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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Theodore and Franklin


On November 4, 1944, three days before the vote, Franklin Roosevelt appeared at a final campaign rally in Boston’s Fenway Park.  In the audience was a twenty-three year old army private who would depart the next morning for the European front.  Young Albrecht Strauss was among the German refugees, my maternal uncle included, who signed up to fight the man who had robbed their families of both freedom and home and who was murdering millions of fellow Jews.  In a letter some months later, Albrecht told his parents, “I had marveled at the magnificent physical endurance that frail body had withstood — and had feared for it.  His presence, more than anyone else’s, generated a liberal viewpoint, and at the same time a wise handling of the world’s forces in American politics”.  FDR, we now know, would be dead in April.  But the “frail body” notwithstanding, like Private Strauss millions of Americans, “marveled at his physical feats”, idolized a president whom they saw as both indispensable and indestructible.  He was larger than life, a mythical figure.



Of course Franklin wasn’t the only President Roosevelt.  His fifth cousin Theodore preceded him to the White House and was an equally fabled figure.  Their story, together with TR’s niece and FDR’s wife Eleanor, was retold again in Ken Burns’ fourteen-hour documentary, The Roosevelts aired last month on PBS.   I will come to Eleanor in a future post.  For now, let’s consider the two extraordinary outsized men and how their presidencies play against the current American landscape.  The Roosevelts were a presidential dynasty  — not the first (Adams) and not the last (Bush) — in itself interesting as we contemplate the possibility of the second Clinton in the White House. 



The cousins Roosevelt had much in common.  They were both charismatic figures that always commanded center stage.  They had parallel resumes: Assistant Navy Secretary, Governor of New York and Vice Presidential candidates, TR successfully.  They each fathered six children and endured personal adversity.  Was there something in the Roosevelt genes that made them succeed, or was it the strong nurturing that ultimately formed each man?  Perhaps we can attribute some to the former. but like most of us, more of the latter.  Both men had family heroes to emulate including, for Franklin, Theodore the role model upon whose career he fashioned his own.



Comparing presidents is a great American sport.  When they are blood relatives there is an added dimension of interest.  The Burns documentary lends itself to comparison because it presents these men and their somewhat parallel careers in such close proximity, documented with remarkable film footage.  What’s striking to me is, that despite the obvious similarities, how very different they were.  Had they not both been Roosevelts, we might not couple them, as did Burns.  On the most elemental level, FDR was an only child with a doting, domineering and ever present mother.  TR was one of four and had to face competition for his parents’ attention.  But more important, these men were of two different generations and, despite both being of the Twentieth Century, they governed in vastly different times.  TR certainly faced challenges while in the White House, but they pale in comparison to FDR’s Great Depression and World War II.



Those generational and time differences are often lost when we compare presidents and assess their relative performance.  The current occupant of the White House is often measured against Ronald Reagan, especially in how the two confronted our global adversaries.   In fact, just like TR and FDR, and despite governing just decades apart, the foreign challenges confronting these more recent presidents are, as suggested by others, effectively apples and oranges.  Reagan functioned in the Cold War where he faced an opponent who led a nation state and with whom he could and did engage.   Obama faces stateless fanatics with whom any semblance of diplomacy is impossible — different time, very different problem.  What the two Roosevelts shared, at least in public, was tremendous self-confidence.  That translated into a kind of free spirited and ebullient — both traded on winning smiles and obviously loving the job — leadership.  No one inside or outside of government had any doubt about who was in charge on a Roosevelt watch.   Their self-confidence was infectious impacting not only how they led, but also how those being led felt about themselves and the country.  This was especially remarkable during FDR’s tenure where, if you can call it that, the misery index was often through the roof.  I always cringe when we proclaim our country “exceptional”, but there is no question the descriptor can make people feel good, even if in an unrealistic way.



Franklin had an advantage over Teddy.  His cousin had tested the waters of governance and provided lessons to be learned.  Both men are generally ranked in the top ten of US presidents, but FDR is ranked higher in part I think because he had to perform, and did, in far more challenging times.  These were great leaders.  What made them, most especially Franklin, so?  Two things: first, the ability to make tough decisions and second, to communicate those decisions to the public.  It wasn’t Reagan but Franklin who was, hands down, the great communicator of the American presidency.  Between 1933 and 1944 he delivered twenty-seven “fireside chats”, radio talks in which he came figuratively and literally into America’s living room.  I was far too young to understand the import of what he said, but a picture of my family sitting “around the radio” and listening is etched into my early childhood memories.  And that coming into the living room was something unique to the radio age, a voice heard probably having greater impact than any of the television visuals that have now become so common as to be indistinguishable.  A voice without an image has transcending power because it evokes larger-than-life imagination, one consistent with FDR’s personality.



