Wednesday, July 1, 2015


one impulse from a vernal wood...

There is a difference between a nuclear family and a nuclear-powered one.  We have a brood of globe-trotters, and quite honestly we frequently have a better idea of the current whereabouts of Carmen Santiago than of our three offspring.  But this year we were able to corral sixty-six-point-six percent of them for a contemporary version of the family vacation of yesteryear—one that involved packing antsy infants and far too much of their gear into station wagons to drive long distances into the rain forest.  That is how six adults and three infants have come to find themselves is a contemporary rustic mansion deep in the backwoods of suburban Warren, Vermont.  So far we have mainly been watching it rain, but that is bound to change soon.

            We know this part of Vermont quite well.  For many summers in the Eighties and Nineties I taught in the summer session of the Bread Loaf School of English—a very fine master’s program offered by Middlebury College.   Middlebury, Vermont is itself hardly a metropolis, but the college’s Bread Loaf campus, which a hundred years ago was an upscale camp for New England “rusticators” in the heart of the Green Mountain Forest, is really out in the sticks.  I reckon that here in Warren we are about twelve miles, as the crow flies, from our old Bread Loaf haunts; should the crow be travelling by Subaru, however, he’d better recalculate to about twenty-five.  The ancestral engineers who laid out the roads in this part of the world were not great believers in the hypotenuse.

            All members of the family have happy memories from those old Bread Loaf summers, and we had them in mind when we were investigating possibilities on AirBnB.  The gorgeous house we found is on an appealing man-made pond, called Blueberry Lake, probably within a hundred feet of its shoreline.  It’s a little hard to tell because of the heavy woods.  But from the main kitchen-dining area one gets a fine sliver of a glimpse of water in the gap along the short, steep path used to transport the canoe. Our first two days were for the most part spent indoors trying to convince three squirmy kids that standing at a window watching it rain is actually a highly entertaining activity.  But on day three the sun burst forth early, and so did we.  This turned out to have been a wise move on our parts, as the rain returned early in the afternoon.

            Several hours of glorious sunshine allowed us all some opportunities for delightful athleticism.  Richard and Katie took their daughter Ruby, along with her cousin, bosom buddy, and unindicted co-conspirator John Henry, out in the red canoe.  Joan and I were not on hand to critique the regatta, but lots of photographic evidence confirms that it was exciting.  I was not on hand because Joan and I elected to go on a semi-serious trail hike in the adjoining National Forest.  We had noticed signs marking a trail-head less than a mile up the road.

            Vermont is all about the outdoors, and especially its intensely green woods.   There is a distinctive quality to the Vermont woods, a kind of wild freshness, that I have encountered nowhere else.  It’s one of those comforting places where Nature seems very much to be holding her own.  The nineteenth-century farmers cleared large acreages on the hillsides, pulled stumps, hauled tons of field stone to make fences and field boundaries.  The labor is almost unimaginable, and I can only suspect that the agricultural rewards were pretty exiguous.  The forest has now returned to many of these acres in a by now substantial second growth.  Not infrequently you now encounter old stone walls in dense woods.

            The trails in the National Forest are both wild and tame.  In addition to hikers, they entertain cross-country skiers in the winter and mountain bikes in the summer.  The steepness of the trail was as much as I could deal with on foot.  I have no idea how the bikers—of whom we encountered a few—manage.  After a good rain the whole mountain seemed as fresh as on the day after the world was made, full of the play of flashing sun and shadow, the gurgling of rivulets, and everywhere wonderful birdsong.

            We hope for more glorious days, but I have to say that if one must perforce be cabined, cribbed, confined, there is no better company than one’s three youngest grandchildren, each of them emerging from the chrysalis of infancy into distinct, determined, and delightful individual personality.  The pageant of the generations is a fascinating one, and moving from the center of the maelstrom to a slightly removed observation point is an opportunity for fruitful contemplation.  The comparative advantage enjoyed by grandparenting over parenting is its substantially optional character.  You can rock the kid in your arms as much as you like; then when it poops, pass it back to Mom.

Our promising future: Hazel, Ruby, and John Henry

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Goodbye, Old Paint

 Parting is such sweet sorrow...          

