Sunday, June 06, 1999

The First Blog?

Writing America Down
A Hot Summer Diary

Saturday, June 6

Today, after finishing up at the Pet Palace, I met with my friend and partner Patrick Raymond. As it often does, our conversation moved rapidly beyond business and personal matters to current events. The penalty phase of the McVeigh trial is underway, and we talked about it seriously for the first time. Patrick and I tend to be catalysts for one another's thinking. Jokes and smart remarks serve as trial balloons. Is this an interesting topic? Does it mean anything? Should we do some digging here? Frequently the answer is 'no,' or 'not today.' But if the topic recurs, sooner or later it will be discussed. The McVeigh story had been in the joke column for months. We had both been aware of the trial without following it deliberately or formulating any strong opinions. This afternoon, though, it suddenly blossomed into fascination. Maybe the date had something to do with it. 'D-Day' is an evocative term. For McVeigh, obviously, it suggests all manner of connotations.

I was the one who brought it up. 'They're going to burn McVeigh,' I said.
'That's decided, is it?' Patrick asked.

'No,' I told him, 'but yes.' I explained what I knew of the way the defense attorneys were going about the job of trying to save their client's life—an apparent about-face on the subject of guilt accompanied by a tepid argument that the convicted man was not altogether a monster. Waco had been introduced as an excuse, a presumably mitigating factor whose precise intended impact on the jury remained unclear.

Meanwhile, the prosecution was pulling out all the stops on the emotional pipe organ of the Oklahoma City bombing. I recounted a radio report that at one point in the prosecution testimony, tissues had been handed out in the courtroom.
“Wow,� said Patrick. We shared an image of several hundred people snuffling and dabbing at tears while the defendant sat stony-faced among them. 'Not a good sign for Mr. McVeigh.'


'You say they're acknowledging guilt?' His brow was furrowed.

'Yes. So it seems.' We looked at one another, aware that there was something about the whole affair that needed to be addressed.

'I haven't been paying much attention to it,' Patrick said. 'I don't know why. I guess I just regarded the trial as a foregone conclusion.'

I reviewed my own passive experience of the story. 'I've heard some of the coverage on NPR. Mostly they seem to be presenting it as some kind of antidote to the Simpson trial. Like it's a vindication of the American judicial system. A model trial. But it doesn't altogether add up that way. Not to me.'

'What about it?'

We got into it. There were several sore points as far as I was concerned. I articulated them as best I could for Patrick. I didn't understand the defense strategy. I didn't understand the posture of McVeigh. I was troubled by the emotional pyrotechnics in the courtroom.

For quite a long time before the trial, the impression I had gained from the media was that McVeigh and Nichols were definitely involved in the bombing. That they were exacting revenge for Waco seemed to be everywhere accepted as the reason for their actions. How could this much be known—or speculated about to this degree—-if there remained any serious doubt about whether or not the accused were guilty? Yet the defense attorneys had pleaded not guilty, then proceeded to swallow without protest the debatable assumption that this was an ordinary criminal trial in which each bit of evidence would have to be challenged, countered, explained away. According to the journalists, the attempt to mount such an ordinary defense had been swept away by a relentlessly traditional criminal prosecution, leading to the expected unanimous verdict of guilty. Yet the defense attorneys had also drawn praise during the trial, as if they were doing all that could be done. Was this, in fact, true?

I remembered the Chicago Seven trial a quarter century before. Abby Hoffman and company had been just as obviously guilty of incitement to riot as McVeigh was of the Oklahoma City bombing. But defense attorney William Kunstler had not made much attempt to argue the evidence. He had positioned the case as a political trial, cast the judge and the prosecution as mouthpieces of a tyrannical state apparatus, and in general did everything possible to make a farce of the proceedings. In so doing, he accumulated a record number of fines for contempt, but he also commanded headlines day after day in the nation's press. Whether it deserved to be or not, the Chicago Seven trial had been transformed into a political event, and Kunstler had actually succeeded in putting the judge and the American judicial system on trial to almost the same extent that his clients were.

The McVeigh trial seemed tailor-made for just such a strategy. The Oklahoma City bombing had been a political—as opposed to a personal—act, and its target had been the federal government itself. A defense that was doing 'everything possible' for its client might therefore have made the argument that the judge and prosecutor of a federal court were not disinterested representatives of 'the people,' but members of the very institution that had been injured by the defendant's actions. Indeed, it was not much of a stretch to claim that the U.S. government was, in this case, akin to a plaintiff in a civil trial. For if McVeigh was indeed motivated by a conviction that federal law enforcement agencies were operating in violation of the American Constitution, his actions could be construed as an act of war against an enemy of the American people. The legal implication would be that the federal government not only had no right to try him, but also had no right to be regarded—in this context—as anything more than a gravely suspect witness. From a McVeigh perspective, the government had demonstrated itself capable of malice in the Richard Jewel case, of reckless disregard for the rights of U.S. citizens in the Ruby Ridge showdown, of falsification of evidence (i.e., perjury) in the FBI lab scandal, and of outright murder in the Waco affair. And if the same performance standards could be expected from the federal investigation and trial of McVeigh, how could a jury be assured that it was participating in an honest process? Every witness for the prosecution might have been pressured into perjury, every particle of physical evidence might have been manufactured or altered by federal technicians, and every ruling by the judge might have been pre-ordained by the hidden agenda of a malicious federal power structure. In short, a Kunstler-type attorney would have had more than adequate pretext for putting the federal government on trial alongside his client.

There was yet another potential benefit to the defendant from such a strategy. As a criminal act, the bombing had to be viewed as mass murder of record proportions. But as a political act, it was akin to warfare and therefore occupied a different context altogether, one in which the loss of lives had to be seen as an unfortunate by-product of the need to overthrow an enemy oppressor. Otherwise, there could be no excuse for a president of the United States shaking hands with Yassir Arafat—or even Menachim Begin.

The flip side of the latter issue was evident in the strategy employed by the prosecution, so much so that one could almost see it as a tacit awareness of vulnerability. Considering that McVeigh was being tried in federal court, strictly for the murder of 16 federal employees, it is hard to resist the notion that there was something disingenuous about the prosecutor's insistence on the identity of the victims as 'people'—which is to say, by implication, 'people like you and me.' If this were true, their assailant would not be subject to a separate trial. The entire rationale for a federal case lay in the fact that federal employees are not 'people like you and me,' but rather part of an organizational structure that is deemed even more sacrosanct than ordinary citizens. The exact nature of the difference between federal employees and the rest of us may be debated at length but whatever that difference consists of, simple humanity is not one of its components.

A federal employee may have lovely children, a touching homelife, an inspiring biography, and hundreds of devoted friends and acquaintances, but none of these are relevant to the part of his identity that occasions a federal trial when he is injured or killed. What is relevant here is a set of abstractions, principally the notion that as a servant of the people of the United States, the federal employee is entitled to the kind of special protection we are supposed to extend to other American ideas and principles, most notably to the Constitution itself.

A trial framed around this conceptual identity would, if it proceeded out of integrity, most likely have an antiseptic flavor, deliberately eschewing appeals to sentimentalism of any kind. The observed record of the trial in Denver is so opposite to this that it is as if the conceptual identity were being systematically concealed—as would be the case if the federal government had indeed become hypersensitive to the suggestion that it is more overlord than servant of the citizenry at large.

And with all this on the table, what of Timothy McVeigh? If he conceived of his bomb as a political act, then how could he be content to be tried as a common criminal, defended as a common criminal, and pleaded for in the shadow of the gallows as a common criminal with the usual extenuating human circumstances? Worse, how could he not understand that to forego the bold strategy of politicizing his trial would be more fatal to his hopes of avoiding the death penalty than any courtroom outrage he could perpetrate to underscore his defiance and contempt for federal authority? Surely, he must have known from the outset that capture was possible, if not probable, and that the drama of a trial would provide a better forum for the fomenting of revolution than any bomb could ever do. And so, given the fact of capture, here was a golden opportunity. The alternatives were clear: plead silently not guilty and receive a sentence of death for sure; or fight like hell to command the stage and use every possible means to render the government too embarrassed to execute him.

In its totality, then, the situation that Patrick and I were looking at made no sense. All the participants other than the federal government might have been sleepwalking through a charade, including the mass media legal experts who were so misty-eyed over the ostensible grace and dignity of the proceedings.

After chewing over these matters at some length, we looked up the transcript of the summations on the Internet. As we suspected, the performance of the defense on behalf of their client was pitiful, a few weak protests about the Fortiers and the handling of an insignificant piece of physical evidence. The demeanor of the lead counsel for the defense was propitiatory, as if his prime objective was personal absolution for having been put in the position of defending such a miserable specimen as McVeigh. The summation of the prosecution, however, was a surprise. The amount of evidence amassed against the defendant was overwhelming. It seemed inconceivable to us that anyone of sound mind could have considered pleading not guilty in the face of such evidence in a merely criminal trial.

What was going on here? We tabled the subject for the day. But I know we will keep thinking about it because the roots of this kind of absurdity are not confined to the Oklahoma City affair. We have stumbled over them before, and will again, in many other areas, personal and otherwise. Which causes me to think, yet again, that the time has come for an effort to document the ongoing process of our encounters with the America that is coming to be. The subject is so big, though, that it can't be tackled at a purely symbolic level (as in fiction), or in the misleading isolation of individual essays. Perhaps the only fit form is a kind of diary, one not unlike the journal compiled by William L. Shirer during his pre-war stint in Berlin. For Patrick and I both share the conviction that what we are experiencing in the land of our birth is a transformation of accelerating speed and ominous consequence—even if most of the populace is engaged in a desperate effort to avoid seeing it.

Friday, June 13

On my way to a meeting in Philadelphia, National Public Radio (NPR) was announcing the return of the McVeigh jury and promising immediate live coverage of the verdict. Then, in other news, five minutes were allotted to the passage of draconian gun control legislation in the United Kingdom. The bill will put an end to all private gun ownership in the U.K., it seems, including those used for target shooting. A Conservative MP described Parliament's action as a hasty and emotional response to the murder of Scottish schoolchildren by a madman. He bemoaned the rising specter of 'nanny governments' and asked, rhetorically, why we don't simply outlaw everything that could possibly injure anyone, including motorcycles and tobacco and alcohol products. It struck me that that such questions would not be taken rhetorically in the United States.
The verdict had still not been announced by the time I arrived in the city for my meeting. Two hours later, when I began the drive home, it was already old news, a second shoe that had dropped to everyone's relief and short-lived satisfaction. The only slightly discordant note was the continual quotation of the prosecutor's call to punish the 'coward,' separated by mere moments from the description of McVeigh's reaction to the verdict—an ambiguous wave to the jury and a respectful nod to the judge as he was led from the courtroom.

This evening I finished In Flanders Fields, an historical account of the 1917 Allied campaign on the Western Front. A million casualties in a single horrifying year of incompetent military command. It went round and round in my head along with the lamentations I'd been hearing all week for the Oklahoma City victims. It's too early to tell how I feel about it all.

Sunday, June 15

Patrick, his wife Elizabeth, and I attended the final round of the U.S. Open at the Congressional in Washington, DC. It was a glorious day for golf, the sky bright and dappled with cirrus clouds, the course warmly brilliant in multiple shades of green. We arrived at one o'clock and made our way, with thousands of the casually affluent, to the outskirts of the spectator tornado that swirls constantly these days around Tiger Woods. It was impossible not to know approximately where he was on the course. At regular intervals, a deep roar or moan would inform everyone that Tiger had succeeded or failed on some distant green. But it wasn't to be his day. The match came down to a tense trading of the lead on the final three holes, with Tiger long retired to the clubhouse, ten strokes down.

For us it was a day of easy good fortune. After a stint at the fifth hole, we obeyed a mild urge to visit the eighteenth and arrived just in time to see Jack Nicklaus complete what may have been his last round at a U.S. Open. He swept by us on his way to the green, doffing his cap to a long powerful ovation, and smiled his farewell to cheers after a crisp two-putt finale.

'I can't believe it,' Elizabeth said, beaming. 'That's history. And we were here.'
We moved on to station ourselves near the eighteenth tee, where drives were a simple win or lose proposition, landing either on the dish-like green or in the sprawling lake that also lay in wait for those who overshot the seventeenth hole. It was a strategic perspective we shared with the main NBC Sports booth and several broadcast equipment tents, as well as hundreds of fellow spectators. We watched also-rans executing flawless iron shots that fell tediously true within yards of the pin. Meanwhile, like a swallowed animal making its way through the body of a snake, the bulging gallery of Tiger Woods distended the boundaries of hole after hole until it arrived at the nearby fourteenth green, where I crept to within yards of the young master and felt the surround-sound gasp of the crowd when he missed a two-foot putt. Alone of all the golfers I saw at the Open, Tiger seemed to retain in person the star quality he exhibited on television. The famous smile was warm and infectious, and the ritual of sighting the putt from various angles was a study in efficient grace.

We saw him again at the eighteenth, where Elizabeth stood within a few feet of his passage along the path by the lake to the green. She caught his grin and flashed it at us as he strode away. After Tiger holed out, we awaited the inevitable exodus, which diminished but did not decimate the crowd. By then there were rumors that President Clinton would be arriving later to bask in the green glow of tournament's end. Patrick and I exchanged wry glances at the news. At the hotel the night before, the three of us had stayed up too late to watch Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, a movie so transparently based on Clinton's reputation for womanizing that it was impossible to watch without adding out loud the omitted references to Hilary, Arkansas, and various White House scandals.

Uncharacteristically weak for an Eastwood effort, the movie was nevertheless continuously appalling as its own dull reminder that the premise was more believable than the plot tricks used to rig the happy ending. We watched it all and then turned in at four a.m. unable to believe that we'd wasted the time.

So it may have been Clint Eastwood's fault that Patrick and I experienced approximately the same cinematic thought. It was fresh in our minds that we had passed through no metal detectors or security checks of any kind when we arrived at the course. Now there were maybe 50,000 people roaming loose, while men with sunglasses and earpieces scurried in and out of the NBC tents.

They were probably only NBC technicians, but that's not what some of the spectators thought.

‘Secret Service, ' I heard one whisper. 'Look.'

'If we'd only known,' Patrick said. 'It would have been so easy.'

'Yeah, ' I agreed. 'What could these guys possibly do now?'

'What are you two talking about?' Elizabeth asked, detecting a familiar tone of voice.
'Nothing,' Patrick told her. 'You know us. We're crazy.'

We wandered away from the NBC booth in the direction of a refreshment tent that was supposed to be selling ice cream and water ice. En route we passed a caravan of gleaming utility vehicles with blacked-out windows.

'Clinton?' Elizabeth asked with faint distaste.

'I doubt it, ' I said. 'I think he's supposed to arrive by helicopter.'

'They wouldn't let us walk this close,' Patrick said. 'Would they?'

But the water ice was refreshing and we began a pleasant tree-shaded odyssey toward the fifteenth green, where the tournament leaders arrived less than ten minutes later. The golf was more real than a presidential visit, and we followed the action to the sixteenth and from there back to our old vantage point at the eighteenth. We managed to see several of the shots that decided the tournament.

As soon as the final putt had been sunk by the winner, Ernie Els, the gallery fled the hillsides around the eighteenth green. We elected to wait out the traffic jam, though, and retreated to a park bench located next to the NBC booth, where we had a panoramic view of the awards ceremony and occasionally used the binoculars to see whether or not Clinton was in attendance.

We watched Els hold his trophy aloft for the crowd and then for the photographers. We watched speeches that were being made, apparently, only for the network microphones. Slowly the golfers and dignitaries slipped away up the hill to the Hollywood-style clubhouse, and like scavengers the green-shirted maintenance people crept out of the woods to begin gathering up the tons of trash the fleeing gallery had left behind. To our left, the NBC people had started dismantling their equipment, and one by one the sportscasters stole away in golf carts. Dick Enberg, looking funereal despite his dapper blazer, had his own driver. Johnny Miller drove himself, snubbing a fan who wanted only a word of conversation about a supposed common acquaintance.

'It's like watching them strike the set of a play,' Elizabeth remarked.

'Something about all this and TV,' Patrick said.

'Yeah,' I agreed. 'I've been trying to put my finger on it. What is it?'

We talked. Patrick said a friend of his had predicted that the words 'virtual' and 'virtually' would take the place of 'actual' and 'actually.' Soon it would be commonplace to say 'the virtual truth of the matter' and 'Virtually, I disagree with you.'
Had we 'actually' or 'virtually' experienced the golf tournament today?

It wasn't as easy a question as it seemed. I had seen Jack Nicklaus play golf probably hundreds of times, but until this afternoon I had never laid eyes on him in person. Which was the more 'actual' event in the course of my experience? Patrick recalled seeing a clip a few nights before of an early 1960s U.S. Open won by Arnold Palmer. It was played on the same course, but it was difficult to imagine that version of Arnold Palmer—black and white and slightly blurred—playing in living color on this course.
There were definitely ways in which the remote video view of life was more familiar, more intelligible, and even more authentic than 'actual' life. There was no possibility that we could have seen all the great and important shots that occurred on this day at the U.S. Open. When the lead changed hands, it was usually due to events at another hole, and we—the ones who were 'actually' present at the event—had to wait sometimes minutes while the scoreboard attendants slid out the old numbers, rummaged in the box for new ones, and slowly worked them into place. At home, between commercials, the TV viewers could have seen it all, including the constantly surrounded Tiger Woods, without craning their necks to see past the tall fat man who wouldn't stand still.

In all likelihood, the majority of spectators would rush home tonight to watch the TV reports about the Open, seeking confirmation of their 'actual' experience from the video footage. A session with the boob tube, for example, would be the only way we'd learn whether or not Clinton had been here today. Has 'actual' experience been reduced to mere sensation while 'virtual' experience was acquiring all the authority for conveying information? And is the statement 'I was there' being slowly transformed from a boast to an excuse for not knowing what 'actually' happened?

Having out-stayed all the other Open spectators, we were probably—by now—the most uninformed of the nation's golf fans about what had happened here today. We took our sensation-glutted ignorance to the parking lot and drove home.

MISCELLANY: There were other highlights of the Washington outing. Driving down to join the Raymonds on Saturday afternoon, I made the acquaintance of the grandest highway I've seen in years, the Maryland portion of I-95. With plenty of wide lanes and long gradual bends and hills, it puts the Autobahn to shame as a platform for high-speed driving, except that it's located in one of the most notorious speed-trap states in the union. At intervals, for no apparent reason, the speed limit would change from 65 to 55 or vice versa. Along the way I saw a sign that made me laugh: 'KEEP THE FREE STATE LITTER-FREE.' Id never heard that nickname before. I told the Raymonds about it and they laughed too.

Saturday night we undertook the adventure of the DC Metro, a brand new subway system whose stations looked to have been designed in East Germany, identical vaults of brown, paneled concrete at every stop. Our destination was the Federal Triangle, site of the restaurant we'd chosen and, by coincidence, also the site of IRS headquarters. This inspired us to speculate about how much nitrate fertilizer a subway car would hold, and we congratulated ourselves for pioneering the concept of the 'train bomb.' The restaurant was French and unexpectedly supportive of smoking. The ashtrays were huge, designed for cigars, and Patrick for once didn't have to prop the unlit end of his Maccanudo on the tablecloth. The pommes frites were delicious, too. We took a cab back to the hotel because the Metro closes at 11 p.m.(!) The driver had pasted a sticker right in the middle of the windshield: I VOTED. I came up with the idea for a new bumper sticker: NOT ME. It seems like a good all-purpose announcement to make.

Sunday morning, we gathered in my room again (Patrick could only get a non-smoking room) and watched CNN for a while. A new poll claimed that 80 percent of U.S. citizens think the government is not telling all it knows about UFOs. It probably won't be long before the Clinton administration pulls some stunt designed to improve that figure.

Monday, June 16

After getting home late, up very early to get to work. I bought a cup of coffee at the local convenience store and turned on NPR as I headed toward the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The news featured the newly traditional press conference with the big trial's jury. Most of the air time was given over to the woman who described the emotional reactions of the jurors.

'When we voted guilty, we all cried,' she said.

She and others made it clear that they were no Simpson jury. They went carefully through all the evidence before voting guilty on the first ballot. They praised the judge, the lawyers, each other. One big happy family.

Also, the federal government was in the headlines again. Some new independent panel has concluded that Desert Storm vets were exposed to chemical weapons and that the Pentagon knew it early on. They tried, however, to blame the syndrome on stress rather than admit the truth.

Then, a Philadelphia Story. District Attorney Lynn Abraham announced that fugitive Ira Einhorn, a local hippy-guru-celebrity of the early 1970s, had been arrested in France. Convicted in absentia over a decade ago for the murder of his girlfriend, Einhorn was expected to fight extradition. Legal experts reported he might have a case. France does conduct trials in absentia but always grants a retrial if the fugitive is apprehended. They do not have to grant extradition if they decide Einhorn's human rights are being violated. But a retrial is not probable in this case, according to Philadelphia sources. Einhorn has already been sentenced in absentia—I think with the death penalty. Police found the girlfriend in a trunk in his abandoned Philly apartment, long dead and horribly decomposed. A neighbor had called the police because of the smell. Einhorn was apparently quite a brilliant con-man and everyone at the time was as embarrassed about having been taken in by his charm as they were outraged about the crime. Then the DA's office and the police were embarrassed by his successful and amazingly lengthy evasion of capture. If I read Abraham's tone of voice aright, there's no second chance in the cards for Einhorn. Vengeance is mine, saith the DA.

The spell of the weekend was broken almost immediately at the Pet Palace. I've been instituting some changes to improve customer service and hopefully increase sales, but the growing realization that I'm serious about what I want the employees to do is creating resistance: they don't have time; they forgot; this will never work. Oh well. I've been through this before. They'll come around eventually. I'm not as optimistic about the PP computer system—old hardware struggling to run Bill Gates's Windows, and my workstation doesn't want to execute the timed backup. The error messages claim that it didn't have time, that it forgot, that the program will never work...
At three o'clock I took the day's receipts to Patrick's office. His summer intern of several years standing, Andrew Carmody, was there. So was Ronald Mackenzie, who runs the computer side of the business. Andrew is young and earnest, a bookish college student who works part time installing computers and software. Ronald is consistently glum, the half-willing hostage of a technology he has come to loathe but can't bring himself to leave. I told him about the backup problem at the Pet Palace. Neither one of us wanted to talk about it. He remembered something he had to take care of in his office, and Andrew drifted out after him.

After some business preliminaries, Patrick informed me that Clinton had been present at the U.S. Open, probably in the NBC tent we'd been sitting next to. Then he showed me a postcard he'd bought in Washington, a color picture of the President, casually dressed and smiling. A printed message on the back conveyed his greetings to the card's recipient.

'Cool,' I said. 'Proceeds to the Clinton Defense Fund? There's an idea. But would you ever have expected to see something like this? Do you suppose FDR did postcards of himself? Smiling and waving from his wheelchair? I expect this is another Clinton innovation,' I said.

Ronald drifted back in. He was carrying a book. I cocked my head to read the title: For Good and Evil. He explained that it was an exhaustive critique of the U.S. tax system.
'You read it?' Patrick asked in astonishment. He looked at me. Neither of us had been able to nerve ourselves up for such an ordeal.

'Yes. I did.'

'What did it say?' I inquired.

'A lot of stuff.' We waited. Ronald starts such conversations slowly. 'I guess the key thing is that he defines the historical criteria for the kinds of tax systems you find in tyrannical governments. There are things that are pretty consistent. The tax system operates outside the normal judiciary and outside normal credit and bankruptcy law.'
'How do we stack up?' Patrick asked, with an 'as if we didn't know' expression on his face.

'Pretty much right down the line with the tyranny model,' Ronald conceded. "Our income tax system operates outside the judiciary and outside the Constitution. If you're hauled into U.S. tax court, you don't get a jury of your peers. A judge simply decides your case. And if there's a dispute, you still have to pay the levied taxes and then win before the government will make restitution. Even if you go bankrupt, that doesn't clear your tax debt, which is eternal.'

Patrick was nodding. Ronald paused, resumed. 'There's also the issue of government abuse of the tax system to persecute enemies and undesirables. The feds have a pretty strong track record of doing that over the years, too.'

'Does this guy think there's such a thing as a good tax system?' I asked.
'Well, he cites the standard tax system of the ancient world. Based on the decuma. One tenth to the government. It seems to have worked for a long time.'

'The tithe,' Patrick said triumphantly. I had heard him expound, particularly with religious friends, on the Church's default of social responsibility and the Christians' unquestioning acceptance of it. He was fond of asking the devout whether they were morally comfortable with giving four times as much to the government as the Church had once asked. Was the government four times as righteous? He rarely got any answer but a blank look.

Ronald went on, like a tractor slowly plowing a field. 'There's another interesting constitutional point besides the usual Fourth and Fifth Amendment problem. It seems there's a strong chance the income tax is illegal. When they went to ratify the fifteenth amendment, there was some funny business about it. A state that didn't ratify but got counted anyway. That was the margin by which the Amendment became law.'
'Tell it to the tax court judge,' Patrick said.

'Anything else? ' I asked Ronald.

'Yeah. One of the key parts of a fair tax system is that it rests on willing compliance. That's the problem with graduated tax systems. By definition, they operate more by extortion than willing compliance, because there's a big percentage of the population that complies because others are willing them to. The truth is, they really can't fight back. It's related to the old truism that a democracy fails when the people discover they can vote themselves money out of the public treasury.'

Patrick spoke up. 'I had a funny conversation with an IRS agent this morning. He was after more payroll taxes for the Pet Palace, and I told him I was working on it. He asked me to call him in a week or two and let me know how it was coming. Now, normally these guys are completely one-dimensional. 'Give us the money. Give us the money now.' So I said, 'I know you guys really need the money, so we’ll do our best to get it to you soon.' And then he said, 'One thing you can count on—Congress is going to keep on spending more money than we could ever collect.''

'An IRS agent said that?' I asked.

'Yes,' Patrick confirmed. 'The first time in my whole career when one of them has ever said anything like that to me.'

Is the edifice starting to crack? We wondered. It wasn't humanity they were displaying. But it might be that the necessary ruthless fanaticism is winding slowly down. Maybe the American people are a stone that just can't produce much more blood. And maybe the IRS is starting to figure that out.

Tuesday, June 17

One of the media's favorite anniversaries—twenty-five years ago today, the Watergate break-in began the decline and fall of Richard Nixon. In a bizarre segment on NPR, some history professor put forward a 'what-if' theory that Watergate had, over the long run, produced an ironic outcome.

Without the distraction of the scandal, he argued, Vietnam wouldn't have fallen and the Washington establishment wouldn't have suffered the twin disgrace of Republican corruption and Democrat culpability in the first-ever American military defeat.

Democrats would still probably have regained the White House in 1976, he said, but the candidate would not have been Jimmy Carter, who ran and won on the basis of his 'outsider' status. Thus, the disastrous Carter presidency—13 percent inflation and the hostage crisis humiliation—wouldn't have occurred, and Reagan would not have been swept into office in a conservative landslide in 1980. And so, the prof concluded, America's sharp turn to the right (?) would have been prevented and the liberals would not be as weak as they are today.

Yes, I can elaborate on the question mark I inserted, but I want to postpone the whole Democrat-Republican, Liberal-Conservative topic for a while because my view of it will seem eccentric, at least at first.

At the Pet Palace, I saw my first irretrievably vicious German shepherd. He was scheduled for neutering in a last ditch effort to reduce his aggressiveness and save him from being put to sleep. It took four of us to inject him with the anesthetic, and half an hour later—barely able to stand—he was still growling and snapping through the cage in the vet's office. No surgery today. Maybe no life tomorrow.

Depressed about the dog, I drove to Patrick's office. He was down, too. The CD player was whispering Exile on Main Street. Patrick reported that Microsoft's Windows won't download the new Netscape Internet product. I made a face at him. We have talked about Bill Gates and Microsoft's business conduct before. Gates parades around the country taking credit for the computer revolution as if he were some benevolent technology seer. The reality couldn't be any more opposite. He overtook IBM by becoming IBM and appropriating all of that company's rawest monopolistic trade practices. Microsoft's operating system software is junk, its application software is full of bugs, and as its market share has grown through user ignorance, the company is now, it appears, deliberately sabotaging the ability of competitive products to run in the fatally flawed DOS-Windows environment. But Gates goes on David Letterman's show wearing a sweater and a smile, and he's treated with the reverence that belongs by right to a man with $9 billion. But he strikes me as an old-time robber baron. J. P. Morgan in a crewneck. Neither Patrick nor I said a word more: he knows my lines and I know his on this subject.

We reviewed the status of another business venture we are trying to start. Everything is in readiness for a truly innovative service offering but we can't find salespeople. Last weekend, Patrick ran an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer. No response. We explored other possibilities. I suggested that we contact the placement office at Goldy Beacom, which used to be a secretarial school but—thanks to the institutional inflation of the 1970s—now bills itself as a business school and even offers an MBA. We both think that pretty women are the best substitute for actual sales ability. Maybe not all of the Goldy MBAs were being snapped up by the Fortune 500. A thought anyway.