If comparing Obama and Reagan can be characterized as apples and oranges, then certainly measuring any contemporary chief executive against FDR is especially difficult, if not unfair.  Even so, it’s hard to watch Ken Burns’ documentary without being struck at how leadership-impoverished is our contemporary political scene.  To be sure FDR faced some partisans who hated him as much, perhaps even more, than many of our modern presidents, including Barack Obama.  He didn’t live in a time when a president’s popularity temperature was taken virtually on the hour.  But the fact remains that few, if any, of his successors had even close to his leadership ability.  Barack Obama is blessed with great oratorical skills, perhaps ones that can hold their own against FDR.  But somehow he has been unable to come into our living rooms to explain his decisions and give us the sense that he is personally communicating with us.  It will take some time and perspective to understand that deficiency, but we can get some hint from the nick name given him by staff in 2008: No drama Obama.  If FDR, and for that matter TR, was anything, it was full throat drama.   Obama, even six years in, is seen as aloof, his heart nowhere to be found on his sleeve.   He presents two contrasting, even conflicting, images; the skillful campaigner who at the same time seems to dislike the political game.  FDR loved it all, the politics and the governing.  He relished sharing cocktail hour with others and, even in 1944 when he was dying, couldn’t resist going out on the stump, making that final speech at Fenway.  Will history judge Obama harshly?  It’s far too early to know, but lacking TR and FDR’s special spark may account for his lousy poll numbers as we head into the coming election.



Albrecht Strauss returned home, earned a PhD in English Literature and went on to a distinguished academic career as both a gifted teacher and Johnson scholar.  An emeritus professor at UNC Chapel Hill and neighbor, our lives were brought together by a mutual friend on the day after his 90th birthday.  We have become good friends and, despite a difference in age, have found much in common.  Like my mother and two older siblings, Strauss was born in Berlin.  And like my parents, who came to America to escape Hitler, his academic parents settled here in the late 1930s.  Our early conversations revealed friends and acquaintances in common — six degrees of separation.  Both of our parents came here as fully formed adults who had to build totally new lives in America, function with a new language and adapt professionally and socially to a new world.  Franklin Roosevelt, despite his early reluctance to enter the war, was their hero.



The April 13, 1945 letter recounting Albrecht’s memory of FDR’s campaign speech was actually devoted to his death.  He wrote:

I am stunned by the news of the President’s death.  The surprise of it!  And its significance for the future!  The War is won to be sure - but someone else might have handled that purely technical part with equal efficiency.  Where this great man excelled was in diplomacy, in understanding and grasping international problems – and in the days ahead when he would be needed most.  One has to revise one’s entire thinking about the future – and there is a proportionate decrease in hope and confidence.  Two men who had the most liberal grasp of foreign affairs, Willkie and Roosevelt, are dead – and there is no one to take their place.  Certainly, Churchill lacks this breadth of vision – and anyhow, his main interest in preservation of the Empire, not the welfare of humanity.

Private Strauss was 23 and, as with us, contemporary assessments are not always the most accurate.  Nonetheless, it’s quite an astounding and insightful statement by someone so young and such a new American.  Does it reflect an idolized and idealized president?  Absolutely, but as a contemporaneous reflection of how Americans felt at this loss and about this man, it was remarkably spot-on.  Would that any of our contemporary leaders could engender such words, such sentiment much less have them stand up well against more retrospective assessments.  Where are the “Roosevelts” when we need them so?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hearts and minds.

“Ultimately”, President Obama said in his recent United Nations address, “the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task – a task for the people of the Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.”   I couldn’t agree more. 

Lyndon Johnson often stated the objective of winning the hearts and minds in Viet Nam. We’ve heard similar talk more recently during our forays into Iraq and Afghanistan.  Winning hearts and minds sounds good, so much better than winning military battles, but it is a daunting, perhaps an impossible, task.  Let’s be honest, we were way out of our cultural element in Southeast Asia where religion wasn’t an issue and are perhaps even more profoundly so in the Muslim dominated Middle East where it is.  Despite heartfelt expressions of respect for it (voiced again by the president), Islam is both obscure and foreign to Westerners, especially Americans.  The vast majority has Christian roots, and those of us who don’t share with them a Judeo-Christian oriented mindset.  Deep-rooted tribalism is prevalent across much of today’s battleground.  It is in part what divides Sunni and Shia but also, among others, ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Persians.  In a country where pluralism is an essential element of our story, sectarian and tribal strife are simply not in our cultural vocabulary.  

