Friday, April 26, 2013

Some two or three dozen supermen

The First World War has been mostly forgotten in America. With the Great Depression and a Second World War coming soon after maybe few wanted to remember. The monuments and plaques have faded into the landscape and few remember anymore the places and streets that were named to honor those who served. An online search of my own town turned up only Pershing Square in downtown L.A., a grimy and graffiti-covered monument near the 10 freeway, and "Clover Field" (now known as Santa Monica Municipal Airport) named after a local boy killed in the war. Few people I talked to even knew American soldiers in that war were called "doughboys." And it's a shame, really.

Richard Rubin spent the last ten years tracking down every veteran of WWI who was still living that he could find - all of whom were over 100 years old and all of whom are gone now. Some served in combat, others drove ambulances or trucks or trained for duties which they never got to perform. A few never even made it overseas before the Armistice was declared. One even fought in Siberia. (Siberia?!?) In The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War Rubin recounts the experiences "over there" of those he met and interviewed, but this is not simply a collection of mini-biographies of those two or three dozen veterans. Instead he fills in the details of what it was like to live at that time, what their lives were like growing up and following the war, and why they enlisted. I found myself cringing at some of the stories and laughing at others, feeling outraged at the discrimination a few experienced, and sorrowing at the human cost. And yet I also felt a great sense of pride at the heroic deeds and the unassuming way they rebuilt their lives following the war.

Rubin also talks of his experiences interviewing the "forgotten generation" – how the interviews went, what it's like to talk to centenarians (most were hard of hearing), and the old 78 rpm records and sheet music from that era he has collected. He also tells of his own visits to those battlefields and still finding the scars of that war: the trenches and bomb craters, old shell casings in freshly plowed fields, and the multitude of monuments that show the French haven't forgotten the Great War, or the role Americans played in it. I was surprised at these "asides" at first, but soon found they not only put events into context but added a richness and color to the narrative, bringing it to life and making that time so long ago more relatable. This book probably doesn't have the kind of battlefield depth and detail a scholarly historian would be looking for, but for the rest of us amateur historians who just like a good history I can't recommend it highly enough.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Maybe we need less democracy

When was the last time you voted? How did you decide who and what to vote for? Do you think you were more or less informed than the average voter? How do you become "informed?" Should voting be manditory or should there be some sort of test or qualification? Do you think your vote even makes a difference?

We Americans take a great deal of pride in our form of government, many of us going so far as to proclaim it the best there is. That doesn't mean we don't complain about our leaders and the mess they've made of things. But as we look at our current problems and see nascent democracies around the world struggle and frequently fail, are we too proud to consider ways to improve? Even if it means adopting some ideas from other nations? Nations such as China?

In Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, the authors point out that the American Founding Fathers were adamant in their displeasure with Democracy, equating it with mob rule. And yet we've become more democratic and less of a Republic in the subsequent 200 years (especially in places like California, which is part of the reason we have such a big state budget problem). Whereas earlier Americans didn't vote for the President or the Senate, now we have a say in choosing those leaders even if our vote is watered down by millions of others – and that's just the ones who actually vote! Most feel disenfranchised and don't believe their vote makes a difference. And just how informed are those who are voting? Are they knowledgeable about the issues and candidates, or are they just voting for the most charismatic candidate or basing their decision on personal reasons (like race or party) or are they simply swayed by multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and catchy slogans?

But it's not just the voters who don’t understand the issues; we frequently elect leaders who are have little experience in government. The authors also point out the undue influence of special interests in politics such as unions, corporations, industries, or even just influential minority groups. We fool ourselves by thinking our voice matters when it’s actually those special interests who are funding the expensive campaigns that have become absolutely necessary today and have the ears of our leaders. As a result they say, we’ve become a “consumer democracy” and we end up with decisions being made with short-term results in mind instead of looking to the future and addressing the most important issues (like infrastructure, education, energy, environment, etc.) that would allow us to retain the place of influence in the world that we are rapidly losing.

China is discussed in the book but not as much as I had anticipated. The authors are careful to make a distinction between Communist China (which they basically say was a failure) and Confucian China (of which even most of the shorter dynasties lasted longer than our nation has so far). Confucian ideals promote a leadership class based on merit, where leaders must prove themselves at lower levels before they can move up to more responsibility – an idea which I initially balked at, but have since warmed to in some ways. They don't ignore the current challenges in China's government – corruption, repression, lack of human rights, lax environmental standards, etc. – but the focus is mostly on improving Western governments. They also suggest the power of special interests could be curbed if we utilized more committees of "experts" in making policy recommendations. Globalization and the social media revolution are also discussed extensively as a huge challenge faced by both Eastern and Western governments.