It was one of those days when nothing is happening. Nothing good anyway. We checked on the Columbus attorney handling the collection of a large sum of money I am owed. This was the second straight week he hadn't called after he said he would call every Monday. His secretary said he was in conference and would call back. Right. We checked on the West Chester attorney who still hasn't called regarding my bankruptcy. He was out of town.

'How hard is it to knock off an armored car?'

'It can't be as hard as trying to get lawyers on the phone,' Patrick said.

'Or people who want to take the risk of selling something,' I added.

We tabled the dreary business talk. Patrick confided that his kids were undergoing state testing this week. The Raymonds have recently moved to a new house and since they home-school their kids, the local school board has been showing up on their doorstep at regular intervals. Now the Raymond children have to be formally tested by their new school district to make sure they are keeping up(?) with the public school kids.
'Will there be a penalty because they know how to read?' I asked.

'Probably, ' said Patrick. 'I know what,' he added, brightening. 'Let's go to the cigar store.'

Driving home after the cigar expedition, I heard on the radio that New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman was again leading in the polls for reelection after a temporary slide in popularity. Voters gave her good marks for lowering the state income tax, and poor marks for controlling the rise of property taxes and car insurance rates. I guess that makes her 'good enough.' There followed an announcement of Carl Sagan's posthumous book 'Billions and Billions'—presumably not about the money New Jersey residents are paying in taxes and insurance.

At home on CNN, there was a five-minute segment on the dangers of tobacco and young people. They previewed a weird new commercial—design inspiration à la Trainspotting, it seemed—in which filthy magic toilets danced around a men's room floor yelling at kids about smoking. The punchline of the story: tobacco companies are going to be liable for billions as 36 states seek compensation for costs of smoking-related health care. On a lighter note, CNN ran excerpts of commencement speeches. Madelyn Albright spoke up against isolationism. Hilary encouraged graduates to join the Clintons in pursuing 'the ideals we hold dear' (including a juster' society). Hubby Bill for everything, as usual.

A perfect day moved toward its end with another creditor call at 8 p.m. I let the machine pick it up and turned the volume higher on the TV. Then Patrick called at 10 p.m.: HBO was running a piece on the World Trade Center bombing—almost as funny as McVeigh.
'I'm on it,' I said. I watched for ten minutes but my heart wasn't in it. I turned it off and tried to get some sleep.

Wednesday, June 18

NPR was hot on the trail of the tobacco story. Their angle featured discussion of tobacco sponsoring of auto races, and the irresistible glamour to kids of seeing cigarette brand names on sexy race cars. Obviously this has to be stopped. In another continuing story there were reports that the U.S. Congress is speeding to pass a bill making it impossible for a veteran who receives the death penalty to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Take that, McVeigh.

Also, the Southern Baptists were deciding to boycott Disney products, claiming that the company is encouraging homosexuality and other forms of immorality. On WWDB, talk show host Susan Bray (aptly named) was soliciting opinions from those who'd seen The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. The Baptists were claiming that the minister who performs the wedding ceremony for the mermaid and her beau becomes sexually aroused during the ceremony. They further asserted that two of the characters in The Lion King are gay. I listened to two or three calls before I couldn't take any more of Susan Bray's loud Aussie accent. One caller disputed the charge about the characters in The Lion King, saying that they're obviously modeled on pre-adolescent little boys, not gay adults. Another caller quoted from the Bible and endorsed the Southern Baptist position. Go figure.

Today I told Patrick about my idea for the diary—already started. He liked it. I also expressed my reservations.

'A lot of it will be just you and me talking the way we do,' I said. 'And we're pretty easy to dismiss. I'm a divorced and childless bankrupt, a burned-out corporate consultant, a failed writer whose satire is too controversial to get published. And you—well, you're almost as bad. You're a lifelong churchgoing Christian, a CPA who's eternally at war with the IRS, a former pro-life activist, a former tax reform activist, and you carry a handgun almost everywhere you go. You home-school your kids. You don't let your wife have a career. And you read far more than is good for you.'

'All true,' replied Patrick, smiling.

'And neither one of us is from New York, Los Angeles, or inside the beltway. There's no way anyone could consider us experts about anything.'

'But the way you've described the diary,' Patrick said, 'I don't see a problem. We're American citizens, which is a group that doesn't get heard from very often. We just happen to be out here in it every day, trying to make sense of what's going on. We're on the receiving end of the regulations and the tax laws and the government policies that the 'experts' are pretending they can explain to us. Maybe there are other people out there who'd like to eavesdrop on somebody who's really trying to think about it all and doesn't have all the latest facts and figures anymore than they do. I think it would be interesting.'

'There's another thing,' I said. 'Something I have doubts about.' I explained that even to me, it seemed possible that my perspective was poisoned. There was so little about life in America that I enjoyed anymore, so little that I wanted other than to be left alone by all the bureaucracies and authority structures. I certainly didn't feel any desire for 'things,' the great American pastime. I was desperate to dispose of the big house you're supposed to want, even though this one had been in my family for three generations. I was no longer captivated by any part of popular culture—not movies, not music, not NFL football, not sitcoms, not talk shows. It had been more than a year since I’d been able to read an issue of Time Magazine, and I had recently canceled my newspaper subscriptions. 'What if my critical observations about America are merely the reflection of a strictly personal disillusionment?'

"All I can tell you,' said Patrick, 'is that I talk with you nearly every day, and I don't believe that's true. I know you're still passionately interested in ideas. It's what you're observing about America that's causing your loss of interest in all these other things. And part of your disillusionment is that there doesn't seem to be anybody to tell.' .
'Other than you,' I said.

'And it's the same for me,' Patrick replied. 'So maybe we both are crazy, but that doesn't necessarily mean that our craziness is irrelevant. Aren't Americans supposed to be opinionated and individualistic?'

'Sure,' I agreed. 'Sure they are.'

Thursday, June 19

Today, an extended business conversation in Patrick's office. We're planning the opening of a new business office in Newport, DE, and we're very much in need of a sign out front to alert passersby of its existence and hours. Our associate in the venture explains that the township has harsh regulations concerning signs. The owner of the building we're leasing was fined for putting a 'For Rent' sign on his own property. Permits are required, no sign can be within 40 feet of the street—although our building front is less than 20 feet from the street—without an exception that involves an architectural study and other rigmarole. All this in what looks like a lower-middle class neighborhood. Townships in Pennsylvania, it turns out, are just as difficult. A new Italian restaurant on Rte 202—one probably containing every dollar of its owner's savings—had to replace the attractive awning displaying the name across the front of the building because the owner had already exceeded the maximum signage allowed in the zoning code. I protested that all this was restraint of trade. Patrick smiled and brandished his well-worn copy of the Constitution.

'It's also in violation of the first amendment,' he pointed out.

'Yeah, it's nuts,' our associate said. 'You've heard about the underground oil tank thing?'
We told him no. He explained that the Pennsylvania EPA had issued a regulation making it illegal to sell a house with an underground fuel oil tank. Acquaintances of his had been trying to sell a house for $180,000. They had a buyer and were ready to close when a real estate agent who didn't like the commission split informed the EPA that the sellers had an underground oil tank, put in maybe 40 years ago, long before they bought the house. To date, they're out more than $12,000 for four different ground studies at $3,000 apiece, with no end in sight. They still can't sell the house, the buyer's gone, and their equity has basically been consumed by the EPA requirements. Patrick read the part from the Constitution about no seizure of private property without just compensation.

'If they are destroying the property value of a place on behalf of the public good,' he said, 'then they have an obligation to compensate the owners for it.'

'Owners!' our friend exclaimed. 'If they can take away a half million-dollar house for nonpayment of $4,000 in property taxes, then there isn't any ownership. You're just renting it from the state.'

I thought of the unpaid $4,800 annual tax bill on my own house in New Jersey, which had languished on the market last year at a giveaway price of $135,000 with no takers. Taxes.

Our friend was getting heated. 'Did I tell you about my friend John Gridley?' he asked. This was a guy, he told us, who had a nice small business of his own, paid his taxes, broke no laws. Then he hired an employee who proceeded to embezzle $150,000. He trusted her to deposit the company's receipts, and so she took her power of attorney to the bank and proceeded, over the course of a year's time, to cash every large check that came in. The bank never asked any questions, had no legal liability. When Gridley belatedly discovered her crime, he still couldn't believe she had done it.

'This was the most innocent-looking girl in the world, apparently, ' our friend said, 'and come to find out, she'd done this at least a couple of times before.'

While Gridley was struggling to recover from the loss, the IRS arrived to hand him a tax bill for the embezzled money. He explained what had happened, but they didn't want to hear it, and they padlocked the business.

'Now,' our associate concluded, 'every cent he earns from his new job goes into an account controlled by the IRS. There's nothing he can do about it.'

Nothing he can do. Is he one of the ones who insistently repeats the two-part national mantra? America is still the greatest nation in the world. At least it's still a free country...

Patrick was responding to the Gridley story. 'The IRS has been exporting its methods to other parts of the government, too. Did you know that in this country, the feds can seize all your assets if you are suspected of engaging in drug trafficking? And it's illegal to use money you are suspected of having earned from drug trafficking to pay for your legal defense against drug charges. Where's the 'due process' in that?'

'Or the presumption of innocence,' I put in.

And then, of course, we wound up talking about the police. I hadn't heard that thanks to Clinton's new law enforcement bill, there were no longer any meaningful boundaries between townships. The cops could set a speed trap and pursue suspects as far as they wanted.

'A cop is a cop?' Patrick inquired.

'A cop is a cop.'

And America is America. Whatever that means anymore.

Saturday, June 21

Another day at the Pet Palace. A rumor that the vicious German shepherd is being peddled to the county prison. Let him do his berserk act on any criminals who get loose in the yard. How appropriate.

Dinner at Patrick's house. We discussed the tobacco deal, $360 billion over 25 years to keep the states from filing lawsuits for the purpose of recovering the costs of medical care for smokers.

'What about all those excise taxes?' Patrick asked. 'What were they for?'

'Oh,' I said, 'they weren't for anything. They were discouragement from smoking. Sin taxes aren't about money; they're a sign of government disapproval of naughty behavior.'

'You're saying they just spent it.'

'Of course.'

Patrick laughed. 'God. The states have to have made more money from cigarettes than the tobacco companies have. A company makes money on its own products. The state gets to profit from all of them. And now they want another $360 billion. It's amazing.'
'And they're sanctimonious about it to boot. It's 'for the kids'.'


'The excise taxes are going up again too. A lot.'

'Man,' said Patrick. 'The tobacco lobby is the most powerful of all. They've got money, lawyers—'

'—and politicians,' I interjected.

'Bunches of them, ' Patrick agreed. 'So if they have to take this deal, then there's nobody who can stand up to government extortion. I mean, that's what it is, just a giant holdup.'

'What I can't figure, ' I said, 'is why nobody seems concerned about the implications. This isn't just about cigarettes.'

'It's about cigars, too,' said Elizabeth, pointing at the one Patrick was smoking.

'And what about the day when your medical insurance goes up because you bought a pound of bacon at the supermarket?'

'Yes,' said Patrick, 'we can hit up the red meat pushers for a few hundred billion, I’ll bet. All that colon cancer. Somebody has to pay.'

'Who would ever have thought that the government's desire to help people with their medical bills would lead to state ownership of your body? Because that's the truth of it. The motorcyclists who oppose helmet laws can't use the argument that it's their own business whether they get a head injury or not. Not anymore. Now it's 'the people's' business because it's 'the people' who are paying the hospital bill. And they've been making the same kind of argument about smokers, suggesting that anyone who smokes shouldn't get insurance coverage for smoking-related diseases. Think about that. The government takes over the health care business. Then they set about denying coverage to everyone for exactly the ailments they're most prone to get. So maybe fat people won't get coverage for heart disease. Drinkers can't be allowed coverage for liver disease. Women who won't drink their milk can't be covered for osteoporosis. They have the right to tell you how to live.'

'Your body is a federal asset,' Patrick said. 'It has to be maintained so that it can keep working, which is to say generating the tax revenues that are needed to pay off that $15 trillion national debt. If you get sick and die of something like lung cancer, you've cheated them out of their money. What chance does the Fourth Amendment have when the government’s got to come up with $15 trillion? Sorry, we own your lungs just like we own your house and your children.'

'So the only part of the human body anyone owns anymore is the uterus, which just happens to be the only part on which somebody else might have a legitimate claim.'
Patrick laughed. 'Right. The last and only corner of the world still protected by the Fourth Amendment.'
We discussed the irony, as we had before, but I have been developing for some time a perspective that might explain or even eliminate the irony. I didn't get into it tonight, though, because it's a big subject and will take hours, maybe days, to explore.

Sunday, June 22

A sweltering, gloomy day. I went alone to Fort Mott, a derelict turn-of-the-century gun battery—now a ramshackle state park—that sits on the Delaware River shore opposite Peapatch Island. A ferry run by the Delaware River Authority carries sightseers to Peapatch and its Civil War era fort from Fort Mott and Delaware City. Having seen the fort on a previous visit, I elected this time to visit Delaware City, which was also billed as having a fort to look at. But upon disembarking, I encountered no sign or mention of Fort DuPont. After a listless 30-minute walk through the old but featureless town, I returned to the dock and waited for the boat.

For a quarter of an hour, I shared the dock space with a curious little boy and his patient father. I feel about children much the way I feel about dogs. In general, I approve of them and am quite prepared to like and even love them individually. When I was younger, I thought I liked all dogs, but the years have convinced me that this was a naive position. There are dogs who annoy, dogs who smell, dogs who don't have much going on in their eyes. I no longer feel compelled to make friends with every mutt I come across. Children, too, are mixed bag. The mere fact of their youth does not charm me particularly. In the company of their parents, they do not strike me as innocent little bundles of potential so much as unformed—dare I say larval—versions of the adults who bore them. It doesn't takes much imagination as a rule to see the sour-faced weed that is the father already blooming behind the smooth cheeks of the son. If this sounds bitter or cynical, I don't mean it to. It's simply that I am out of step—as I am in so many matters these days—with the contemporary mythology that underlies our public pronouncements. Thus, I do not subscribe to the myth that children constitute a natural perfection that can only be contaminated through contact with us. The process by which they become imperfect adults is not necessarily a sad tale of innocence betrayed by the ugly and poisonous intrusions of the world. Inevitably the world will intrude. And the world is what they will have to live in. Perhaps it is laudable that we desire to remake the world in the fictitious image of perfect children who do not exist. But I think not. To me, it is not only unreasonable but wrong to want for all our little darlings that they experience no heartbreak, no unfairness, no temptation to vile and corrupting influences, no assaults on the fabric of their individual selves. For these are precisely the experiences that will, over the course of a lifetime, sculpt their characters and inspire their accomplishments. If we lived in a world that couldn't break our hearts or sap our will to live, what meaning would still attach to the words 'courage,' 'resilience,' and 'perseverance'?

The urge to protect and shelter children from all harm is a naturally maternal one. It is no more realistic than the mother's belief that her baby is more beautiful than every other. And it is an urge that all parents have to suppress if they are either to prepare their children for adulthood or live with their own mistakes in child-rearing. Again I am reminded of dogs—specifically of puppy books, which preach above all else the virtue of consistency. The puppy won't learn what you want him to do, they say, if you let him jump up sometimes and not others. Consistency is a nice idea, of course, but it's also a fantasy. Inevitably there will be different sets of rules for different moods. When you're happy and unstressed, the puppy is going to get away with murder. He’ll jump up on you and you’ll dance with him. He’ll beg at the dinner table and get a tasty morsel of roast beef. He’ll refuse a direct order to lie down and you’ll pat him on the head, saying 'Okay. Don't lie down then.' When you've had a bad day, though, the puppy won't get away with anything. You’ll tell him he can't bark at the squirrel. You’ll insist that he lie down, right now, in an imperious tone of voice. So does this mean that your puppy is destined to become a ruined neurotic who can't ever figure out what he's supposed to do? No. He becomes adept at reading your moods. He learns to recognize when it's a no-nonsense time and becomes appropriately submissive and ingratiating. Inconsistency breeds in him a capacity for subtlety and for sophisticated emotional interaction which has always seemed, to me, preferable to the eagerly obedient automatons paraded before us by dog trainers.

In our home lives, we know this about children, too. We may want to shelter them from cusswords, but then there's the day you hit your thumb with the hammer and a very bad word escapes before you can stop it. Is the child who hears it—this unsullied little angel—spoiled forever by the experience? No. He is encountering a necessary part of his learning process. When he begins to argue, as he will, that he is not allowed to do something he has observed you do—i.e., he charges you with inconsistency—and you counter with the news that he'd better get used to it, the first step is taken in the bruising life-long business of changing root assumptions that affect both behavior and personal identity.

The milestones of the loss of innocence are not, therefore, some microcosm of the Fall of Man. The tabula rasa may be pure, but it is at best a simple-minded purity, a literal blankness that is innocent of sin, yes, but also of accomplishment, experience, and meaning. The act of writing on the blank tablet is to imbue it not with a stain, but with a unique identity that did not exist before. If our children are angels, they are angels by default, and unless they are miraculously atypical, they will not remain angels for very long no matter how pure our intentions may be.

Moreover, if we believe our own science of genetics, even the purity of the tabula rasa is a fiction. The sense of seeing the flawed parent waiting inside the tender shell of childhood is not an illusion, but a demonstration that many propensities, for good and ill, are built into the basic design. The propensities need shaping, and again, the shaping process is not akin to contamination but to cultivation.

I can't think that all these ideas are alien to most Americans. What then is the source of our saccharine national sanctification of 'the kids'? I hasten to declare that I am not suggesting a conspiracy. Nothing as pervasive as the new religion of child protection could be a conspiracy. It is, must be, a response to basic conditions in the culture as a whole.

But where was I? On a boat dock in Delaware City, watching the interaction of a plump, hairy-legged dad and his relentlessly inquisitive son. All the thoughts I've just related flashed through my mind as I observed them. The boy—are there nerd angels?—had the same engineering bent that probably earned his father's salary. What does that black box in the boat do, Dad? What does that sign say? Where is our boat, Dad? Will it be bigger than those boats? What's 'no wake' mean, Dad?

Unhurriedly, Dad answered every question. He pointed out a boat that was making a wake as it approached the channel our dock overlooked. 'Do you see that?' he asked. 'The way the water is splashing out the sides behind the boat? They don't want you to make a wake because it can disturb the soil and the wildlife.' He didn't explain who 'they' might be, or why you had to do what 'they' wanted. This much was already known. While we were playing twenty questions, a marine patrol boat growled into the dock right in front of us, and the boy folded the event into his field of curiosity. The police officer was wearing a holster with a forty-five automatic and half a dozen clips on his Sam Brown belt. He was also wearing a Kevlar vest, color-keyed to the brown and olive drab scheme of his uniform. I looked out toward the river, half expecting to see the high-speed drug boat which had occasioned such apparel, but it was just a hot day on the waterfront of a small town. Dad answered questions about how the little whaler's outboard was switched on and off, why the motor was still running even though the boat was already tied up, and when the life preserver attached to the gunwale might be employed. Throughout, the officer, who was perhaps eight feet from the father and son, never looked up, never deigned to notice the conversation he had to have overheard. A cop is a cop.

I wondered what Dad thought he was raising his son to be, what kind of life he envisioned for this young variation of himself? Did he want the boy to be continuously safe from every conceivable threat to his health, virtue, and self-esteem? Or was he—as it looked to me—self-consciously intent on raising one more soldier in the necessary army of those who have to do the real work? And would this be enough for him, that his son would find a well paying job and do it reasonably well—despite the burgeoning temptations to sit down and demand accommodation from everyone else?

I found myself imagining the set of questions the boy didn't know to ask and wondered how Dad would answer them. Will there be more and more forms to fill out forever, Dad? Will it be more fun to have a house and a car and a family than it costs in taxes and insurance and compliance with federal, state, and municipal regulations? Will there ever be a time, Dad, when I’ll have the peace of mind to think about what everything means and why it's so important for me to go to work and obey the rules and invest all my discretionary income in financial instruments that still won't save me from the tax man? Is there going to come a day when anyone in a position of authority can take a magnetized card out of my wallet and know everything about me right away—including the name of my mistress and the amount of my unpaid parking tickets—and decide whether or not I can be allowed to travel from Delaware to New Jersey? Is there any way you know of that I can get through the next sixty years without winding up in a state-controlled nursing home that will swallow up all the money I saved so carefully in my productive years? Or is it really the case that no matter what choices I seem to be making, I am only doing what I'm required to do because whatever it is that's calling the shots is way too big to resist, and maybe even too big to see? What do you say, Dad? Can I get through the next sixty years without making a wake of some kind that will bring the whole wrath of the bureaucracy down on my neck? Can you keep me safe from all that? Can anyone keep me safe from all that? Please, Dad. Tell me the answer.
Then the boat came, and we all got into line without being told and clambered aboard, dutifully sitting down when the captain's loudspeaker reminded us, for our own safety, that regulations required all passengers to remain seated during the trip to Fort Delaware and from there to Fort Mott. Like all the rest of them, I obeyed the regulations to the letter.

Monday, June 23

We are all like jugglers, the ones who keep adding one more bowling pin into the series of pins circulating through our hands. There's a necessary rhythm, a total concentration on the need to keep them in the air without letting one drop. We are so intent that we don't even keep track of the number of bowling pins—not until they do start to slip out of our hands. Then, it seems that the whole world is a chaos of bouncing bowling pins, striking us repeatedly as if to remind us of the crime we have committed by forgetting that the pins are more important than we are.

That's what it's like to run afoul of the paperwork. And when you run out of money, you do run afoul of the paperwork. All those pieces of paper that come in the mail telling you what number to write on the piece of paper you're supposed to add to their piece of paper (remit this portion with your check, please), and then, suddenly, all those pieces of paper start to drop into the great big throbbing pile of papers that can't be attached to your pieces of paper. The pile grows without cease—not only bills but car registrations that can't be renewed, reminders for dental appointments that can't be kept, important software upgrades that can't be ordered, wedding invitations that can't be answered with the obligatory gift, and, of course, tax assessments and filing date announcements that are so wholly unanswerable as to be almost comical.

There's nothing silent about the pile, either. Every piece of paper in it has connections, powerful friends who know your telephone number and aren't at all reluctant to call and call and call. In a society whose laws are inimical to religion and every other form of supernatural belief, there is nevertheless a hierarchy of mortal sins. The confessors are the ones who call, demanding remorse, atonement, surrender, abject obeisance. It is the suffering of the unabsolved sinner that accompanies the fear of ever answering the telephone. The unopened bills are a catalogue of guilt. To be compelled to avoid the mailbox and the telephone in one’s own house is to know the pitiful terror of the damned.

And through it all, there is—in company with the guilt and the fear—an endless wonder that the now disgraced juggler was ever able to deal with the Hydra-headed paper monster and the terrorizing powers that unleash it so continuously.

I, obviously, am one such disgraced juggler who goes to extraordinary lengths not to be seen by his mailbox or heard by his phone. It could be argued that this state of affairs induces an exaggerated disaffection for the government. That's why I feel obligated to acknowledge the paper pile of which I am intensely aware, even at this moment, 25 miles from where I am writing this diary entry. But in acknowledging it, I am also putting forward the claim that the bankrupt's perspective is not necessarily skewed. It may be that it is the first free moment a juggler gets to look at what he's been doing. His focus can be removed from the swirling blizzard of paper and turned in the direction of all the other jugglers. Only then does he get a glimpse of the dread and desperation on their faces as they work, work, work to keep the bad thing from happening. How can they keep on like that? Why do they do it? Truthfully, they don't know what it would be like if it all got away from them: it's even worse than they imagine. But there is a benefit they don't suspect. Like a benched football player, the bankrupt gets to see what can only be seen from the sideline—the strategy of the game.

Sound hollow? Well, it is and it isn't. Obviously, this has been a day of personal financial pressures. But I am, despite or because of such stresses, beginning to see something like a strategy in the way it all works.

Tuesday, June 24

Yesterday's entry reads like an omen. As I set out for PP this morning, I rounded the corner where my truck should be parked and it was gone. Repossessed.

A day of phoning, worrying, and one unexpected meeting. An antique dealer I had contacted a week ago finally called back and drove over from Delaware to examine some of my downstairs furniture and paintings. He made an offer—low but not as low as the auctioneer I’d met with two weeks before. We set a date for Sunday, which will be the end of some family possessions I've seen all my life and never dreamed Id be responsible for disposing of. The dealer was kind enough to drop me off at a convenience store on his way out of town. I acquired basic provisions—cigarettes and soft drinks—and walked home.

The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent camped in the one air-conditioned room of my house watching TV and rereading the Berlin Diary. I suppose Shirer's book should be an antidote for the fear that totalitarian influences are at work in America. But oddly it isn't. Rather, it makes me think of an old theory of mine—dating back to the early 1980s—about corporations.

I had worked for a McGraw-Hill unit called Datapro Research Corporation, which was distinguished by its demographics, more than 70 percent female, including the executive corps. From there I went to the world headquarters of NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, which proved to be a bastion of Midwestern male dominion. Initially, the contrast between the two seemed like night and day. It was rare to hear voices raised at Datapro. A certain basic civility was required. Greetings and smiles were exchanged regardless of any disputes that might be going on. Anyone who was experiencing a birthday could count on a cake, a gathering at his desk, the ritual singing, and a torrent of clever collage cards made, by tradition, with copier magic. The dress code was precociously casual. I didn't fit in. I don't enjoy being the birthday boy at work. I don't like having always to smile, especially when I'm legitimately peeved about something. There was also the matter of feelings. When everyone is being so nice all the time, tiny nuances in behavior become magnified and people's feelings seem to be getting hurt constantly over trifles. And hurting someone's feelings was a sin at Datapro. I didn't think of the Datapro corporate culture as 'bad'; I just never felt that it was for me.
NCR was a shock. Despite the formality of ubiquitous blue suits, headquarters was something of a jungle. Many of the most successful managers at every level were brutes, coarse and choleric men who engaged in systematic intimidation, blatant patronage of favorites, and yelling matches inside the soundproofed conference rooms. If you got on the bad side of such a tyrant, life could become a living hell. During my three years there, I observed middle-aged adults actively hiding from raging bosses, and I witnessed multiple instances of cruel, personal humiliation that could not be deterred or disciplined because at NCR, rank forgave every crime.

If one had to nominate one as a place to work over the other, the easy choice would have been Datapro. Yet within a very few months, I realized that I much preferred NCR to Datapro. Not because I'm a sadist or a masochist, but because there was something more honest and open about the apparently harsher environment. For there is no such thing as a corporate organization free of animosities, destructive rivalries, and elaborate political schemes. These existed at Datapro as surely as they did at NCR. The endlessly civil atmosphere served as a kind of camouflage, concealing enemies and their backstabbing so thoroughly that there were many employees whose chance for promotion had been murdered without their ever learning about it.

A lot of the stabbing that went on at NCR was aimed at the face and belly. You could see it coming, head on or at least in your peripheral vision. And the frequent confrontations often defused the hostility, preventing anger from submerging into the silent simmer of the eternal grudge. True, the faint of heart were more easily damaged—even done in—by the NCR style of open combat, but at least the villains were out in the open. It was possible to know where you stood, and it was also possible to prevail against adversaries by a show of guts and determination. In fact, it was easier to try something new at NCR than it was at Datapro.

I came to think of these two environments as gender opposites—with the majority of organizations occupying some middle ground on a continuum between male and female. It's not that male is absolutely good and female absolutely bad. It's just that as an organizational philosophy, one tends to be more honest and dynamic than the other. No big company is truly benevolent or supportive of individual aspirations. These are corporate organizations we're talking about, after all, and the 'value of people' inside the Fortune 500 is just a turn of phrase, without real meaning. Talk of this sort is dangerously easy to believe in a company which pretends that civility is more important than profit and loss. And if the employees really do start to believe it and begin subordinating profitability to civility, the business as a whole will ultimately forget that anything beside civility is important. This does not lead to a happier workplace in my experience. It leads to the end of innovation, efficiency, and profit—and ultimately to even harsher treatment of employees. Why? Because the shareholders don't ever forget about profit, and the answer to lack of innovation and efficiency is big layoffs. As a matter of personal history, my own corporate career became increasingly frustrating as I experienced a definite trend away from the predominantly male type of corporate environment toward the predominantly female type of environment. Gradually, open confrontations and tough conference room exchanges—even on the most vital matters of business strategy—became forbidden. An almost purely social emphasis on meetings replaced the stern discipline of decision making. And somehow it became the mission of team players to arrive smoothly at 'consensus,' popularly interpreted as meaning, Don't take a position too far from anyone else's, and if you find yourself in such a position, bow graciously to the will of the group. Anyone looking for the root cause of all the huge layoffs besetting Corporate America need look no further than today's management vocabulary. 'Teams,' and the 'team players' who make them up are the source of all the 'downsizing,' 'rightsizing,' and 'streamlining' that has swelled the unemployment rolls of the middle class.