What exactly were Johnson and more recent exponents talking about when they reference hearts and minds”?  What does changing mean?  To put in marketing terms, what precisely are we selling and is it something that our target audience either wants or, indeed, needs?  Ah, the devil in the details problem.  George W. Bush essentially contended that everyone in the world was yearning for, and deserving of, democracy.  It’s a noble idea in which I think he honestly believed, and likely still does.  Missionaries, among them the many young Mormons who are obliged to go out into the world to spread the Word, believe that everyone, even if they don’t know it, needs Christ in their lives.  Other hearts and minders think the great “unwashed” require modernity, exemplified of course by our “enlightened” ways.

If you see a common thread here, you’re right.  Winning hearts and minds means getting others to think and be much like us.  To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “why can’t they be more like us?”  Of course, we never admit to that and in fact claim it not to be the case.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, a rarity I’ll admit, we approach hearts and minds with some considerable degree of arrogance and self-satisfaction.  We may say we deeply respect who and what people are, that we come to aid and protect not to destroy, but what we really want is for them to fall into line, at the very least to lean in our ideological direction.   And don’t for a moment assume our intentions are not transparent or that, rather than being seductive, they are often taken in as an affront.  I’m not sure how we can win hearts and minds in the hostile environment of the Middle East, and as my questions suggested, I’m not even certain we know what our objective in that regard is or perhaps more importantly should be.  Surely trying to impose our set of very Western or non-Muslim values seems to be a wrongheaded and losing proposition.  Nothing we Americans can do will end tribalism or sectarian strife now or in the future.  Obama clearly understands this when he says, “change can’t be imposed; it has to be generated from within.”  So perhaps the only productive heart-and-mind-winning thing we can do is to admit to the folly and inappropriateness of any such ambition.

Winning hearts and minds, certainly as Johnson and more recent leaders have wished it, has always been problematic, if not totally unrealistic.  That’s especially so since many of those we want to “win” see us as intruding or invading foreigners — aliens may be more accurate.  In their view, even when “invited in”, we’re where we don’t really belong.  The kind of pluralism that works for us, a diverse immigrant nation where differences in beliefs are accepted, just doesn’t pertain in most other places, even in much of the West.  In the Middle East, it isn’t only the militant extremists who look at us as infidels — or more benignly nonbelievers.  Even if they don’t translate their view into violence, many Muslims can’t understand why everyone doesn’t follow Allah.  Needless to say, this is not true for all Muslims, but it is probably a pretty widespread view in those places where we profess wanting to win those hearts and minds.  Let’s remember that there are also Christians and Jews in the West who aren’t necessarily fundamentalists but can’t understand why anyone does not believe as do they.  Are these non-Muslim’s hearts and minds subject to being won over?  I don’t think so.

We are not involved in the world because we want to win over hearts and minds.  We’re out there because we’ve convinced ourselves that hostilities in far off lands pose a potential threat.  President Obama, who probably remains reluctant to reengage, clearly stated protecting Americans as his rationale for moving against ISIS.  Sometimes we’ve been out there to protect oppressed peoples, though admittedly only selectively so.  It’s ostensibly why America entered World War II and considered it a “good war”.  Were we trying to change the hearts and minds of German Nazis?  Of course not, we were committed to stopping their aggression and their murder of masses.  You can argue, and I think accurately, that the Marshall Plan changed hearts and minds, but that was after a decisive defeat and in a Western context.  Europeans and the majority of post war Americans shared common roots.  We no longer live in a world of decisive defeats, of end-of-war signing ceremonies and those “common roots”.

I doubt that anyone has illusions about winning the hearts and minds of ISIS.  Obama told the UN delegates, “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”  Considering how much blood and treasure we expended in Iraq, it’s understandable that policy makers in Washington feel they have some responsibility in preventing it’s collapse.  Much of the pressure of course is political — the often-hyperbolic challenges coming from people like John McCain and, believe it or not, Dick Cheney invigorated by his transplanted heart, one that seems to have the same inclinations as the old one.  But pressure is also coming from some of the so-called endangered, Democrats.  If our politics were not pathetic enough; it goes way over the edge in election season.  We also shouldn’t underestimate the pressure, intuited or real, coming those who put their lives on the line or whose daughters or sons sacrificed theirs.  Yes many of us opposed going into Iraq, but consider what it feels like to think your very real and palpable sacrifice was for nothing.  And the painful reality is that futility is one of the early lessons of this century.  We can’t win hearts and minds, and today’s wars are largely fought without a victory.  We enter the fray and more often than not return empty handed, having won a battle but not the war.  It isn’t a matter of American decline or loss of power, but of a world in flux, of fast moving and elusive targets.  It isn’t only that the rules have changed, but often that there are no rules.  None of us here or anywhere else has caught up to what at best is a time of transition.  Oh, winning hearts and minds  — good luck with that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That's not our problem.