            Forty, maybe even fifty years ago I heard a Country and Western song on the radio.  At least I think I did.  I heard it once and once only, paying little attention to it at the time.   But now that I need it, I am unable to recover it.  And since no Google,  Bing, or Yahoo search can retrieve it, I am left to doubt my memory or perhaps my sanity.  But here’s a big clue: it very improbably rhymed the words vehicle and icicle, improperly stressing the final elements of each and pronouncing them as a Hollywood cowboy might imagine them to be pronounced in Skunk Creek, West Virginia.   If any of my unusually erudite readers can identify it for me, I will be most grateful, though its identification is not the point of my mentioning it. 

            The current relevance of the song lay in its theme, which was the fidelity, reliability, unwavering allegiance, and trustworthiness of the singer’s automobile.  This man appeared to have had a hard life.  A lifetime of frustrations and letdowns left him emotionally wounded and fearful.  His erotic life, in particular, had been a long string of disappointments and betrayals.  He had been walked out on, cheated, stomped on, two-timed, and generally humiliated by a string of females.  He could never love again—love women, that is.   What he loved was his car.  His car never let him down.

            Only decades later would I come to appreciate the singer’s particular form of auto-eroticism, which at the time seemed a little strange to me.  It was I believe in 1994 that I purchased from a colleague-friend a steel gray 1990 Toyota Corolla with about 25,000 miles on its odometer.  The general appearance and feel of the car were confirmed by the seller, who reported that it worked just fine, that it indeed had recently successfully initiated his 'teen-aged son into the ranks of licensed New Jersey drivers.  My colleague and his wife, however, now wished to purchase a Saturn, and the Saturn dealer was offering such a pathetic trade-in offer for the Toyota that he preferred to sell it privately.  In case you blinked and missed the Saturn, it was a General Motors flash-in-the-pan of the decade of the 1990s.

            Although I made no unnatural or unchaste emotional investment in my car, I did in time come to assign to it a feminine pronoun.  I certainly came to think of her as a member of my family.  I drove her happily through two terms of Bill Clinton and then two of George W. Bush.  Eventually in the Obama era pieces started falling off and needing to be replaced.  I hovered between hope and change.  My children drove the car.  Eventually my eldest granddaughter, now known as The Graduate, needed to prepare for her driving test, and the trusty and experienced Corolla was, as they say, there for her.

            My car aged gracefully, but she did age.  At some point recently I became aware that she was commanding only modified approval from my wife Joan.  Ken Larini, on the other hand, approved unconditionally.  He was the proprietor of Larini’s Garage, and he has just this last month gone out of business—one of many venerable local institutions my car outlasted.

            How strange are the operations of the invisible hand!  Not too long ago my athletic spouse required a consultation with an orthopedist.  She found herself talking with a doctor she had never met before, a youngish man though no stripling youth, who seemed to recognize her name.  “I believe my father sold a car to your husband years ago,” he said.  It had been the first car he himself had ever driven.  He had been through high school, college, medical school, residency, and several years of professional practice since then.  The news that I was still driving the car flabbergasted this man.  It was in turn his astonishment, perhaps, that led Joan to draw my attention to a cunning scheme participated in by our local NPR station WHYY in Philadelphia.  They have a nearly painless way in which you can give them your old car in lieu of a cash donation.

            Even so had not a massive fluid leak appeared suddenly in the left rear wheel, leaving the Toyota literally unstoppable, I might have persevered.  I put the car up on the lawn, Arkansas style, but Princeton just isn’t that kind of place.  My neighbors are reasonably tolerant of my eccentricities, but I don’t want to press my luck.  The guy from Browns Mills who came with the flatbed to take her away couldn’t believe his good fortune.   He judged any mileage under 300,000 as “hardly broken in.”  I’d be very surprised if the old car ever shows up at the wholesaler in Rhode Island to whom I signed over the title.  I expect the tow-truck guy will be driving it around the Pine Barrens for the next decade or so.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bernard Malamud

            I have resisted increasingly importunate invitations to “monetize” this blog—that is, to license Mr. Google to try to sell you Coca Cola while I am ostensibly discussing the metempsychosis of material individuality or whatever—but I allow myself once every other year to make one quasi-commercial pitch.  I refer to my self-appointed role as cheerleader for the Library of America.  Most of us think of American power almost exclusively in economic or military terms.  Certainly our Congress, who regularly spend more on a part of a single weapon than they do on the combined annual budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, think that way.  But America’s cultural contributions in the fields of serious art and literature continue to be quite extraordinary.  (American dominance in popular culture hardly needs mentioning.)  Every nation should know and honor its own literary tradition, and many do so magnificently.  You are unlikely to encounter a cultivated Frenchman who doesn’t have a volume or two of the beautiful Bibliothèque de la Pléiade on his shelves.  The fairly recent founding of the Library of America, which produces in a beautiful uniform series moderately priced, very high quality editions of important American writers, ended a national embarrassment.