As I said, this is what came to mind as I renewed my acquaintance with Berlin Diary, which is focused principally on what it was like to be a resident of Berlin during the period from 1934 to 1941. The horror of the impending holocaust is everywhere evident in retrospect, of course, but the dominant impression one receives in reading of day-to-day German life is of a markedly simpler time and culture than the one we live in today. Who are the bad guys? The Nazis, of course. You can see them plain as day. They're even wearing armbands. What can they do to you? Kill you, of course. Or torture you. Or break down the door in the middle of the night and take you away to a place worse than death. They can take you off a train or a plane—and if there's anything funny about your papers—they will search you, strip you, beat you, and lock you up, maybe for good. What or who is behind all this evil? Why, that's really easy: Adolph Hitler. There he is. What's right and true? That's just as easy. The opposite of everything Hitler says and does.

It's no accident that Germans call their country the Fatherland. The Nazi model is the ultimate example of the male authoritarian environment gone wrong. There is nothing very sophisticated about it, despite its innovative use of contemporary technology. Its propaganda consists of extraordinary, often ludicrous lies ('Britain started the war.' 'The Russians have always been our enemies; no, the Russians have always been our friends.'). Its claim to power is elemental: 'we're in charge because we have the brute force and the will to destroy anyone who hinders us.'

Even the vaunted Nazi bureaucratic efficiency seems primitive, almost quaint, by the light of today's technological environment. Ration cards are issued. People aren't entitled to buy much with them. New ration cards are issued. People are entitled to buy even less. You don't like it? Complain about it in public and we’ll execute you. An edict is published making it illegal to listen to a foreign radio broadcast. Well, don't get caught listening, don't get overheard listening, don't get turned in for talking about listening, or we’ll send you to prison.

It's not that the Nazi controls on human freedom are ineffective, superficial, or overstated by the history books. They are monstrous. But they are also simpler than the kinds of controls that affect the citizens of a modern 'democracy' like ours.
For example, I’d be willing to bet that the average American citizen in 1997 is required to do more reporting to various large institutions just to get by from day to day than any German ever had to do under Hitler. Considering the example of ration cards, compare the Nazi system to our own health care system (which is described as rationing by people who are far more convinced of the system's value than I am). You say you need an operation and subsequent medication and treatment? Now, deal with the paperwork demands of the doctor, the hospital, the insurance company, and—in all too many cases—the government. The mass media are filled with stories of the hell individuals have been put through as they sought necessary health care or attempted to gain reimbursement for treatment received. Surely this constitutes a kind of oppression, and one that on more than a few occasions has resulted in the death of American citizens. Much the same can be said of routine interactions between Americans and the legal system, the IRS, the child welfare system, and other public and private bureaucracies. Which means that in reality, if not in theory, ordinary American life is filled with oppression.

Yet if we ask the questions that are so easy to answer in the Nazi world, we run into trouble. Who are the bad guys? There are dozens of candidates and thousands of arguments about this, but no clear answer. On the whole it looks as if there are a bunch of somewhat inept 'good guys' doing their mediocre best. What can they do to you? Well, everything from mild annoyance to near murder, with no very clear evidence about what offense will lead to which penalty. Who or what is behind all this 'evil' (if we can even bring ourselves to use the term)? Nothing, apparently, but a huge fog of good intentions that don't quite deliver.

Thus, there are no enemies wearing convenient armbands, no one face to put on the flavors of oppression that always burden and sometimes destroy our lives. Everyone in a position of public power claims no motive other than the desire to help people. If NCR is a toned-down capitalist version of Nazism, then life in these United States is an enormously inflated and infinitely more complicated version of Datapro.

This line of argument is not a defense of fascism or Nazism. I find the former contemptible as a system of government, the latter obscene as an episode of history. Nevertheless, I cannot subscribe to the common assumption that contemporary America represents some kind of moral opposite to Hitler's Germany. It may be a gender opposite—more about this at a future date—but much of the machinery differs more in appearance than impact.

MISCELLANY: On the Jim Lehrer News Hour tonight, there was a segment on the Pentagon's latest attempt to debunk the legend of a flying saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Something I'm going to want to talk about with Patrick. Unable to get to sleep, saw two bad B-movies in a row, a morphing of Robocop and La Femme Nikita called The Demolitionist, then a weird little commando movie that could have been titled Delta Force Takes on Ebola. Soon I need to start formalizing my thinking about the relation between junk culture and society at large.

Wednesday, June 25

Rescue of the truck. Thanks to Patrick's maneuvering, we were able to journey north to a drab, fenced-in holding area in Cinnaminson, wade through the gauntlet of indifferent clerks and lot attendants, and re-repossess my vehicle. In the trailer-office, which was presided over by a fat, affable biker, most of the space was taken up by garbage bags full of the personal possessions scraped out of repossessed cars. They looked like body bags tagged not by owner name but by model number and year of the departed vehicle.
'Congratulations,' the lot supervisor told me as I got into the truck. 'Not too many get them back.'

Despite the fact that I am now current in my payments, they kept the key they had made, now a miniature sword of Damocles hanging over my head—and proof positive of what it means to 'own' a motor vehicle.

I drove back to the Pet Palace for the remainder of the day, then carried the receipts to Patrick's office. We chatted for a while about business and proceeded to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. We hopscotched through a number of topics without settling too deeply into any.


McVeigh—The archetype of the American terrorist? Contrast with European and Middle-Eastern terrorists, who work in groups, pursue specialized training, and display fanatical ideological zeal, often to the point of being contemptuous of the risk to their own lives. Now, think about Tim boy. He and a buddy get pissed off about Waco. They send away for books about how to build bombs. They get their ideology and plan out of an old thriller novel. They play secret agent in assembling materials. All kinds of silly stuff. They place the biggest order of the year at a farm store for nitrate fertilizer, pay with cash, and don't want to fill out the form that says it's for agricultural use. (Uh, do you have a form for terrorist use?) They give false names with accurate addresses. They tell people they hang out with about their 'bomb.' They show their false IDs to friends. They rent the bomb truck under a false name but with no physical disguise. (It’ll be just one more Ryder truck that vanishes without a trace?) They have no plan for making the best of capture. McVeigh allows his attorney to plead for his life and present him as a good boy who made a big mistake. How distinctively American can you get? Terrorism as rugged, slow-witted American individualism—John Wayne with a truck bomb. Maybe the fantasy ended with a shot of them driving into the sunset with the national anthem playing. Fade to black. Could this explain the absence of a real rationale, the bumbling conspiracy, the confusing anticlimax of the trial? Wow. What a country.

Roswell—Weird is the only word to describe the Pentagon's latest attempt to kill the Roswell story—and the mass media coverage of it. This is really the fourth version of the military's explanation of what happened. First, in 1947, they announced a flying saucer crash. Then they said it was a weather balloon—and stuck to this one for close to 50 years. Under pressure from a New Mexico congressman, they denied having any remaining records of the event because weather balloons are too insignificant to stay in the permanent files. This after the congressman got a big-time runaround from the Pentagon, the National Archives and the GSA. Then—a year or so ago?—they revised the story and said the weather balloon was really a high tech balloon being used to monitor Soviet atomic testing or something like that. On this basis, they cooperated with documentary film makers who found one witness to confirm that, yep, that monitoring balloon is exactly like what he saw. Now they come out with another revised explanation, claiming that the monitoring balloon was really a chain of balloons or maybe parachute testing. They show the media pictures of test dummies, looking a lot like department store mannequins dressed in military uniforms, and suggest that all the eyewitness reports of 'alien bodies' were really dummies like these. One problem: the dummies weren't used until 1953. Challenged on this point, the Air Force spokesman patronizingly observes that 'It's been a long time. People often get confused about dates.' Wow again. ('Sorry, sir. That couldn't have been the JFK assassination you saw. It was probably the RFK assassination. You're just confused about dates.' 'But I was in Dallas.' 'Whatever.')

And then the media response. Obviously the story here is why—if nothing remarkable happened at Roswell—the Pentagon keeps coming forward with vague 'explanations' of something no one in the military seems to recall, including an explanation so lame as to be utterly absurd. But all the anchormen deliver the lead with a faint smirk, making sure we know they're way too sophisticated to be taken in by a bunch of crackpots. Lehrer invited one semi-reputable crackpot and one academic physicist to cover the story on the News Hour. Every word uttered by the physicist was boilerplate, the standard disclaimer issued by official science whenever the public senses an extraordinary possibility. 'The burden of proof for an outrageous hypothesis lies with the person(s) suggesting it,' intoned the physicist. 'Scientists require proof in the form of hard physical evidence and real data. Eyewitness testimony is not scientific and can't be accepted. There is simply no evidence to support the Roswell hypothesis.' Lehrer, of course, posed no difficult follow-up question. He did not point out that the physicist's statement was at best myopic and at worst deliberately nonresponsive. The reason for the longevity of the Roswell story is that the eyewitnesses are adamant about their claim that hard physical evidence does (or did) exist in this case and that the U.S. military not only removed it under conditions of highest secrecy but specifically threatened everyone who knew they had done so. Surely this, if true, affects the 'burden of proof' argument in a material way. The challenge being put to the military by Roswell agitators is not 'Prove our flying saucer hypothesis untrue if you can,' but 'Tell us what you know about what really happened in New Mexico in 1947.' And if the military is sitting on hard physical evidence which it has deliberately and systematically concealed, consider the arrogance of sneering at American citizens because they can't produce evidence that would satisfy a scientist.

The crackpot guest was hampered in his response by an obvious desire not to be regarded as an idiot. He politely suggested that evidence might be missing because the government had classified it for reasons of national security. The physicist came back at him immediately—in a tone of weary scorn—with more boilerplate to the effect that it's impossible to keep big secrets. He made a jovial reference to Washington, DC, and the ten-minute life span of White House secrets. Lehrer—the impartial journalist—immediately confirmed him in this line by citing his own conversation with a NASA official who had made exactly the same point. (Never mind that NASA is suspected by many otherwise estimable scientists of harboring some very big secrets of its own.) The physicist smiled and observed that government was really incapable of keeping any secret. Double wow. This is an absolutely ridiculous statement. (I could have sworn the book 'A Man Called Intrepid' was a New York Times bestseller, but maybe that's just some unscientific hypothesis of mine ... )

Berlin Diary—Reviewed with Patrick the NCR-Datapro thoughts in connection with Shirer's journal. We discussed the reductio ad absurdem uses of the Nazi experience. No matter how much legitimate criticism one might level at America, the knee-jerk reaction from loyalists is, 'Well, at least no one is being carted off to concentration camps.' In other words, if we're not that profoundly evil, we must be in good shape. If I'm not dead, I must be the picture of health. If I'm not a mass murderer, I must be a saint. That's a pretty forgiving kind of logic.

A related psychological point. All accounts and documentary artifacts of the Nazi era have become to us a kind of negative scripture—something so removed from the realm of 'ordinary' human experience that we do not examine it—except for rhetorical purposes—with any intention of seeking out unexpected similarities or parallels to our own lives. A case in point: Shirer returns repeatedly to the question of what it is that's so different about the Germans, and he keeps coming back to variations of the same answer, that the Germans confuse morality with nationalism; that is, what they conceive to be moral is only an expression of blind allegiance to the Fatherland. Concepts like good and evil, and right and wrong, do not have universal meanings. Their meanings depend on whether or not you are a German. The upshot reported by Shirer is that only Germans have rights. He cites the outrage German citizens display when other countries fight back against Nazi invasion. They are baffled and revolted by the idea that anyone would kill a German soldier. And yet they exhibit complete indifference to the thousands of Europeans killed by German troops. Anything done by a German on foreign soil, no matter how unpleasant, is beyond reproach. Anything unpleasant done to a German by any foreigner is depraved. The first inclination is to nod in agreement with Shirer's insight; yes, this is a very bad thing about the German people. But then—as if through a curtain—one experiences a hazy recognition. What other country shows this same level of double standard? The United States of America.

In the years since Desert Storm I have heard virtually no reference, by individuals or the mass media, to the number of Iraqis killed in that war. As near as I can make out, the total was somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. That's more than the United States lost in Vietnam, Korea, and World War I combined. (It may be argued that the years of anti-Vietnam War rhetoric represent a rebuttal to this point, but—quick!—how many Southeast Asians died during the Vietnam War?) Yet if someone should kill one-hundred and twenty Americans in Oklahoma City, the lamentation would be endless. Wouldn't it? Well, at least no one is being carted off to concentration camps...

When I returned home from dinner, I checked my phone on a hunch. My friends at Bell Atlantic had turned it off. At this point, my creditors may be more upset about it than I am.

Monday, June 30

A lot has been going on in the news. The Supreme Court handed down a strong decision overturning the Communications Decency Act. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Stevens specifically distinguished the Internet from radio and television broadcasting as a communication medium. He said that users of the Internet are not passive recipients but active seekers of communication materials. Accidental exposure to content that might offend is minimal, and existing screening software is both effective and affordable. There is, therefore, no excuse for abridging the First Amendment rights of those who make materials available on the Internet. It sounds as if the decision rules out future 'decency acts' as well as the possibility of an FCC-type regulatory body. This will be a bitter pill to the child protectionists.

The Court also struck down a part of the Brady Bill gun control law, having noticed that the requirement for federal background checks is unconstitutional.

The glamour story of the week seems to be the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. Everyone appears upset by the sudden arrival of 4,000 Chinese troops at the border. Lots of talk from the Brits and Hong Kong residents about freedom, democracy, and so forth. An echo of the Munich rhetoric reported in Shirer's book. 'Rah! Rah! Rah! Freedom! Uh oh. Here come the tanks...'

Here at home, talk continues about the possibility of a presidential apology for slavery. On Friday, some of the African-American guests on NPR were also making a case for reparations, although the administration seems to have ruled that out already.
More gabbing about tobacco, too. Some people have been counting the incidence of cigarette smoking in the movies and have announced that it's on the increase. This is terrible because 'the kids' are bound to copy what they see in the movies.

On the personal front, most of my free time has been consumed by preparations for my move from New Jersey to Delaware. The antique dealer who was supposed to come Sunday morning never showed, and without a phone I was unable to chase him down or find out what happened. We had agreed on the price, and I badly need the money. Now I don't know if we still have a deal or not.

I am hopeful that life will get more manageable after I have a one-bedroom apartment instead of a 20-room house. The place is nice enough inside, with new carpeting, fresh paint, and central air-conditioning. I’ll be spending the holiday weekend packing and getting the house in shape for the local auctioneer to go through. With any luck, I’ll be living in Delaware by the middle of next week.

Saturday I had dinner with the Raymonds. The children were staying overnight with friends, and the house seemed quiet without them. We got into a discussion about the Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment. Patrick was cheered by the fact that this first attempt to control the Internet failed. He said that one commentator termed the court decision 'the birth certificate of the Internet.' I asked him if he thought the pornography issue had been laid to rest. He wasn't sure what would happen now.
We discussed the American neurosis about sex. As an avid reader of Christian theology, Patrick was quick to point out that the church as a whole has never really addressed the issue except to recite the list of forbidden things. He traced the omission to the Roman Catholic decision to maintain a celibate clergy. I suggested that the Protestants have added their own obsessions to the subject—hardly a new insight, though not an obsolete one in view of the bizarre Disney flap. The Jimmy Swaggart scandal, to cite another example, went beyond the realm of cliché into the domain of the inevitable. Its literary and real life precedents are innumerable: Elmer Gantry, Maugham's (?) lustful preacher in Rain, Jim Baker, Aimee Semple MacPherson, etc. No one can make sex dirtier than a devout Christian, and we Americans, with our Puritan heritage, seem to have retained our dirty-mindedness even though we have long since dispensed with the theology that inspired it. We wondered together how much of the impetus behind the Communications Decency Act was really an attempt to protect 'the kids' and how much the same kind of hypocrisy that fueled the Meese commission on pornography—all those fat old rich men reviewing porno tapes in their paneled offices... 'Look at this one. It's even worse than the others. Better review it one more time!'

Then again, there's an obvious female component in the drive to control Internet sexuality. I quoted, to the best of my recollection, Camille Paglia's characterization of the feminist anti-porn position. She ascribes it to fear of—and a consequent need to dominate—male sexuality. The problem, she says, is that male sexuality is too powerful to be dominated or suppressed, and no society has ever succeeded in doing so—not even to the extent of eliminating pornography.

Now, with the Internet, it's out there in quantity, uncontrolled, available to all the men who want it—which is more men than any woman would be comfortable with. I recalled a conversation I'd had with a female friend who took the position that all pornography was demeaning to women and should be outlawed, although she had no objection to 'erotica.' When I pressed her for the distinction between them, the pornography definition grew so expansive that I finally gave it up and asked her about erotica instead. After much confusion, she finally accepted my inference that pornography was what turned men on, and erotica was what turned women on. When I suggested that what she really wanted was to transform male sexuality into what she thought it should be, she resisted the point and elaborated on the esthetic and sensual superiority of erotica. Then I simply told her—in the same way women declare it impossible for men to understand the experience of childbirth—that no woman could ever understand the experience of male sexuality. It might not be what she wanted it be, but she sure as hell wasn't going to change it, either. She didn't want to believe this so she didn't, and that was the end of our conversation.

Patrick laughed and recalled an exchange with a male friend, also devoutly religious, who said, 'Sex. That's the big question. I don't lie, I don't cheat, I do my best to be honorable in all things. I've been faithfully married to the same woman for twenty years, but I have to admit, when I see the young siren in the hoagie shop, for that moment, I’d do anything for ten minutes with her. And I ask you, what does the Bible have to say about that, except DON'T? It sure doesn't explain it.'

'Here's the funny thing,' I told Patrick. 'What no woman can understand is that ten minutes with her is all he wants. And it doesn't mean he wants to leave his wife or that he's stopped loving her. All it means is that he's still a vital male.'

'Is that all it means?' Patrick chuckled. 'Well, that's a relief'

'I’ll tell you something else,' I went on. 'The notion that it's women who are the most devoted to marriage is almost brand new. Traditionally, the consensus has been that marriage is a male institution, and that if there's a sex unsuited to the long haul, it's the female. Now, that's really interesting in light of what's happened to the divorce rate since women's liberation. It's skyrocketed. That's not a value judgment. It's a fact. Women are more inclined to bail out than men are—no matter how much rhetoric we get on the daytime talk shows about women being the ones who 'work on the relationship.' It's a different kind of fidelity issue than the one everyone wants to talk about. And it has nothing to do with whether women were 'oppressed' in the past or not. When the society was male-dominant, as everyone concedes it was, the incidence of divorce was lower. Period. And you don't hear much at all about the statistical record of who it is that's leaving whom these days. My bet is it's the women who are leaving the men.'
Our conversation drifted back to American Puritanism. Patrick had never heard of Hollywood's infamous Hayes office. I described for him what of its history I knew—the licentiousness of the films in the early 1930s, the decency code developed by Hayes, and the silliness of its rules. Even married couples could not be shown occupying the same bed, and there even was a length limit on kisses. I cited one of the more famous cases of a director's ingenious way around this rule. In Hitchcock's Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman enjoy an extended embrace, kissing up to the Hayes limit, then breaking off for murmured conversation, then kissing, again, for the allowable time, and so on. Patrick was astonished.

It was the night of the second Tyson-Holyfield fight. We adjourned to the boob tube and found that the event was unavailable on Patrick's satellite hookup. A scan of the night's movie offerings turned up—surprise!—the last twenty minutes of Notorious. It was tantalizing enough to make the Raymonds want to see the beginning and the Hayes-defiant love scene.

Sex, men, and women. No one is really talking about these matters in a serious way anymore. But I'm convinced it's a huge part of what is happening under the surface in America.

Tuesday, July I

Today I moved the basic necessities to my apartment in Delaware—a single mattress, some clothes, toilet articles, a lamp, a radio, and some books.

Patrick and I met early and when I got to the Pet Palace, the operations supervisor was absent. In order to maintain her job at the PP, she puts her two-year-old son in daycare and is experiencing a very high rate of illness with the child—mysterious fevers, viruses, stomach ailments and so forth. This time it was strep throat. The vet shook his head. 'Two is just too young to be thrown in with a bunch of other children,' he said. 'It's like boarding a puppy when he's eight weeks old. No immunity. Wide open to everything.'

We talked about the pressures of working couples. They get married, have a child, buy the house, and now they both have to have jobs. But who has really done the math on this? With the second job, there's got to be a second car, and more car insurance. There's also the cost of daycare while Mommy's at work (higher doctor bills, too?). And maybe more clothes for Mommy's job, more expense and delay associated with getting house and car repairs done, more purchased pizzas and Chinese food on the nights when Mommy's dog tired, and who knows what else? But the joint income is higher, and so is the marginal tax rate, which is to say that every dollar of Mommy's income is taxed at a higher rate than hubby's. Who has totaled up all the real deductions from Mommy's pay? Is there anything left of positive cash flow that couldn't be made up by a very slight reduction in housing accommodations and car payments? I think, though, that this is one of the questions we're not permitted to ask because it sounds anti-feminist.

Almost everyone who works at the Pet Palace is female, and it seems that no day goes by without one or two of them asking to use the phone several times for the purpose of dealing with a sick child, a complicated child pick-up arrangement, or a child who simply has to have input from Mommy about something. I don't fume or fret about it with them, although they seem not to give each other as much sympathy as I would expect. When they ask for time off to take a child or relative to the doctor, I grant it automatically. Then the others complain to me that needed co-workers aren't there. I feel sorry for all of them. They make so little money and their lives are hard, continually beset by crises—medical, legal, domestic, financial, you name it. Yet they hardly ever seem to come up for air. It never occurs to them to ask what the heck they're doing with their lives and why.

After work I spent an unexpectedly pleasant evening in my empty new apartment. I listened to NPR for an hour or two, heard an extended report from Hong Kong about the first days under Chinese rule. The reporter opined that the problem in China has to do with the complete loss of legitimacy by the government. The Communist Party is a shell, its ideology bankrupt and dead, and all that remains is the power structure. The situation is so threatening to those at the top that they are liable to do anything—world opinion and national self-interest be damned—when they feel a need to reassert their authority over people or regions. It sounds as if the real transition is from a totalitarian to an authoritarian system, which is at least incremental progress. The reporter's bet is that the Chinese won't be able to stop themselves from interfering catastrophically with their new treasure chest. Yet people are not leaving; they are moving in, and many who had left a few years ago for Canada are trying to move back. The operative term is 'economic opportunity,' conceived to be well worth the risk.

Later I curled up with Shirer's Berlin Diary. We are now well into 1940, and I got to experience the Battle of Britain from the German perspective—an extraordinary demonstration of Goebbels's ability to lie outrageously, continuously, sometimes ingeniously, sometimes idiotically. I don't know if it's Shirer's bias or perceptive reporting—though I suspect the latter—but his appraisal of German response to British bombing is a fascinating indictment of Teutonic character. It was in September 1940 that the Brits began regular nighttime bombing of Berlin, and though it was more symbolic than deadly at the beginning, the effect on German morale was great. As soon as the bombers appeared over the city, Germans everywhere stopped what they were doing and dove for the cellars. They couldn't sleep during air raids either, and worker productivity in war materials plants declined, even though the bombs left the factories mostly untouched. At one point, Shirer recounts that an air raid emptied the broadcasting studio but for himself and 'Lord Haw-Haw'—the infamous British traitor—who was nevertheless as brave about bombs as the Brits back in London. Shirer repeatedly expresses his wish that Churchill could know how effective the mere fact of British bombing was, because the Germans didn't have the guts to withstand it.

An irony embedded in Shirer's record that he doesn't identify as such is that the craven attitude of Berliners made it difficult for Goebbels to decide what kind of lies to tell. On the one hand, the propaganda minister feels compelled to understate the impact—and casualties—of the bombing in an effort to reassure the populace. So there is a strain of big lies about how Brit bombs always fall outside the city. On the other hand, he feels an equally strong compulsion to nerve up the populace by overstating British 'barbarism' and thus reinforce support for the war. So there is a contradictory strain of lies about British atrocities on civilian targets. The papers routinely claim that no one and nothing in Berlin is damaged, although hospitals and orphanages outside the protection of Berlin's air defenses are being savaged. Goebbels also overstates the frequency of British bomb attacks in order to undercut the obvious fact that Berlin's vaunted anti-aircraft guns never down a single bomber. What's happening, he claims, is that the Brits are attacking every night, but on most nights they are turned back before they can reach Berlin. This schizoid lying strategy asks the Germans to believe that the Brits are subhuman monsters who are relentlessly determined to commit every kind of atrocity and that—at the same time—there is nothing whatever to be afraid of—even if every German on his way to work can see the bomb damage in the midst of Berlin. Amazingly, a lot of them do believe exactly what they're supposed to—yet still sprint to the cellar at the sound of the first air raid siren.

These are extreme examples of the relations among people, their leaders, and the press. What strikes me, though, is that the underlying truth of the matter may be simpler and more universally applicable than it seems on the surface. In the absence of other information sources, people do believe what they read in the newspapers and hear on the radio (and see on TV). What the Germans achieved by outlawing the monitoring of foreign broadcasts and publications is achieved automatically in the U.S., where no one has the least interest in foreign media. Moreover, the pervasiveness of contemporary mass media in the U.S. makes it possible to tell any lie—of omission or commission—in ways that are too subtle to detect as propaganda.

What if, for example, the American notion that we enjoy absolute freedom of expression is an illusion? Yes, we have CNN's Crossfire, endless call-in radio shows, and vitriolic exchanges between right and left in the Op-Ed pages of the newspapers. But what if all these are simply part of a larger lie, one which subtly seeks to persuade us that legitimate viewpoints are always aired and if your particular viewpoint isn't, then you constitute too tiny a minority to be spoken for.

Consider some viewpoints that don't seem to be expressed anywhere:

1) How about the hypothesis that the single most important issue in the nation is an accelerating loss of personal freedom that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans acknowledge because they are both accomplices in it?—the Republicans expanding the scope and power and intrusiveness of law enforcement when they are in office and the Democrats expanding the scope and power and intrusiveness of social regulatory controls when they are in office.

2) How about the possibility that feminism is both a failure and a disastrously destructive societal influence? Does anyone in the U.S. ever draw a connection between female careerism and the decline of public education, the rising divorce rate, the rising illegitimacy rate, and all the other signals that our much celebrated 'family values' are only a memory? No. They'll drag in every other excuse under the sun, but they never suggest the possibility that the family is in trouble because American women have left it en masse.

3) And how about the chance that our new national obsession with safety—ple-e-e-e-ease protect us from everything that might do us harm—might represent the first known instance of a transformation from democracy to totalitarian state that is driven by popular demand?

It's possible, I suppose, that here and there one may encounter isolated references to such ideas. But when the mass of the mass media reaches the current gargantuan proportions, dissidence does not have to be absolutely silenced. It needs only to be overwhelmed, pushed outside the boundary of 'reasonable' opinion and belittled or ignored by experts, pundits, and the eight remaining major publishers. It may acquire a phantom existence as something thought but never said in the company of the politically correct, but it doesn't make it into the public debate.

The incidence of weird subversives is undeniably increasing. From the Montana Militia to the 'Republic of Texas' to Tim McVeigh to David Koresh to the Una-Bomber to all the crackpot organizations that are lurking in the wings with guns and manifestoes and an inarticulate desire to separate from the rest of us, the country is experiencing some subterranean trauma. Now, what's interesting about mass media coverage of the various eruptions such groups cause is the absence of attempts either to make linkages between the different varieties of disaffection or to ascribe meaning to the fact of disaffection as a spreading phenomenon. There is a plethora of 'cult' experts who are willing to separate the causes of individual disaffection entirely from the ideas espoused by the disaffected. There is an abundance of intellectuals who specialize in ridiculing the arguments and even the spelling of the subversives and separatists, although such exercises in contempt are generally aimed at the one group in the headlines today. But what doesn't seem to be allowed into polite expert discussions is the hypothesis that such groups (and individual crazies) are responding to something in the nation that has indeed gone terribly wrong—even if that something wrong is so big and so complicated that its victims can't begin to analyze it effectively. (An illustrative anecdote: when the Una-Bomber got his manifesto published, its content received less than 5 percent of the discussion accorded to the question of whether or not it should have been published. It's actually a very interesting document, and not half as crazy as the pundits described it in their en passant critiques.)

In other words, what if all the individual maniacs and paramilitary groups and seditious quasi-confederacies represent a collective symptom of a national crisis that is as genuine as it is unmentionable? If we don't allow that irrational lunatics may be accurate indicators of deep internal problems in the U.S., then how can we claim that the Germans should have known better than to discount the danger of Hitler when he first appeared on the scene? Yes, he was a maniac but he also had his finger on issues that were desperately real to his people and frighteningly symbolic of historical German delusions and weaknesses. Yet if we permit that there was ever anything of value in the American tradition of individual freedom and enterprise, how can we simply dismiss those who—in decidedly individualistic ways——declare that they can only find freedom in America today by separating themselves from the state? Is anyone 'important' discussing this?