ISIS wants us to engage with them.  So, too, do many of those Muslim states in the region.  Having the United States and indeed any non-Muslims involved is a perfect distraction, a perfect recruiting tool.  It’s a distraction because it allows the parties to avoid facing up to their existential internal conflict and what it means for the future of Islam.  It’s a recruiting tool because no one likes outsiders interfering with an internal battle, butting into their business.  Whether you want to call it a religious or a sectarian war, we don’t belong in its middle.  It’s not our problem.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Senseless brutal killing is not something that should be overlooked.  But, horrible as the recent beheadings and other atrocities may be, they are not the problem that requires our urgent attention.  And make no mistake; we do have a problem.  It is one best seen by looking at a mirror.  Yes, our problem is ourselves.  At this moment, that’s our biggest and, I’d suggest, most dangerous, problem.  It is sapping our strength and making not only our Congress but also all of us dysfunctional.  Pundits of all stripe complain that America, and specifically the administration, has no coherent and consistent foreign policy.  I agree, but how could they?

How can you have a coherent policy — foreign or domestic  — when you can’t have serious rational conversation in your own land?  I don’t know if the outcome of our staying out Islam’s struggle, painful and in many ways sad as it is, would be any different than if we commit blood and treasure to an intervention.  My guess is that, long term, it won’t matter one iota.  I may be totally wrong, but the point is we aren’t having a conversation, an honest give and take, about it.  Instead people in Washington go into meetings with their exit press statements in hand, prepared before anyone in the room has offered even a single hello.

Remember those rules that prevailed in many households, no talk of politics or religion around the table.  What nonsense.  It’s a spurious rule grounded in the notion that having different opinions or beliefs don’t merit airing or that hearing a different point of view wouldn’t be instructive.  Let’s not allow logic interfere with our preconceived absolutist views, let’s not risk having to admit that we might not have it all exactly right.  We’re told that Americans increasingly chose to live in homogeneous neighborhoods and to interact exclusively with both the likeminded — friends/acquaintances and the media with whom we agree.  And not only do we crave reinforcement for what we already believe or what views we already hold, each interaction becomes a kind of litmus test.  Is out conversational partner really on board, or had we better consider distancing ourselves?

Barack Obama is wrong and bad, because he’s Barack Obama.  Rand Paul is wrong and bad because he’s Rand Paul.  You can compile your own exemplars, but you get the point.  Paul Krugman, yes; Ross Douthat, no.  This happens in our own lives and of course in Washington or other seats of government  where similar discord prevails; answers given before any question is posed.  Then there is the assumption of what “the other side” will say and the motives attributed to whatever is said.  It’s a recipe for paralysis, a meal that seems perfectly cooked every time the political class meets, every time the pundits send forth their missiles of “wisdom”.

In a recent Times op-ed the Palestinian scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi makes the case against arming the so-called moderates in Syria.  He suggests instead making a deal with Assad whose army actually has the chops to take on ISIS — has effective boots on the ground.  Khalidi’s take on the elusive moderates is compelling.  He may be wrong about Assad (boy is that complicated) though we have done an about face with other ruthless leaders in the past.  The point is that he voices a contrary view and in a cogent way.  I’m so hungry, so very desperate, for a real and serious conversation about what we should and should not do with this alleged crisis.  And my choice of words is not arbitrary because I’m not sure anyone has yet made a convincing argument that this is a crisis demanding our crisis action.

When the Twin Towers fell just seventy some blocks from my Upper Westside home in Manhattan, the American government retaliated.  It was a reactionary, not necessarily a strategic, move.  It allowed for no discussion.  After all nearly three thousand Americans lost their lives.  Whether we should have attacked Afghanistan at all wasn’t the real issue.  What would happen after the attack, how long it should last and to what end was something the deserved serious thought, an engagement of confirming but also contrary views.  That really didn’t happen.  For sure there was some debate about Iraq, but hardly at the level that such an audacious move should have commanded.  And as to the discussion that did take place, it was immediately framed in “are you with us or against us”?  And more profoundly the kind of litmus test that has become such second nature to us, “are you patriotic (like me), a REAL American (I can trust or befriend)?