I expected to find much to criticize in this book, but instead found it a well-thought out and rational examination of the problems in America right now. In addition to the specific recommendations for the United States, they also discuss ways California, the G-20 group of nations, and the European Union could be improved. I don't necessarily agree with all their proposals (and many will be a very tough-sell) and the direction toward global government they seem to advocate, but I think there are many ideas here that would make a positive difference. I also wish they had explained more thoroughly what they meant by “consumer democracy” – I think I understood but would have liked a plainer explanation. Nonetheless, this is an excellent and relatively short book that deserves careful consideration by ALL those concerned with the direction we are going.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

What's so romantic about Heathcliff?

Okay Miss Haltiner, you win. I tried to fool you by reading the Cliff's Notes back in 11th grade (or was it 12th?), but you couldn't be fooled. "Next time read the book" is what you wrote on my assignment, and I realize now how ridiculous it was to think I could get away with it. And I know I've sworn I'd never read Wuthering Heights, but I did – yes, nearly 30 years late – but better late than never, right? But now that I've read it I'm kind of at a loss for words. It was "okay," perhaps even interesting at times (less so, at others). And I'm puzzled by how many people over the years have told me they loved that book – often smart and intelligent people (and probably, oh... maybe something like 100% of them were women). Most of all, I don't get why Heathcliff has such a romantic reputation. There was a song a number of years ago that vaguely suggested as much:

"What if I were Romeo in black jeans
What if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth
Maybe she's just looking for
Someone to dance with"

Most of the story is told by the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, to Mr. Lockwood who rents Thrushcross Grange from Mr. Heathcliff, who lives a few miles away at Wuthering Heights on the Yorkshire moors. Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw as a boy when he found him on the streets in Liverpool, and it's suggested he might have been a "gypsy." Earnshaw's son, Hindley, is jealous of his father's affections and mistreats Heathcliff, especially after his father dies and he becomes the master of Wuthering Heights. But Catherine, Hindley's sister, befriends him and they generally lead a wild life roaming the moors and getting into trouble as they grow up. (So far I get it: Heathcliff bears a legitimate grudge toward Hindley, although the relationship with Catherine is a bit... well, indecent.)

Hindley's behavior become so intolerable that Heathcliff runs away, and a few years later Catherine marries the very respectable Edgar Linton. Soon after, Heathcliff returns (and somehow has money) and begins to plot his revenge against the people who've ruined his happiness – namely Hindley and Linton. Hindley has become a drunk after his wife died, and Heathcliff does everything he can to turn Hindley's son, Hareton, into a foul and uncouth brute. He also marries Isabella, Linton's sister, out of spite even though he detests her. And he continues to brazenly visit Catherine, driving a wedge between her and her husband to the point that her health is seriously compromised and she dies in childbirth.

At this point the story shifts, although the romance between Catherine and Heathcliff remains in the background. Now, a relationship between Catherine's daughter (called Cathy) and Heathcliff's son forms. Isabella ran away from Heathcliff, but when she dies her son – whom she named Linton – is sent to live with Edgar and Cathy. When Heathcliff finds out he insists that Linton come to live with him – but again, this is only out of malicious spite for Edgar Linton. Hindley has since died, and Heathcliff focuses on making Edgar miserable by encouraging a romance between their children. In fact, everything he does is to destroy the lives of those around him, and he is not only vile and abusive (to people and animals), but even resorts to kidnapping and detaining people on numerous occasions as well as bribing public officials, digging up graves, and you might even make the case for murder!

So, how does a creep like that end up with such a favorable public image? Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to compare himself to Heathcliff (which leads me to think that he – like me – didn't really read the book when it was assigned) for which he was justifiably mocked. Instead of becoming the poster boy for domestic abuse, Heathcliff is remembered as the tragic and tourtured romantic hero!

As for the story, yeah I'll concede it was interesting enough (in a bizarre sort of way) that I finished it. And it's stuck in my mind (in a puzzling sort of way) that days and weeks after I finished I'm still puzzling over it. Personally, I didn't find the writing style all that clever or beautiful, and the characters are borderline disgusting. So what is it about this story – and especially Heathcliff – that so many people find so appealing?

I'd really like to know.