All night long I was awakened at intervals by high-speed trains racing past the apartment complex, a hidden feature of my new home nobody told me about. No big deal. I think I somehow incorporated their mechanical urgency into the fabric of my dreams.

Wednesday, July 2

Up early for a half hour of news on NPR. Charges that the U.S. Navy favored or didn't favor female aviators as they attempted to bring them into combat training. Someone who wasn't qualified shouldn't have been accepted in and got killed. Fie on the Navy. Someone who is qualified hasn't been appropriately certified and is denied opportunity. Fie on the Navy.

A demand by some activist health organization that 'the government' do more research to eliminate breast cancer. This on the heels of a controversial study which claims that the extraordinarily high breast cancer rate in San Francisco is entirely due to non-geographic factors—principally, the extreme delay in childbirth exhibited by the white female population of San Fran. No discussion of the obvious implications for women's lives in general, except that the finding is unacceptable to various women's groups.
An exciting day at the Pet Palace. The supervisor's son is still sick, so she wasn't in, and someone else's daughter was also in the grip of a high fever (over 103 degrees), which forced her to go home early. For the rest of them it was complaint day. They wanted to have fights with one another and with me. I told them I thought they could work it out amongst themselves. One of them asked me if I thought all women were bitches, and I said, 'I suppose they all are sometimes.'

'And all men are—?' here she made the circular 'okay' sign, 'Right?'

'I didn't say that,' I told her with a smile.

She grinned. 'That's all right then.'

I took Chinese food to my apartment and ate sweet-and-sour chicken—gloriously deep-fried—while I listened to the news that Jimmy Stewart had died. He was eighty-nine. Just a few days before, I'd had a jovial argument about Stewart with the PP vet. I maintained that he was the greatest movie star actor of his generation. This was a fairly recent discovery of mine, since I’d always been in the camp of those who believed Jimmy Stewart was perpetually playing himself. The vet was of that opinion, too. But I'd been noticing—in my cable TV watching—that very few of the Hollywood movies from the big studio days seemed to be holding up in the late 1990s. Clark Gable's movies were practically unwatchable and were rarely shown anymore. The same could be said of Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Alan Ladd, and any number of other leading men. Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy could be good, but often I had a distinct sense of them engaged in the ponderous business of acting. As pure stars, Gary Cooper and John Wayne were getting the yellowed look of an elderly bestseller. Yet there remained something engaging about Jimmy Stewart movies. He was still interesting to look at on screen, as were Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum. But what distinguished Stewart, to me anyway, was the surprising diversity of the roles he played, a fact quite at odds with the easy assumption that it was always the same Jimmy we were seeing. Who would that Jimmy be? The sincere young idealist of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Or the desperate and damaged obsessive of Vertigo? No, comes the thoughtless response: it's the All-American nice guy of It's a Wonderful Life. But how close is that guy to the frightened, cynical pilot in Flight of the Phoenix, or the hard-bitten outlaw in Bandolero? All are covered, to be sure, by the intrinsic charm of Stewart himself, which endures somehow intact from Destry Rides Again through four decades of westerns, light comedies, suspense thrillers, and dramas. But what is the nature of that charm? It's not as simple as 'goodness' or even 'niceness.' I believe it has more to do with the natural attractiveness of those who can be observed to be observant, to be capable of appraising situations and making decisions for themselves. (Not coincidentally, this used to be a prized American trait and may explain what seems so deeply American about Stewart.) The sense so many people have of Jimmy Stewart always being himself is half right. What they're responding to is the fact that Jimmy Stewart always brings to his roles a universal quality of self—not necessarily his own—that allows us to see the character thinking, working things out in a conscious and individual way. It is this depth of self that produces his emotions on camera, which can be intense, without triggering the suspicion that he's 'going for the Oscar here.' Well, at any rate, I'm a fan and I'm glad he had such a long good life.

NPR in Philadelphia was also devoting significant coverage to the passage of a new auto safety law. It is now illegal for a child under the age of thirteen to ride in the front seat in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pickup trucks and two-seater cars are exempt, but for every other vehicle this law is classified as a 'prime offense,' which means that—unlike existing seatbelt enforcement—a police officer can stop a car for this violation alone. The justification for the bill is reportedly the deaths of six children, attributed to front-seat airbag deployment, over some multi-year timeframe.'
Is it time to talk about statistics yet?

It's a big subject and it takes in a lot of issues besides auto safety, but it has to be dealt with before anything like a Big Picture can be brought into focus. This new law makes for an interesting entrée to the question of numbers and how we perceive them in the U.S. Let's start with some conservative estimates. It's probably safe to assume that there are at least 80 million passenger vehicles in the United States (for 250 million people). The used-car valuation books posit an average mileage per car per year of 10,000. This allows us to calculate the number of passenger miles driven each year.
The number is 800,000,000,000—that is, 800 billion miles or 0.8 trillion miles. Now—even if we assume that all six of the children killed by airbags died in a single year—simple arithmetic indicates that one child is killed by an airbag for every 133 billion passenger miles traveled. According to the Pennsylvania law, childhood lasts thirteen years. So, even if we also assume that a child travels the full 10,000 miles per year each vehicle does, the number of miles he will travel as a child totals 130,000, which is one-millionth of the number of passenger miles traveled before a child is statistically certain to be killed by an airbag. To put it in terms of odds, this well traveled child's probability of being killed by an airbag is 0.000001, a number which is—for all practical purposes—the equivalent of zero.

And yes, I know that the mathematics mavens can quarrel with my numbers and my assumptions. I'm aware that not all of the 80 million vehicles have airbags, but the right number would again reduce the risk to the child population as a whole, even if it increased slightly for children who are riding in airbag-equipped vehicles. Still, my other assumptions are very conservative, and no matter how we rig the math, the probabilities of death are going to remain expressible in terms of millionths.
Why does this matter? Because we have now consented to one more not inconsiderable reduction of our personal freedom. We have agreed that the police have the right to tell us how to arrange the passenger seating in our cars. Lest we forget, cars were originally supposed to be private property, not materially different from our houses in terms of their sanctity under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments (right to privacy, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, etc). It is not far-fetched to say that our consent to such a law is akin to accepting the right of the police to determine the seating at our dinner tables. The right to look in through the dining room window, check the locations of Junior and Grandma and Uncle Pete, and then to ask us to step outside and receive a ticket if they don't approve.

What kind of risk would be worth such a trade? Is one in a million the right number? I refuse to believe it, but I guess I have to.

An isolated instance, you say? A slight legislative overreaction to a story that's been much in the news? Two points. If the story's been so much in the news, why has there been so little attention to the minuscule nature of the risk? Is it because no one in the mass media is mathematically literate enough to perform the calculation? Or because the story is about children and danger and therefore immune from any analysis beyond the emotional recitation of anecdotes?

Nor is this an isolated instance. In the last couple of years, we've had sensational extended coverage of the ValuJet crash and the immolation of TWA Flight 800, among others. Screaming graphics ask: IS AIR TRAVEL SAFE? Well, there's an unequivocal answer to this question: YES. The Learning Channel actually confided the real numbers in an airline disaster miniseries called Survival in the Sky. After hours of documentary reportage about the greatest plane crashes in aviation history, one episode ended with the voiceover revelation that a person would have to board a commercial flight every day for 3,600 years in order to reach the statistical certainty of being in a plane crash, although even then the odds would be in favor of survival. Just how safe is this? No other form of transportation, no room in your own house, and no location on land or sea offer better odds. The truth is, a commercial airliner is the safest place any human being can be in the known universe.

These odds also encompass the risk of hijacking and terrorist acts. And airline safety could decline to the level of a crash a day without raising the risk of individual passengers to a significant degree. Yet, once again, we have traded numerous personal freedoms away without a murmur in order to preserve a level of safety that is close to absolute. For millionths of percentage points of safety, we allow our briefcases and handbags to be searched, we empty our pockets of keys, coins, condom packets, and gumwrapper foil, we wait in line for the privilege of having our privacy invaded, and we allow nitwit airline clerks to ask us—in the name of the federal government—who packed our bags and whether we're carrying any items for anyone else. All of it is none of their damn business, but every time there's another crash or near miss, we get new laws and regulations that bring airline passengers ever closer to the status of beef cattle—tagged and poked and bullied in transit to the slaughterhouse. And when the media correspondents ask us how we feel about it, we mumble our gratitude for the attention to our safety.

Does this kind of irrational trade reflect more on our ignorance or on our character? If it's merely our ignorance, then we are accomplices in a lie as big as any Goebbels ever promulgated. If it's our character that's responsible, how can we continue to take credit for American pioneer spirit if we actually prize guarantees of physical safety over the blood-earned freedoms in the Bill of Rights?

An interesting footnote to airline horror stories: a potentially juicy statistic that could generate a lot of spectacular graphics if its subject were on the approved list. The ValuJet flight that plunged into a Florida swamp and got an entire airline grounded had a female captain. There can't be too many of these on airline payrolls at present since the training ground for commercial pilots is still principally the military, and we've heard plenty about how the deck is stacked against women pilots there. So, if I wanted to calculate a scary statistic, all I’d have to do would be to compute the odds of being in a plane crash with a female pilot versus the odds with a male pilot. The 3600-year figure cited above is, of course, the odds associated with male pilots. It's a figure that takes in thousands upon thousands of commercial flights every day, all over the world, for a generation. The odds for a female pilot would encompass only a tiny fraction of the number of flights and thus a ridiculously small number of passenger miles. In this context, even a single crash makes female pilots statistically high risk—no, make that extremely high risk—in comparison to the overall record. Yet has anyone seen a TV graphic that shouts, FEMALE AIRLINE PILOTS: ARE THEY SAFE? Of course not. In every airline crash I can recall, the possibility of pilot error was not ruled out until the final report was issued by the FAA. In the ValuJet case, it was hardly mentioned from day one on in any of the reportage. Are statistics really neutral and factual? No. They depend first and foremost on what topics we choose to cite odds and percentages about. After that, they depend on what point we're trying to prove.

I suppose that's enough about statistics for now, but their relevance is by no means confined to transportation. Public health discussions, political and other kinds of polling results, social and educational analyses, and economic perceptions are all compromised by the same kinds of numbskull numbers games.

There are also deep philosophical issues involved. But there will be other occasions in these pages to elaborate on the scope of the problem.

Thursday, July 3

Last night, just before turning in, I put down my book and turned on the radio. Marty Moskowayne, the host of a Philadelphia NPR interview show, was introducing a guest who'd be talking about America's love affair with cars.

'We'd better love them,' she said in her intro. 'Federal studies show that 70 percent of urban areas are experiencing gridlock and serious traffic congestion during rush hour, up from 55 percent fifteen years ago, and...'

I turned it off. My own love affair with cars was stone-cold dead, and since reading the Una-Bomber's manifesto, I hadn't been able to get his discussion of this subject out of my mind. Yes, I know he's crazy. We've been treated to exhaustive psychiatric autopsies of this death-bound pseudo-intellectual terrorist. When it appeared in the newspapers, his document was printed in about the same size type as the two-volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary (which comes with a magnifying glass packed in a cute little drawer built into the slipcase). Those who read the manifesto on our behalf said his writing was often incoherent and reflected his diseased mental state. So, for the benefit of those who knew better than to examine it for themselves, I’d like to recapitulate the substance of his analysis of technology. The relevance? His most elegant example of negative technological impact was the automobile.

According to Ted Kazinski, technology has a sinister habit of giving us innovations which seem, initially, to enhance and extend our sense of personal freedom. Then, over the course of time, they become powerful destroyers of freedom. What an odd idea. Or is it?

When automobiles—and specifically, Henry Ford's cheap mass-produced Model T's—became available to consumers, they opened up opportunities for travel and lifestyle changes that had never been possible before. The affordable car was a catalyst so great that it became the caption for a whole era—the age of the automobile—and it not only introduced the traditions of the Sunday drive and the transcontinental vacation, but also hundreds of new ways to earn a living. The automobile became a symbol of freedom—so much so that coming of age in the U.S. became, finally, synonymous with getting a driver's license and a car. A teenager's first car gave him autonomy, privacy, and a platform for individual self-expression (custom paint, motor parts, upholstery, etc) unparalleled in human history. The momentum of automotive imagery was so powerful and so intermingled with other cultural factors that it persists to this day. Shoppers in the automotive market are still, they think, selecting the latest face they will present to the world, some manifestation of their own unique identity, however mass produced.
Yet in every factual particular, this symbol of American freedom has been transformed into an instrument of state control which wraps its bonds around us tighter and tighter with each passing year. If this sounds like an extreme statement, consider the history. In the earliest days of the Model T, all anyone had to do was buy a car and drive it out onto the road. Then, at intervals, various constraints and requirements were added: road use taxes, gasoline taxes, speed limits, driver's licenses, ownership titles, automobile registrations and license plates, automobile insurance. For a time during this institutionalizing process, there were still horses as well as extensive mass transit systems in the cities, including streetcars. Then, as the automobile—and Detroit auto manufacturers—gained ascendancy, the entire citizenry was seduced and pressured into a condition of dependency on the automobile. By the end of the 1940s, for example, GM had systematically driven the streetcar systems of America's biggest cities out of business, often buying them for the express purpose of liquidating and dismantling them.

Now our symbol of personal freedom became a minimum requirement for participating in the economic system. Without a car, you couldn't drive to work. And with everyone driving cars to work, traffic congestion and accidents led to a growing body of laws governing how vehicles had to be driven. And because automobiles could be—and were—used in the commission of crimes, another growing body of laws and court decisions began to define the circumstances under which automobiles could be searched and their contents seized. Somewhere along the way, driving on America's roads became a 'privilege' granted by the state—one which could be suspended or terminated if the state so decided.

Business and economic factors also became controlling influences. Since cars were necessary for participation in the economic system, the percentage of individual income they could consume increased, and the American credit system prospered by lending the funds the citizens needed to enjoy their mandatory symbol of freedom, although they naturally retained the right to repossess the cars and damage the increasingly important credit ratings of customers who didn't pay promptly. The insurance companies also prospered and became, by degrees, an integral part of the states' legal administration of automobile ownership, usage, and punishment.

Today, in my home state of New Jersey, the automobile has become a symbol of something altogether different from freedom. Over a decade ago, insurance company lobbying persuaded the state to pass no-fault legislation which was promised to reduce insurance costs by eliminating litigation for minor accidents. The result—inflation of insurance claims by attorneys for the purpose of surmounting the no-fault threshold—vastly increased the litigation costs borne by insurance companies. New Jersey now has the highest insurance rates in the nation, with the cost of basic annual liability coverage often exceeding the book value of the used cars driven by ordinary citizens. Fortunately for the insurance companies, however, the state serves as enforcer for the insurers. All car owners must carry liability insurance, and the state's 'point system'—used to assign mandatory insurance surcharges for various driving infractions—levies its highest point penalty (even higher than for leaving the scene of an accident) for the offense of driving without insurance. What's more, the state also hands down for this offense a mandatory one-year suspension of the driving 'privilege.'

Need I mention at this point that New Jersey's public transit facilities are few and far between, since the state has invested most of its transportation funds in a world-(in)famous system of highways crowned by the New Jersey Turnpike? What does this mean to the state's residents? In most cases, geography requires that they have a car in order to be able to make a living. If they should run into financial trouble that causes them to miss car insurance payments because of, say, medical bills or a layoff, then the state has machinery which will, if they get caught, inevitably make them prisoners in their homes or hostages to the goodwill of friends and relatives. Moreover, the state's traffic laws have evolved to the point where almost every driver is an outlaw the moment he drives onto the entrance ramp of a major highway. When other states rescinded, or at least partially rescinded, the 55 mph speed limit of the OPEC years, New Jersey refused to change its speed laws, claiming public safety as the rationale. Of course, anyone who drives at 55 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike risks being run down from behind by an 18-wheeler, and the same can be said of the Garden State Parkway and most other major thoroughfares.

Imagine yourself an American citizen residing in the State of New Jersey. You had to choose this quarter between paying the property tax on your house and the liability insurance for your car. You paid the property tax because it's impossible not to get caught for that. So now you are driving, without insurance, on the New Jersey Turnpike, bound for the only job you've been able to find. You are keeping up with the flow of traffic. At this moment, any cop who wants to can pull you over for speeding, at which time your lapsed insurance card will cost you your driver's license for a full year. If and when this happens, you will not be able to get to work, and there is no ounce of mercy in the law: if you get caught driving with a suspended license, the judge will sentence you to an additional one-to-two year loss of license and a mandatory jail term. If you choose to avoid major highways and creep along other state or municipal roads, you run the risk of getting stopped in a legal(?) random sobriety check during which you will also be required to show your lapsed insurance card. What are you thinking right now of the clapped-out symbol of freedom that has landed you in this fix? Even if the bank doesn't own your car, the state owns your freedom of movement and has assured itself of the right to stop you, for any of a dozen probable causes, anytime it wants to. Yet we still boast that there's no such thing as debtor's prison in the United States.

This is perhaps a fuller description of the relation between cars and freedom than the Una-Bomber provided, but his manifesto made all the essential points I've presented here. He went on to describe an analogous trend with regard to computer systems, and his overall point was that technological society has entered a realm of dominion that has no precedent in human history. Good intentions are not enough to stop the steady erosion of freedom created by technology. Once in place, it gathers its own momentum and proceeds like a juggernaut to take and take and take. What a lunatic!
I will mention that insurance reform is a hot issue in New Jersey politics this year. The governor has gone out on a limb to stop an automatic 3 percent increase in auto insurance premiums, but her critics say this isn't enough. Nowhere, though, is the slightest whisper to be heard about repeal of the penalties associated with being uninsured.

Is it also symbolic or merely sad, I wonder, that driving itself is no longer pleasurable? At least I don't find it so. The traffic keeps getting heavier, the country roads fewer, the interminable lane-closing repaving projects more numerous, and the presence of police cruisers more blanketing and ominous.

A last thought on the subject before I give it up. Some years ago I had the opportunity to drive on the Autobahn in Germany, famous for its lack of speed limits. The Autobahn is physically scary by American standards because the two lanes are both narrow and lacking shoulders to escape to in the event of trouble. But as I put my foot into the throttle and accelerated—legally, for the only time in my life—to 100 mph, I had two simultaneous realizations. First, that for the entire 20 years I’d been driving in the U.S., my concentration on the road and the car had been reduced significantly by the constant need to look out for the cops. Second, that this, the single freest driving experience of my life, could never have been experienced in the 'freest' country in the world. That day I drove better and more joyfully than at any time before or since.

Friday, July 4

Independence Day. For the second year in a row, Patrick read the entire text of the Declaration of Independence to the guests assembled at his house. Here are the excerpts I can't get out of my head these days:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security...

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance...

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

I stayed away from the television and the radio. Our annual self-congratulatory show no longer appeals, and it makes me sad. The flag-bedizened podiums, the gospel renditions of the national anthem at twilight, the Lincoln Center concerts, the fireworks over the floodlit marble tombs of America's best ideas—all these are like some booster vaccination against a disease that already gives me chronic pain. I would welcome a cure, but the time is past for standard preventatives.

The latter part of the evening I spent talking to Andrew Carmody, the young man who works summers in Patrick's computer business. In the midst of his undergraduate years—enrolled in one of the oldest small colleges in the country—he is discovering the destitution of his generation and looks in vain for friends, male or female, who share his interest in things philosophical, intellectual, spiritual. There is nothing of the snob in him. The quest is not for gamesters or poseurs to feed his ego, but for living, sentient people who might help him create his adult identity through conversation. What he finds, though, are pallid, incurious conformists who attend classes to get a degree to get a job. Their interaction with one another has chiefly to do with logistics—where to go tonight, when to meet, what to scribble on the next flat wall of time. Andrew becomes passionate in describing his attempts to break into the minds of peers, in seminar and casual campus life. Even his professors and tutors have told him not to expect much from his fellow students. About this he is understandably bitter.
And so we talked about how to proceed in the absence of kindred spirits. There is a kind of horror in having to give this species of advice. I remember the all-night sessions with friends who wanted, as I did, to figure everything out. To tell a youngster that he doesn't need such intimate comradeship feels like a lie—like what the staff general tells the junior officer who must be ordered on a desperate solo mission. Yet for the general and for me there is no alternative. The Andrews of the X-Generation have to overcome the loneliness and go on. Too many of their peers are already lost to themselves and to life.

At length I went home to bed, inside my little apartment in the land of the free.

Saturday, July 5

At the Pet Palace by seven a.m. The place was jammed to the rafters with dogs being boarded for the holiday weekend. They missed their masters. Some of them got spooked by the previous day's fireworks. There was barking all day, casualties—a Springer spaniel tore up his nails and toes trying to tunnel out of the cage.

It was a relief to return to the apartment. Without furniture, without a television, I have finished rereading Shirer's diary and leaped without pause into his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Hours of reading. On the radio, celebration of the latest Mars landing and its little remote-controlled car. NASA spokesmen want us—or don't they?—to be as excited as they are about the prospect of bumping into a neat rock. I recall the many contemptuous refusals of these same scientists to photograph something ordinary Americans wanted them to—The Face. Having read Richard Hoaglund's book, The Monuments of Mars, I'm persuaded that there's something strange about the space agency's behavior in this matter—regardless of whether or not The Face is, as many non-NASA scientists believe, an artificial construction.

Consider that the U.S. space program is continually begging to Congress for money, required on an almost annual basis to explain why projects that don't help the underprivileged are worth the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Consider also that the Viking photograph which appears to show a mile-and-a-half-long face on the surface of Mars arouses such instant curiosity that it has been published as a sales teaser on the front pages of both USA Today and the National Enquirer.

Wouldn't it make a lot of economic sense for NASA to use The Face? 'No,' they could concede, 'we super-smart scientists don't believe that this face-like formation is anything but a coincidence. Even so, we're perfectly willing to satisfy the public's curiosity about it. Accordingly, we are going to take all the photographs needed to settle the matter. We do work for the American people after all.'

Call it a public relations ploy. Would it be cynical, unprofessional, or wrong to do something on Mars that might attract the attention of average citizens? Conversely, would it be suspect—or just plain stupid—to bypass a golden opportunity for a mass media event that would make the space program seem dramatic and exciting?
Yet NASA has done everything possible to ignore and deny the potential benefits of re-photographing The Face—even to the extent of damaging the agency's reputation for scientific ethics. Why? Because unlike every other agency and bureau of the U.S. government, NASA has too much integrity to improve its image by doing something popular?

Personally, I found it hard to get too worked up about the big rock NASA's little sports car was trying to collide with.

Sunday, July 6

Breakfast at HoJo's with the Raymonds, then a lazy day at their house. Another couple and their three children arrived during the afternoon, and we wound up talking about kids and then about the new 'front seat' law.

'How are they going to know who's really thirteen and who isn't?' asked. the mother of three.

'That's a very good question,' Patrick replied.

Did anyone think about this during the legislative process? Or is anything and everything the police might do 'okay' as long as it's intended to save children's lives?
'Is this your daughter, sir?'


'How old is she?'


'She looks about nine.'

Now what? Do we adjourn to the police station and begin an investigation? Or are the children now obligated to carry their birth certificates with them? Perhaps what we really need is a national identity card issued at birth. Think how much help it would be in identifying underage smokers and underage drinkers in addition to underage front-seaters.

We moved tentatively into a discussion of the very broad front along which American freedoms are being whittled away. The Raymonds were clearly expecting resistance from this couple, but it didn't materialize. When we got into the subject of airport security, she—this All-American mother and public school teacher—volunteered that she'd actually had guns drawn on her when the X-ray monitor didn't like the look of an oversized slogan button in her purse. Yet having been through this, she was nevertheless stunned when I told her that a friend of mine had been strip-searched at the airport because he bought his plane ticket with cash.

We talked about the possibility that we are being trained to discount our own experience in favor of what we believe is supposed to be true. A woman overlooks the fact that she has been terrorized in the act of submitting to an unconstitutional invasion of her privacy. This doesn't fit into the generalized picture of a 'free' country. It must be an exception to what other people are experiencing. It isn't? What!

I suggested that there were other, bigger contradictions we weren't allowing ourselves to see. 'Think about this,' I said. 'People our age have spent their whole lives witnessing repeated demonstrations of the fact that government bureaucracies and programs are incapable of solving or ameliorating any social problem. Whatever situation is addressed by government action grows worse.' I listed some examples. Government tries to redistribute income to reduce the gap between rich and poor. The result? The gap between rich and poor is growing larger. Government tries to improve the quality of public education. Result? The quality of public education declines to the level of worldwide embarrassment. Government tries to eliminate poverty. Result? Poverty becomes so intractable that a new term, 'underclass,' is coined to describe a condition which can no longer be escaped by individual initiative. Government tries to eliminate the scourge of drugs. Result? Loss of entire urban neighborhoods to a murderous gangster economy based on the trade in illegal drugs. Government tries to guarantee health care to those who can't afford it. Result? The end of modestly prosperous doctors who do pro bono work for the poor and ever-increasing odds that a hospital emergency room will refuse to treat an American citizen who doesn't have the right piece of plastic in his wallet.

'We all know this,' I said. 'The record of our own eyes and ears is without exception. We have reached the point where government actually confesses that it can't solve problems—which authorizes politicians, somehow, to require us to volunteer to solve these problems on our own time. Officials we elected because they promised to solve the problems government has never solved mount the podium to give us pious lectures about the need for architects to wash graffiti off walls, engineers to teach illiterates how to read, and lawyers to build houses for the poor. What's more, they tell us it's our duty to do these things at the same time they're telling us they can't afford to give back any of the forty percent of our incomes they spend not solving the nation's problems. And how do we react to such nonsense?'

Patrick said, 'We rush out into the streets to wash graffiti off the walls. Of course.— '
'But how can we not see the absurdity, the grotesque irony, of public 'servants' who want to be paid for transforming us, the electorate, into manual laborers for the state?'
'What you said. We've been trained not to see it,' said the All-American mom.

Her husband threw up his hands. 'But what is there to do about it? You're right. We've seen it all our lives. Nothing changes it. It never gets better. So what can we do?'
We hesitated to bring it up. Last fall, the Raymonds and I took all kinds of heat from family and friends because we had started doing what there is to do. But we did bring it up, and this time we were surprised because they weren't as shocked as the people we'd talked to months ago.

Tuesday, July 8

Woke up around one a.m., unable to sleep. I turned on my multi-band radio. Tried the FM and AM dials, CB and shortwave bands, and found little of interest. Talk shows. A loudmouth still arguing with callers about the Holyfield-Tyson ear-biting match. A pushy broad on WWDB who's against the space program because there's enough to keep us busy here on earth, what with solving the problems of the cities, etc. She also argued with callers about the lyrics of her professed favorite national song, My Country 'tis of Thee. One lady had it right except for the last line, which she got confused with a lyric from God Save the King, and pushy broad knew it was wrong but not how. Another lady, drunk I think, was trying to get past the second line of It's a Grand Old Flag.
What is it in me that still believes there's something magical about the radio late at night? Believes that if I search carefully, I will find a station—faint and static-laden perhaps—on which someone is saying something important and true. Too many World War II movies when I was a kid? Am I imagining myself crouched before the wireless in Vichy France waiting for the facts to tiptoe into the zone of lies?

I guess I'm yearning for a Voice of America for Americans. That's probably how Rush Limbaugh's listeners feel about his broadcasts. But I can't stand him. The only intelligent remark I've heard from Howard Stern was his review of Limbaugh, which I can quote but approximately: 'I’d have more respect for him if he ever criticized the Republicans, but as it is he's only a boring shill.' My 'Voice of America for America' would criticize the Republicans, and the Democrats, and all the other people who believe that politics is the right means of dealing with important issues.

Thursday, July 10

The past several days have been taken up with house matters, trying to figure what to keep, what to sell, what to store, what to give away. I suppose it shouldn't, but it seems like an insuperable task, as if this house with its three-generation legacy is refusing to let me get out from under its weight.

Friday, July 11

In the news? The Martian sports car is stuck against the big rock. It's hard to resist the image of a kid's toy—the remote-controlled dune buggy that's run itself up against a wall or turned itself over trying to negotiate a mountain of pillows. You can sit and twiddle with the fancy control panel all you want, but sooner or later you have to cross the room and pick the darn thing up by hand. Except...