The President and the Congress don’t get along.  He doesn’t reach out, or seem to reach out with any sincerity.  They are wedded to the partisan divide, those preconceived answers along party lines.  Perhaps this has always been the case, but regardless of office held one has the sense that the holder first foremost wants to know, is this good for me/my party?  Whether it’s right or good for the country/world comes second, if at all?

Our track record of intervention is not mixed; it’s depressingly horrid.  Iraq is bordering on a failed state and a repressive one at that.  Looking at today’s news it’s clear that the Taliban are gearing up for what may be an inevitable comeback.  For sure the “democratic” forces there haven’t gotten their corruptive act together.  Vacuums tend to be filled.  We’ve failed miserably in winning “hearts and minds” there and across the region (more on that in a future post).

We have a poor track record and painful as it is for me to say, we seem bereft of leadership.  With all his careful thought and weighing of the options, with all his sense of history, the president is being swept up in a tide of those yelling the loudest.  On the eve of an important congressional election, he is taking a reactive action to a crisis that may not be real, or at the very least, not our crisis.  He is moving against a problem that may not be one, at least not our problem.  Reading and listening to the news I have a sinking sense of déjà vu, this time around of a fundamentalist weapon of mass destruction.   Frank Rich wrote a powerful book about truth after Iraq called, The Greatest Story Ever Sold.   I fear we’re being sold again, this time by the president I still support, but who may be heading us in a very wrong direction.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

La Mancha, redux.


Signet Classic book cover.
Watching Barack Obama last Wednesday evening, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Corleone’s desperate words in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in”.  The president looked both strained and tired as he spoke to the nation.  It was a speech he hoped would never be necessary, a return to Iraq albeit with “no boots on the ground”.  It seems that this epic sectarian civil war, one in which we really have no direct interest, just won’t let us go.  And it’s clear to me, the players want it that way.  Why else would the medieval ISIS barbarians have beheaded two American journalists?  We’re a good distraction, easily distracted.

While not wanting a monarchy, the Founders saw no reason to term limit presidents.  And of course their judgment not to set bounds was vindicated by Washington’s precedent setting decision to serve only two.  Others followed suit until FDR reached for three and then four — the last when he was essentially dying.  That did it.  The twenty-second amendment, ratified in 1951, turned Washington’s voluntary gesture into a mandate.  I don’t know why the country’s father thought eight years enough; he might just as well have extended his tenure to twelve.  But looking at a graying Obama and thinking about his sagging popularity, it occurred to me that we Americans seem to tire of our presidents as they reach the midpoint of the final term.  We certainly tired of George W. Bush.  Perhaps Washington was on to something.

As our fatigue sets in, we latch on to some act or some image that justifies and reinforces our “un-Hail to the Chief”.  For Bush it was the photo of him looking down from Air Force 1 at the devastation of Katrina and for Obama his run to the golf course immediately after decrying the beheading of James Foley.  Those images, or what we read into them, remain fixed.  Thanks to modern media and the Internet, they are reinforced by repetition long after the fact.  Are they fair?  Well to the degree that they might reveal something in a president’s character and how he really feels about events or us, they may well be.  We view them, accurately or not, as a “window into the man’s soul”.

Obama’s low approval ratings may tell us something about ourselves as a nation, individually and collectively.  He was brought into office as an unabashed dove, at least to the degree that someone who carries the title of commander-in-chief can ever be.  Americans, regardless of party, were war weary and if we considered the Bush wars with any objectivity, dubious about any meaningful return on an extraordinary investment.  So while Obama won the election with a relatively narrow margin, his approval ratings in early 2009 were 64%, with only 16% disapproval.  Most of us had high hopes, even many of those who didn’t vote for him.  He was taking us where we wanted to go.  Sure the usual suspects — many of them neocon architects of the Iraq war — along with some in the media groused about his taking too much time considering options before escalating hostilities in Afghanistan.  But most of us, even those who opposed the troop buildup, felt better not having a shoot-from-the-hip, trigger happy chief executive.

