Sunday, September 14, 2014

May Her Memory be a Blessing, Part II

To follow up on my previous, I went to Mrs. Maschler's memorial service this morning. I heard from her former colleagues and students and her daughters. And everyone speaking worked together to paint a picture of her. She was a woman who was incredibly blunt, and also incredibly interested in everyone she talked to. When you talked to her, she really listened. And when she told you that you were wrong and told you why (quite forcefully!) she did so not because she delighted in putting you in your place, but because she really took what you had to say seriously. She took -you- seriously. And she would hold up your words to the same (merciless) scrutiny that she applied to Sts Augustine and Paul or Kant. You were in the same boat as they were. You were not just some kid, you and your words mattered to her.

And because you mattered to her, your life mattered to her, and she would worry over it. She always thought I was not living up to my intellectual potential, working the job I did. But she said that because she really did care about me. And so it was, apparently, with everyone she knew.

I value kindness a lot. Which might be funny or hypocritical coming from me, I don't know. And I generally take little stock in people that are blunt or abrupt because they are 'being honest'. But from her, telling you that you were -wrong- sir, that was a kindness. It was a mark of respect. I will never forget that.

May her memory be blessed.

And if I may be abstract, I think my experience with Chaininah is instructive.  All my life I was told I was smart and special and was awarded parts on the back for doing as well as could be expected for someone of my years.  Chaininah was a rare person who did not hold me to some kind of weighted 'pretty smart for a punk kid' standard, but held me to the same standard that she held the great minds of history.  And perhaps that's what we need more of in our teachers and our education -- an attempt to take students seriously, to ask them to really put their minds out there and hold themselves up to no less standard than finding the truth.

May Her Memory be a Blessing

A friend of mine (St John's tutor from way back whom I used to drive around town) died in August. I was never that close to her, and her death makes me sad in that general 'I will miss you' kind of way that I feel when non-close friends or non-immediate relatives die. Since my parents are still alive and all my closest friends are still with us, this is all I've known of death - missing people.
Mostly I suppose I wanted to share a bit about her. Chaninah Maschler was born in the Berlin in 1931 but grew up in the Netherlands. She was Jewish. The first thing I heard her say about the war was 'I didn't go outside much', then she had been hiding with a gentile family in Utrecht, that her brother had run messages for the resistance, and that she'd survived the hunger winter of 1944-1945.  I later learned that her Mother had survived Bergen-Belsen, and her brother had not.

She was a philosopher to the bone. Sharp like Wittgenstein or Pascal, not jovial like Hume. She was a Pierce scholar (and general fan of pragmatism) who studied at Princeton and had ended up at St John's because she was friends with a faculty member there, I think it was Eva Brann. Knew Rorty a bit, I am not sure how well. That's to say she had a mind like a trap, and I could only just keep up.
She married an artist and art dealer who (as far as I can tell) had never gone past high school, and as far as I can tell she was happy with him until he died a couple of years before I met her. She had two twin daughters.

I last saw her two months before she died, trying and failing to solve printer problems for her. My biggest regret is that I saw her less than I ought to have when she had cancer. My last memory of her was that she was much the same as ever, but weaker and more tired. I am glad I have that.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Note on the Police

With Ferguson going on, a lot of people have said a lot about the cops lately. About the militarization of the American Police and the need for journalists and ordinary citizens to monitor the actions of the police.

When this sort of thing comes up, it is customary for someone to point out that there are a lot of good cops out there (most cops are good, nearly all cops are good, only a few of the apples are bad). This may be true. But it is beside the point.

Our republic is not built on the idea of trusting the good intentions and good judgment of those with power. It is built on constraining those in power, constraining them with the law. We subject them to the law and we subject them to the scrutiny needed to make sure that they abide by the law. Or at least, that is what we must do if we're going to keep up this whole liberal democracy thing going.

If cops were angels, we would need no rights.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Macroeconomics for Dragons

A conservative relative posted something on Facebook about the Federal Reserve recently.  It said that you could understand the Federal reserve by consulting the monopoly rulebook, roughly:

'Q:What happens when the bank runs out of money?'
A: The bank cannot run out of money.  If bills run out the banker will write amounts on pieces of paper and use these as money.'

Actually this is a pretty wonderfuly explanation of what the federal reserve does and why it's important: it makes sure that we have money so that we can play the game, IE buy and sell things.  It would be a miserable game of monopoly indeed if money could just run out, and in the real world the results are worse -- the Great Depression is a fabulous example.

But of course, my family member did not intend the above as a compliment to Ben Bernanke's efforts to inject more money into the economy.  And it makes me wonder -- what do you have to believe for this all to be a -bad- thing?  What do you have to believe to think that it's wrong to make sure that there is enough money in the economy?

Monday, October 7, 2013

You Should Take Responsibility So I Don't Have To

Whenever someone says 'personal responsibility' my eyes glaze over.  I've heard it said too much, and heard it say too little.

This phrase has become a magical incantation.  A spell people use to ward off the boogeymen -- moral relativism, people blaming society for their problems, the decline in American values.  Of course, these are boogeymen, not real problems but the invented crises of moral busybodies and superstitious fanatics who are concern-trolling our nation (I'm looking at you, Douthat).  The idea that invoking 'personal responsibility' does anything is laughable - young men do not turn to the corner because some NPR liberal said it wasn't their fault, and telling them that it's their fault is not going to make them stop.

But as laughable as it is, it is invoked again and again can be deployed against drug users, teen moms, teens that aren't moms, poor people on welfare, poor people not on welfare, black folks and many others.  And that's the sinister part.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pride and Cruelty

The word 'cruelty' is often used as though it is synonymous with 'sadism.'  As though the only cruel people in the world were those who drowned cats for fun when they were kids and then graduated to doing even worse to their fellow human beings as adults.  The word cruel conjures up, for me, the lurid proceedings of police dramas (Luther is pretty good, but man, it's uncomfortable sometimes) and true crime stories; it's a word for serial killers and the psychopathic enforcers of drug gangs.  Certainly it seems to imply that someone is getting pleasure from someone's pain and death.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dystopias are for Teenagers

I recently re-read Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, Life and Fate, which is about the Great Patriotic war and the respective horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and about the effect that those authoritarian regimes had on all they touchedt.  It is a great novel, a self-conscious 20th century answer to War and Peace that can stand the comparison and not seem merely pretentious.  I published a brief review earlier this year

Reading it confirmed in my mind something I've thought before -- that whatever it's virtues, dystopian fiction is not the best tool to help us understand what life is like under authoritarianism.  If you want to find out about life under Stalin, read something by an actual Soviet, not by an English idealist who'd never set foot in the USSR.