             At this point in my life I ought not to be adding to my “permanent” home library—the scare-quotes intended to cast ironic light on the idea that I could possibly still be thinking that any of my possessions are permanent.  But I find myself making exceptions in certain categories, and above all in the Library of America.  Over the past few weeks I was for a song able to pick up practically untouched copies of two volumes of the LoA edition of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986).

            How did I miss reading Malamud back in the day?  After all, he was winning prizes and getting lots of attention.  Perhaps it was because he was being so vigorously peddled by our intelligentsia as a “Jewish writer”, as though the category required some arcane ethnic expertise unavailable west of the Hudson, where I was at the time.  Well, you pay your money, and you take your choice.  You can’t read everything.  When I was an undergraduate in the late Fifties I bet the metaphorical farm on three American novelists—James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978),  John O’Hara (1905-1970), and William Styron (1935-2006).  I doubt that anybody under fifty has even heard of Cozzens, and I cannot imagine many are still reading O’Hara.  My investment in Styron was closer to being prescient, but I have to judge him finally as a disappointment. 

So the Library of America’s first two volumes of Malamud—covering the decades of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties—are a kind of wonderful literary time capsule that allow me to go back and fill some unsightly gaps.  Late is generally better than never and often a great deal better.

            Malamud is a real master of the short story, and I have read several of his pieces with delight.  But I have spent most of my time on what must be his two most famous novels, The Natural and The Fixer.  My first surprise was that both of them are historical novels, though with very different senses of the “historical”.  The history behind The Fixer is sinister and repellent: an episode of the infamous anti-Semitic blood libel, born in the Middle Ages but still virulent in the last years of Romanov Russia.  If the subject alone is not enough to make you anxious, Malamud’s remorselessly complex characterizations will do the trick.

 The medieval blood libel--still going strong in 1913, and possibly in 2013

            Perhaps paradoxically the essence of historical fiction does not lie in fidelity to generally agreed upon historical “facts” but in the artist’s ability to reimagine them defensibly.  Malamud’s “take” on the episode of the blood libel offended the offspring of the victim/hero of the originating events.  This man (Mendel Beilis) had died only in 1934.  All Malamud could say was the obvious: two different stories, in some ways similar, in others very dissimilar.  As for his brilliant debut novel, The Natural, the story of a baseball player, it does have a definite historical germ in a bizarre instance of what might be called the “John Lennon syndrome”.  From time to time some deranged person seeks fame by shooting some famous person, and before there were rock stars there were baseball stars.  Yet its real “history” is the imagined world of the locker rooms and ballparks of the age of Babe Ruth.  But that is only the beginning of the book’s excellence.  Malamud is a “baseball novelist” in the same way he is a “Jewish novelist”—by getting inside his own minutely observed created world and animating it in a way irresistible for a reader.  Roy Hobbs, the “natural,” is perhaps a strange epic hero, but one perfectly suited to the strange epic world that, somewhere between fact and literary invention, was once our “national pastime”.

          So while it is perhaps a little embarrassing to be "discovering" major writers other people were reading half a century ago, it is comforting, indeed exhilarating to know that I have a copious source of future delight already on my shelves or modestly awaiting me, amazingly undervalued, among the Ebay listings.

Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the Hollywood version

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

God's Retirement

          In the last couple of weeks God has been prominent in the New York Times, though mainly on account of His increasing absence or non-existence.  This apparent paradox is to be accounted for by the immortal aphorism of Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go?  You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”  A recent Pew poll made news when it reported, on the basis of a carefully constructed survey of a wide cross-section of representative Americans, that our nation is markedly less religious, and specifically markedly less Christian than it has been in the past.  That is, more people are claiming allegiance to no religious creed or community and, specifically, the number of Americans calling themselves “Christian” is in decline.