That said, and despite a majority of Americans continuing to oppose boots on the ground in the Near East (or anywhere else), it’s clear that most are not doves.  They aren’t against war, only against wars that involve us soiling, or more accurately bloodying, our hands.  As I suggested in earlier posts and my book, Transcenders, “… there is little doubt the former Defense Secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] read the American psyche accurately.  He understood the public vastly prefers the mechanized (video game-like) images of shock and awe and unmanned lethal drones, to body bags coming home.”  Obama may be a dove, or a very reluctant warrior, but he deployed many more “antiseptic” drones into war’s theaters than his predecessor.  As to the public, what bothers them about Obama is not so much his reluctance to reenter combat, but the fact that he isn’t sufficiently aggressive, that he doesn’t talk tough enough.  That lack, they feel, communicates weakness.  Americans do not want to be considered weak.

Presidential popularity (approval ratings) has as much, and I’d say ultimately more, to do with perception than with performance.  We’re told time and again, don’t judge me by what I say, but by what I do.  Nonsense.  As any fact checker can tell you, our politics today is built on what is said, often what is inaccurately claimed or attributed, not on what actually is done.  The ACA is a bust not because it isn’t working — it is — but because a perception of failure has been purposefully created and heavily marketed by its opponents.  The same holds true, to some degree, with Obama’s leadership or lack thereof.   He is especially harshly judged because we expected so much; more than any president could possibly deliver.  So the let down is proportionally higher than it might normally be.  The heady night in Chicago and the millions taking part in the first Inauguration, all those unrealistic hopes, now weigh heavily on the man.   And on us.

We’re not doves.  This is macho America.  It’s not “an eye for an eye”, but a body for an eye.  We take affronts personally.  We value each human life, which is highly commendable.  But in the scheme of things, not to mention in light of how many of us die on our streets each day from gunshot wounds, we often have no sense of proportion.  The gruesome death of two Americans is horrific, but does that translate into our huge and powerful country being threatened?  Yes, Dick Chaney, his replaced heart giving him a renewed measure of strength, would like us to believe so.  Yes, he’s back with the same bag of tricks, the same campaign of misinformation and wolf crying.  Have we learned nothing from the high cost in lives and treasure brought on my him and his fellow snake oil sales folk — from Condi’s fanciful mushroom cloud?

“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more.”  Not so fast, I say.  We’ve been in these waters before and they are shark infested.  We’ve been on this quest.  Unfortunately, neither bombing nor boots on the ground is likely yield a victory in the true sense of that word.  Our collective hearts may have been with the president during his painful speech, but our intellect should tell us to tread with great caution and to expect little in return, no material gain and certainly no love.  Perhaps that’s the burden of being a super power, the need always to take a stand and flex our muscles.  But it may also be another no-win Don Quixote venture.  We’ve read this story, seen this movie, before.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Binge reading.


Two seasons ago, Netflix allowed us to watch its entire House of Cards season, immediately and at will.  I know some people who engaged in uninterrupted binge viewing. Well, sometime mid-summer I heard an NPR piece about the tenth anniversary edition of Jacqueline Winspear’s 2003 best selling novel, Maisie Dobbs. The retrospective review was so intriguing that I immediately hit Amazon’s One-Click and minutes later started reading on my iPad.  I was hooked.  Forget the clever aunt Jane Marple or that pompous Belgian who walks like an overdressed penguin, Maisie Dobbs wins my vote.  I couldn’t put it down and, discovering that it was the first in a series of ten (more to come), I decided to read them all.  Given a life beyond Maisie Dobbs, my binge reading took a few weeks ending this past Saturday with number ten, Leaving Everything Most Loved.  You know a book is good when you don’t want it to end, and that happened to me ten times in a row.

Jacqueline Winspear is an engaging mystery writer, but what makes the Maisie Dobbs series so compelling is that, beyond telling a good story, she knows how to build characters.  I stayed with Maisie because I got to know her and to really care for and about her.   Maisie’s personal saga is, as are those of the “supporting cast”, captivating, but I won’t ruin it for you.  Save to say, she’s a great feminist character, a person of both soul and accomplishment; a professional woman from humble beginnings years ahead of her era’s time.  In part her accomplishments come from her own drive and superior smarts.  But she was also helped greatly by being at the right place early on and ultimately benefiting from the aftermath of war.  The stories are set between the two great twentieth century world wars when, because of the first, English men were in very short supply.  That limited women’s marriage options but also presented them with some unique opportunities.