Tonight I finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (having only scanned the first half). It produces a welter of thoughts and haunting after-images, particularly of the final year. The bungled assassination attempt and the pathetic twelve-hour debacle of a military coup. The conspirators hung on meat-hooks and strangled slowly with piano wire—Goebbels himself unable to watch the film without covering his eyes. The families, friends and acquaintances of conspirators sent to concentration camps by the thousands. Hitler raging at his generals and single-handedly keeping Germany in the war for nine full months after the military effort should logically have collapsed. His amazing surprise offensive that came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower so completely fooled by Goebbels's propaganda about an impenetrable mountain redoubt stocked with secret weapons that he allows the Russians to take Berlin. Albert Speer racing along the Autobahns in his Mercedes to prevent Hitler's orders to destroy Germany from being carried out. Mussolini and his mistress dumped like dead rats in the street to be pelted with garbage before being tossed into a pauper's grave. Hitler raving in his bunker—face purple, left arm and right leg shaking in uncontrollable ague—but calming down long enough to write a pedestrian personal will including such phraseology as 'My wife and I desire to provide for our families... ' Goebbels and his wife slaying their six children by lethal injection before joining Hitler on a gasoline-fueled funeral pyre mere yards from the advancing Russian armies. Shirer seeing the captured Nazi ringleaders in prison, astonished at receiving the impression of deflated mediocrities, ordinary men plucked out of obscurity by a tornado of insanity and then deposited at last in an untidy heap of nonentity.

I know I might be expected to recant my earlier statement about Nazi Germany and 1990s U.S. not being moral opposites, but I'm inclined to stick with my original thoughts about that. Yes, everything about the Third Reich is extreme, almost impossibly so.
It seems a kind of horror cartoon in which every conceivable government-sponsored evil is drawn in bold lines and shocking colors. The term 'thousand year Reich' sticks in my mind, because it's as if Hitler did succeed in compressing a millennium's worth of atrocities into less than a dozen years. And maybe this is the most instructive perspective from which to view it, as an incredibly speeded-up demonstration of what a minority can do to the majority if they contrive to create a powerful enough system.
For there is a contradiction within the standard characterizations of the Nazi era. On the one hand we distance ourselves from it in a variety of ways. We tell ourselves that it was distinctively and uniquely German. We tell ourselves that in a modern world whose moral issues must generally be seen in shades of gray that impede action, here was an evil so pure and so black that it could not have happened in any fundamentally decent country. We know that we would stop it if it started to happen here.

On the other hand, we continually puzzle over one of the most widely reported phenomena of the Nazi era—that the most striking feature of the S.S. rank and file was their very ordinariness. These were the ones who jammed people like cattle into the railway cars bound for Auschwitz, the ones who guarded—and shot—starving slaves in the munitions factories, the ones who ordered the deathcamp inmates to strip off their clothes before entering the gas chamber and then locked them in while young women played Strauss waltzes on the well-kept lawns outside. The puzzle can be extended up and down the Nazi hierarchy. Adolph Eichmann's Israeli captors reportedly could not believe that the man who ran Hitler's extermination camps bore less resemblance to a demon from hell than to a civil service bureaucrat. And millions of 'good Germans' from every walk of life unquestionably collaborated in the design, construction, and logistical support of the Final Solution.

Many such 'ordinary people' were interrogated in the dock at Nuremberg. Their uniform defense, that they were 'following orders,' has usually been regarded as an excuse that explains little. And so we respond by shaking our heads and muttering the eternal question, 'What on earth is wrong with the Germans?' In other words, we defy the evidence of our senses and relieve our own discomfort by assuring ourselves that ordinary people are not ordinary people at all. They are barbarians, unprepossessing perhaps, but apart from the mass of real ordinary people.

This is too easy a way out. We have abundant evidence of what ordinary people can do in our own country. IRS agents who seize the assets of lower middle income people who have no chance of fighting back. Police officers who beat a man half to death while their colleagues stand by watching. Social workers who, on the basis of anonymous tips, order children removed from their homes in the middle of the night without probable cause or due process for the parents. Cost accountants who calculate that it is cheaper to pay settlements to the surviving relatives than to redesign a car whose gas tank explodes. Insurance company employees who deny life-and-death medical services to customers who don't meet the criteria. Tobacco company executives who sponsor fallacious research designed to prove that cigarettes don't kill people.
Ordinary people can do terrible things. They do not sprout horns, they may not wear black and silver uniforms, and they usually don't advocate the mass murder of millions. What they do is obey the individual day-to-day rules that govern their career and income opportunities.

Let's consider the case of a typical college graduate who goes to work for a typical Fortune 100 company. There are ways in which the luck of the draw may send him in an unanticipated direction. Let's say he gets a job in the company's personnel department, sometimes called Human Resources. He learns that the avowed mission of his department is to help employees receive necessary training and other kinds of support for their individual career development—because 'people are the company's most important resource.' He dutifully recites this platitude at every appropriate opportunity. At the same time he begins learning that the actual mission of the personnel department is to protect the company from its employees and to provide the necessary audit trail when they have to be fired, discredited, or defeated in court. He attends the meetings with high-ranking executives where unscrupulous actions are planned, and his compliance is not presented to him as a moral decision, or as a decision of any kind. It is assumed—and as he complies, he receives the desired approbation in the form of acknowledgment, nods, and perhaps an occasional scrap of praise. Depending on the company, there may be a language of circumlocution about the worst things done. He learns this language and acquires the ability to use it in planning and executing massive reductions in force, in health care and pension benefits, while the executives he serves grow ever richer on stock options and dubious share buyback schemes. In the fullness of time he marries, has children, engages in community activities, behaves in every way like a good citizen, and yet reports for work each day to play the role of liar, assassin, or executive errand boy, as required.

Now what is he really doing and what is he telling himself about it? He is, in many cases, (an accomplice in) destroying the careers and even the lives of employees and their families. Are there not, ultimately, deaths to be attributed to a layoff of 50,000 or even 10,000 people in a community? The plant closes, jobs are nonexistent, mortgages are foreclosed, children are forced to leave college, necessary medical care can't be afforded. Predictable results include increases in alcoholism, crime, divorce, illness, and death. Yet he is present when the people who make the big money speak coolly about 'how to position the workforce reduction in the most positive light.' He has heard the rumors about which stupid executive is responsible for the falloff in sales that forced the layoff. Does he think about this in terms of justice, or right and wrong, or personal moral responsibility? No. He is doing his job the way he has been taught to do it, and he may even be proud of what he has accomplished for his family and his company. If he ever hears the story of the unemployed foreman who fired a pistol into his mouth on the back porch—which is unlikely—he doesn't connect it with anything he himself has done or not done. He tells himself, 'Shit happens.'

So what is going on here? Has an ordinary man become an evil man, a lesser version of the S.S. concentration camp guard? Yes and no.

Yes—in that an ordinary man has become capable of actions that he would probably deplore if he could see them from an independent perspective.

No—in that the part of his mind which carries out such actions is part of his personal identity only by the geographical accident of being located in his brain. In reality, that part of his mind belongs to, and is an organic component of, the highly sophisticated system which runs the corporation. This is not a figurative statement but a literal fact. He could engage in a personal conversation about the undesirability—even the unethical nature—of activities he routinely performs, be sincere about what he says, then march directly into a meeting and deliver an overhead presentation about firing 15,000 employees. If you then challenged him on the contradiction, in all probability he wouldn't know what you were talking about. He follows orders because he has no choice in the matter. On some remote future day you could slap him in the dock and charge him with crimes against humanity, show him the record of what he was party to, and he would sit there as bewildered as any S.S. sergeant, unable to explain why he did such terrible things—unless the system of which he was a part were still in operation.

This is the lead-in to an interesting complication of the Nazi experience, one commented on as remarkable by Shirer in Rise and Fall. Even after the disastrous military defeat of 1918 when the royal family abdicated, much of the German government hierarchy remained in place. In 1945, the collapse of the Third Reich made fugitives of the entire Nazi apparatus, leaving Germany without a government of any kind. Within a week of the surrender, the Allies had to assume all responsibility for administering those services on which the people depended for survival. No phones ringing in the Reich offices. No more 'Heil Hitler' in place of 'hello.' No more meetings, no more orders, no more 'Fuehrer' flowing through the veins of Germany.

The end of the Reich was like the switching off of an electric current. All the circuits that could have received and applied the current were still there, inside the heads of all the ordinary people who had made up the Nazi bureaucracy, but now the only contact with those circuits was in the form of questions, and the questions were directed at the shrunken remains of the individual personal identity that had been suppressed and displaced by the Nazi system identity. No wonder the 'individual' Nazis were unable to account for their actions or explain, even to themselves, why they had been so unfailingly obedient.

If we were to amputate our little personnel manager from his corporate system, he would respond in much the same way. But as long as his company still exists and he feels part of it, the system circuits will continue to execute their programming—even to the point of perjury and other criminal offenses.

This may sound bizarre, but the experts have already taught us how this works in other contexts. We are all conversant with the term mob psychology, used to describe a temporary hysteria which binds ordinary people together with a force that drives them to commit crimes—say, lynching—they wouldn't normally contemplate. Thanks to Jonestown, Waco, and Heaven's Gate, we have also been lectured quite a bit about the psychology of cults, in which otherwise intelligent adults surrender their will and identity to a charismatic leader.

There is, of course, a certain amount of misdirection in the way such scenarios are presented. Mob psychology is at least implied to be a kind of instantaneous contagion, like a virus that attacks suddenly and spreads irresistibly—its potency closely related to its brevity. What might constitute 'immunity' (if it exists) is rarely discussed. Cult psychology is more often described in terms of its requirements than its operative elements—that is, the experts dwell in their discussions on the need for isolation from the outside world and the maintenance of close physical proximity to the leader; they do not dig deeply into the process by which the 'intelligent adult' yields even his family ties to the leader's demand for complete personal fealty. In both cases, the misdirection is a distancing mechanism, allowing us to see those who fall prey to mobs or cults as weaker, more easily influenced than ourselves. We wouldn't lose our heads so quickly and completely. We wouldn't allow ourselves to be cut off so entirely from the world at large. We are safe from such extreme experiences—an assumption made easier by our determinedly outside perspective. But what if such extreme experiences are only exaggerated instances of something much more common and pervasive than we want to recognize?

The value of the Nazi experience lies in its ability to show us that mob psychology and cult psychology may be different faces of exactly the same phenomenon. For example, Hitler's Germany can be viewed as a stretched-out case of mob psychology, in which a nation-sized mob carried out the lynching of whole peoples over a period of eleven years. Or it can be seen as a cult operating on an enormous scale, with the leader's demand for loyalty superseding all other values and relationships.

What's interesting about this perspective is that it suggests the critical factors of both phenomena may be other than those commonly emphasized. The mob is not necessarily an explosive or short-lived entity. The cult is not necessarily a small-scale organization dependent on continuous physical contact with its leader. What, then, might be the real critical factors?

Regardless of what assumptions we make about their duration, both the mob and the cult are communities—the coming together of people for a shared purpose. What they offer is belonging and a sense of the exalted power that accompanies any unified group endeavor. The sensation of exalted power is a reward that recompenses the individual for his sacrifice of one or more aspects of individual identity. The mob tends to engage in violent antisocial behavior, while the cult may not. The cult tends to have a strong charismatic leader, while the mob may not. Yet if community is the binding criterion, the mob and the cult are simply distinctive varieties of the same basic mechanism.
If this is so, all the comforting distance between us and the mob/cult experience is gone. Every organization is a community. Every company may be a cult. Every bureaucracy may be a mob. And vice versa. In this expanded context, it may be that even using the words 'cult' and 'mob' is counter-productive. Such words may prevent us from seeing that every major organizational affiliation in our lives is an encounter with a system which will seek to replace important components of individual identity with its own identity and values.

What does this mean to us? That when we go to work for any large organization, we will be under attack—malignantly or benignly—by system influences which are intent on seizing parts of our brains for system purposes. Whether our submission depends on titles or terror, the attack will hit us where we are most vulnerable, and it will not end until we reject the system, the system rejects us, or the system owns us completely. This behavior of systems isn't necessarily ominous or evil. It's what systems do. The bigger and stronger they get, the more efficient they get at controlling the people whose minds they use. That's why they always seek to grow bigger, regardless of whether or not growth serves any human purpose. The only possible defense against a system's imperative for growth and control is for people to know who they are and what the system is and will do.

Now it so happens that the Nazi mob/cult/community/system was also a government. As such, it represents an extreme experience of the impact of government on individuals and peoples. The speed at which it proceeded from genesis to annihilation may be more a reflection of its efficiency than its structural differences from other modern, technologically supported government systems.

Why did the framers of the U.S. Constitution distrust government so much? Haven't we Americans always known that the real battle for civilization depended on the individual's ability to stand up for human values against the crushing weight of institutional and organizational power?

Or have we forgotten that? And if we have forgotten, who or what owns the part of our brain that compelled us to forget?

Saturday, July 12

A wild day at the Pet Palace. Near our noon closing time, a little dog named Eli got tired of having his hair cut and made a break for it. He put a move on the groomer and her helper, made it to the inner door which happened to be open (it isn't supposed to be), then dashed through the lobby and hurled his body against the outside door. It opened.

After that it was nuts. He legged it across the parking lot and disappeared into the housing and condo development across the street. The supervisor and one of the kennel girls went after him in a car. A few minutes later, the vet and I joined in the hunt, first on foot, then in the doctor's Mercedes. We looked in the few patches of woods and tall grass. We asked the people we saw on the sidewalks. We stopped the mailman on his rounds and made inquiries of him. No sign of Eli. We decided to try the next development down and as we prepared to make the turn across the street from the Pet Palace the supervisor hailed us to come back.

We looked for Eli but he wasn't there. He had been located by telephone. When the supervisor called the owner to tell him what had happened, he already knew. Eli wasn't lost at all. He had simply gone home. Dogs are amazing. Straight from the grooming table to his own front door. 'Enough of this haircutting business. Time I was on my way.'

And then the owner brought him back for a bath, because Eli had. managed to get pretty dirty in his mad dash for the comforts of home. The supervisor was still so shaken up, almost in tears, that the owner hugged her to let her know it was all okay. Thank God. It would be a terrible thing to lose someone's dog because we weren't paying attention to our doors.

Another adventure in the afternoon. The vet is working on a photographic project that's taking him all over the Delaware Valley. A few weeks back he discovered my home town, and his interest in New Jersey has been increasing ever since. So I went with him this time to show him another small town even deeper in the fading economy of South Jersey. I hadn't been there myself in a couple of years, and it was a shock, once again, to see how many more of its factories and businesses were shut down and deserted. There used to be a major glass plant. No more. There used to be two tomato canneries. No more. There used to be a dressmaking factory, a dyeing and finishing business, a vegetable processing plant. No more. The only new building we saw is a state-and-federal government office complex. The businesses that survive look like they are slowly crumbling away—a Honda motorcycle dealership has three letters of its name dangling from one rusty nailhead each.

But the little place that always made the great submarine sandwiches was still there, and we had a fine lunch together at a table in front of the refrigerated soft drink cases. We talked sandwiches with the proud old lady who owns the business. She seems to know every sub and hoagie joint within a hundred miles.

I returned to my house to do more sorting and packing. Enough said about that.
CNN was gushing with the news that the Martian rover had been freed from the big rock, but they also reported (with a smirk) that the Internet was full of rumors about the Mars mission being a fake—red-tinted footage of the New Mexico desert.

HBO presented another heavyweight boxing embarrassment. Lennox Lewis was defending some ersatz title against a strange young man with an unpronounceable name. The referee stopped the fight in the fifth because of excessive holding by the challenger. It was a ludicrous event, and I'm sure the sports talk shows won't tire of rehashing it for at least a week.

I started to watch Under Siege II for the third time, but ran out of gas and went to bed.

Sunday, July 13

Up at seven and hours of messing around with the house. Then up to Patrick's place in Pennsylvania for dinner. Young Andrew was in attendance and regaled us with the story of a party he had hosted at his house for former high school companions. He was disgusted by their unwillingness to engage him in conversation even on topics they supposedly cared deeply about.

The day was punishingly hot, so we allowed ourselves to be couch potatoes for an hour or two. Andrew had never seen our favorite news anchor on CNN, Lynn Russell. The Raymonds and I are so fond of her that Elizabeth has been videotaping her on-camera segments at intervals for months. It's grown to be quite an amusing reel. For about twenty minutes, Lynn Russell maintains exactly the same wry tone of voice on every story while her hair goes through dozens of 'do's' and her wardrobe careens from simple black dresses to red soldier suits to elegant blouses. The best clip of all is her intro to a story about women on the Internet, in which she manages to utter the phrase 'women going on-line,' with the subtlest and yet most sarcastic jeer imaginable. Andrew was charmed, and we described for him our vision of Lynn Russell arriving in her limo every day bare seconds before air time, scoffing at the producer's umpteenth request that she at least read the teleprompter copy before she has to deliver it on camera.

'You're saying she doesn't care about the news?' asked Andrew with a grin.
'We're saying she's got her priorities in order, and she doesn't bother her head about meaningless trivia.'

We moved outside after dinner and sat in the near dark talking of small things. Elizabeth referenced a previous discussion about government ownership of our bodies and told me she'd heard a proposal to tax fatty foods—the idea being to force Americans to slim down. I told her that was right up there with the discussion topic I'd seen a few months ago on CNN & Company (a regular panel of three female journalists, not including Lynn Russell): 'Should smokers lose custody of their children?'

Movies came up. Patrick and I share an interest in bad action movies of both the 'A' and 'B' varieties. While I was giving in to the temptation to see Under Siege II again, he was falling victim once more to Executive Decision Andrew hadn't seen it, so we recapped the plot for him. In the telling, it's almost the same as Under Siege II——a secret U.S. military technology falls into the hands of terrorists, threatening the passengers on a train/plane as well as the residents of Washington, DC. What to do? Send in Steven Seagal to kill the terrorists, rescue the passengers, and, if there's time, DC too. The only thing different about Executive Decision is the twist about killing off Seagal before he can save the day, which means that bookish Kurt Russell has to do it—ve-e-e-ery slowly—with the help of a brave and beautiful flight attendant. There's a Marx Brothers quality about the piece, with Russell constantly popping up inside cupboards and service panels and elevators to ask one more dangerous favor of the flight attendant before the heavily armed commandos can make their appearance.
After a good laugh about the special effects in Seagal's death scene, we returned to a subject Patrick and I have discussed many times before—the possibility that there is a collective meaning to the clichéed plots used in bad popular entertainment. I once read a theory—I wish I could remember whose—that popular culture becomes a kind of underground railroad for archetypal themes that are being ignored or censored by highbrow culture. Such themes may appear in a badly degenerated form, but at the least their most rudimentary essence is being preserved for the day when the official culture rediscovers their value. This made enormous sense to me, and I started watching bad movies in a new way, almost in aggregate, as if they were unconsciously designed pieces of a puzzle that could indeed be fitted together into a coherent picture.
For example, the Under Siege/Executive Decision plot can be read as a cartoonish treatment of two themes that are being ignored by intellectual culture. First, there is the implicit awareness that the U.S. government is a runaway leviathan, with no one fully in charge or capable of controlling its appetite for predation. The terrorists are themselves a by-product of that predation, having been servants or victims of it or both. Whatever ambiguities may be present in terms of our expected response have generally to do with these villains. At times they could be proxies for us, tough and ruthless enough to break the eggs for a wickedly delicious omelet we dare not order from the menu. At others they seem more like the face behind the mask of power, the unabashed willingness to use the high-tech killer toys that must have sponsored their creation in the first place. In either case, they display a knife-edged decisiveness which mocks the gassy committee response of a government that makes easy choices hard because it must pretend to care equally about everyone and everything.

The good intentions of individuals within the government—and even within the military—are represented, but these are shown to be impotent under the weight of the obese monstrosity the government has become. Note that this is not a liberal view—it expressly undermines the notion that serious problems can be solved politically by caring legislators. When elected politicians make an appearance, they are depicted as selfish, stupid, and hypocritical fools who are themselves destined to become victims—the U.S. Senator on the plane in Executive Decision gets killed trying to make personal political hay out of the hijacking.

Overlaid on this theme is the archetype of the hero, which has been banished from serious literature for most of this century. He is preserved in the movies as a caricature—racing from one impossibly dangerous situation to another with near-miraculous impunity. Almost invariably he is depicted as a loner, a rule breaker, a man natively at odds with authority. The caption seems to be that we need exactly this kind of hero, although the odds against his success are incredibly long.

There are, of course, endless variations of this particular plot combination—the Rambo movies add the image of the hero as a specifically targeted victim of the U.S. leviathan, although he nevertheless saves the day—a comic book Christ figure. John Carpenter's Snake Plisskin flicks, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.—cloak the same basic formula in confused political innuendo but offer the same image of the persecuted hero who must be induced to rescue a mindlessly authoritarian political system. In fact, Escape from L.A. ends with Snake Plisskin pulling the plug on all of technological civilization, upping the ante to a level worthy of the Una-Bomber. The Die Hard movies downplay the complicity of the leviathan in the crisis being addressed, but go out of their way to depict the bullying impotence of federal law enforcement organizations and, to a lesser degree, their state and municipal counterparts.

Scores of cheaper, slapped-together movies that make their appearance on late-night cable also give us this same story again and again and again. One could argue that the David and Goliath theme obviously makes for a good story, but the appeal to the American public may very well include the subliminal awareness that there is something fundamentally true about the premise which does not quite come across in the analyses offered by journalists, pundits, and politicians.

Is this plot significant or meaningful? Hard to tell, I grant, but contrast it with the westerns of a generation or two ago. The hero is present—still a loner and a rule breaker—but even he is grateful when the cavalry arrives, and when the government makes mistakes and causes problems in an old western, it is still not presented as any kind of impersonal intractable ogre.

There's another stereotypical movie plot that I believe may be groping toward a concealed and very real problem in the American culture. This is the 'Cyborg' theme, which has been worked and reworked in probably hundreds of different ways—ranging from such critically acclaimed efforts as Blade Runner, RoboCop, and Terminator to junky ripoffs like The Demolitionist (female RoboCop), American Cyborg, Johnny Mnemonic, and, most recently, Screamers. What's interesting to me about these is that they have been interpreted by critics as addressing a deep-seated human fear. I suspect, however, that the fear being addressed goes considerably deeper than the one usually cited.

The standard explanation is that we're afraid of the advances in genetics and computer technology which may one day soon blur the line between human being and machine. Thus, we are given the plight of RoboCop, a human being turned into a microprocessor-controlled cyborg by a ruthlessly exploitative corporation. Can his humanity survive the deliberate technological attempt to destroy it? In much the same vein, we are given Johnny Mnemonic, most of whose memory has been erased to permit his brain to be used as a mass storage device for computer data. Can he regain his life and his humanity even as he saves the rest of mankind from the paralyzing AIDS-reminiscent disease caused by overexposure to information technology? In much the same vein. we are given the near-perfect 'replicants' of Blade Runner, who inspire pathos with their desire to be human even though they are artificially created pieces of organic machinery. What will be the difference in the future between humanity and technology? Interestingly, there is also a later release of Blade Runner, captioned 'the director's cut,' in which the hero, a professional killer of replicants, is shown to be—quite possibly—a replicant himself.

Reinforcing this 'fear of technology' theme is the strain of movies inspired by Terminator, in which the cyborg is decidedly more powerful and predatory than any human being. The standard plot shows the pathetic inadequacy of flesh and blood beings burdened by conscience and other baggage when the creature after them is exquisitely designed and programmed to eradicate them. Hints of this are also to be found in the movies already cited. Johnny Mnemonic features a Terminator-like religious(?) cyborg, and the hero of Blade Runner is really no match for the replicant 'superman' played by Rutger Hauer. Completing the circle, Terminator II offers us a killer cyborg acquiring humanity in the process of protecting a 12-year-old human boy.

And so, the reviewers would have it, we're afraid of the possibility of corporate abuses of technology that will become dangerous to us both physically and mentally. They’ll create artificial beings to control us, and they’ll replace pieces of our bodies to the point where our original identity may be imperiled. It's an interpretation that's plausible enough, as far as it goes. But what if it doesn't go far enough?

Yes, there's an obvious entertainment value in science fiction and its designer-future images. And, yes, people may find sufficient appeal in the prospect of some 2lst century cyborg threat to make hits of such fare. But these movies are just as popular as the Under Siege/Executive Decision genre, which suggests to me that there may be a much more immediate fear embedded in them that hasn't been brought to light.

Movies personify abstractions. They have to because film is a visual medium. The villainous CEO stands in for the anonymous greed of Corporate America. The conniving, amoral CIA executive stands in for the vast, intrusive intelligence bureaucracy. And so on. Why is it therefore the case that the title characters of Terminator, RoboCop, and Johnny Mnemonic must be taken literally, as specific human-machine combinations that could be implemented to our detriment? What if they are also stand-ins?

I believe they are. What's more, I believe that computer technology is also functioning in these movies as a kind of stand-in. The fear being recorded in these movies is a genuine and well-founded fear of essentially the same leviathan depicted in the Under Siege/ Executive Decision genre. The cyborgs are a way of putting a face on the vast faceless system which presses harder on us every day. In Terminator, we are given the nightmare vision of a war between technology—i.e., the system—and humanity, which we humans can win only by turning back the clock and undoing what has already been done. In other words, the war is well underway and we are losing it.

In RoboCop and Johnny Mnemonic, we're given symbolic representations of what we are becoming, nominal human beings who have been invaded, incorporated into an inhuman scheme that is turning us into robots. At some deep level, we feel that this is already happening and that we may already have lost our souls to it. Hence the odd circumstance of two Blade Runners—the first giving us a human being in conflict with an impenetrable power structure that annihilates its own creations, the second revealing that the human being was lost before he even realized there was a conflict.

There's an additional possibility in here. What if these movies, with their cinematic requirement to personify every abstraction, have accidentally captured the deepest fear of all? That this vast overarching system has acquired its own consciousness and knows full well what it is doing. That we are being deliberately transformed, by an authentically superhuman power, into automaton slaves of the system. That the Terminator is here and is stalking us.

Yes, I know. It's all idiotic. Couldn't be. We talked about it anyway, and then I went home.

Monday, July 14

MISCELLANEOUS: A day of old news stories cycling back. ValuJet is merging with a smaller airline and abandoning its own name in favor of TransAir, the name of the smaller carrier it's joining with. Wonder why? Much fanfare about a recreation of TWA Flight 800 designed to see if the crash scenario can be reproduced. A segment on NPR revisiting the death of the Communications Decency Act—female correspondents cruising the Internet seeing what kind of free porn they can turn up—a weird tone of voice mingling mild shock with mild condescension. It didn't sound to me like they'd found anything especially hot—but I'm just a guy. An announcement that 'Joe Camel' is retiring—I guess it won't be long before he starts turning up on the talk shows peddling his book about the trauma of public vilification. I think he should sue somebody for defamation of character. He could make millions. And, of course, O.J. popped into the headlines again. He had a big party to mark the end of his tenure at the Brentwood estate, which is now in foreclosure. A concession that AIDS deaths are in decline—although a supposedly conservative talk show host on WWDB reacted to the story by arguing for more mandatory AIDS testing—then repeated an old assertion of his that AIDS can be transmitted by 'deep kissing.' If this were so, wouldn't we all be dead by now? In local news, New Jersey legislators are calling for a special session to ram through a ten percent reduction in car insurance. Still no mention of undoing license extortion, but a ten percent rate cut would probably convince everyone that 'we the people' are still somehow in control. One of the tabloids is featuring a picture of Timothy McVeigh under the quote, 'OH GODI I DON'T WANNA DIEI" Could it be that he's a typical American after all?

Tuesday, July 15

By Friday I should have a phone in my new apartment. And Patrick's secretary even arranged for caller I.D. Another technology I have mixed feelings about, but in view of the situation with creditors, I’ll take it.

I got some great news today. An old friend of mine is flying out from Las Vegas next week to help me liquidate the contents of the house. He used to be in that business himself and knows all the auction houses in the Delaware Valley. He confirmed that they're all crooks, but he knows how to get the best possible deals. I still can't believe he volunteered to do it. I have been blessed with some magnificent friends.

After work I tried listening to the radio, but NPR was doing a long interview with a NASA scientist about Martian geology—yawn—and WWDB was engaged in its nightly health fanatic show with Dr. Jim Khoury—yawn squared. I can't believe this guy is on every single night, a booming blowhard who gets amazingly excited about organic nutritional supplements and the kind of dried kelp they sell in bodybuilding supply stores. A bunch of aging guys call in every night to brag about how much younger they've gotten since they started mainlining Vitamin Q2 or whatever it is. I don't know how he does it but Khoury somehow manages to slap them all on the back over the airwaves. Or it seems like that anyway.

I turned it off. Read some. Thought about the diary for a while. I don't know if anyone but Patrick will find it interesting or provocative. There are ways, though, in which I believe it is different from other kinds of cultural commentary, and it occurs to me that I've never heard anyone discuss the credential value of being uncredentialed.

I was a management consultant for a decade, and I do have some credentials in that arena. I specialized in forming deep and wide relationships with single companies—including General Motors and Whirlpool Corporation—for whom I did many projects over periods of four to five years each. I had successes and failures. I stuck around long enough to help my clients deal with the consequences of both. I pioneered some new concepts that worked and some that didn't. I tried to learn from the experience. Eventually, I reached a point where I knew I had enough content for a business book on the subject of large-scale corporate change processes. Then I sat down to think about the definition of a business book—what it had to be to look like a marketable product to publishers.