          The demonstration of the general trend probably did not come as a surprise to most believing and practicing Christians, of whom I am one, though published statistics always have a kick that mere personal observation may lack.  Then a while later on the op-ed page I found an essay by Molly Worthen entitled : “Wanted: A Theology of Atheism”.    The title of the essay was I presume intentionally whimsical, since a theological atheist would be rather like a geologist who denied the existence of stones.  But I think she grasps a very good point that most atheist critics of Christianity miss—perhaps along with quite a few Christians themselves.  That is that belief is only one component of Christian experience, and by no means necessarily the most important.  One of course will believe what one’s reason and one’s experience encourage and allow.  But there is above all community of the broadest and realest sort, reaching not merely across the contemporary globe to all sorts and conditions, sexes, races, and tribes, but back into a deep history, far beyond our capacity to see but still knowable to us through magnificent and beautiful works of art, literature, and music.

           Molly Worthen was advocating the stimulation of godless community events, Sunday morning singalongs and the like.  Like-minded people ought to get together and give communal expression to what it is their minds like.   I’m all in favor of that, too.  The American campus during my lifetime has been the fecund mother of inventive secular but quasi-religious mass meetings, political rallies, candlelight marches; and of course there are always our elaborate sporting events, which may well come to be the center of an emerging American civil religion.  I enjoy many such events and can get into the spirit of things.

           Worthen’s op-ed attracted some interesting letters. John Rafferty, the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York wrote in to say that his group already has community.  They didn’t need singalongs.  They get together “celebrating the good life”.  One can hardly fault that.  Socrates and his kids used to get together in a somewhat similar spirit until the hemlock arrived.

           If the question of whether God is really on the way out interests you I can recommend a book that I, at least, found most engaging: A. N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral (1999).  His subject is the Victorian crisis of faith—a familiar topic, but here treated with extraordinary tact and intelligence.  Wilson himself is the perfect man for the task.  He is a master of the higher journalism, the author of several fine biographies, and a man with a peculiar affinity for the Victorian period.  Furthermore his personal intellectual history is something of an emblem of his topic, as he has in a rather public fashion hovered between faith and unbelief.  Where he is at the moment I have no idea. 

          The title (God’s Funeral) is actually that of a poem written by Thomas Hardy in the first decade of the last century.  Hardy’s extraordinary conceit is that he comes upon God’s funeral cortège “following in files across a twilit plain,” and joins it, sorrowing more for his distraught fellow mourners than for the now defunct and nonexistent supreme being.  With a particular focus on the rich nineteenth-century English cultural scene, Wilson’s book explores the powerful and it would seem inexorable forces set on banishing theistic belief from the modern mind.
Thomas Hardy in 1923: He could never forgive God for not existing

          Yet as Wilson points out, it is reluctant to leave, and it keeps coming back.   I presume that Pontius Pilate considered the science “settled” some time ago.  The Enlightenment, on the whole, eschewed atheism, but the Deism it fostered was, from the social point of view, pretty thin stuff, and it lacked staying power.  The French revolutionaries, some of them, did their best to get rid of God for good.  They pretty well succeeded, for a while, in getting rid of the Church; but that was not the same thing.  The Communist countries adopted atheism as a state policy, but Vladimir Putin is now practically kissing kin of the Patriarch of Moscow.  Go figure.  Things are rather hard to predict, and Christianity in particular has a strong  streak of what might be called resurrectionism.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Testing, testing

            The trouble with advertising “whatever comes into my mind” as the subject matter of my blog is that episodes of writer’s block demonstrate to the world that there is nothing there—in my mind, I mean.  Actually, two events of the past week—the reunions that immediately precede the Princeton graduation ceremonies and the observance of our wedding anniversary—have come together there to give birth to an heretical opinion on the subject much in the educational news of late: school tests.

            I do have an axe to grind.  For several years I was a member of the committee charged with constructing the Advanced Placement test in the subject of English Language and Literature.  There were, as I recall, about ten people on the committee, carefully chosen to cover the usual categories of “diversity” and to represent a wide variety of secondary schools and colleges.  The membership was organized into “classes” on fixed terms to guarantee both the benefits of experience and the vigor of “new blood”.  The great disparagement of “standardized tests” that is now common was less so then, but we spent a good deal of thought and time in trying to anticipate criticisms.  I thought the tests we came up with, though obviously the product of compromises and tradeoffs, were pretty good.