The Maisie Dobbs saga plays out during the same period as PBS’s wildly successful Downton Abbey.  They share some things in common, not the least being set against the background of upstairs/downstairs dynamics.  The significant difference is that the Compton family, Maisie’s early patrons and eventual friends, are far more enlightened and embracing of modernity than Robert Crawley’s tradition bound Grantham aristocrats.  This of course is England where class matters and where self-pride is expressed at every level and place.  But the overriding theme that keeps on raising its head, especially in Winspear’s work, is World War I — the Great War — writ large.  It was a conflict that the British, perhaps more than others, experienced right up close and, with conscription that was universal.  Every family was somehow touched, and especially Miss Dobbs and those near and dear — patrons, friends, clients, and employees.  The lost limbs, impaired lungs, scars and what at the time was called shellshock loom over each of the 10 books.  So, too, does class, especially the disparity between the good fortunes of the rich or affluent and often the misfortunes of most everyone else.  Sound familiar?

Maisie Dobbs is a period piece, but the issues it confronts, or perhaps merely the state of things it exposes, are still present in our own time.  First and foremost, we’re reminded about the futility of war and especially of its often catastrophic consequences for both those who fought and those who either lost loved ones or who watched them return, a shadow of their earlier selves; physically, mentally or both.  Maisie’s best friend lost all her siblings and is married to a man who came home mind in tact but disabled.  Her assistant has gas damaged lungs that don’t bode well for a long healthy life.  Even Maisie, a volunteer triage nurse, was wounded and is challenged by a breakdown.  These stories could be told of those touched by the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, by multiple deployments that weakened both body and psyche.  Veterans of combat or those families touched by the horrors of the war no longer feel themselves fully whole.

World War II seems to have touched Americans more directly, in part because conscription forced it upon every segment of the population, but also because its fighting men have been romanticized as “The Greatest Generation”.  Viet Nam had conscription but, unlike the battles against Germany and Japan, was considered a senseless and then thankless conflict.  It was swept under the virtual rug of our national consciousness.  We’ve learned not to do that anymore — even when we oppose the conflict — and in some way have become much more acutely aware to war’s cost.  We are especially sensitive to shellshock, rebranded, PTSD.  We’re aware, but unlike what England experienced in Maisie Dobbs’ day, our recent fighting engaged only a tiny fraction of the population.  Most of us have remained personally untouched.

The Great War largely defined Maisie Dobbs’ world.  Is that an over simplification of England at the time?  Perhaps, but these are novels.  Nonetheless, it raises the question if every generation and indeed people is defined by its wars and the degree to which they have an impact.  At the very least, we seem to use wars as generational signposts.  War is horrendous but it plays and outsized role in our lives and often our identity.   The wars we fight, or chose to forgo, says something about who we are at any given time and of course within the flow of history.  In the twenty-first century we certainly are dominated or at least haunted by the presence of conflict and unwittingly forced to decide whether or not to join this or that battle.  It's a painful choice.  Perhaps that has always been true, always been a fundamental of the human condition.  The story of a Maisie Dobbs brings it to an individual human level.  It's what makes the a simple mystery tale so powerful.

Another part of Maisie Dobbs’ story is the Depression that devastated England much as it did Europe and the United States.  Thanks to vivid contemporaneous photography, the images of desolate Depression bread lines are fixed in our minds.  We think suicides of broken men and many more who lost both their jobs and their homes.  Jacqueline Winspear reminds us that, even in times like that, many among the affluent were essentially untouched.  Their lives went on as usual, spending on fashionable clothes, motorcars, parties and exclusive schools for their young.  The London social calendar is uninterrupted and weekends are happily spent in the country, a place where homes were if anything more resplendent.  Butlers still open doors, cooks prepare meals, and maids keep the place spic and span.  All this when the vast majority are just trying to keep their heads above water, many with little or no success.  It’s a story we all know too well — the 1% and everyone else.  Some things just don’t change. 

It is often said that history repeats itself, something many scholars consider nonsense.  Yes, we’re human and we do repeat the ways of our parents, but not precisely.  When I read of the multimillion dollar price tags on apartments in New York’s luxury buildings — or a million dollar parking space — and contrast that with how unaffordable our cities have become, the story of Maisie’s world rings disturbingly true.  It may be comforting to know that what’s happening now is nothing new, but it’s also deeply depressing.  Is this what we call progress?  That we can survive and move forward as Maisie Dobbs did reaffirms the endurance of the human spirit.  Perhaps we can’t change the fundamentals, the repugnant disparities, but we can avoid letting them paralyze us or lose our will to move forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Empty mail.