That proved to be an interesting exercise because it turns out that business books are hybrid beasts. They appear to be a first cousin of academic or scientific books, in that they are conspicuously concerned with ideas which the authors know must be verified with facts. The standard format goes something like this: 1) Here's a big problem that's hurting a lot of businesses; 2) Here's a great idea/strategy for solving the big problem; 3) Here are a bunch of companies who have implemented the idea/ strategy with outstanding results; 4) Here's what you need to do to implement the idea/ strategy successfully in your business.

Step 3, of course, is the necessary proof that must accompany any academic or scientific hypothesis if it is to be acted upon. It's the section of text in which the physicist records his experimental methods, observations and data, where the geneticist shows what happened when he mated 90 generations of fruit flies to see which ones would have white eyes and which ones would have red eyes, and where the social scientist goes on for hundreds of pages about how the sample and control groups were selected to ensure that the oh-so-carefully designed behavioral experiment would be spotlessly unbiased. I know I've already used the word, but it's worth repeating that Step 3 is about proof. That's the requirement implied by the choice of this particular format.
It's also a requirement that business book authors do everything in their power to meet. The only problem is that it's impossible to meet this requirement in a business book. Not just unlikely or difficult, but so far beyond the realm of possibility that it is, in fact, a lie of sorts to make the attempt at all.

Why do I say that? Business books are written, overwhelmingly, by consultants. In this context, the consultant-author is purportedly using his clients as lab rats in a management science experiment. He conceives of his idea/strategy, selects the appropriate company in which to test it out, designs the experiment, carries it out, then coldly analyzes the results for use in Step 3 of his book. What a crock. If the social scientist worked the way the consultant does, he would have to solicit a Request For Experiment from the test subjects he seeks to use in his experiment, explain in exhaustive detail the purpose and methodology and expected results of the experiment to these same potential test subjects, convince them that it will be to their financial advantage to participate, then allow them to redesign the experiment as they will—with the scientist having to wear a fixed smile the whole time—and let them record whatever results seem meaningful to them, without any third-party verification of accuracy, in the awareness that whatever happens, the experiment is likely to be declared either a complete success or a non-event that is not to be reported on ever. What's more, there will be no control group data, the test subjects will have the right to review and make revisions to the experimental results reported, and it will never be possible to duplicate the conditions of any one experiment. Oh, and one more thing: the social scientist's experiment will always be conducted concurrently with dozens of other experiments that may contribute to, detract from, or otherwise distort the results in ways that can't be measured.

Anyone who can extract proof from a procedure like that is either a liar or a salesman. But, of course, that's exactly what the consultant is—a salesman who carries a big bag full of ideas and strategies that are good if companies buy them and bad if they don't.
Okay. All I'm saying, really, is that a business book is actually a sales brochure that looks like a (semi) scientific treatise.

Businessmen know the score, or at least some of them do, to some extent. And in the world of Corporate America, the rule of Buyer Beware is one of the oldest commandments. My purpose is not to indict the consultants who are forced to play this game, but to suggest some of the real implications of what is, in essence, a credentialing exercise. For—from its format to the staid author bio on its flyleaf—the content of a business book is determined by an accepted standard of what constitutes credibility, a standard that owes more to tradition and conformity than to common sense, but without which the intended audience is not expected to buy the product.
All the charts and graphs and data tables that make up the phony Step 3 'proof' credential are acquired at the cost of strategic advantage to business. The most profitable time to try a promising new idea is when the idea is really new, not when it has been pawed over by dozens of other companies. The effect of Step 3 is to guarantee that new ideas don't reach the business market at all. This state of affairs wouldn't be quite so damaging if the built-in delay produced some benefit, but the reality is that the old ideas are just as tentative as new ones would be, except that their tentativeness has been deliberately and systematically concealed. Who profits from this besides the consultant-authors? Certainly not business, which routinely gets taken in by this year's bestselling 'solution,' wastes millions of dollars on a wild scheme that looked like a guaranteed winner, and then shuns the next miracle solution, which could actually be a better idea.

Mightn't there be a place in the business book universe for a pure thinker, one who acknowledges the hypothetical and theoretical nature of his reasoning, as well as the biases that are built into his professional experience? He could say, 'Don't get me wrong, I could be all wet about this, but here's my reasoning and the evidence I'm basing it on. Think about it for yourself, Mr. Businessman, and decide whether it's worth a try.'

But the publishers are afraid of open-endedness, a kind of conclusion which requires the reader to make demands on his own noggin. That's why there has to be Step 4 in the business book: here are the six (three/nine/four) things that will assure your success if you implement this idea/strategy. If you can't get to the cookbook recipe, don't expect to attract an audience.

Now the significance of this whole digression about business books is that something like the same rules appear to be governing the various fields we might lump together as cultural commentary. It can be hard to see from outside just how much of the content in any category of commentary is determined by the credentialing process, which affects even such apparently non-proof-oriented forms as the essay. (He couldn't have written nine books and worked fifteen years for The New Yorker if he were a complete idiot, could he?) The answer to the question, Who are you to say?' is provided no later than the second paragraph of every query letter to a publisher.

If I want to comment on education, I know going in that I have to demonstrate my right to comment, which means I have a degree in it, I have worked inside the education establishment, I have been active in the politics of education reform, or I am simply famous enough to get away with sounding off about it. In other words, I don't dare be a pure outsider, say, a mere consumer of public education or its products. In still other words, I don't dare be a customer of any kind. Much the same constraint applies to every other field in which someone might wish to identify or analyze problems. Opinion and commentary on the state of the legal system requires me to have a law degree or experience inside the judicial system, even if it's as a defendant or prisoner. Psychology and sociology topics, a degree and/or experience inside the mental health or social work establishment. Government and political science, degree and/or experience. Media practices and journalism, the same. For feminism and women's rights, the credentialing process is looser, but I’d at least better be a woman.

What drives this set of conventions is the not unreasonable notion that it helps to know what you're talking about. But what isn't taken into account is the possibility that every discipline and arena has its own orthodoxy, its own accepted range of views. It's permissible, of course, for a commentator with the right credentials to take a position outside the accepted range, but his very notion of what constitutes a revolutionary position is constrained by his knowledge of what his peers deem possible, practical, and safe. It is, for example, unlikely that a lawyer would arrive at Shakespeare's prescription to 'kill the lawyers.' Thus, the credentialing focus on intimate expertise is inherently conservative, and the expert's understandable desire to remain an expert creates a powerful incentive to conclude even the harshest attack with the five (eight/ four/seven) reforms that will solve the problem.

Exactly the same constraints apply to those who are set before us on the television treatments of serious issues, except that there is the further requirement that the expert be succinct and, better yet, able to turn a phrase, which is to say able to simplify complexity to the dimensions of a sound bite.

Where does that leave all us ordinary non-expert Americans? Aren't we the customers of all the disciplines whose experts speak to us as, in effect, salesmen for their own establishment-based expertise? And how can their perspective be anything like ours? They are disqualified from our perspective by the very fact that they know too much. They know too much about how things got to their current state to believe that they can be changed more than a little. They know too much about what their peers think to allow the possibility that all of them are simply wrong about most of it. They know too much about the organizational inertia they deal with every day to believe that our opinion, yea or nay, matters at all. And they know too much about how careers are made and broken in their fields to risk becoming pariahs by speaking too honestly about anything.

Isn't there a case for the uncredentialed point of view? The only credential I can and will claim is that I'm an American citizen who is honestly trying to think about everything that's going on. If anyone wants to reject my ideas, I won't be pulling out any degree to beat him over the head with. I invite everyone who encounters my unproven and unprovable ramblings to think for himself about these same topics. And if I can't find any answers along the way, I'm certainly not going to make them up. If we've reached the point where there are no answers, that's the most important information American citizens could possibly receive.

Wednesday, July 16

This evening I had dinner with Andrew Carmody. He asked if I wanted to attend a meeting of some of his former schoolmates at Patrick's house Saturday night. When I heard the names I groaned, as I know Patrick must have when it was put to him. We have already had a couple of 'discussion' sessions with these kids—now college sophomores—and their persistence in wanting such meetings has become baffling to us. Andrew understood my lack of enthusiasm, but I will probably attend for the same reason that Patrick agreed to host it. Some obscure sense of duty that overrides the sense of futility.

'You don't have to do it,' Andrew said.

'I know, ' I told him. 'It's just that I don't understand what they think they get out of it. They don't really talk. They want Patrick and me to talk. And if you ask them questions, they can't answer them. The whole thing always seems like a huge bust, and then a few days later Patrick gets an e-mail telling him how wonderful it all was. Once he polled them by e-mail to ask them why it was so wonderful, and to be specific about it, and they all answered that it was great to think about big ideas. Which ideas?' Patrick asked. They didn't know. 'Uh, ideas. You know.' What's that all about, Andrew?'
He thought. 'For them,' he speculated, 'I guess it's like watching a special on TV. It's so different from what they're used to. Usually, their time is spent killing time. What do we do now?'

'They really say that?'

"All the time." Andrew laughed mirthlessly. 'They don't know what to do. They go to a concert, they go to a movie. Everything's always the same. So when they come to see you and Patrick, it's like this exciting show that's nothing like anything else they do. They don't talk because they're watching the show, and then they agree afterwards that the show was really good, and they want to see it again.'


These were college students we were talking about. A couple of them were enrolled in some fairly prestigious universities. They were graduates of a private school that boasted the highest average SAT scores in one of Philadelphia's most affluent suburban counties. In our first session together, they volunteered that they had never just sat around a table talking about things. Not once in their lives.

Two years ago, Patrick had made suggestions to their school administration about the curriculum for the course in Christian Apologetics. The school was nominally Christian in its charter, the administration was warm in its response, and Patrick soon discovered that he had volunteered to teach apologetics himself. He was to teach the entire senior class, half of them per semester. Shortly after he began, he discovered that none of his students knew anything about church history. Then he discovered that they didn't seem to know much about history period. He was nonplussed. He spent the rest of the semester trying to awaken their curiosity about what they had missed, and some of them seemed to respond. When he ran into the same wall of ignorance with the second half of the senior class, however, he decided he had to try something different.
We talked about it and reached the conclusion that teachers must be making discoveries like this all the time. Why don't we ever hear about it? Probably because it's a dirty secret that has to be covered up. So we elected to pursue an opposite course. Perhaps the only positive step one could take was to find bottom.' Just how bad was it?

As part of his curriculum materials, Patrick had a list of seventy-five significant historical dates. We used this as a template and compiled a list of the seventy-five historical events, all the way from the birth of Alexander the Great and the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the bombing of Hiroshima. American history was somewhat over-represented, but not in any esoteric way. In the next class session, Patrick handed out the list of events and told the class to date them (year only).

The results were so appalling that Patrick wound up grading the test on the basis of just four dates: Columbus's discovery of America, The Declaration of Independence, Pearl Harbor, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Of the thirty-two college-bound high school seniors in the class, two got all four of the dates correct. The majority got only one or two correct. Some got none of them correct. On the rest of the list their performance was laughable.

We weren't laughing, though. By reputation and record, this was a good high school. We thought someone in the administration would want to know what the test had revealed. Patrick discussed it with administrators and history teachers. They wanted to know if he had announced the test. They downplayed the importance of knowing dates. They wanted to know what mainstream historical events had to do with Christian Apologetics. Patrick patiently explained that the Christian faith and the Church existed within the context of western civilization and could neither be understood nor defended without knowing the relationship between, say, the Reformation and the Renaissance. He was told that it was unfair to test students without some warning of what they would be asked about.

But where was bottom? The date test had plunged through any concept of bottom we had estimated. We designed another exercise. This time we gave them five names: Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, William Shakespeare, and Adolph Hitler. We told them to write down everything they knew about these five people. They could have the whole class period to do it in. Most didn't need the whole period. Some of the responses for individual names were only one or two lines long. Napoleon was variously identified as a French explorer and a French artist. Julius Caesar was consistently confused with Pontius Pilate. Hitler was called a Marxist on enough papers to make us suspect they'd actually heard this somewhere. Saddest were the treatments of Abraham Lincoln, almost invariably lame recitals of movie images—rail splitting, stovepipe hats, and the beard—rather than history. A few knew his birth year, almost no one ventured to date the Civil War (even after the date test), and none of the responses attempted to characterize the meaning of the Civil War or Lincoln's contribution as president. They did know that he had been assassinated. One boy knew more than a dozen titles of Shakespeare plays, but on the whole, the class couldn't list much more than a scattering of his works, and they were hazy about when he might have written them, and what the big deal was about this particular playwright.
Then, out of the blue, Patrick did receive some indication of where bottom was. After giving this test, he was collared by one of the female students, who urgently requested to meet with him privately. He did so the next morning, in the school library. She had a terrible personal story to relate. As the child of abusive parents, she had been moved from place to place all her life and had never attended school before being put in a foster home three years before. Since then she had been working feverishly to make up the lost time and to conceal her lack of schooling from everyone but the school administration. She was in a panic when she spoke to Patrick because she was certain that the five-name exercise had finally blown her cover. Thus, she wanted to explain to Patrick why she had done so miserably on the test. Patrick tried to console her. The truth was that her test paper was indistinguishable from the others, except that it may have been marginally better than most.

So this was bottom. High school seniors fared no better than a girl who hadn't been to school for the first fourteen years of her life.

Patrick bound all the test papers together—date and name both—along with an essay assignment he had given earlier. One or two of the essays were reasonably well written and coherently if not imaginatively argued. The rest were atrocious—pitiful concatenations of misspellings, gruesome grammar and usage, and incoherent writing that in some cases could be read only as a series of random non sequiturs.

He made copies of the binder, distributed them to key members of the administration and faculty with a cover letter suggesting that the school had a serious academic problem to deal with. Less than two weeks later, he was summarily dismissed from the teaching assignment he had undertaken without pay and at faculty request.

The students we had been meeting with informally were alumni of this course, and they professed to have gotten value from it. We talked with them about the plight of their generation, the need for them to educate themselves and learn how to think for themselves as individuals. They agreed that their generation was in trouble, but they didn't ever seem to realize that we were including them in the population of the impaired. Somehow they exempted themselves, perhaps because they were sitting there with Patrick of their own volition, but multiple meetings and hours of conversation had never elicited from them anything more profound than the content of the woeful essays in the binder.

And so we were both reluctant to send them away and reluctant to endure the same experience again. The last time we had gotten together, I asked them to tell me the meaning of life. I told them it was the only question worth asking because it encompassed all others. They nodded soberly, confirmed that it seemed an important question, and never made the slightest effort to respond to it.

Andrew and I had an enjoyable dinner, and then I went home and early to bed.
MISCELLANY: Before going to the restaurant, Andrew went to a business meeting in Philadelphia. The way out of town took us down Delaware Avenue along the riverfront. I asked Andrew if he had ever seen the S. S. United States, which is anchored near the Walt Whitman Bridge. He said he hadn't and so we drove down past the entrance to I-95 to take a look at the world's longest ocean liner, now decommissioned. I had been briefly aboard her almost thirty-five years ago, in the port of Genoa, when she was still plying the South Atlantic, and I knew that she had set the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a passenger ship. It made me feel old to see her up close again. The red, white, and blue paint is peeling off her monster twin stacks, and rust is eating away at the superstructure and the 1200 foot long hull. I don't know what the plans were for this relic, but they must have miscarried because there's no sign that anyone cares what's happening here.

We pulled up near the bow and parked. Andrew gazed at the crumbling white paint that used to spell an illustrious name.

'The United States,' he said slowly.

'Yes,' I said. 'Sad, isn't it?'

'Very sad.'

Thursday, July 17

While I was getting dressed, I heard an announcement on NPR that the Episcopal Church is having a big meeting in Philadelphia this weekend. I know there will be some major repercussions from this event. The church that Patrick and his family have been attending is probably going to be booted out of the Philadelphia diocese because its leadership refuses to accept the Episcopate's decision to ordain women and homosexuals and to sanction homosexual marriages. The limbo they've been occupying since defying the bishop will almost certainly end with the pronouncements that come out of the Philadelphia synod (or whatever they call it). Then the lovely old building with its High Church formalities, including nave walls adorned with the Stations of the Cross, will become an outlaw congregation. This is hard to conceive of for a born low-church Episcopalian like myself. None of the safely conformist churches I've attended has ever held an all-night vigil before Easter, or made of Holy Week a virtually non-stop immersion in the drama of the Passion. Outlaw? To me, it seems more like a locus of authentic religious faith. After attending an evening Ash Wednesday service with Patrick this year, I found myself compelled to give up something for Lent, something I hadn't done, or thought of doing, since childhood.

Saturday, July 19

The meeting. I got to Patrick's house around 8:00 p.m. He was installed on a chaise lounge in the back yard, looking none too enthusiastic. I had brought Rise and Fall so that he could read the section on Hitler's persecution of the Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant. It contained a brutal characterization of Martin Luther, which Patrick confirmed from his own reading. Then the group we have dubbed the Troika arrived. They put three chairs in a row facing Patrick and me and joked that they were lined up like game show contestants. We engaged in small talk for a while, reluctant to get into it. By a coincidence(?), all three had summer jobs that were, at least in part, funded by government.

Slowly we got underway. What did we talk about? Evolution, consciousness, complexity theory, history, the X-generation, and—of course—the meaning of life. This time we insisted on an answer, working our way past the evasions and qualifiers until each of them offered a tentative personal statement. The session lasted till three in the morning and got rough at times. It's hard to convey the flavor of these encounters because of the general lack of emotion on their part. They get frustrated but not angry or offended, even when the response to their persistent platitudes involves some degree of mockery. If you push them hard, seeking a genuine emotional response, they tend, finally, to shut down altogether—something like screen lockup on a computer. The rest of the time there is a remarkable evenness to their demeanor and a detectable pause as they try to process what they have heard. I know that Patrick and I would prefer it if they got riled up, truly ticked off about something. But it's easier to imagine one of them intoning, 'It sounds like what you're saying is that we're not fully conscious. What should we do about that? How can we get more conscious?'

One of them spent several hours trying to understand our contention that he had already made all the important decisions in his life without considering any alternatives and without imagining what he was signing up for. It didn't matter how specific we got, or how many other ways of approaching the decision we described. From first to last he couldn't see what we were talking about. It's like pointing out scenery to a blind person. Yet by all conventional standards, he is a model youth—enrolled in an excellent college, achieving good grades, determined to be a successful professional. I suppose a lot of observers would have said that it's Patrick and I who have a screw loose, not this young man. Maybe that's how it really is, but if so, there's no harm done. We didn't make a dent in his assumption set.

Sunday, July 20

After sitting outside in the chill air for most of the night, I woke with a pain in my chest, the beginning of a cold or some other bug. Listened to the radio for a while. A big stir about the murder in Miami of Gianni Versacci, apparent victim of the rampaging serial killer who created local excitement some weeks ago by killing a man for his truck in a small South Jersey town. Then coverage of the latest tax cut plans by the Republicans and the President.

I realized that I haven't been including much of the real Washington news in this diary. But it doesn't seem like news to me anymore. All the talk about tax relief for the middle class, accusations back and forth about unfairness and special interests, while the truth is evident in the paychecks I sign every week for people who aren't ever going to get relief. They don't make much money to begin with, but after the withholding they go home with seventy percent of what they earned, and that's before they pay sales taxes and property taxes and license fees and car registrations and gas taxes and sin taxes on the smokes and booze they need to put up with it all. And these, of course, are the same people who pay the most regressive taxes there are, in the form of all the lottery tickets whose preclusive odds they don't understand, or don't want to, because somehow the lottery has become the last glimmer of the American dream for millions of people. So does all the Washington rhetoric and deal-making amount to anything but a kind of background static? White noise designed to persuade us that in spite of the evidence, the people in government do understand whose money this is they're spending. And the volume has to be kept high enough to drown out the figure that's ticking inside the President's own budget documents—the 82 percent tax rate that's needed by the year 2000 to pay the interest on the national debt and the unfunded social security liability.

Yes, I know they’ll figure out some way to postpone that 82 percent hit—cook the books to put it off for one more year and then another. But it is out there, a towering piper who will insist, sooner or later, on being paid.

Monday, July 21

A raging fever all night long and a pre-dawn coughing fit that left me barely able to breathe. Weak and in bed all day but by noon the fever had broken. I couldn't afford to be sick with my friend Hal flying out from Las Vegas tomorrow night. Restless sleep, aches and pains. Late in the evening a call from my next-door neighbor back home. She was anxious to be helpful, and we talked for quite a while. By the time we finished, I knew that the bug had moved into my stomach, and that I'd be in for another rough night.

Tuesday, July 22

I tried to get up to go to work, but instead I sat on the bed staring at the bathroom door, unable to summon the energy for a shower. I fell asleep sitting up, then rolled under the covers and tossed and turned inside a well of bad dreams. By midday I awoke and reflexively reached for Rise and Fall, which I read with the greatest difficulty between short naps.

On the radio, paeans of praise for the economy. Full employment, inflation at rock-bottom, the stock market soaring at Greenspan's concession that interest rates don't need to be raised at present.

Calls from Patrick and the vet in late afternoon. Both inquiring about my health, the vet still pumped about a major operation he had performed on a dog with an extraordinary dislocation of his internal organs. The patient is still critical but could pull through.
At nine-fifteen my friend Hal arrived, and I ventured out with him to the Howard Johnson's where he ate and I had soft drinks to soothe my battered stomach. Hal is an entrepreneur operating three different businesses and thus no stranger to the boom-and-bust economics of the independent operator. We talked about the travails of bankruptcy and the criteria for businesses that were worth engaging in. Neither of us is a youngster anymore, and the lure of money for its own sake has faded considerably. What becomes important over time is the need to enjoy what you are doing, to take satisfaction in the game of building the business and making it profitable. The desire for 'things' is something that passes, but even the necessary things—home and car and furniture and appliances—are somehow more complicated and onerous than they used to be. Or maybe it's just that they seem to offer fewer compensations as you get older—we agreed that it might be fun to live in a hotel, like some 1930s movie character, owning nothing but your clothes.

The transition from this was to Bogart, who always gave the impression of traveling light, and it's impossible to think of him driving a minivan or pricing giant TVs at the mall. I had seen a biography of him not long ago, and I related my sense of him as an artifact, the exact opposite of what today's 'man' is supposed to be. From his booze and cigarettes to his stormy marriages—including a wife with whom he was involved in regular brawls—to his dark suits and his darkly humorous wit, Bogart would fail every test of political correctness in our culture.

'I don't know anybody who's just a man like that,' Hal said. 'Who is who he is, and if you don't like it, the hell with you. '

He began talking about a writing project he was working on, a memory of the Philadelphia he grew up in and how it differs from what it has become. One of the centerpiece images was of Wanamaker's, the huge department store that sat in the heart of Center City, a stone's throw from City Hall.

'Eleven floors of retail,' he said, 'and it was almost like a church. I remember there was this amazing organ, I think they had it built in Europe then brought it over in pieces and assembled it here. They had to hire and train someone special just to be able to play it. There were people who had worked in that building all their lives, women down in the coffee shop, clerks in the toy department, lots of them. They were a permanent part of Wanamaker's. And all the stuff they had in that store—you know, the incredible train sets that seemed like nobody could afford to buy them, and you just stood there with your mouth open and stared.'

Some years back, Wanamaker's had been acquired in the ongoing retail consolidation that is turning every department store into a uniform series of designer boutiques.
'I think they're down to two floors now," he said. 'I've got to go see it again while I'm here.'

'It won't be anything like it was,' I warned him.

'I know. But I've still got to go."

We both knew what he would see. The Polo Shop. Calvin Klein shirts. Liz Claiborne jeans. Nike sneakers. 'Brand name heaven,' I said.

Hal nodded. 'I guess it's what people want now.'

'From sea to shining sea,' I said. 'You can find the same highway in every town in the United States. Take a left at the McDonald's, go straight for a quarter mile past Burger King, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, WalMart, Taco Bell, then hang a right at the Jiffy Lube, and the Days Inn will be on your left.'

Hal said, 'When I come back to Philly and see the friends who never left, they seem lost, like they know what's missing, what got sold out from under them.'

'Homelessness,' I ventured.

'That's it.'

We returned to my empty apartment. I pointed at the little color TV which had just been connected to the cable lifeline of Delaware.

'I haven't even turned it on yet,' I admitted.

My friend used to be a TV junkie, one of the first remote control aficionados, determined to check everything that was on and watch as much of it as possible.

'I've got all the channels,' he said, 'and there's nothing to watch. When I'm on the road in my trailer, I don't have a TV with me, and I don't miss it.— '

'I guess we've already seen it all.'

'Yeah. Why would I want to watch another episode of Seinfeld? It only makes me want to punch them.'

'Woody Allen Lite?' I suggested.

He laughed. 'Close enough. I’ll tell you what I did enjoy—a couple of weeks ago they had a Tarzan festival on, and they had all those Johnny Weismuller movies. Really funny stuff.'

He recounted the plot of one of them. Some British safari party, hijinks with the natives falling off cliffs every few minutes—then a plot to sell Tarzan to a vengeful tribe, with Weismuller trapped inside a cage that he muscles into rolling down a hill, where an elephant picks up the cage and wanders away with it while all the natives are looking vainly in every other direction: 'Where did he go?' Nobody saw a thing. 'Great,' he concluded.

'They used to make up the scenes as they went along,' I said.

'Without even having a story.'

'Yeah, but they had nerve.'

'And quicksand. There was always quicksand, even though there isn't any in Africa.'
'You have to have quicksand.'

Hal laughed out loud. 'So you can do the scene where the guy keeps sinking and sinking, till he's down to his nose and then somebody holds out a stick and he climbs out. Except for the bad guy. He doesn't get a stick. Just his hat sitting on top of the sand at the end.'

'Music up. Credits roll.'

We both enjoyed the movie, but it was midnight, time for me to turn in if I was going to make it to the Pet Palace in the morning. Hal drove to Philadelphia to spend the night with his parents, and I read three paragraphs of Rise and Fall before turning off the light and burrowing under the covers.

Wednesday, July 23

My first day back at the Pet Palace after the bout of illness. For the first couple of hours I could barely keep my eyes open. A slow day. The principal employees want me to reinstitute pickup and delivery service for dog grooming. I have been reluctant to do this because it seems fraught with potential problems—dog fights in the car, runaway dogs, heat stroke, drivers getting lost, dogs strangling on their leashes on a carelessly made turn, accidents caused by barking and general hubbub—and with additional costs that will have to be absorbed out of our frail cash flow. But we are too slow for its being this time of year, and part of good management is listening to your people. I will have to revisit this possibility with Patrick.

I also learned that a 15-year-old Golden Retriever who'd been our customer for most of his life had to be put to sleep earlier in the week. The supervisor told me she had held his head while the doctor administered the injection, and she couldn't keep from crying because he wagged his tail the whole time. But it had reached the point where he couldn't even stand up, so it had to be done. The good news was that thanks to the vet's heroic surgical efforts, the dog with the displaced organs seemed better in the morning. He drank some water and we were all cautiously hopeful.

Lately we have had several abandonments in our kennel, people who board a dog and then fail to return. One of these was even perpetrated by a long-time customer. We drafted a tactful letter to her last week, hoping there had been some misunderstanding, but we haven't received any response. Now we're being forced to consider some kind of advance payment requirement. It's sad to face the problem of a dog who wants to go home and can't because the masters he loves have turned their backs on him.
In the afternoon, rain descended after a long drought, and we could hear it on the roof, a steady, soft beating sound that quieted the barking of the dogs in the grooming area. Our post-surgical patient appeared to be taking a turn for the worse. On this note the work day ended.

Hal and I journeyed back to New Jersey to begin the inventory of items to be sold at auction. What a relief it was to have a professional eye looking at this stuff for the purpose of making money for me rather than stealing it from me. He sketched out a plan for getting it all done, and I felt some of the burden lifted from my back. '

We did some more catching up on what had happened in the years since we'd been close companions in Philadelphia. Recitations and wry jokes about family problems, women problems, and the ups and downs of making a living. We talked about dogs. We talked about movies. Gradually the conversation shifted to our perspectives on the future, for life in America and for America herself. By an extraordinary coincidence, Hal was also reading Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and had brought it with him in his duffel bag. He had been skipping around, he said, and had just finished the section called 'The Mind of Hitler.' I explained my growing conviction that the most important lessons to be drawn from the Nazi experience had to do with Hitler's understanding of how to acquire power.

'We're so focused on Hitler the monster,' I said, 'that we fail to see the parallels between his highly aggressive conquest of institutions and our much more passive surrender of institutions. The danger is not so much a repetition of the Nazi terror, but a longer term evolution toward an analogous system structure.'

"I think I know what you're talking about, but I don't think I've read as far as you have in the book.'

'Have you read the part about the persecution of the Christian Churches?'

'Not yet.'

