café and asked the routine “How are you?” not expecting, I’m sure, the answer that he got: “Not bad for an old man.”

His eyes expressed surprise, and I didn’t detain him to explain that, from the time when my father was in his forties, perhaps, that was a stock answer of his. I’m sure I have never given it two seconds of conscious thought in my life, and if you had asked me if my father had any habitual answers to such a greeting, I’d have come up with nothing. But there it was on my lips—another person’s voice coming out of my mouth. And this is not just a sentimental invention: my mind’s eye saw him smiling. The subconscious is a marvelous thing, and results of its nurture in the far past can be fascinatingly mysterious.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, both in the media and in personal comments—always from citizens of a close sister-nation that is often called our mother-country—that “Americans can’t do irony.” That’s meant as a putdown, but it’s actually a compliment that I wish we deserved more than we actually do. Verbal irony is a negative and often cruel thing. It establishes distance from its object and allows us then to tear the object apart from that safe distance. It simultaneously undoes the thing criticized and raises up the one doing the criticizing. I’d say we have more than enough irony and that when we boast about excelling at it we might profit from some self-examination of our motives.

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Here’s your link to hear and see the English writer Matthew Tree leading a discussion of civil liberties and their repression, with a Swedish-born environmental sociologist brought up in England, an Irish lawyer, and an American musician—all now living in Catalonia: http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/244202764.html

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A German, a Catalan, an Englishman, and an American do our best to untangle some of the current Catalan news as it existed today just a couple of hours before the imprisonment by Spain of the Catalan government members that are not in exile.

http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/240994777.html

Today in Catalonia

September 28, 2017

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Some of you can’t help knowing, and some of you tell me that you want to know, about the emergency that we are under at the moment here. In today’s program, the host, Matthew, gives a very good summary update on what has happened since his editorial last Thursday. But we three guests, an Englishman, a German, and an American weren’t exactly shrinking violets (and we did sometimes differ with each other). Obviously, the Spanish Prime Minister’s visit to the American President, a very great disaster for him who spent so many billion euros to get so little, was something that we had to talk about. But the main subject is naturally the suspension of many civil rights here in the run-up to Sunday’s scheduled referendum on independence. The very newsroom on the other side of the studio wall has in fact been visited by the traditionally feared Guardia Civil, and we considered that we might be interrupted (as a meeting that I attended here in Sitges on improved social services was invaded by twelve armed police). But we weren’t one of the media censored so far:
http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/235894933.html

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Photos of Charlottesville

 

I am part of the post-War “baby boom,” so I’ve been around a while. But in my whole life, I’ve never heard anything like the amount of talk about “white supremacy” that I’ve heard in the past week. But I’ve lived it. We may soften it to “white privilege,” but the one is based on the other. As a person identified as “white,” I have unconsciously but inevitably been preferred in many situations from the day I was born. It’s unavoidable. But what is avoidable is to remain unconscious of it.

There have been situations in which I could make sure that I didn’t take advantage of my genetics personally. The whole society has already done enough of that for me. This is not, of course, a purely American problem, though I must say that Americans have explicitly agonized over it more than most other societies have—with however limited profit from our often quite theatrical self-flagellation. I must also point out that one of the dodges that the American establishment has often employed is to assume that this is mostly a Southern problem.

Having lived in both North and South, each for substantial periods of my life, I would insist that the problem is equal but different in each place. The lines are increasingly blurred, but the traditional and instructive distinction was put well by someone whom I forget: “The Southerner says to the black man, ‘You can come as close as you want, but don’t come higher,’ while the Northerner says, ‘You can come as high as you want, but don’t come close.'” Both are senseless products of attitudes based on something as meaningless as skin color. Hence, a white supremacy that decently educated people don’t believe in even as we live in a world of white privilege.

Eschew Cynicism

August 16, 2017

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Scandal emanating from the White House is now so rife, that we are bound to become either wounded by it or hardened to it. As never before in my time, we are in danger of becoming merely cynical, which is not a humane state to operate in. A friend of mine has just published these words:

People tend to think of scandal as any public embarrassment that results from misbehavior. It’s a term of art for public relations, as people and institutions seek to “manage” scandal.

But the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a more exacting definition: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Far from being merely a misdeed held up for public opprobrium, a shocker, or a public relations nightmare to be managed, a scandal is specifically a wrongdoing which causes another to stumble and fall. The Greek word “scandalon” from which our English word scandal is derived means a snare of an enemy.

She is referring to scandals in the Church, but the problem is also acute in United States political life to an extent that I’ve never known before. We “stumble and fall” when we become coldly cynical.

A few minutes ago, I was swimming in the sea and the head of another person who was, like me, swimming on his back, collided with my own head. We both laughed, and he apologized profusely in perfect English. He then immediately asked me where I was from, and I said that I live here. I thought it only polite to ask him where he was from, and he said that he was a Cuban living in Moscow. He said he was a doctor and he lived there partly because the education for women was so good (supposedly pointing as he said it to two people whom he identified as his wife and daughter but whom I couldn’t see without lenses). I mumbled something about how we always hear about the excellence of Cuban medicine. “Oh, I wasn’t trained in Cuba but in the States.” He then said that he no longer practices medicine because he is so busy with business affairs. I said, laughing, “And because you’re so busy going around bumping heads with people,” and headed for dry land, all smiles.

I thought of a line of Fanny Brice’s mother in Funny Girl: “Strangers should be strange.” I don’t entirely agree with that, but there’s something to it. I couldn’t help feeling that this guy was up to something. Then, as I walked home, it occurred to me that I might be influenced by current news about Russians being up to something and Americans who get caught up with them. I like to think that I’m as free of nationalistic prejudices as a person can be, but this brief episode made me wonder.