            For as you know, since you are probably a right-thinking person, the use of standardized tests in our schools to assess students’ progress is at best a dubious practice and probably a Bad Thing pure and simple.  I’m sure you know the arguments.  The “test culture”—nearly everything now being a culture--stifles “creativity” on the part of teachers and fosters “rote learning” instead of “critical thinking” on the part of the students.  Testing deforms the curriculum, terrorizes students, and can even transform teachers, whose actual salaries made be indexed to test results, into white collar criminals.  A bunch of them in Atlanta have just been given significant prison sentences for racketeering.  They were cooking their grade books.

            Well, this past weekend I spent a couple of days at the reunion of the APGA (Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni), and my thoughts not unnaturally turned to my own years as a graduate student—both of them.  My graduate education, being particularly brief, was particularly intense.  I completed the work for my Ph. D. in two years.  During the first, my only year in residence in Princeton, I was taking seminars and preparing for a big test (known as the “General Examination”, or simply “Generals” as it had many parts) administered in May.  The second year was spent delightfully in Europe, first looking at manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose in libraries from the Hague to Valencia, and then writing a dissertation about them while ensconced in a delightful Provençal village.

            Lest the situation of my residential year should lack a sufficient degree of psychological pressure, Joan and I added a supplementary personal dimension.  While we were still at Oxford we had decided that we wanted to get married, but agreed that I would pass the General Examination before we did so.  Thus it happens that the date of our wedding anniversary is always quite close to the Princeton Commencement day.  Every now and again, as in this year for instance, they coincide.

            Well, I did pass the General Examination fifty-three years ago, and the rest is either history or silence, depending upon your perspective.  And passing that exam was probably the most “creative” moment in a long scholarly career.  (A close second was preparing for the similar “Final Schools” at Oxford).  The Princeton graduate students in English in my day were a collection of brilliant odd-balls.  Though varied in their tastes, opinions, and intellectual enthusiasms, and though capable of gestures of ferocious competitiveness, their attitude in face of the General Examination was one of communal cooperation. 

            Everyone was required to prepare in some depth four “minor” fields in addition to their declared specializations.  All the students worked together in preparing study guides—somewhat inelegantly known as “poop sheets”—covering the various historical fields and special topics.  The departmental secretaries colluded with us by giving us mimeograph stencils and allowing us to use their funny old rotary machine after hours.  The results, for some reason invariably printed in purple, were little masterpieces of intellectual force-feeding or “teaching to the test”.  The poop sheets paid especial attention to the particular interests and eccentricities of the graduate faculty and reviewed the content of every graduate seminar taught within the previous five years.

            There were giants in the earth in those days.  One of the dozen or more great men of the English faculty at that time was Louis Landa, the scholar of eighteenth-century literature.  Like most of my professors he was awesomely erudite, but also gentle, kindly and slightly exotic.  There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Texas accent, which I distinguish in my mind as the “southern” and the “western”.  He had the former, and it was delightful.  What a Jewish family was doing in Hallettsville, Texas, around the year 1900 is one of those little mysteries of American sociology that makes our nation so interesting.  (Many years later I would encounter the figure of Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century Franciscan historian of the Mayans, probably from a converso Sephardic family.)

            Louis (always pronounced in the French manner, Loo-ee) Landa was a great expert on Swift, and extremely knowledgeable about the Church of Ireland in the eighteenth century generally.  But as I later deduced from the oral part of my examination, I probably owed the high score I achieved on the eighteenth-century section to my learned citation of one of his favorite books, a history of the potato.  Needless to say I had not actually read this book; I was leaning on the account of it by one of my classmates in the poop sheets.  I probably never knew more in my life than on the day I finished my generals.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Graduate

On My 21st our wonderful eldest granddaughter, Sophia Elizabeth Fleming-Benite, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Her field of concentration was Cognitive Science.  As they did not pass out bumper stickers, I have to do my bragging on-line.  Her professors had noted her extraordinary achievement by awarding her departmental honors in that subject, and of course she was the recipient of “general university honors” in recognition of a high grade-point average as well.  I say “of course” not because this outcome was foreordained or easily achieved, but because I had been the intermittent eye-witness to the energy, determination, and luminous intelligence with which she had pursued her work of the last four years.
documentary evidence from photographer Cora Louise