This was the section I'd had Patrick read on Saturday night, and it was one of the most interesting expositions in Shirer's account. I shared my thoughts on it with Hal.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler had forcefully declared that no purely political party could succeed in taking on the church. Yet throughout the thirties he had apparently ignored his own advice and brutalized both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany. Shirer seems to regard this as one of Hitler's self-contradictions. I don't. For unlike the Stalinist regime in Russia, Hitler made no attempt to shut down the churches. He knew better than to drive religion underground. Rather, he clearly intended to keep the institutions intact while replacing their Christian, theological content with National Socialist philosophy. In his customarily heavy-handed way, Hitler assigned a director of Protestant churches to pressure clerics into a redefinition of Christianity as National Socialism, including Nazi racial policies, while insisting that such a change involved no philosophical inconsistencies. The vision, as spelled out in detail by Nazi 'Philosopher' Alfred Rosenberg, called for rapid evolution to a unified German 'church' in which 'Nazi Orators' would replace ministers, a sword would replace the cross, and Mein Kampf would replace the Bible on the altar. Ultimately, Bibles, crucifixes, and other Christian symbols were to be outlawed altogether, although individual congregations were to remain in place, once purified of the stubborn fanatics who opposed the change. The mass arrests and consignments to concentration camps of clerics were a response to resistance, not an attempt to exterminate the church.

In essence, then, Hitler was following his own advice: his intent was to prevail against Christianity by turning Nazism into a religion. He didn't want to abolish God; he merely wanted God to be a Nazi.

What was Hitler's reasoning for this? It's important to remember that he was a genius in the process of accumulating totalitarian power. He must have seen some advantage in retaining the congregation, the church building, the concept of a religious institution, however reconstituted. Certainly it was not any kind of moral compunction that stayed his hand from locking up the churches or outlawing the practice of spiritual faith. His actions against the synagogues are proof of that.

I believe Hitler understood implicitly the threat to totalitarian control posed by home and family. He did not have access to the kind of technology we have today. He could not permeate individual homes with the same irresistible presence as Orwell's Big Brother. He therefore did the next best thing. He launched an offensive on domestic life in the same way he pursued his territorial ambitions—with all the weapons at his disposal. He established the Hitler Youth, then made membership in it mandatory to ensure that his ideology would be embedded in the hearts and minds of young men. He implemented a parallel organization for young women. The attempt to assimilate the churches into Nazism represented another front in the assault on the home. The enemy was Christianity and the power of a moral value system which could enable individuals to withstand the terror tactics of the Gestapo. It is, after all, only moral values which can embolden individuals to act in opposition to physical and economic self-interest and even to patriotic sentiment.

What more expedient approach to eliminating such subversive moral values could there be than to occupy the churches with a different value set, one in which obedience to the dictates of the system takes on the appearance and habiliments of morality? The family continues to attend church as usual, in company with friends and neighbors in familiar surroundings, and receives instruction and guidance in the practice of virtue—except that virtue has taken on a new definition that is everywhere reinforced.

But why should this matter to us? Our own government steers a wide course around religion and reserves its expressions of piety for the virtue called 'separation of church and state.' In this case, the Nazi experience is completely irrelevant to American experience. Or is it?

There is room at least for a disquieting hypothesis here. I recall attending a baptism a few years ago in an affluent suburban church. It was a Lutheran congregation (interesting in the context of Hitler's Protestant offensive, which made a partially successful attempt to ride piggyback on Martin Luther's virulent antisemitism). I, of course, heard no tirades against the Jews. Nor did I hear anything that might be confused with the theology of the denomination' s founder. Instead I was confronted by the incongruous prop of a giant loom placed somewhat to the right of the altar. I was told that the loom was a symbol of the female principle of God, a kind of contemporary correction of the Bible's omissions on this subject. The sermon concerned itself with the individual experience of tribulation. The message was not that pain and suffering were sent by God as useful lessons, but that they arose from more mundane causes—dysfunctional families, interpersonal conflicts, and other consequences of life in modern society. The appropriate response was not to engage in the masochism of guilt, but to seek the help that is now available from the medical and psychology professions. Depression is dangerous, we were told, and while there may at times be some value to 'leaning into the pain,' the real imperative is to cure or mitigate the disease.

Perhaps this will strike no one else as odd. It did me, however. I found myself exploring the possibility that modem psychology and Christianity were not just strange bedfellows, but polar opposites. It is Christianity which continually urges us to take individual moral responsibility for the composition of our characters, while psychology advises us to understand that we are collections of behaviors, shaped principally by evolution and the environment we are reared in. Not surprisingly, these two different views of personhood send us in different directions when the events in our lives cause us pain. The traditional Christian perspective holds that we should respond to adversity by reflecting on our relationship with God. Through prayer and meditation we may be enabled to understand the divine will for our future conduct—lessons learned, atonements undertaken, illuminations received, responsibilities accepted. Psychology sends us not inward but outward: the consequence to be avoided is 'dissociation,' i.e., separation from the community, and the goal is to overcome 'maladjustment,' i.e., the state of not fitting in with the community. In support of this goal, we are provided with a vocabulary that transforms unique experience into categories of dysfunction, each of which may be treated by a combination of chemicals and/or a regimen of therapy. Often the preferred therapy involves placing us in the company of others who have experienced the same categorical dysfunction as ourselves. Their mission is to pressure us into abandoning destructive behaviors. Any tendency we may have to believe that our own experience is profoundly different or uniquely meaningful is likely to be diagnosed as delusions of grandeur, narcissism, or denial.

What's important about all this is not whether psychology is right or wrong in its approach to therapy. Rather, I am trying to call attention to the fact that Christian ministers in Christian denominations are commonly engaged in espousing a belief system that is—all rationalizations aside—historically contrary to the one they purport to represent. Nominally Christian colleges and universities offer degrees in psychology. Churches all over the country sponsor support groups of various kinds. And ministers frequently lead their congregations into involvement with programs to help dysfunctional families or even conduct such counseling sessions themselves. The book on the altar is decidedly not Mein Kampf. But is it really still the Bible?

Who or what is served by the (hypothetical, I admit) replacement of individual moral consciousness with de-individuating behavioral therapy? And if Hitler's concern with preempting the moral opposition that might arise in the home was well founded, what consequence might ensue from the voluntary adoption of a value set that inherently prizes 'fitting in' over moral reflection?

Hal and I chewed over these ideas at some length. We recalled the flurry of outrage about the Menendez brothers and the 'abuse excuse.' We wondered if there was some tie-in here to the odd circumstance that so many mainstream Protestant denominations assume a 'Pro-Choice' stance in the ongoing controversy about abortion.

But these were deeper waters than we had time to get into. It was time to head back to Delaware and get some sleep before the Pet Palace opened for business at 7:00 am.

Thursday, July 24

By dawn's early light, NPR was full of news about Republicans. The congressional leaders had kissed and made up after last week's attempted 'coup' against Gingrich. The Speaker read passages from the Bible about forgiveness, and the Majority Whip blamed his impetuous participation in the revolt on fatigue. They were still filling in the details when I left the apartment for work.

The dog with the displaced organs had died during the night. The vet had been there and performed an additional emergency surgery, but to no avail. The deformation was almost certainly congenital, and the dog might have been saved if he had been neutered as a pup. As it was, he was fortunate to have seven years
of life. Still, the doctor was taking it hard.

A comedy of errors with regard to the house project. Hal had to round up boxes at the supermarket and break most of them down into flats of cardboard. We anchored them in the back of the truck with a tree stump—purloined serendipitously from in front of my apartment complex—and drove them home through the rain, almost losing one of our few intact boxes on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Then a quick supper and up to my hot and dusty third floor, where I reassembled boxes while the pro waded through seventy-plus years' accumulation of knickknacks, clothes, hats, toys, pictures, papers, and useless junk. It was painful, though perhaps not enough to account for the dread I've felt about the task. One important find—my grandfather's box of letters home from the front in World War I. A thick packet of yellow-orange envelopes tied neatly together with a rotted ribbon. It was the only item I brought back to the apartment with me. I could stand losing everything else to a sudden fire, I guess, but not those letters.

Friday, July 25

Awakening once again to NPR, I heard crime news—the serial killer believed dead in Florida and some new development in the Ira Einhorn case, possibly an extradition fight. Science was making news this morning, too. Evolutionary biologists have come up with a neat new explanation of the Cambrian explosion, which has been a thorn in their side forever. Apparently, the whole earth flopped over on its side 500 million years ago and somehow made random genetic mutations at the cellular level happen faster(?) Funny we hadn’t heard about this before. You’d think an earth flop-over would have been discovered by the guys who know so much about tectonic plates. I also heard an extended NPR segment on the Greenhouse Effect—a.k.a. Global Warming—which has made the usual invisible transition from hypothesis to scientific fact. As a result, the president has decided we all need to worry about this. It sounded like a remedial seminar on the subject had been conducted at the White House, with the Pres taking on the role of simple-minded questioner while various scientists played the role of patronizing know-it-all. I got the impression we’re all supposed to be feeling guilty because we still get in our cars and drive to work.

There must be some evidence in support Global Warming, but the only one the mass media like to cite is far from convincing to me. This has to do with a reported rise in average temperatures of one degree (Fahrenheit, I think) during the last hundred years. No expert in climate, I’m willing to concede their argument that one degree has pretty serious implications. It’s how they get to the one degree that leaves me a little skeptical.

Let’s think about this for a minute. What is the ‘average’ temperature on earth right now? Yes, I mean at this very moment. One hundred two degrees, as the thermometers in Arizona might report? Fifty below, as the ones in Antarctica would claim? Neither, obviously.

It’s not as if there’s one definitely correct number that represents the answer to this question. The word ‘average’ always means that we’re going to perform some calculation. To begin with, the discipline of mathematics gives us at least three different definitions of what an ‘average’ is. The ‘mean’ is the arithmetic average, which we calculate by adding up all individual instances of something and then dividing that total by the number of instances. The ‘median’ is a function of counting—we take all individual instances of something, then count up from the bottom until we reach the halfway point. The ‘mode’ is the most common number found in all individual instances—we gather together all the instances of something and see which value occurs most often.
I apologize. I know this is boring, but it’s got to be important. The scientists are talking about the melting of glaciers, the flooding of thousands of miles of coastline, the forced migration of major populations, the devastation of our agricultural equilibrium, and dozens of other effects of their one degree ‘average increase.’ So there’s a quite valid reason for asking whether they’re as certain as they sound.

Back to the math. All the definitions of ‘average’ assume that that there is some finite number of instances to be used as the basis for calculation. In the case of temperature on earth, this is not strictly true. The atmosphere is made of gases, not subject to counting like dollars or stones. It must be that we can artificially create enough instances by the act of measuring to eliminate the difference between gases and stones. How do we do that? Is it sufficient to record the airport temperature of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, add those temperatures together and divide by three? Probably not. Maybe we need to add Paris, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Sydney, and Little America in the Antarctic. Would that do? Again, probably not. That leaves out a lot of places, and measurements in the city are tricky anyway, because artificial structures like asphalt paving have a tendency to soak up additional heat. So we’d better add in a bunch of pure countryside and farmland—put some of our thermometers in fields, forests, mountains, ocean-top oil rigs, deserts, prairies, and plateaus. Still, this doesn’t tell us much about how to weight the number of instances we measure, so that we balance arctic and Antarctic cold properly against tropical and temperate zones. And even then, we’re taking a lot for granted—having read Admiral Byrd’s Alone, I’ve learned that temperatures vary pretty considerably only a hundred or so miles apart in the Antarctic.

I suppose we’re going to have to concede that whatever number of instances we record, the ‘average’ number we arrive at is not necessarily going to be objectively ‘right.’ Because no matter how many thermometers you have out there, say one hundred thousand, you’d get more accurate data if you put another million in the spaces in between the hundred thousand, and more accurate data still if you put another hundred million in between those. It doesn’t take a weather wizard to know that the temperature can be at least a little bit different one hundred yards from where you’re standing now. Which would be the right number for the location listed under the name of your home town? Is that in the shade? In the sun? Or somewhere in between. You decide.

Considering all this, it looks as if we’re computing some theoretical average which we must assume bears some definite relationship to the objectively ‘right’ number we can’t measure. Which is another way of saying we’re sure the amount of our unmeasurable and uncorrectable error will never change. Everyone happy so far?

But the Global Warming hypothesis depends on far more than our theoretically correct though ‘not right’ average temperature on earth at this moment. The one degree change we’re looking for has occurred over one hundred years. This must mean that our theoretically correct number is actually determined by the number of instances—and the standard of measurement precision—that was already established in the year 1897.
Eighteen hundred and ninety seven. William McKinley was President of the United States. The automobile was a curiosity that frightened the horses. The continents of the world were connected by steamship travel and the telegraph. Charles Lindbergh hadn’t been born. There weren’t any airports anywhere. The North and South Poles hadn’t been discovered yet. But the worldwide temperature recording system was already in place.

This means, for example, that the New York City measurement has to be coming, year after year, not from the state-of-the-art instruments at LaGuardia, but from a thermometer that’s been religiously maintained on the lefthand tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope nobody accidentally broke and replaced that thermometer at any point during the last hundred years, or moved it to the righthand tower, or forgot to record the readings while they were away on vacation for a month, or ever made up any readings because they got behind or just didn’t care enough during that ugly divorce in nineteen- ought-seven. Because the one degree change we’re after is less than two percent of the theoretical average, which is already just a bit flimsy as a computation strategy. Bad data would ruin everything. Equipment changes, human carelessness, or changes in measurement location might invalidate the numbers completely, and that would never do because we’re talking semi-apocalypse here.

You have to admire the discipline of science. To think that they were able to assemble all the thermometer readers all over the world in 1897 and train them to be unfailingly accurate and reliable is pretty impressive. To think that over the whole hundred years, no Tibetan shepherd ever said, ‘oh, about thirty-two degrees,’ when—thanks to his untreated nearsightedness—he was inclined to guesstimate a likely reading for those pesky western meteorologists. Amazing.

But the most astounding thing of all is that this degree of accuracy has been achieved in a field whose practitioners claim is not an exact science. Meteorologists who can’t tell us for sure if the tornado they’ve sighted is going to mow down my hometown or the City of South Bend, Indiana, are certain they know what the average temperature on earth will be forty years from now. This is made all the more miraculous by the statistical concept of standard deviation—meaning the amount of normal built-in variability—which is pretty high when it comes to temperature. That’s why we continue to set record highs and lows in temperature on individual days in every single year. Christmas in New York can be as warm as sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit or as cold as ten below zero. It’s this kind of variability that makes it difficult even to compare seasonal averages. Was last summer five percent cooler than this summer? In my neck of the woods we had more cool days last year but hotter hot spells. How should I compare this year to last year in terms of average. Who the hell knows for sure?

All we do know for sure is that it’s one degree hotter in summer, on average, last summer aside, than summer was, in general, a hundred years ago. Or is it winter that’s getting warmer instead? Like the one a few years back when the northeastern U.S. got raked by five ice storms of a severity not seen since they began taking weather measurements. Which reminds me—how long has that been? Of course. About a hundred years. The temperatures on earth have been pertinent to the Global Warming question since the end of the last ice age about ten thousand years ago. This means we’re depending on data from one percent of the relevant time period to calculate the standard deviation. And the standard deviation we come up with has to be so dead-reliable that it can be used to verify a less-than-two percent change in ‘average’ temperature.

Scientists like thought experiments. I have one I’d like to try on them. Ask a friend to record the mileage of all (or most) trips he takes in his automobile during the last week in December. Then calculate the percentage change in length of trip, up or down, from the beginning of the week to the end of the week, and use this number to project the average length of an automobile trip on January second. Now: would you bet your life that this prediction will be accurate within one mile? Really?

There’s always the possibility, I guess, that scientists are citing the temperature change ‘evidence’ to us because we’re too stupid to understand the real evidence. I know they’ve been busy calculating the number of tons of carbon dioxide in the air, and they’ve got their chemistry down cold—except, of course, when the number of variables gets too large. Which is the only reason their projections about how much impact atmospheric events like volcanic eruptions have on the earth get a little overstated at times. Or am I wrong about that? Was I mistaken when I heard the dire prediction that the area surrounding Mount St. Helen would be a wasteland for decades? But maybe what I’m wrong about is the extent to which the area has already recovered from the devastation of the eruption.

You see, not being a scientist, I can’t prove anything. My duty is therefore to shut up and nod vigorously when the scientists talk. And then to feel ashamed and fearful because I'm not doing anything to prevent the environmental catastrophe I'm causing by driving to work, buying a Christmas tree once a year, and exhaling carbon dioxide every day. I know I should prefer the worldwide depression that would follow the prudent shutting down of the entire fossil fuel industry and all the markets and products and jobs that flow from it. I know I should.

One of the scientists at the President’s Global Warming Nursery School said that those of us who don’t care about the Greenhouse Effect are like passengers on a bus bound for disaster: we think there’s nothing to be afraid of as long as the bus is surrounded by fog. Whose fog, buster? Ours or yours? And does the bus driver have the foggiest idea where he's taking us? Sorry for asking.

Saturday, July 26

The usual half-day Saturday at the Pet Palace followed by an afternoon and evening off from house packing. Hal was visiting an old friend in Philly and we agreed to get an early start Sunday. I got an invitation to go to Andrew’s house—his parents were away—for a small get-together with the Raymonds and possibly their children. But I just couldn’t summon the energy to attend. For the moment I was past being able to smile and pretend that things were ‘okay.’ I was tired. More emotionally than physically, I think. The experience of sifting through so much discarded family memorabilia has been depressing. It’s a cumulative effect. Diplomas under beds, in old bureau drawers. Tiny boxes containing odd, unexplained souvenirs. Military and volunteer nursing uniforms in boxes and closets. Stacks and boxes of letters unread since they were first received. Photographs no one ever looks at, of grandparents, parents, me, my sister, aunts and uncles and cousins, and ancestors whose names I don’t know. Some in frames encrusted with plaster dust, many in small cardboard boxes wedged between volumes on bookshelves or scattered willy-nilly in corners. The act of retrieving and gathering them into one place does not feel like restoration. It’s more like trying to glue together the pieces of a shattered vase. The reassembled object will never be the same. There will be ugly gaps and discolored veins of glue in a form that was once graceful and pure in its unity. The end result can only be a damaged reference to the whole that was. But the thought of throwing it away seems like treachery.

So I’ve been making a pile of family mementos on an old box spring in one of the third-floor bedrooms. Even though some of the people there represented are still alive, the pile has a deadness about it, as if it were the refuse of some ancient tragedy. Yesterday even Hal, who has been through many old houses to harvest the monetary value of the past, confessed that he found my third floor upsetting.

“How could they have just walked out on all this?� he asked. “It’s not even my family but it breaks my heart. All this stuff is just so abandoned, so carelessly—even pictures of you and your sister, as if they didn’t have any value at all.�

I suppose every family has its dark plots and secrets, and even crimes, and I know that mine seems worse to me only because it’s mine, but I do wonder if there isn’t some more general truth laid out on the box spring in that unused bedroom.

It is financial bankruptcy which has landed me like a scavenger on the third floor of the house that was home to three generations of my family. But as I have thought about it over the months of turmoil, it has seemed to me that financial bankruptcy is simply a last, highly visible step in a journey that has many milestones. The step into the financial void is preceded by other kinds of bankruptcy, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.
This was certainly true in my case. I overspent many other of my resources before I ran out of money. I ceased being a management consultant for big companies because I used up my belief that they had the resolve and the integrity required to make real changes in themselves. I had always told myself that on the day I felt like a whore in their employ, I would quit. The time came, and I did quit—not for reasons of pride or disdain, though, but for the reason that I just stopped being able to do it. I had actually tried the whoring routine, solicited proposals, wrote them in all the required language, and failed completely to get any new business. I didn’t have the heart for it anymore, and it must have showed. Bankruptcy of profession.

My own writing I had pursued throughout, always sustained by the belief that the publishing world retained a nucleus of integrity that would recognize the need to publish even unpopular ideas. As my agent proved to me, though, in a wearying succession of encounters, this had ceased to be true at some point during the corporate consolidation process by which thirty or forty major publishers dwindled to just eight—all of them afterthoughts in giant media conglomerates. I continued to write—even as I am now—but I had run out of belief. Bankruptcy of faith.

Entrepreneurship continued, does continue, but the returns were too little and too late. Financial bankruptcy became inevitable as a kind of formalization of an emptying process which encompassed far more than money.

An analogous process had overtaken my family. They could, for example, have come to my aid in the current crisis. Technically and theoretically, that is, they had the capability, which is to say they had the financial resources to render all necessary assistance. But in a deeper sense they couldn’t come to my aid. Despite the preservation of its form and superficial conventions, the very idea of


‘lean and mean’ family hierarchy, we will be laid off—dispatched to the unemployed parents’ home, where we can wait in line to die as wards of the state and the institution of geriatric care. When our monies run out at last, Medicaid will move in to certify the longstanding bankruptcy of our lives. A grim prospect, perhaps, but one we’ve assimilated into our shared view.

That’s not the view of life evinced by the fossil family on my box spring. How obsolete they seem, how naive. Do they know, I wonder, what has captured and eaten their children?

Sunday, July 27

Twelve hours of packing, concentrated on the front bedroom of the second floor. The downstairs is now filled with boxes, stacked chairs, furniture, and furnishings awaiting shipment to auction. Only a few narrow alleys remain to let us navigate from room to room. Hal is growing more and more confident that this stuff will bring in enough cash to get me through the critical upcoming months. The whole process is disorienting to me, however, and I still can’t see past the seemingly interminable ordeal of separating the house from its possessions. I don’t think it wants to let anything get away, including me.
I am falling out of touch with current events as the house wraps me tighter in its grip. Without NPR for the last two days, I have begun to hear a phantom broadcast of ‘The Voice of America for America,’ in which the unacceptable news is reported by Resistance journalists. They operate out of some old-time studio with big metal microphones and sound gear powered by glowing vacuum tubes. The announcers and commentators are taking a risk just being there, because the FCC enforcement squads have been hunting them mercilessly. There is static aplenty in the transmission due to jamming, but it still possible to make out the words if you put your ear close to the radio.

“Good morning, America. Here’s the news you didn’t hear... A new study has revealed that all the companies who advertise on the Sunday morning news shows are lying. Claims that they care about their customers and take a personal interest in making our lives better just aren’t true. Like every other company that’s big enough to advertise on national television, they are sharply focused on making money from you. They will say anything to do that.

“After months of undercover investigation, an independent journalist has broken the story that our politicians at the federal, state, and local levels don’t tell the truth very often, if ever. Among his other shocking revelations, the journalist claims to have evidence that politicians are devoted to getting reelected and to acquiring as much money as possible. Allegedly, they will do or say anything which furthers these two goals. Are they paying attention to the vital issues that affect the health and prosperity of our nation? According to this journalist, no. In fact, he asserts, they don’t believe there’s anything they could do to change things for the better even if they cared, which they don’t.

“On the health front, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has at last admitted—with a gun held to his head—that AIDS is not and never was an epidemic. The term epidemic has a formal definition, and it should be used only to refer to a disease that generates one or more additional cases for each individual case. The rate of the spread of AIDS has never come even remotely close to that level. An example of a real epidemic is the 1919 influenza strain that killed more than 20 million worldwide in a single year. Even with a gun at his head, the CDC spokesman could not explain why professional health bureaucrats have insisted on calling AIDS an epidemic at every opportunity or why they have consistently—and recklessly—overstated the danger posed by AIDS to the general public.

“In science news, a terrorist attack on the Annual Convention of Neo-Darwinian Biologists has produced some startling admissions about the Theory of Evolution. A group calling itself ISR—the Inquisition of Scientific Religions—broke into the convention and promised to shoot one biologist an hour unless they were presented with fossil evidence of one transitional species which confirms the Neo-Darwinian Theory. The theory proposes that all species development occurs essentially by accident, through a continuous process of random genetic mutation. Such mutations result in anatomical innovations—such as the eye—which are retained if they prove advantageous to survival. After one biologist—an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan—had been executed, the remainder conceded that no confirming fossil evidence existed, although they all knew someone who knew someone who was close to getting some.
“That’s all the news for tonight. We had more but the studio intruder alarm has just gone off, and we think it would be prudent to sign off now.�

Tuesday, July 29

I had a business appointment in Media, Pennsylvania, this afternoon, so I left the PP early and headed north on I-95. Within a few miles traffic slowed and stopped. A tractor trailer had overturned on the southbound side, but cop cars parked at the scene on the northbound side had effectively shut down the rest of the Interstate too. I wound up missing my meeting. When I got back to the house for the evening’s packing, I was fuming. Hal suggested it was time to think about leaving the east coast.

“Go west, not-so-young man?� I asked.

“Yes,� he said. “After you get through with your financial reorganization, you should come out to Las Vegas and stay for awhile. You could check out a lot of different places from there.�

I thanked him for the offer. “But it’s all still the United States, isn’t it?�

“It is,� he conceded. “Some places are better than others, though.�

He talked about Las Vegas. I had been there twice in my life and knew it only the way a weekend tourist might, as a clump of casinos in the desert. There was more to it than that, I learned. People moved to Las Vegas from all over the country, and they weren’t all gamblers, or at least not casino gamblers. For nine months of the year, the temperature hovered in the mid-eighties. There were no state taxes of any kind. Housing prices were reasonable. The atmosphere among the residents was friendly, as if the place that was an adopted home to so many had not yet acquired the suspicion, hostility and paranoia which characterizes the embattled natives of most large cities. Everyone was a relative newcomer and therefore had no turf to protect, no sense of other new arrivals as invaders. Immigrants of all kinds found Las Vegas hospitable—Asians and Hispanics discovered that a capacity for hard work was all they had to bring with them. Yet there was little or no mercy in the administrative bureaucracies. If the water bill wasn’t paid on time, the water got turned off the next day. Welfare and unemployment benefits were meager. People were free to fail—and dramatic failure was as close as the nearest casino. It was not uncommon to see someone driving out of town with a mattress strapped to the top of the car, all that remained, presumably, of the fugitive’s earthly possessions after a bad run at the tables.

“It’s not for everybody,� Hal concluded. “A lot depends on how you feel about the desert.�

I didn’t know how I would feel about the desert. I have always been fond of trees and green places, but maybe there was something to be said for the clean austerity of flat sandscapes and distant snow-capped mountains.

We decided to spend the night at the house so that Hal could begin making arrangements for shipping my goods to auction.

Wednesday, July 30

A frustrating morning. I thought I’d be able to get to work at the pet palace, but a snafu with one of the auctioneers prevented it. With no phone at the house anymore, there'’ nothing to be done when you get stood up except wait and hope.

We spent the afternoon finding a large enough truck to rent, and then we sorted and boxed the contents of the upstairs back porch, except for my computer and books. After a quick dinner, I returned to my apartment and went to bed early. As I tried to get to sleep—my aching legs a definite obstacle—the conversations we’d had about Las Vegas started me thinking.

Odd that such a place would become a haven for exiles fleeing other states and cities in search of a more fulfilling life. There is no more deliberately manufactured city in the nation. Its reputation is as a capital of vice, in accordance with its heritage as a moneymaking project of the Mafia, courtesy of the lurid imagination of Bugsy Siegel. Absent taste, tradition, and culture, the city is viewed in many quarters as a long-running joke, the perfect monument to all that is low, vulgar, and trashy in America.
But maybe all this tawdry provenance is appropriate to a haven for the current crop of exiles. What better hideout could there be than a place the inside crowd views with scorn and loathing? The snobs and social climbers wouldn’t dare compromise their status with such an address. The Yuppies wouldn’t have anyone to impress. The sports fans would be cut off from every major franchise. The intellectual caste—academics, scientists, artists, critics, and the like—would have no way of making a living, no museums or plays to see, no quaint coffee shops to patronize, no company to keep.
Who’s left to make up the incoming wave? Perhaps a new kind of ascetic—one who isn’t dependent on the opinions of others or their favorite pursuits. He would have to know in advance that he can find fulfillment in the things he chooses to do, doesn’t need to be seen doing the right things, in the right places, with the right people. Such a person would have to be more secure in his identity than most. Perhaps this helps to account for the casual conviviality Hal reports. The individual, tossed like a seed into the desert, thrives or perishes on his own resources and knows how to recognize other individuals who are taking the same risk. Friendships without the camouflage and artifice of institutional memberships.

You can get books to read anywhere, including Las Vegas. You can get good music, good movies on videotape, good food by your own hand. You can create your own esthetic environment anywhere. And if you can find a place where they will basically leave you alone, what else do you need?

Finally, despite my tired legs, I fell asleep.

Thursday, July 31

Today, finally, the removal of the first load of furniture and boxes of stuff for shipment to auction. Is it really possible that I might get out from under the weight of this house and its chattels?

Since I had to do my usual stint at the pet palace, Hal journeyed to my home town and began loading the truck alone. For him it turned out to be a day of renewed acquaintance with small town life. The proprietor of the truck rental place who wanted more than the agreed-upon deposit. The vagrant who strolled onto the front lawn asking for money and wouldn’t leave without it. The gas station attendant who was irritated at having to make change for a twenty.