Groundwork Labs is an innovative program housed in one of Durham’s repurposed former American Tobacco warehouses.  Every quarter it accepts six fledgling enterprises for a three-month funded residency.  They are provided workspace and active mentoring.  It’s a running start for 24 North Carolina-based new ventures each year.  Among the mentors are experts (“gurus”) from relevant disciplines.  I am their branding guru.  With the arrival of each new set of budding entrepreneurs, I begin the process with a branding PowerPoint.  Following some introductory slides I say something on the order of “when thinking about branding, I think about this” flashing the image of a razor.  “Not this razor”, I say as the image morphs into a rendering of a Medieval Friar, “but this man, William of Ockham” (c 1287–1347).   As you may remember, he was the theologian and philosopher famous for expounding a principle known as Ockham’s Razor.  All things being equal, Ockham contended, the simplest solution is the best.  I learned about the Razor in college and it’s remained with me since.  In my work, it’s not much of a leap to infer that less is more.

Alas apparently no one in the Democratic Party and its various expressions has ever encountered Ockham’s Razor or the inference.  That’s really too bad. Last workweek was foreshortened by Labor Day.  Even so, forty-one emails found their way to my inbox soliciting contributions for the coming election.  Yes, you read that right: 41.  The prior week which closed out the month of August was undoubtedly higher, probably significantly so, but I didn’t bother to keep count.  Keep count — forget it.  Because I find both the volume and content a turn-off, my strategy is simply click and delete.  How could you, one might ask?  Don’t you feel singled out and flattered by those “dear Jonathan” messages from Joe (Biden), Harry (Reid), Bill (you know who) and even Barack?  Not so much.  I know robomail when I see it.  How about a chance to dine with the President, or “visit DC for free”?  Well, perhaps the odds are not as slim as winning the Mega Millions, but they remain strongly against me breaking bread.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to see Obama in an intimate setting, have a chance to chat.

Beginning with 2008, Democrats have prided themselves on being ahead of the political digital curve.  It gave Obama an edge both then and probably in 2012.  Among the tools in their kit was having and using millions of email addresses.  And the first time around, it seems to have worked for them.  These days, I’m reminded of an interview with a 1%’er who had just built his sixth luxurious house.  He was asked why — obviously he didn’t lack for shelter — to which he replied, “Because I can”.  Technology is a great equalizer; it potentially makes us all information billionaires.  The Internet is truly an open highway — creating and sending an email is both free and easy.  In that regard, we’re very much like that 1%‘er.  Why do they send all those emails — because they can!  How lame is that?  Don’t these supposedly smart people at the DNC and other campaign headquarters know that less is more?  Don’t they understand that a message to oft-repeated ceases to be special, ceases to demand any attention or, yes, respect?  Apparently, not.

And then there is the other side of the turn-off: the content.  It’s become a truism of the digital world that content is king.  We’ve all heard someone described as “an empty suit” and we know what it means.  Not much there, there.  If “empty mail” is content’s political king, then we’re all in trouble — not much there, there.   Certainly not of any substance that would make me want to read on, much less convince me that what’s being put forward is of any worth.  When I say, less is more, it’s not meant to constrain content.  Sure I’d go for the sparse compact language of Hemingway over the density of Faulkner, but let’s have some meat on those bones.  And let's have it more selectively — less is more.

Don’t ask me to support Democrats to keep the brothers Koch a bay.  Don’t continually insult my intelligence.  Treat me like a serious person living in a very complex and perplexing world and talk to me about substantive issues.  Don’t give me a bunch of Huffpost misleading hyperbolic headlines. “We’ve won August”, and here I stupidly thought the election is in November.   “I’m thrilled for you Jonathan”, oh, do you know something I don’t?  “Look’n pretty good”, of course only if you contribute x dollars.  “What do you think”, cast your vote for a car magnet beg your pardon.  “Add your name – refuse to be cynical.”   Well you get the point.  Over and over many times a day, more when some reporting deadline draws near an unending series of vapid messages.  Click, delete.

It’s depressing to see how dysfunctional our government has become.  No wonder many Americans have lost their confidence in a once wildly popular president and far more so in congress.   But what’s really depressing is how shallow and myopic the people for whom I generally vote  have become.  Content isn’t king in the land, politics and political expediency is.  It’s disheartening and very disappointing to learn that the president is putting off action on immigration, something so desperately needed.  Let's not to offend potential voters in “red” states before the election.  Right.  It probably won’t help, but that’s another story.

So why don’t I simply hit the unsubscribe button?  Now that is an excellent question, one I often ask myself.   For sure something inside doesn’t want me to lose touch with “my” party, doesn’t want me to signal a lack of support.  But perhaps more important, I’m hoping for something better.  That, alas, is unlikely to happen.