            The root of the word “graduation” is the Latin gradus, a step or a ladder-rung, and graduating from college, though a very important step, has had steps before it and will have steps after it.  Though born in California Sophia was destined by parental fate to be a Gotham rather than a Valley Girl.  That same convenient fate compelled her to spend her four high school years in Paris, where she pursued and obtained her international baccalaureate.  As for future steps, we share an awareness that the economic situation in our country is far from robust, even for highly qualified graduates.   Hence we are particularly pleased (though not particularly surprised), that Sophia landed a challenging job in a rather glitzy cybernetic field in which she will apply in imaginative but practical terms some of her theoretical training in brain science. 

            The world is full of bloggers, true, but how many of them can (like your bloguiste) claim semi-professional expertise on issues of academic ritual?  I was for seventeen years the Chief Marshal for University Convocations at Princeton, where pomp is matched only by ceremony and spit is ever redeemed by polish.  It would be invidious of me to make adversarial comparisons among distinguished American universities; so I must let the facts speak for themselves.  The Hopkins Commencement ceremony was held in the football stadium during three hours of determined, cool drizzle.  We were midway up the bleachers on the opponents’ forty-yard line.  This might have been enough to tax the average parental patience even without the president’s superfluous observation that he and the other big shots were seated snug on a covered stage.

            The Commencement speaker was one of the honorary degree recipients, Edwin E. Catmull, the President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.  Dr. Catmull is the winner of no fewer than five Academy Awards, as well as the much-lauded author of a highly successful business book entitled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.  His theme was once again “Creativity” and, protected by an overhanging arch that shielded him from the precipitation, he pursued it at some length.  The young no doubt are more familiar with the intricacies of computer-generated animation than am I.  Perhaps they also follow with greater attention than I the rise and fall of start-up empires and the complex rhythms of Silicon Valley mergers and acquisitions.  It was a little hard for me to concentrate.  The forces that were standing in my way were neither unseen nor unfelt.  I was distracted by the slowly dawning realization that the left-side fringe of my suit jacket was gradually becoming soaked and heavy as it sponged up the water first deflected by my plastic surcoat and the funneled by it onto my bleacher seat.  I wanted Up but seemed temporarily trapped in Monsters University.
            Yet like everyone else in that large transparent-ponchoed crowd our pride in, and happiness for, our graduate conquered all physical discomfort.  The marathon aspect of the Hopkins graduation is an inevitable result of one of its nicer features: every single graduate is called out by name.  This is done quite briskly, reducing the statutory envelope of fame from fifteen minutes to something closer to 1.5 seconds; but that it is done at all for such a large group is remarkable.  The graduates sprint across the stage as summoned, their academic perp-walks captured by camera and largely magnified on twin Jumbotrons flanking the presidential platform.  Among their many other advantages, Johns Hopkins graduates thus enjoy credentials confirmable by Instant Replay.

A distant mirror: Sophia scores on the Jumbotron

            Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore.  Baltimore is a complex and variegated city.   It has serious problems involving poverty and race.  Some of its chronic pathologies are on permanent local display, but this year they claimed national attention at the end of April when some serious rioting and looting accompanied community protests.   Johns Hopkins is an elite, highly selective, expensive educational institution.  Like other such institutions it is brim-full of life’s winners.  A certain sense of irony might have hovered over its Commencement jubilations had some obvious contrasts or contradictions not been brought to mind.

            But they were, and thoughtfully, as was appropriate for a great center of learning.  University President Ronald Daniels made them the principal substance of his remarks.  It happened, furthermore, that Representative Elijah Cummings, one of the leading members of Congress, and certainly one of the most eloquent, was another among those receiving honorary degrees.  He, too, made a brief but powerful speech.  And while speeches do not solve problems, they may help inspire dedicated people to try to solve them.  And we saw a lot of dedicated people in that football stadium.   Our own lovely granddaughter was but one of many thousands of graduates throughout our land who, we have sound reason to hope, will put their fine educations to the work of leaving our troubled world a bit better than they found it.

 The Graduate with proud grandparents

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Capital Punishment

              It is probably attributable to mere cultural habit that despite the many conveniences of on-line reading I still prefer to read from an actual printed object held in my hands.  But I generally begin my day rather early, quite a while before the arrival of the printed copy of the New York Times, so that I often have a first shot at it sitting in the dark before a flickering screen.