“How long has this town been like this?� he asked when I joined him after work.

“You mean, how long has it been in decline like this?�


I laughed. “It’s like an Escher print—running forever downhill.�

“It’s no wonder you want out,� he said. “I couldn’t stand this for more than a few days.�

“Small towns.�

“You can have them.�

I don’t want them, either. There’s a myth that they still exist in something like the form that once constituted the backbone of American life. Charles Kuralt used to turn up picture postcard towns in which the presence of CBS cameras seemed to throw clocks into reverse, ticking back in the direction of unlocked front doors, old-maid schoolteachers, covered-dish suppers, and lemonade on the porch swing. Maybe those towns are what they purport to be. It’s just that my experience is different. All the small towns of my youth—and there were several that I knew well—have been dying slowly throughout my life. And it’s always easy to see why.

There’s one Jimmy Stewart movie that has stuck with me more persistently than any other. Not It’s a Wonderful Life, which does contrive to be a hymn to the myth (perhaps this is part of its enduring appeal). The movie I’m thinking of is a considerably darker treatment of the subject. The title is the name of a town, Fire Creek, whose residents come under attack by an outlaw gang that recognizes, and is perversely aggravated by, their passivity, vulnerability, and cowardice. As the town’s honorary sheriff, Stewart performs an ironic variation on the pacifist role he played in Destry Rides Again and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In those films, his determination to settle conflicts without gunfire is positioned as a kind of higher manhood, and the example he sets catalyzes crises in the characters of the people around him. In Fire Creek, he utters similar lines, but the crisis of character is his: the insistence on nonviolence despite gross provocations is, in this instance, a symptom of weakness that leads to the death of the only innocent in town. Then, in a deeply affecting scene, Stewart explains to his pregnant wife why it is that he must face almost certain death in a showdown with the leader of the outlaws. Fire Creek, he explains, is a town filled with people who didn’t have the guts to seek something better. Pioneers heading west, they dropped out of the wagon train not because they found beautiful farmland or rich mines or an ideal site for a railroad depot. They dropped out because they were too tired or afraid to pursue their dreams any longer. The town and its people had never outgrown this circumstance. The buildings were ramshackle, the businesses indolent, the community lacking in pride and ambition. Stewart realized that his own pacifism was little more than an unwillingness to fight for a way of life he had merely settled for.

The small towns I know may not have begun their lives like Fire Creek, but they have become Fire Creek. There was no single ailment that effected this change. Rather, a host of factors combined to eliminate both prosperity and the possibility of renewal.


Friday, August 1

Had to use NPR to wake up after yesterday’s exhausting ordeal. The tobacco lawsuits are beginning. Mississippi and some other state—I was still comatose—are unsheathing their legal sabers for the charge. Still no mention of all the money the states took in the form of excise taxes. The reporters talk only about the Medicare and Medicaid outlays. Poor little state governments. How virtuous they are being made to look. The description of the allegations is reminiscent of Claude Rains in Casablanca—‘I am shocked, shocked, to discover gambling at Rick’s Cafe!’ The states are shocked, shocked, to discover that the tobacco companies are selling a dangerous product they claimed was safe. Gee. How could anyone have known? They are even more shocked to learn that the tobacco companies have been marketing to young people even though they always said they weren’t. You just can’t believe anyone anymore... I suppose the next step will be that the states sue for punitive damages to compensate the bureaucrats for pain and suffering, the post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with the destruction of government’s childlike faith in the harmlessness of cigarettes. Why isn’t anybody laughing?

Here’s one that’s really funny. A woman is suing the IRS for $1 million, claiming that her husband was driven to suicide by the hounding of tax collectors. A federal judge allowed the suit, reaffirming that the government can be held liable for unconstitutional tax collection tactics if these are proven in court. That’ll be the day. Well, good luck, lady. I applaud your spunk.

And then there’s the (latest) historic agreement to balance the budget in five years. Is anyone standing around waiting for the news reports that the budget will balance this year? I suspect that report's always going to be five years off.

Yet they keep reporting all this nonsense with a straight face—or in NPR’s case, a straight voice. They act like it’s really news, and they use all their self-consciously ‘objective’ journalism words—as if fuzzy language could somehow conceal the fact that no Congress can bind a future Congress on the subject of the budget. Only economic growth will ever balance the budget, and then Congress will spend away the surplus. That’s the name of that tune. Who are the journalists working for?
Maybe people feel about journalists the way they feel about Congress: in general they disapprove, according to the polls, but when it comes to their own elected representative they like the flavor of pork he’s dishing out. Using the same logic, we can speculate that they may condemn journalists as a group but feel pretty good about the flavor of bullshit served up by Tom or Dan or Peter or—if they’re really sophisticated—The New York Times.

There’s another possible interpretation here, too. When the pollsters call, people remember that smart people are supposed to object to all the shenanigans in Washington, DC. So they report that they despise Congress, although—since they voted for the liar who represents them on Capitol Hill—they defend the one guy they’re responsible for putting there. And it’s just as easy to repeat the cliche that journalists are no good while still not being able to detect how it is that they lie, which means with a few exceptions, people are believing what they see and hear in the news media.
What would ‘The Voice of America for America’ report if it were determined to tell no lies?
‘Good morning, America... Here’s the news you didn’t hear anywhere else. Once again, there were no events or facts of significance today. The media camouflage of irrelevant chatter and meaningless statistics continues to obscure our perennial top story—the gradual but accelerating decline of the nation. And we have nothing to report about that which you can’t see or otherwise perceive for yourselves by paying attention to your own experience.


“At the convenience store today, you discovered all over again that the teenage drones behind the counter can’t make change. At the drive-through you discovered all over again that the voice inside the box can’t remember more than one item of an order at a time. Are these exceptions? No. We’re getting dumber every day. Are you an exception? No. When is the last time you read a book that made you rethink major assumptions about politics or art or science or religion or life itself? You see? A college education doesn’t mean anything if we’re all going to go on auto-pilot after graduation.
“How many times today did you see or hear something that made you afraid? Afraid of getting mugged. Afraid of driving up your cholesterol. Afraid of being late with a payment. Afraid of speaking to a cute child. Afraid of some theoretical global disaster. Afraid of voicing your honest opinion about something. Afraid of approaching a desirable woman. Afraid of contracting a disease. Afraid of being late. Afraid of breaking a law. Afraid of getting angry at work. Afraid of another motorist on the highway. Afraid of asking yourself how you really feel. Afraid of stopping what you’re doing for even a moment. Afraid of doing anything different. How many times? Five? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? Everything we’re told is designed to make us afraid, and we are becoming a nation of cowards, but it is your fears that are eating us alive.

“How much decay did you see today? Broken, rutted streets. Boarded-up windows. Graffiti. Deserted warehouses. Abandoned cars. Dirty shop floors. The things that belong to, or get used by, ordinary people are slowly falling apart.

“What’s new out there? Is the newest building in your neck of the woods a government office complex? A hospital? Or a prison? It’s the newest and biggest buildings that tell us what we care about and who’s in charge. We care about being protected from both life and death, and it’s the protectors we’ve chosen who are in charge. Are you happy with the temples we’re building them? Or do they seem somewhat leaden and uninspired, a mite too officious looking?

“What was the most interesting conversation you had today? Was it about food, directions, sports, a recent retail acquisition, or something you saw on TV? How intense were the emotions? Were you changed by the experience? Oh? We have become boring because we have nothing interesting to say to one another. That’s not a positive sign for the nation.

“And by the way, was there anything good on TV today? Still? It is a shame, isn’t it?

“How many pieces of paper did you handle today? How many receipts, bills, forms, and notices? How many times did you have to sign your name? How many identifying numbers did you have to recite to strangers who had the right to ask? Enough? Or would you prefer to do even more of this? That can be arranged, is being arranged, and it will keep on increasing until we either die of it or make it stop.

“What’s right? What’s wrong? Did you take a moral stand about anything today and defend your position with conviction? If you didn’t, who do you think did?

“No, it’s not your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. But it is all slipping away into tedium and fear and listless obedience to rules that don’t seem to have much to do with right and wrong. That’s the top story, and all the stories in the rest of the media are helping to keep us from following it.

“That’s all for now...�

Sunday, August 3

After a long day-and-a-half at the house, I returned to a dark, hot apartment. The electricity had gone off. My first impulse was that some unpaid bill was the cause, but for once that wasn’t it. I succeeded in getting hold of building maintenance, and the power problem was fixed. While the air-conditioner worked to lower the room temperature, I watched my first television in days. I had never seen the Charles Grodin Show on CNBC, although I’d heard about it from a friend who said Grodin was obsessed with O.J. Simpson and couldn’t stop talking about the case. In the few minutes of the show I saw, he was doing what I guess you’d call an opening monologue. Initially I thought he was talking to a guest because he wasn’t looking into the camera but at a point somewhere to the left of it. The topic seemed to be the images of celebrities. He cited Jack Nicholson as a star whose reputation seemed impervious to personal scandals. Several of these he mentioned as if we all knew about them. I didn’t, though I took his point. That Nicholson was expected to behave like a rogue because of the parts he played in the movies. Then—still gazing disconcertingly away from the camera, into his own image on the monitor perhaps?—Grodin proceeded to tell an anecdote from his early days in show business, one which enabled him to perform a pompous accent, supposedly that of an Ohio-born actor who assumed the persona of a Noel Coward part he had played years before. I believe we were intended to infer something—I’m not sure what—about the line between public and private character. The punchline was that Grodin’s topic for the night would be the private responsibilities of public people. Suddenly the name of O.J. Simpson was pronounced, and I realized my friend had spoken accurately. Thinking of all the time that had elapsed since the criminal trial, I had a flash of Grodin finding some new angle from which to attack O.J. on every single show between then and now. With a shudder, I turned off the TV.

The appetite for scandal seems to be a basic human trait, perhaps even a drive akin to sex and survival. Gossip is a part of every culture and therefore isn’t that remarkable in and of itself. But is there something to be learned about a people from the specific ways in which they seek to satisfy this appetite? And is it worthwhile to ask what the nature of the satisfaction is?

Late one night last week, Hal and I stopped at the WalMart in my home town to buy locks for the truck and trailer containing the first shipment to auction. As we waited in line at the checkout counter, Hal pulled an issue of National Enquirer out of the rack. The front page promised revelations about Liza Minnelli and her alleged problems with drugs and alcohol, as well as news about Michael Jackson and his estranged wife, and of course, something or other about Elizabeth Taylor. The cover picture of Liza Minnelli looked horrifying, obviously selected (if not doctored) to make her look at death’s door. The story inside contained black and white photographs of her onstage, plump and corseted in spandex so tight that she resembled a human sausage. Another picture purported to be a sneak snapshot of her hotel room, although the frame was entirely filled with dozens of empty liquor bottles. The location could have been a hotel room or the back storage room of a Brooklyn bar. The Michael Jackson pictures were in color, all showing him with Lisa Marie, his face mostly hidden behind a black silk surgical mask. The mask must have been old news because it wasn’t commented on in the captions. Was it a defense against the paparazzi? Or concealment of the collapse of Jackson’s overcorrected nose? We were left to draw our own conclusions. Yet another story related the downfall of a soap opera star of the seventies, once a sex symbol, now a male escort living in a garage somewhere. Pictures contrasted the confident good looks of youth with the seedy and confused middle age of today.

The motif is destruction. The rich and famous crashing in the fast lane of celebrity. O.J. Simpson was, of course, the ultimate example of this, the slick smile of success ripped away to reveal the ugly face of fear, jealousy, and hideous violence underneath. Clearly we are fascinated by such catastrophes. But is the driving force behind the industry of publicizing ruin really entertainment? Or is it education?

There’s a chicken-and-egg question here. Somehow over the last thirty years, celebrity has become a race against time. Every movie star, sports hero, politician, and military higher-up seems to carry a bulls-eye on his back. Assassins stalk them continuously, as if the real crime were fame and achievement, not the particular combination of circumstances that will finally bring them down. The more famous the celebrity, the more likely it seems that humiliation will befall him. Is it the case that celebrities really have been targeted and are doomed to stumble eventually under such relentless pressure? Or is it that the celebrities of today are simply more likely than ever before to have feet of clay and have thus given rise to their own predators?

The best way out of the chicken-and-egg paradox is usually to acknowledge that it isn’t a paradox. The egg does come first, but it is not a chicken egg. The egg changes a little, produces a bird that also changes a little, and so on, until there is a day when an egg produces a real chicken. Something like this sequence has undoubtedly occurred in the world of celebrity. Beginning with the era of 1960s rock stars, perhaps, there were show business celebrities who felt no need to have immaculate reputations. The apparatus which used to build protective walls around the famous began to develop breaches, which widened as a supposedly more tolerant public forgave indiscretions that might once have ended careers. There was more coverage of sleazy behavior, less damage associated with revelation.

With Watergate, the world of politics entered the realm of the Hollywood tabloid. A Washington press corps that fastidiously abstained from photographing FDR’s crippled legs now discovered the new virtue of exposing every misstep and flaw. The legitimate press and the scandal press fed each other, the former learning tactics from the latter, the latter obtaining authorization from the former. Targeting could be either arbitrary or in response to an elastic definition of probable cause. The process of hunting down a star—politician, athlete, or entertainer—took on the flavor of vengeance as the media reporters forgave themselves every excess in order to punish sins against the public.
But what constitutes sin in contemporary culture? It is, as Charles Grodin seemed to acknowledge in referencing Jack Nicholson, a variable phenomenon. Most of the traditional definitions of sin don’t bring uniform condemnation. Adultery, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, homosexuality, greed, fraud, and certain kinds of violence—say, the punching of photographers and fans—can be forgiven, even admired if they are accompanied by the right confessions or other theatrics. Oddly, the President of the United States serves as an interesting example of the variability of sin. In a media arena where charges need no proof to do damage, the president has been accused of adultery, promiscuity, sexual harassment, greed (surely the Whitewater bottom line), fraud, and quasi-treason (i.e., Democrat fundraising irregularities). Throughout, he smiles and waves and continues to earn favorable ratings in the polls. Yet a Pentagon general is done in by a charge of adultery, Clarence Thomas is skewered on an unprovable charge of sexual harassment, Newt Gingrich almost loses the House Speakership on accusations of greed, and Dan Rostenkowski did lose the chairmanship of the House Ways and means Committee on charges of fraud.

Perhaps there is such a thing as enough fame to outweigh sin. According to popular mythology, Frank Sinatra has used mob connections to bolster his career, but he is nevertheless admired as a demigod of show business. Jack Nicholson has become too big a movie star to be accountable to any conventional standard of personal behavior. Michael Jackson was almost too big to be brought down by charges of homosexual pedophilia, and although his career has been hurt, it is not over. O.J. Simpson was so famous that the public turned against him only after the most prolonged and intensive media assault in the history of celebrity.

It would seem that sin—of whatever kind—is only a weapon in the target-shooting game that fame has become. The purpose is not really a moral one—the calling to account of those who have transgressed—but a power struggle, the eternal allegorical combat between the force of conformism and the stature of individual achievers. The rules governing victory and loss are a function of firepower, not any objective definition of right and wrong. ‘Can you survive this?’ the gamesters are asking. ‘Are you big and powerful enough to make up your own rules and get away with it? Or are you still small enough to be destroyed by an all-out assault on your image?’

In this context, the hypocrisy resides less in the public figures compelled to run the gauntlet than in the public—the Charles Grodins and other media vultures included—who are prepared to adopt any costume of virtue required to test the strength of cultural idols to the fullest. The outcome of the contest is determined by the crudest possible mechanism—trial by ordeal. If destruction can be achieved then the idol was a false god. If destruction can’t be achieved, then the idol must be legitimate.
And wherein lies our pleasure? It looks a lot like a throwback to the ancient Roman coliseum. The gladiators fight to the death in the arena below, and we watch, experiencing the vicarious and cruel thrill of those who are above the danger while retaining the right to turn the emperor’s thumb up or down with the force of our unified voice. A kind of high-tech barbarism clothed in the camouflage of ‘let’s pretend’ morality. Will Liza be brought down by humiliation and voyeurism? Stay tuned. If she has the firepower to command a thumbs-up from the crowd, she will be another winner in the sport of trial by ordeal. But if the thumbs turn down, she’ll become the worst of all American sinners—just another loser.

The real losers, though, are the spectators in the coliseum, who are being taught all the wrong lessons. Virtue consists in getting away with it, whatever it is. Only the immensely powerful get away with it. And through time the spectators absorb the message not to risk the kind of ambition and aspiration that lands you in the arena. Better stay where you are and pretend that your fear is morality, which gives you the right to condemn any and all who attract your attention.

Monday, August 4

Ironically, NPR began the day with the bagging of another celebrity. Last year’s rookie of the year in the NBA was arrested in Virginia. The car was going 93 mph in a 65 mph zone. The police gave chase, found a gun on the floor, and a rookie of the year in possession of marijuana. It was only in an update of the story twenty minutes later that we learned the rookie had a permit for the gun, was not driving the car, and was being charged only with possession. Let the games begin.

There was also an extended NPR segment on UFOs. A study of CIA records has shown that the U.S. government did lie to the public about what it knew, starting in the late 1940s. On multiple occasions phony meteorological explanations were used to explain UFO sightings that are now conceded to have been government spy planes. According to this latest version of the truth, the feds have no information that would confirm the existence of alien spacecraft. Specifically, they are still denying there was anything fishy about the 1947 Roswell incident. That should clear everything up.

At the house, more complications. The electric company finally turned off the power, so Hal and I worked only until dark. We moved the furniture I’m taking to the apartment downstairs so that we can put it in the truck quickly tomorrow.

Just before bedtime I listened to part of a talk show on WWDB. The subject was the lawsuit being filed by C. Dolores Tucker against a number of record companies. As an opponent of gangster rap, she became the object of rapper wrath, including the late Tupak Shakur, who called her a prostitute and used lewd, coarse imagery to describe her. The suit claims that over and above the libel, she has received numerous death threats. The consequent mental anguish has disrupted every part of her life, including sexual congress with her husband., The host of the show was especially interested in this last item and quizzed Mr. Tucker, a guest on the show, for more details. Not there to talk about his sex life, Mr. Tucker kept steering the conversation back to the issues surrounding gangster rap.

He was navigating a tricky course. The position his wife has taken, apparently, is that the record companies and music stores are responsible, not the artists. Outside the context of contemporary American politics, this would be an absurd and self-destructive line of argument. But this is a subject which touches on so many strains of our culture that it takes some careful thinking to understand the political realities that dictate the advocacy positions.

What’s the problem with blaming record companies and music stores rather than rappers? It’s an argument for prior censorship. It asks that business executives exercise control—on behalf of the public good—over the content of the materials they buy, distribute, or sell. There is precedent for such control. Until the 1950s and 1960s, record companies were highly successful in suppressing black music, called ‘race music,’ which they did in order not to offend the prejudices of the majority white population. Artists like Chuck Berry still recall with bitterness that black artists had to stand by while white musicians stole and recorded their songs, registering hits that should have belonged to black musicians. In other words, Ms. Tucker is saying that controversial content should be prevented from reaching the market by a largely invisible business cabal which can engage in censorship without accountability. Anything that might offend some broad, imagined consensus of society can be dismissed as ‘not good enough’ and silenced before the public even knows it exists.

Why, then, would she take such a position? This is where it starts to get complicated. She could blame the artists, which I’m sure she is personally inclined to do. It wasn’t a record company executive who penned the lyric depicting her as a prostitute. If she is so stricken by this lyric that it affects even her marital relations, she must be harboring personal resentments against the rappers themselves. But the alliance she has joined in order to fight gangster rap comprises feminists, mainstream mothers’ organizations, and political conservatives, including William Bennett. The unifying cause of the alliance is protection of children—America’s most popular new religion—and, to a lesser extent, defense of women against the depredations of sexist males. If you are a black woman, this is a tenuous position from which to launch an attack on black males, who consistently claim that they are being villainized by the mass media and politicians. In opposing a music form dominated by black males, Mrs. Tucker is laying herself open to charges of ‘selling out’ and even of racism against her own race.

Therefore, Mrs. Tucker has opted to excuse the actual authors of the material she finds so offensive and transfer responsibility to representatives of the white-male establishment. That in so doing she is trading away hard-won freedoms and returning power to the white-male establishment she indicts seems not to matter.

She is not alone in courting this kind of contradiction. The whole field of political correctness is rife with weird logic. What’s interesting about this case in particular is that it highlights the amount of pressure political activists are under. If Mrs. Tucker can specifically excuse the very people who have caused her so much personal pain, she must be complying with an extraordinarily strong set of implicit rules.

What are the rules? And more importantly, who or what do they serve? The two questions are closely related and should probably be answered in reverse order. For the rules don’t seem to serve people. There is no human benefit to a schema that encourages egalitarians to yield freedom—even someone else’s—in the name of social reform. Throughout the modern era, the nominal intent of all social reform has been to increase freedom, sometimes for whole populations, sometimes for beleaguered parts of a population. The single greatest threat to freedom during that time has been government, whose power always exceeds that of individual people, organizations, and sectors of a nation. No attempt at change can succeed in the long term unless legal and bureaucratic impediments to change are removed. That’s why social reform has involved so much interaction with government. This can and does lead to confusion. Without careful thought, reformers can come to believe that government is an agent of change. This is specious reasoning—it’s like saying that a defeated army was an agent of its enemy’s victory. It would not be wise for the enemy to invest in increasing the size and weaponry of that defeated army in the belief that this will secure additional victories in the future.

Yet this is what the rules seem to accomplish. One social reform effort after another makes decisions as if it is the people who pose a threat to freedom and the government who opposes the threat. Interestingly, the actions that follow from such a wrongheaded assumption are rationalized with a necessary hypocrisy—that the government is the people, not a separate locus of power. This is hypocrisy because it is the very fact that government does constitute a separate locus of power that the reformers are depending on. Afraid of the threat from the people, they feel the need of a counter-force strong enough to coerce the people in the right direction. And coercion is what they’re after. They want the government to make some other group stop what it is doing or start doing something else. When we multiply all this coercion by the number of reform constituencies who want to change the behavior of others, it immediately becomes clear that the people as a whole are losing power to the government, which grows ever larger in the exercise of that power. Freedom in the nation therefore decreases as individual constituencies believe they are increasing it.

Who do the rules serve? They serve government and its inherent propensity for growth at the expense—literally and figuratively—of the people. The government is not an agent of change; it is an agent of its own self-interest.

Now we are better prepared to consider exactly what the rules are. Since the purpose of the rules is to make loss of freedom seem like increase of freedom, the rules require the closing down of open discussion and debate that might reveal the deception. Let’s look at the rules.

Rule 1. Establish a position, via alliance or serendipitous circumstance, whose arguments cannot be challenged without incurring personal condemnation—to mount such a challenge is, ipso facto, to be proven immoral. (The arena of politics is uniquely well suited to the observance of this rule.)

Rule 2 . Build arguments that appeal to the members of the alliance, even if these involve contradictions that would be fatal without the protection of Rule 1. Such arguments need not be logical because in reality they are not arguments at all but the terms of a partnership agreement..

Rule 3 . Avoid offending other alliances or partnerships which have the capacity to help or hinder yours.

Rule 4. Demand the kind of action that will ultimately redound to the benefit of government span-of-control over the populace.

It may seem as if I am leading up to a conspiracy theory of some kind. I am not. The people and groups who act in accordance with these rules do not believe they are engaging in deception. They believe they are doing what is right and/or necessary in the national context. How, then, can they be obeying rules without knowing they exist? Very simply. The system in which people operate contains its own built-in disciplines which encourage ‘right’ behavior and discourage ‘wrong’ behavior. ‘Right’ behavior wins. ‘Wrong’ behavior loses. And since it is the government which has most of the overt power, in the form of legislative authority and money, winners and losers are determined by the government.

Let’s see how this works. Suppose I am vehemently concerned about the handling of sex offenders in the United States. I believe they are different from other kinds of criminals—that their crimes are more costly and their moral turpitude more terrible. What I want is to make children and other potential victims free from the danger and fear caused by sex offenders. How can I go about achieving my objective? The government is the barrier to the freedom I seek. Its laws are responsible for letting offenders out of prison and restoring their unfettered freedom of movement upon release. Thus, I know that I must attract the attention and support of those in government who can remove the barrier. The government is too big to be easily enlisted on my side. I have to get bigger. I can do this slowly by amassing statistics and negotiating partnership agreements with other freedom seekers, but I might also benefit from a fortuitous event. For example, it may happen that a child is murdered by a sex offender who was released into the community without any attempt to warn his neighbors. In this case I can attract lots of attention by contrasting a picture of the offender with a picture of the murdered child. Who would dare to defend the right of this one to murder that one? This presentation may be simplistic and somewhat over-emotional as a starting point for discussion, but what other choice do I have? Wait ten more years to accumulate the right statistics? No. I will do what is necessary to get attention now, and I know I can count on the help of mothers, many fathers, many police officers, child welfare workers, and selected members of the legal, mental health, and penology professions.
Note that at this point I have fulfilled the requirements of Rule 1 without being aware of its existence. The government is the environment in which I have to seek change, and so I automatically accommodate myself to its operating conditions.

Next, I build my argument. I declare that this kind of crime—point at the two pictures—can never be allowed to happen again. The government must do whatever is necessary to protect our children from ravening beasts. Thousands, perhaps millions, of children are being sexually assaulted every year. This is intolerable. Civil and human rights have no meaning at all if children aren’t safe in their own neighborhoods. Parents have an absolute right to know about anything that constitutes a danger to their children. Right now, the hands of the police are tied. They aren’t permitted to interfere with the supposed civil rights of sex offenders, which means they have to let them run free to do it again. And everyone knows that sex offenders always repeat their offenses. Something has to be done about this situation now, before another child is killed.
Now I have fulfilled the requirements of Rule 2. My argument is loud, clear, and unambiguous. Anyone who challenges it is open to the accusation of favoring the technical legal rights of sex offenders over the lives of children. My argument also has a fatal flaw. It violates the most fundamental premises of the American judicial system, including the presumption of innocence, the right to due process of law, freedom from double jeopardy, and the right to privacy. The reason the hands of the police are tied is that the released sex offender has paid his debt to society for everything he has already done. He cannot be tried for a crime he has not committed yet, which means that anything done to him at this point would be done without due process of law, which is to say illegally under the U.S. Constitution. He cannot but be presumed innocent of a crime he has not yet committed. He cannot be sentenced again for a crime whose sentence has already been carried out, which would be double jeopardy. He cannot be watched, followed, or harassed without violating his right to privacy. He cannot be held in custody without being charged for more than 48 hours without violating the principle of habeas corpus. These are not minor objections to my argument. All of these concepts were built into the American legal system in the full knowledge that they would result in many cases of the guilty going free. This circumstance was deemed preferable to the general loss of freedom that would ensue in a state that had the power to punish citizens at will. There is a direct tradeoff between absolute freedom and absolute order. There was scant street crime in Nazi Berlin and Soviet Moscow. There was scant freedom too. Exceptions do not work because where there is one exception, there will be repeated attempts—some successful—to assert the validity of additional exceptions based on the fact of a precedent.

Yet there is no room in the context I have created for introducing the harsh truth that the price of freedom includes, on occasion, the death of children. And cold logic is not relevant to the mothers and fathers who make up the majority of my audience. I willingly constructed my argument in accordance with Rule 2 because I cannot help my cause by seeing both sides. I am raising a bright banner for others to follow—it wouldn’t be effective in shades of gray.

Moreover, I have also been shrewd enough to build in some opportunity for others to join my cause. The police who failed to prevent the crime have been let off the hook, enabling them to join in the hand wringing. Mental health professionals will be asked to confirm or deny the assertion that sex offenders always repeat—an opportunity for them to come forward with the claim that their hands are tied but wringing too. The experts in child-rearing and social work will have an opportunity to cite statistics and other issues surrounding the larger question of sexual assaults on children. Although I might have indicted the specific behaviors or general policies of several of these groups in my arguments, I have omitted doing so (Rule 3) because they are valuable potential allies in my action strategy.

Thus, when I get around to framing my real proposal—a law requiring the authorities to inform residents of neighborhoods into which sex offenders have moved, even the legal experts who are obligated to explain the constitutional issues will not be able to resist agreeing that ‘something has to be done.’ And when my proposal becomes an actual piece of legislation, the ways and means of making it work will finally be engineered, fulfilling the requirements of Rule 4. For the only way to know where all the sex offenders are is to create a national database—a precedent for future such endeavors which will give the government more information than it has ever had about the lives of private citizens. One more step toward a national identity card (with a magnetic strip containing...?) that will let the government know where we all are, dozens of times per year, on one huge, continuously updated computer database.

At the end, what has been accomplished? Who wins? Who loses? Only the government wins. It takes credit for the humane solution of a pressing problem. It acquires more power as the Constitution provides us incrementally less protection from—who else?—the government. How many children will be saved? Well, how many is enough to pay for the setting of the precedent that American citizens can be punished and persecuted indefinitely without due process of law?

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