            One unique advantage of on-line journalism, from the reader’s point of view, is that one often has access to some sense of the popular reaction to events in the news through the feature of published readers’ comments.  Certain stories very quickly attract a large number of them.  It was still long before the crack of dawn when I read the Times’s coverage of the outcome of the penalty deliberations of the jury hearing the arguments concerning the convicted Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but even then there were already more than a thousand of them.  After reading a certain number, I had the depressing realization that I would feel compelled to add to their number, as I am now doing.  My next post cannot fail to be more cheerful and uplifting.

            As everyone knows, the jury recommended a capital sentence for this young man who, in concert with his brother, randomly murdered some people and maimed many more in a terrorist bombing.  The unpleasant outcome seemed to me quite probable, indeed nearly inevitable, given our legal codes, the unmitigated iniquity of the crime, and the particular instructions given to the jury. My view of the matter, however, was far from being shared by many of my fellow readers who had chosen to leave comments.

            Without wanting to suggest that such comments could be easily grouped into categories of opinion, I was nonetheless struck by the large number that seemed to equate judicial execution with murder pure and simple.  One of the first I read was  “Now we are as bad as they are.”  Another sizable group complained that the jury’s opinion violated some specially indulgent and enlightened ambiance peculiar to the city of Boston.  Several commentators suggested that determinative weight should have been given to the opinion of the parents of one of the murder victims, a young girl.   They had expressed their preference that Tsarnaev be given a sentence of lifetime imprisonment that would preclude the highly likely prospect of many years of irresolution and repeatedly rekindled anguish as the process of legal appeal slowly grinds on.  One group of comments seemed to me particularly obtuse concerning legal realities.  They complained that the deck has been stacked against Tsarnaev because all those who expressed a categorical opposition to capital punishment had been excluded from the jury pool.

            Many comments abused the jurors, attributing to them a want of courage or of intelligence.  This I found rather shocking.  Serving on a “high profile” jury must surely be among the most grueling and thankless tasks that can fall upon a citizen.  I certainly would hope to be spared any such duty, and the apparent ease with which opponents of the death penalty attributed incompetence or base motives to the jurors alarmed me.  Especially disturbing were remarks that implied that justice is primarily a matter of private family revenge or compensation—as though we were still operating under the early Germanic system of wergild.  The relatives of murder victims must necessarily have a claim on our empathy; but they cannot claim a special status in law.

            An important part of the social contract, as I understand it, is that living in community means living according to the laws we have, whether we like them or not.  Justice is communal and social, not private and individual.  We do not seek justice "for Michael" or "for Lisa" or for any particular private person.  We seek justice, period.  Actually, even though I am not a Bostonian I am opposed on principle to capital punishment.  Like many of my other political and social opinions, this one was highly influenced by “literary” experience, and in particular by reading a nearly forgotten work of Victor Hugo: The Last Days of a Condemned Man.  Hugo, a great man condemned to the disappointment of all genuine idealists, could not believe that the guillotine, which had become so prominent in the Revolution of 1789, had survived the corrective Revolution of 1830.  It often takes a while for enlightened individual opinion to gain a large social consensus.  Hugo died in 1885.  Capital punishment was abolished in France only in 1981.  Hugo could lament the French law of his time, but he could not simply ignore it.

            Though American public opinion concerning capital punishment has not yet arrived at a universal reforming consensus and may still not do so for some years to come, the likely drift of things is clear enough.  In many arenas of progressive American thought “diversity” has become a nearly terminal good—except, that is, for the many manifestations of actual cultural diversity that one may find strange, embarrassing, or even threatening from one’s own local perspective.  Ours is a vast country, and despite many powerful institutions working toward a cultural homogeneity it is a country of marked regional differences.  The number of places in which there is a firm consensus in favor of the death penalty in diminishing, partly on practical grounds.  When each capital judgment becomes a marathon of legal appeals, and when the effectiveness of high-tech “humane” ways of killing people has fallen under just suspicion, what might be doctrinally sound is pragmatically dubious.  Just at the moment a number of conservative legislators in Nebraska are trying, with good chances of success, to arrange a vote for abolition in that state.  In the meantime I greatly admire the Boston jurors and will not second-guess them.